Tag Archives: film adaptations

Buried Cinema — Everything Must Go

By Nathanael Griffis

One of my favorite short stories is Raymond Carver’s ”Why Don’t You Dance?” which opens up his amazing collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. It was the first example of his minimalist writing style that I truly enjoyed. I didn’t like “Cathedral.” (The four English majors who read this just freaked, closed their laptops, and stomped off to hand-write me angry letters.)

“Why Don’t You Dance?” opens with a man sitting on his lawn surrounded by the majority of his possessions, when a young man and woman approach him. Much like Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” the story is not what’s happening in the present or what’s discussed between the characters, but the dripping implication of something tragic that has happened in the past and will have to be dealt with in the future.

 

Ah, the bachelor lawn.

 

The film Everything Must Go takes the premise of a man on his lawn and builds the story around the implication of his being thrown out by his wife. It’s a nice Carver-esque film. It has the harsh honesty of a Carver story that can move from awkward to heartwarming in seconds. Will Ferrell as Nick Halsey is good, though not at his best. At times he boils over into his shtick and pulls out a joke, which feels out of character. When he’s portraying the broken, confused, and stubborn recovering alcoholic salesman, he’s brilliant. It’s in those few moments that he cracks a joke. I laugh for certain, but then I remember it’s Will Ferrell and it feels like he’s not acting. There are moments of natural in-character humor, like when he lays down a tough negotiation over a half-empty bottle of mouthwash and dental floss. The film would have been more effective if it hadn’t tried to force in humor that doesn’t fit.

Rebecca Hall is great, but I’m starting to notice she’s being typecast as the discarded woman, which is unfortunate. Christopher Wallace as the neighborhood boy who befriends Ferrell’s drunk lawn-sitter has wonderful chemistry with Ferrell. Laura Dern and Stephen Root are fine in their few scenes. Glen Howerton does little else then be Glen Howerton (a jackass).

 

Rebecca Hall is pretty... oh hey, Will Ferrell, when'd you show up?

 

My biggest problem with the film is Michael Peña’s character. Initially, Frank Garcia is an interesting and realistic police sponsor. The turn that bothers me is when — SPOILER ALERT — it’s revealed that Nick’s wife has been staying with Frank, and is going to leave Nick for him. It’s in the Carver spirit of tragedy, but in the context of the film, it feels forced, as if the director wanted to give Peña something else to do; but he mattered enough already as Nick’s truthful steady sponsor. Peña’s performance is fine; he even pulls off the awkward scene of telling his friend he’s sleeping with his wife. It’s just too much convenient and connected tragedy. Nick’s wife can cheat on him, plausibly, even with his friend, but it comes up too fast and too near the end. Instead of being a climatic turn it becomes a tacked-on moment that just feels out of place.

I’m pointing out flaws, because I’m a fan of the story, but in general I would recommend this film. It’s an interesting adaption, and captures the sense of a Carver short. It’s kind of hard to stomach. Not that the subject material is particularly adult, but the delivery of some of the situations is painful. It’s hard to watch a grown man ride a child’s bike to a gas station and beg for change to buy beer. It made me uncomfortable. I felt like walking away from the computer, waving my hand and saying, “I don’t have any change, sorry.” This is, to me, a good thing. It means the movie connected with me on a visceral level. It also manages to have a satisfyingly happy ending with character growth, a difficult thing to accomplish. This isn’t a film that will be remembered. It’s a quiet film that people will have to rally behind and pass around, because it deserves to be seen.

 

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Anthologies — The Decameron

By Nathanael Griffis

A cover for the book. See, it's all medieval and stuff.

In my research through easily available anthology films I came across Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Decameron, which is an adaption of nine shorts from Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron. Quick literature lesson, students: The Decameron  is a 14th Century text with 100 thematically tied-together stories. There’s a frame story involving the black plague and a group of people fleeing to live in the country and tell stories to each other. As far as the book goes there’s a lot of interesting analysis to be done. It’s a great way to find out about 14th century Italian values, but we’re talking movies. Listen, what you need to know is it’s a bunch of medieval tales taking place in Italy.

It’s a natural book to adapt into an anthology film and, I am told, an important anthology film. Pier Paolo Pasolini is a name that had passed between my ears before, I’m sure. I knew he was Italian. I knew he made movies before my time. I knew that film people watched his films. I knew he liked nudity for some reason too. I knew all these things, so I was clearly prepared to watch The Decameron. Then I started reading up on it, and as the words “lewd,” “provocative,” and “shocking” came up, I became intrigued. It seems to have made quite a stir in its time.

What I was rewarded with was an accurate adaptation of The Decameron that is not nearly as interesting as the rumors about it are. Yes, there are a lot of full-frontal nudity shots, and perhaps this is Pasolini’s point, but they’re shot so naturally and become so ubiquitous that they become boring. It’s an interesting effect to be bored by a completely nude man or women, but when a nude woman is played up for laughs and I’m bored, it’s a failure on some level. There are nine stories, most being humorous and revolving around sex and poop jokes, which is an accurate adaptation of The Decameron. Turns out people have always had dirty minds.

I suppose I should give you a rundown of the nine segments, huh? That’s the critical thing to do, and of course that’s why you read a review of The Decameron. So here’s what I’ve got: a summary and moral for each segment follows.

Here's exactly what it looked like when ten people got together and talked in the 14th century.

#1 – A rich young  horse merchant, sporting an afro, by the way, gets robbed of his money by falling into a toilet and is then tricked into falling into a coffin, which is full of jewels.

-Moral: As long as you have a period-inappropriate hairdo, it doesn’t matter how much shit you get into, it’ll all be okay. (P.S. This segment’s not that bad–it’s probably the funniest.)

#2 – A handsome young gardener pretends to be a deaf-mute so he can carouse with a bunch of sex-deprived nuns.

-Moral: I’ve got 99 problems, but a nun ain’t one.

#3 – An adulterous wife hides her lover in a big jar, tricks husband into thinking she’s selling the lover the jar. Husband cleans jar, which is very big, and wife and lover get it on while he’s cleaning it.

-Moral: Jars are big and dirty, and brushing one’s teeth is a good thing.

#4 – The world’s most despicable man, who dies during an Italian drinking song, lies during his last rites and is giving a sainthood.

-Moral: You can murder, cheat, steal, lie, rape, and anything else, but if you so much as miss a note, well then… it doesn’t matter ’cause you can just lie some more.

#5 – Allievo di Giotto tries to find inspiration for a mural. Oh yeah, and there’s a couple of gay priests holding hands. (This segment is interspersed throughout the remaining four segments.) In the end, though, everyone’s happy, but Giotto prefers dreaming about his painting to its completion.

-Moral: Artists are lazy.

#6 – A boy sneaks onto the roof to make love with a girl. Parents see them and “trick” the boy into marrying beneath his stature.

-Moral: Don’t have sex or you might wind up with a pretty wife.

#7 – Three brothers protect their sister from the shame of intercourse with a servant by killing the servant. Sister then chops off dead lover’s head and puts it in a flower pot.

-Moral: Family is complicated.

#8 – Priest tells a man who has a beautiful wife that he can turn a woman into a horse. Man asks priest to show him. Priest shows man how to do this. You do this by playing a precursor to pin the tail on the donkey.

-Moral: ?

#9 – Two friends, one a sex fiend and the other a virtuous religious man, make a pact to come back from the afterlife, whichever of them dies first, of course, and tell the other what the afterlife is like. The sex fiend dies and tells the virtuous man they don’t care about sex. Virtuous guy runs in elation to the woman he’s been pining for, on the way punting a cat, to engage in relations.

-Moral: Sex is fun, but you’d better hope they don’t care about animal cruelty, too.

There, for all you undergrads writing papers and looking for a quick summary, you’re welcome. I understand if you skip the rest. Now, back to my honest review.

I don't know, really -- um, this guy on the horse was mad he wasn't invited, I suppose, so he loosed a naked woman on the party, then charged in and killed them all?

I knew the acting was going to be crappy, so that wasn’t a detractor. It’s just the jokes fell flat for the most part, and because each story leads up to a punchline, or a supposed dramatic climax, flat jokes ruin too many of the segments. It could also be a sign of a different time. We just have different tastes today. We like our jokes rapid fire, but Billy Wilder and Howard Hawks had that style for years, so what’s the deal, Pasolini? His film relies on slow scenery shots to build some semblance of symbolism that isn’t obvious to me at least. They also were probably funnier in the 14th century, because a man pretending to be perfect on his death bed and earning sainthood probably slayed at The Globe, but falls flat on Netflix.

Pasolini was clearly trying to push boundaries with how much male and female nudity he could show, but that in and of itself isn’t a film. It’s also not porn. I want to be clear, what he’s doing is artful in some ways, that’s not the issue. The issue for me is, it’s boring. We can see the lecherous priest seducing the farmer’s wife a mile away and the punchline falls flat, because there’s a long awkward strip scene that Pasolini seems more concerned with.  He himself seems to be conflicted with the end product as he quotes the painter Allievo di Giotto (whom Pasolini also plays), “Why create a work of art, when dreaming about it is so much sweeter?” Kind of a challenging question, right? One that could keep you up at night if you think about it. It also challenges the entire film, because it falls short of any ideal it’s trying to achieve.

The work of art placed before us is not nearly as good as an idea. It would be an amazing thing to make an accurate depiction of The Decameron, to really challenge convention, to show male and female nudity in such a way that they became a natural thing–yeah, that would be amazing. I guess the genius of it is that he acknowledges this in his final statement, but just because you know you burnt the food doesn’t mean I have to eat it.

I was going to watch the other two anthology films Pasolini made in his pretentiously titled Trilogy of Life, but The Decameron simply wasn’t good enough to warrant it. So, how about an anthology film were each short is based on an aria?Alright, yeah, that sounds… bizarre. Next up, Aria.

Adaptations: Remakes: Cape Fear vs. Star Wars

By Nathanael Griffis

In what is simply horrifying news, and a disturbing continuation of a frightening trend in Hollywood, Tony Scott recently announced a remake of The Wild Bunch. Meanwhile, his more talented brother Ridley announced in past weeks a return to the Blade Runner universe for a pseudo-remake. One seen as an awful idea, the other an exciting idea. Why is it that two respected classics, neither of which need a remake, can be greeted with differing opinions? I agree with the opinions, mind you, but the reason for incessant remakes bothers me. One reason is that Sam Peckinpah should be avoided for remakes. (I’m looking at you, Rod Lurie.) Films like Straw Dogs and The Wild Bunch are complex, disturbing, and hard to understand with Peckinpah behind the camera.  Remakes are nothing new, of course, and remaking movies is essentially what an adaptation is in the long run, but because a movie, unlike a live play, can exist in it’s original form for a longer time, it often seems unnecessary to remake it. And still we’re getting a new Footloose. Last year we were subjected to The A-Team. Alvin and the Chipmunks and The Smurfs have returned, but then again we’re also getting The Muppets coming up. With such a mixed bag it’s hard to filter through it all, so I will attempt to by giving you a good example and then the prime unholy grail of all examples. (Warning: I may geek out a little.)

Cape Fear (1962 & 1991)

Cape Fear is a unique remake, but I think the perfect example of a successful one. The 1962 version starring Gregory Peck as a lawyer driven to the brink by Robert Mitchum’s psychotic rapist is a frightening film that was heavily censored in the 60’s. What survived on screen is still pretty surprising. Max Cady (Mitchum) was imprisoned for rape and when released moves into the same town as Sam Bowden (Peck), the lawyer who poorly defended him years before. Cady then proceeds to manipulate, stalk, torture, and eventually attempt to rape and kill Sam Bowden and his family. Cady, as a man fueled by hate and some primal psychotic desire to sexually overpower women, including the 14-year-old daughter of Sam Bowden, is scary, really scary. It’s a terrifying performance by Mitchum, which is stunningly counterbalanced by Gregory Peck’s fascinating turn as Sam Bowden, who turns to breaking the law to protect his family. It is an interesting deviation from Atticus Finch in many ways.

When Martin Scorsese directed the remake in 1991 it seemed almost unnecessary considering the status of the first one, but the finished product proves that theory wrong. Scorsese, as he did often in the 70′s, 80′s, and 90′s, turned to Robert De Niro to play Max Cady. He brought in Nick Nolte for Sam Bowden, and Jessica Lange and Juliette Lewis play his wife and daughter. There are wonderful supporting performances by Robert Mitchum as the town sheriff and Gregory Peck, in his last big screen role, as Cady’s oily religious fanatic defense lawyer. The first thing Scorsese’s remake is able to do is kick the censors out the door. The original Cape Fear, while challenging, clearly feels hampered by its 60’s mentality. Issues are never fully discussed. It’s frustrating in a lot of ways to see Robert Mitchum beat and rape a women, and then listen as the characters dance around the subject, because it’s not appropriate to talk about. In an interview with the director of the original, J. Lee Thompson mentioned his frustration and noted that several scenes of dialogue were cut because of the nature of the discussion. The censors were frequently asking for the film to be rewritten, going over the film scene by scene to control the artistic expression.

Scorsese has no such problem, and he’s able to flesh the characters out a lot more. Sam Bowden is given more depth; he’s not a perfect or pristine symbol of honor like Gregory Peck, which fits with Scorsese themes. Everyone in this film is guilty of something; crime and violence inhabit our world, and it’s how we respond to it that matters. Max Cady is let off of his leash, and De Niro delivers what is, in my opinion, his most frightening performance. He’s manipulative, unforgiving, and driven by some demonic sense of hatred to hurt anything the Bowdens get near. The final scene, which I won’t spoil, is as terrifying a death as any in cinema. The reason this remake works is because Scorsese is not simply trying to cash in. He’s taking these characters and this well-respected film and building upon it, reinterpreting it for a new generation, and improving the technical aspects of the filmmaking. The film simply looks better, the art direction is better, and it feels more realistic and less set-piece-driven. Visually, it’s a cleaner and more clearly shot film with better camera work.

A lot of times the main argument for remaking a film is that the original was good in concept but poor in execution (e.g., Tron). I want to point out that this is not the case. A good remake is more about how you tell the story, who’s involved, and the theme you’re trying to convey. You must have a reason to remake a film, and the good concept- bad execution is a good reason, but not the only one. Don’t get up in arms simply because Fright Night was remade (turns out it was good) or that Aronofsky wants to do Robocop (it could be good). Cross your fingers and calm down, it’s not the end of the world–unless George Lucas is involved, in which case it just might be.

Star Wars (1977, 1997, 2008)

Leaving aside his prequels and his astounding ability to ruin childhoods, George Lucas created the greatest sci-fi franchise ever and then proceeded to stomp all over it. Initially a “special edition” that is remastered and cleaned up sounds like a great idea, and watching the documentaries of the process to clean up the negative of the original trilogy fascinated me as child. I saw all three special editions in theaters, being as I was too young to see the original films in theaters, and truthfully enjoyed them. As I’ve grown older, though, I’ve become more and more bothered by the changes Lucas keeps making. He’s not merely adding a deleted scene, extending a song montage, giving us a more lively Mos Eisley, or simply a better picture quality–the story is shifting and changing.  A New Hope has plot holes, physics problems, and technical issues, but with the 2008 DVD release, none of those issues are fixed, they’re simply compounded with new problems.

Let’s try and let our nerd problems go and forgive Lucas for the 1997 remakes, because for the most part it is simply a remake that technically needed to happen. The original negative was degrading and it had to be remastered. It looks better and some of the improvements, like adding more character to Mos Eisley and Cloud City bring out the worlds more. The sarlacc’s beak and tentacles do look better than just the pit of sand with spikes in the original. The extended Max Rebo Band sequence is fine, sometimes annoying, but it doesn’t detract from the character or story. Yes, Greedo shoots first, but let’s calm down–if there weren’t T-shirts and websites dedicated to complaining about this fact, we might not have noticed.

What is truly appaling is the 2008 DVD release version that tries to connect the original trilogy to the prequels. Hayden Christensen’s visage has replaced Sebastian Shaw, which just creates an inconsistency, because why doesn’t Ewan McGregor then replace Alec Guinness? It’s as if Lucas was afraid to do this (perhaps the thought of Alec Guinness’ ghost haunting him with those judgemental hazel eyes makes him think twice), leaving us wondering, why is Obi-Wan old, but not Anakin? Gungans make an appearance in the final celebration, though thankfully no Jar-Jar. Voice actors are changed to fit with the prequels–Boba Fett is now voiced Temuera Morrison, the voice of Jango Fett in the prequels, which seems like nothing short of an insult to Jason Wingreen from the original and again an added inconsistency, because shouldn’t the son sound different from the father? New scenes of Ewan McGregor talking with Uncle Owen just seem out of place, and the lighting and scenery don’t coalesce with the later shots of Tatooine. Overall, though, what is most disturbing is that the digital remastering is severely botched. At one point Luke’s lightsaber has been color-corrected to be green. Vader’s lightsaber has lost its deep red hue and turned to a rosy pink, and there is a strong blue wash over the film, similar to the wash that is found commonly in modern sci-fi.

It’s infuriating, but what is happening is that an author has not been made to stop. As a writer, if I don’t put my work out there, I will never finish it. I am never content with what I write, and I always feel like there is something worth changing, so I constantly change things, but what we have here is an artist who’s in the midst of revision and gives us his drafts every couple of years and claims each draft as the true masterpiece instead of just leaving them alone. I suspect Lucas will in a few years (I’m afraid of the Blu-ray) correct some of these problems, but he’s created so many more with his changes that there’s little room for trust in his ability any more. He’s not fixing inconsistencies, like why Obi-Wan disappears from his cloak but Qui-Gon doesn’t; he’s simply tweaking and adding inconsistencies that loosely tie all six films together.

Remakes need to be just that, remade entirely. You have to start anew. Treat it as an old concept with a new spin and go from there. We can’t have one bearded madman destroy everything we know and love about science fiction in film. The good thing is that even though they may try to remake classics like Akira, we can always go back and watch the original.

Next, I’ll finish up my long and drawn out series on adaptations with some of the oddballs, like adapting a song, a theme park ride, or a painting.

Adaptations: Updating a classic: 10 Things I Hate About You vs. Clueless

By Nathanael Griffis

Ahh, what says classic English writing more than West Coast high school life? Not the seemingly most obvious place to shift the works of Austen and Shakespeare, but sure, why not? Updating a classic is a tough task, because you have to justify not doing the simple period piece. You have to answer the question: Why set the story in 1990’s Beverly Hills? The easiest answer is to show that the themes of the story are timeless and the plot relatable to today’s audiences. Well sure, that makes sense, but you still have to make a good movie. Updating a novel or a play can, like anything, be a success or a failure, so here’s one success and one failure.

10 Things I Hate About You

Shakespeare’s plays were almost adaptations themselves; people had been doing Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet stories for a long time before William came along. So his plays tend to translate well to modern times, but you have to be careful. His comedies fit in brilliantly in the cliquey, silly, dramatic, and strangely idyllic setting of high school. His tragedies, not so much; for an example, see O–or don’t. What is amazing about 10 Things I Hate About You is how respectful of the source material it is, while still maintaining relevance and keeping a clear 90’s sensibility about it.

With 90’s punk and grunge rock for a soundtrack, and up-and-coming stars Heath Ledger, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Julia Stiles, and Alex Mack–I’m sorry, Larisa Oleynik–it seemed like a simple romantic comedy that stole the basic plot of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. What we’re treated to instead is a genuinely thoughtful adaptation. Lines of Shakespeare are integrated directly, few characters are left out, they modified the story to be made relevant, and it’s pumped full of sexually charged clever humor that would make Shakespeare giggle with pride. To be honest, I’ve never been a big fan of the play–I think it’s up there with Romeo and Juliet as easy to read and understand, good poetry, great moments describing love, but a little shallow. What 10 Things I Hate About You reminded me was that the simple act of loving a person isn’t shallow or lacking. While it may not have the complex, interweaving themes of King Lear or lyrical perfection of Hamlet, it is worth it.

Gil Junger somehow hit this one film out of the park after a long career in sitcoms, and then subsequently returned to sitcoms and stayed there, pretty much. He manages to give us the classic romantic comedy that pushes beyond the typical realms of the genre. He smartly cuts Shakespeare’s framing device, and somehow gives credence to the oft-debated misogynistic themes of the play. Kat’s feminist ideas and fight-the-establishment mentality, which is what has to be tamed out of her in the play, are presented as a logical defense mechanism to the loss of her mother and the scars of an impulsive sexual experience. This brilliant moment of screenwriting may actually be an improvement on the original play, which seems to be little more than a ridiculous comedic romp. (Also, Shakespeare just may not have had that high an opinion of women.) Karen McCullah Lutz would reattempt this feat of screenwriting with the Amanda Bynes film She’s the Man, an adaptation of Twelth Night, with decent results.

It’s amazing how loyal to the play and the romantic-high-school-comedy genre this film is able to be. We have the party scene, the teary-eyed poetry-reading ending, a father who is afraid to let her daughters go, a nerdy new kid who falls head over heels for an un-gettable girl, and yet it’s Shakespeare; somehow it all works. Oh, and also we get to hear Heath Ledger singing and deliver lines like: “What is it with this girl? Does she have beer-flavored nipples or something?”

Clueless

Now, I understand this film has a cult following and is pretty funny at times. I also have to remove my personal bias towards it because of an incident involving this film on our Buried Cinema podcast, so I rewatched it a few days ago to test my theory that it is a bad adaptation, and I have to say that it’s also a weak movie. The comedy hasn’t aged well. In middle school, it was funny to watch spunky Cher (Alicia Silverstone) make mistake after mistake, but it doesn’t add up and as far as adaptations go, well….

Jane Austen’s Emma was a milestone for her writing for several reasons. Emma was one of the first truly unlikeable protagonists; she has several redeeming qualities, but her vain and selfish lifestyle is really pretty revolting, and what is astounding is to watch Emma grow and recognize that there is inside her both vulnerability and a desire to be loved. She’s also unique in that she’s the only protagonist of Austen’s who is financially free and does not require a man to satisfy her in that sense. It was a fascinating chance for Austen to stretch her writing a little, and for ages the text has befuddled critics because it’s not traditional Austen. Several initial reviews wrote that there was very little substance, that it was basically a forward-moving plot with some funny moments. This could unfortunately be said of Clueless.

The film takes the plot of Emma and loyally adapts it, but then it doesn’t seem to know what to do with the story other than make Cher date a gay guy, hook up the wrong people, fall for her step-brother Josh (Paul Rudd), have a spiritual shopping spree, and then–hey, why not–give everyone a boyfriend in the end. Austen saw Emma’s material wealth as a unique problem that had rarely been considered in literature. She is frequently showing us in her novels that women can still posses strength without the man’s financial protection, but here we see the reverse of that which hints at the idea that there is something inherent in the relationship between a man and a woman that is good and necessary.

What is kind of disturbing about Clueless is just how much it lives up to its name. It’s trying to be satire, but it seems unwilling to fully satirize the materialistic person it’s portraying. It’s a shopping spree montage that makes Cher feel good about herself and gives her the confidence to open up to Josh. On a side note, I had thought that maybe they were being loyal to the text by making Josh her step-brother, because weird relationships with close family was more usual in Austen’s time than in the 90’s, but nope. Emma falls for the brother of her sister’s husband, which would have been a lot easier to do. I mean, why isn’t Josh just some kid at school that doesn’t fall for her crap, who has a brother, cousin, or friend who dates Cher’s friend or sister? No, I guess step-brother makes more sense.

The humor is also not as endearing. It lacks the clever bite of 10 Things I Hate About You, and Cher has little charm. Good intentions don’t stop you from being impossibly annoying. They’re clearly pointing out that materialism and selfishness are annoying, but it’s still okay to be yourself. The only problem is that unlike Austen’s novel, where Emma sees her selfishness in her jealous reaction to Harriet’s professed love to Mr. Knightley, so in the movie this would be Cher getting mad at Tai (Brittany Murphy) because she and Josh just aren’t a good fit. Cher learns nothing, she just loves who she loves. Her personality changes little and her materialism is not seen as a character flaw. Emma, in the novel, is approaching Mr. Knightley, humbly expecting that her selfishness has left her ruined and hoping to find good news for Harriet, but is given redemption in Mr. Knightley’s confession of his love for her. In Clueless, Paul Rudd kisses his sister on a staircase and all is well?

The film just doesn’t add up to much more than a feel-good message about helping people, finding a boyfriend, buying clothes, getting teachers to be nice, and making out with your siblings.

Next, I’ll talk about the ever popular reboot, where Hollywood pretentiously takes their own self-described classics and reintroduces them to the populace by looking at Cape Fear and Star Wars. Yep, Star Wars.

Classic Adaptations — Pride & Prejudice vs. The Count of Monte Cristo

By Nathanael Griffis

The classic adaptation: making every student’s life easier and every teacher’s life more frustrating. A movie will never be able to capture the grace and complexity of Austen or Dumas, but they try anyway. It’s a wonderful way to be introduced to a story, or to see a visual interpretation of a story, and frequently they turn out alright, because their source material is hard to ruin (watch out for the upcoming Three Musketeers in 3D, though).  For this installment of my series I’ll focus on the importance of theme and conciseness, two aspects that I think are crucial to adapting a classic work.

Pride & Prejudice

Keira Knightley couldn't help but think of Colin Firth while kissing Matthew Macfadyen.

Joe Wright had worked in television for three or four years directing miniseries when either presumption or genius inspired him to adapt Pride & Prejudice as his first feature film. Naturally Universal and Focus Features said sure, because people will watch a Pride & Prejudice movie no matter what. You must remember, this is a story so beloved that it inspires meta-fiction and continuation novels even today. Then in 2005, Joe Wright delivered a perfect example of a classic adaptation. The key to an adaptation is to balance cutting and keeping. Basically, it’s the world’s toughest editing job. You will not please everyone, and some people may bemoan the loss of this or that character, but if you can capture the theme and character of a 500-page book in a two-hour span, you’re successful. This is exactly what Joe Wright and screenwriter Deborah Moggach did.

Austen’s plotlines are nothing special. There are no surprise twists or turns. She writes deep, relatable characters into a relatable situation and taps into our desire for acceptance and love as the plot unfolds. The real charm of the 2005 version is in its somewhat modern take on theme and character. For example, versus the much-lauded 1995 BBC version, Elizabeth Bennett’s fiery independence is more focused on and played up in this version. The 1995 version is more accurate, and more capable of accuracy because of its longer running time, but less effective because, to be honest, Elizabeth Bennett is not as relatable in the 2005 version. Much of this should be attributed to Keira Knightley’s amazing Oscar-worthy performance; she somehow managed to combine Victorian morals with modern sensibilities and philosophies realistically. We don’t question her strange behavior or refusal to be controlled by social norms, because Knightley’s performance is so honest and believable.

Elizabeth Bennet as the focus is what makes this version so wonderful. The main flaw with the BBC version is that Darcy overshadows everything, making a wonderful female-character-driven novel into a patriarchal story. Part of that is Colin Firth’s fault for being so good, but the other part is a lack of understanding of theme. Joe Wright knew he had to focus on characters recognizing their inherent flaws and inability to look past the surface of a person to create a genuine film. The love story is an amazing process to see unfold. It’s not in an immediate twinkling of an eye or a dance at a ball. Jane Austen tapped into the very heart of love. It has no prejudice and it humbles human beings to become vulnerable, but it doesn’t happen magically or immediately. A lot from the novel is cut (the running time is barely over two hours), but these basic themes are kept and drive the film. The cinematography and art direction are astounding, the script is succinct, and the supporting cast is wonderful.

What’s interesting is that I could say these same things about The Count of Monte Cristo. So why is it a bad adaptation?

Jim Caviezel being a jerk and refusing to help Richard Harris dig out of prison.

The Count of Monte Cristo

For all intents and purposes, I enjoy The Count of Monte Cristo. It’s an exciting period-piece revenge-thriller. I’m breaking my own rule here about separating the source material from the adapted material, but so be it. I understand this movie can be enjoyed and even seen as a good movie; but it is not a good adaptation. Remember what I said about theme and conciseness? A good classic adaptation captures the entirety of a novel because it keeps the central themes central to the film. This adaptation, I suspect, is based on the SparkNotes. I get the feeling director Kevin Reynolds knows that Edmond Dantès gets wrongly imprisoned, escapes, finds treasures, changes his identity, and kills those who imprisoned him. What he misses is the implications of what revenge does to a human being. If you’ve seen the movie, you might be left at the end with a sour distaste for Dantès, and you might think that revenge is a bad thing and does more damage than good, but this is little more than a theme of any revenge thriller.

The movie takes more from other Hollywood films than it does the book. Stars Jim Caviezel, Guy Pearce, and Richard Harris are amazing. Luis Guzmán turns an amazing character into a comic relief waste. What they miss, and spoiler alert here, is the complexity of everything Dumas presents in the novel. The prison sequence is maybe 90 pages, for starters; in a 1000-plus-page book, it’s barely a blip. In the film it’s a major focus–a good sequence, but basically a training montage. We see hints of Dantès’ obsession with revenge and his ability to plot, but what we miss is that he is more consumed with revenge than a desire to get his wife and daughter back. Dumas in his novel is trying to show us that revenge becomes the primary concern for a man bent on it. Dantès does drive his wife and his son away in the book, because he’s obsessed with achieving the gratification of his plan. It’s a deep look at the self and what it means to be a damaged man, and what happens when one tries to repair that.

Even more than this, though, Dantès is obsessed with violence in the book. I’ll never forget the scene where he watches two men in a knife fight and takes pleasure in the slow gruesome death of the loser. Revenge drives a person towards violence and away from others. In the movie we see the drive towards violence certainly, as Dantès kills Fernand Mondego (Guy Pearce) at the end, which is different from the darker ending of the book where Dantès drives Mondego to kill himself because he takes more pleasure in Mondego’s suicide than in murder. In the film he gets what he wants and revenge wins. In other words, vengeance is seen as having some consequences, but it’s an okay response that will give you what you want and desire. This goes against the Dumas novel entirely. If it weren’t for the existence of the novel, The Count of Monte Cristo would be a fun, enjoyable revenge thriller–but it shouldn’t been merely that.

Next I’ll be looking at modern updates of classic literature with 10 Things I Hate About You and Clueless.

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The Basic Adaptation: Holes vs. The Golden Compass

By Nathanael Griffis

If a book does well enough that it becomes known by a sizeable amount of people, there starts to be talks of a movie, because fans of the book will see the movie almost without any discernment. I know I did with The Golden Compass. A book’s success peaks the curiosity of a reader. Will it make a good movie? The script is basically half written, and if you’re lucky you might have the author on hand to write it anyway. This is the basic adaptation. People like the book; why not tell the story on the screen. Things will have to be changed for sure, but who cares? It’s not like movie audiences complain.

In recent years there has been a binge of turning young adult fiction into movies, so much so that not everything even makes it to the theaters. (For example, see Rob Reiner’s Flipped, which is a decent movie based on a decent book.) Sometimes this gives us wonderful tales that translate well to the screen, surprisingly so, like Holes; and other times we’re left bitterly disappointed with The Golden Compass.

Sigourney Weaver as the Warden, Jon Voight as Mr. Sir, and Shia LeBeouf as Stanley Yelnats.

Holes

As I rewatched this movie, and reread the book, which is an easy read for anyone who has two days to kill, I was amazed that this movie was done so well. The cast is definitely part of it, but to rest the movie on the young, mostly untested shoulders of Shia LaBeouf was daring. Of course, Sigourney Weaver, Jon Voight, Patricia Arquette, and Tim Blake Nelson help out greatly. They also get top billing, and are the main cast draws of the film. Strangely enough, director Andrew Davis broke out of the action-thriller genre (he made The Fugitive and a few Steven Seagal movies) to make a mature family mystery movie. The true genius here is that they hired Loius Sachar, who stretched his writing muscles and adapted his own novel into a screenplay.

Hiring the author probably helped in numerous ways, but the greatest is probably that the adaptation could remain in the same vein and spirit as the book, but change it to best fit a visual style. There are numerous changes made, but it would be hard to notice them if, say, you hadn’t just finished reading the book a day ago. Sachar actually adds more visually humorous scenes and a few jokes are more played up. The beginning is smartly different and shows that Sachar understands film as a visual medium. In the book the first three chapters are basically exposition, but are told with such a whimsical style that they’re engaging. The movie opens on an image of a boy willing being bitten by a rattlesnake to escape Camp Green Lake. The opening three chapters do get included later on in the movie, but Sachar recognized that he had to engage his audience visually first, and a rattlesnake bite does this.

Don't dig and drive, kids.

With three interweaving narratives, numerous characters with complex back stories, and a strange mystery like few others that deals with racism, selfishness, and society’s response to crime, it’s amazing that this film is so compact and successful. No shot is wasted, no line of dialogue unnecessary. The first scene with Jon Voight’s “Mr. Sir,” (one of the best names ever, by the way) is a perfect example. Stanley (LeBeouf) learns that Mr. Sir has a frozen scowl on his face, used to drink, and considers Stanley worthless. We also learn of the Warden. We don’t see her till about the middle of the film, but her presence lingers in every scene as the threat that controls the boys. As a film, it has enough depth for parents, enough mystery and action for teenagers, enough thematic depth for the pretentious filmophile, and plenty of fart jokes for the wee little ones–a perfect example of a basic adaptation done right.

The Golden Compass

Holes is a beloved Newberry Award-winning classic. The Golden Compass is also a widely beloved classic. More dense than Holes to be certain, The Golden Compass is a lofty book to adapt, but they accomplished a similar feat with The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, so why not? What is frequently so frustrating about a bad adaptation is that while you’re watching you’re saying to yourself, why’d they change that? Why not do it this way? For the majority of this film, with the only exception being the polar bear fight near the end, I was shaking my head with those exact questions. Gone is all the mystery, the grandeur, and even the controversial themes. There was no reason to get mad about the atheistic world view of the book when this movie was released, because it’s all but whitewashed out here. Dust might as well be dust, because there’s no real examination of original sin or free will involved in the mystical concept. Dust is just pretty CGI stuff, and you can cut or something with a pretty CGI laser thingy.

This is Nicole Kidman: She can stare with menace, touch railings seductively, and has breasts.

The main problems seems to be twofold. The movie tries to cram everything in and moves at such a breakneck pace that the mystery never has time to settle and intrigue us. If you hadn’t read the book, you’d wonder every 15 minutes who this new character is and why you should care. They also take the Hollywood way out and think action means story. The action is mundane at best, too choreographed and constrained to be exciting.

The movie is well cast but poorly acted. Sam Elliot seems to be just abusing his awesome accent. Nicole Kidman is showing off her bosom. Eva Green wants to do something more, but showing off her bosom as well seems to work. Ian McKellen as a voice actor imbues little might into Iorek the fearsome polar bear warrior. It’s as if he did the entire script in a few takes. Only Daniel Craig comes out unscathed, mostly because he’s not in the film much. As for the child actors–if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.

For all the controversy this film stirred up, it fell flat and incapable of delivering any substance to back it up. There is no sense of pace or transition. They took the bare bones of the story and presented it thinking that would do, but that’s not enough. You have to understand that film is very different from the page, and the two art forms require reshaping. They should have changed more, rearranged more, and focused in on character and presentation with more strength. Don’t ditch the complex theology and themes, or you’ll lose what captivated readers in the first place. And finally, when you have an astounding cliffhanger that changes your perception of everything in a book, and you choose to cut it out of the movie, your film deserves to fail. The ending of The Golden Compass was one of the most shocking things I’ve ever read. I literally had to pick up The Subtle Knife immediately and start to read it. So naturally it makes sense to ignore this and end on a boring fade into the sunset that is disgustingly pedestrian.

Next I’ll tell you why Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice is amazing, and why The Count of Monte Cristo would be good if only it weren’t based on a book, when I discuss classic period piece adaptations.

Scary Movie Alien Countdown #5: “No one would have believed that our world was being watched….”

By Tom Kapr

“No one would have believed in the early years of the 21st century that our world was being watched by intelligences greater than our own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns, they observed and studied, the way a man with a microscope might scrutinize the creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency, men went to and fro about the globe, confident of our empire over this world. Yet across the gulf of space, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic regarded our planet with envious eyes and slowly, and surely, drew their plans against us.”

These are the words of the opening voice-over narration of Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, taken almost word for word from the opening paragraph of H.G. Wells’ classic 1898 novel. (The bit about the 21st century is, of course, the major difference.) Although it has been updated to take place more or less in the year of its release, 2005, and even though the protagonist has been changed from a nameless first-person narrator looking for his wife to a divorced man trying to hold on to his ever more distant children, Spielberg and company’s adaptation is surprisingly faithful to the book.

This version of War of the Worlds is nearly a perfect film for the first two acts. As with so many big-budget thrillers lately (and with so many Spielberg films lately), it derails in its third act: it becomes cliché, with Spielberg even stealing a bit from one of his own previous films (and not one of his good ones, either); characters start making decisions that make no sense except to set up the next mediocre scene; it ramps up the action aspect too much by having Tom Cruise’s character essentially go commando on an alien ship; and it wraps things up in the end too tidily, giving itself a happy ending it did not earn.

To be honest, the aliens themselves are not even that scary, though they are much more menacing than their description in the novel (in which they are essentially unable to move around in our gravity on their own power). But they have some amazing technology, and that technology is designed solely for the purposes of the worldwide genocide of humanity. As in Battle Los Angeles, the film that got this list going, the invasion and subsequent extermination is much more gritty and in-your-face than in most films in the alien-invasion genre. Whereas Battle Los Angeles spent most of its time at street level in L.A., the extermination process in War of the Worlds has a far more epic feel to it. It is the scenes of the unseen aliens in their tripods, obliterating every human in sight, that earns this film a spot on this list.

And as if monstrous alien machines casually exterminating human beings isn’t scary enough, leave it to Steven Spielberg to pepper his film with visual references to the Holocaust. The first scene in which the tripods attack is one of the most heart-pounding sequences ever filmed: Cruise’s character runs through the streets as people left and right are caught in the alien death ray and literally disintegrated into ash. When he makes it back home and sees himself in the mirror, sees what was recently his neighbors caked all over his face and body, we feel his revulsion as he freaks out. This and a later scene in which the clothes of disintegrated people rain from the sky, as well as a handful of other scenes including a burning train speeding by and a bunch of bodies floating down a river, are reminiscent of Spielberg’s work in Schindler’s List. The director is taking the subtle anti-war themes of Wells’ novel and expanding on them in a powerful way. These echoes of the consequences of Nazism, terrorism, and systematic violence in general, make the invasion of War of the Worlds one of the scariest in film.

They decide to settle it with a staring contest.

(Read Nate’s article on loose adaptations for a slightly less enthusiastic look at Spielberg’s War of the Worlds.)

Next on the countdown: “Nobody trusts anybody now, and we’re all very tired… there’s nothing more I can do, just wait….”

Straight Adaptations: The Road v. The Da Vinci Code

By Nathanael Griffis

Why do they have to change everything? moans the viewer as he leaves the theater disappointed that a certain ethos was not captured, that a character’s appearance was different, or that they were cut entirely. Well, sometimes very little is changed. Things will be cut, but these two examples are about as loyal to their source materials as movies get. The problem is that loyalty is not always a good thing. On the one had we have The Road, one of the great post-apocalyptic films and novels from one of the best English writers ever. On the other we have The Da Vinci Code, which was written by Dan Brown and a lot of people bought it. So let’s begin.

Man, boy, gun, on the road. This is basically the movie.

The Road: Cormac McCarthy’s work is a mixture of Raymond Carver minimalism, Faulknerian description, and Poe’s sense of horror and realism. In the future this style will probably be simply titled McCarthyesque. Because of his bleak, straightforward method of writing, his books translate well to film. All the Pretty Horses and No Country for Old Men are great movies. (It should also be noted that No Country for Old Men is not considered one of his better novels). In No Country for Old Men, McCarthy writes the Texas setting like few before him. It was completely unromanticized. So when he published The Road, what would you expect but one of the most horrifying visions of the apocalypse ever.

The world has ended, and a father and son travel down a road trying to survive while still holding onto their humanity. Post-apocalyptic films, for all their scary subject matter, normally manage to make the apocalypse seem cool. They’re afraid to show you what the end of the world would really be like. A hopeless bleak landscape of death, is what it would look like, and that’s what The Road give us. (Also, it might not include massive shootouts, explosions, or skimpily clad attractive women, so Hollywood is suspicious of it.)

As director, John Hillcoat was perfect for this film. The Proposition treats the Western in the same sense The Road treats the apocalypse, with unflinching realism. Hillcoat rounded up an amazing cast too: Viggo Mortensen as the father, Charlize Theron as his former wife, Robert Duvall as the Old Man, Guy Pearce as the Veteran, Micheal Kenneth Williams as the Thief, and Kodi Smit-McPhee as the Boy.

Why's the black guy gotta be the thief?

This film is full of startling performances, and it’s a shame it was forgotten during Oscar season. Admittedly, 2009 was a tough year to break into the Oscars with so many spectacular films that year. Each actor in The Road, no matter the size of his role, seems to recognize the importance of it. The art direction is perfect in the film. A scraggly Viggo Mortensen in a gray scale wilderness wipes out any sense of grandeur left over from The Lord of the Rings.

What is really impressive about the film though is the script. To take a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and dare adapt it is a challenge to live up to, but Joe Penhall (who previously adapted Enduring Love, an Ian McEwan novel, so he likes adapting modern classic writers) was smart. He took the book and eliminated little. He followed the plot’s progression and kept most of the scenes and, more impressively, most of the dialogue. When he cut it was mainly to shorten a section from the book. In this case it works wonderfully. The horror and tension experienced when the Man breaks into a locked basement looking for food becomes fully realized when you see the still living dismembered people groping about the floor. There are a few scenes of violence and cannibalism in the book, mostly involving children and babies, that the director and writer show restraint in depicting, but for the most part it is staggering how frightening a film this is. What’s so amazing about the book is its sense of hope in the face of utter destruction, a classic apocalyptic trope. Penhall, I suspect, recognized that it was McCarthy’s bare dialogue that lends hope to the chaotic vision, so he doesn’t lose it. There is no attempt to add extra action, a stirring race-to-the-goal montage, or a heavy-handed death scene with a blaring score.

The brilliance of the whole project is that the source material is too genius not to use. The writer wisely chooses to keep its brilliance and not change much. No one but Cormac McCarthy can still convey hope in the face of extinction and have it feel unforced, so why not use his words and his descriptions to make a masterpiece. So what happens when the author is not one of McCarthy’s caliber?

Do you think it's a coincidence that Audrey Tautou looks like the Mona Lisa?

The Da Vinci Code: I don’t think Dan Brown would be insulted if I said he wasn’t as good a writer as Cormac McCarthy, but who knows, maybe he disagrees. Dan Brown is comparable to Tom Clancy. He’s a proficient thriller-writer who does an impressive amount of research. The man knows his art and art history. If only he’d taken some time to research how to write interesting characters and dialogue. He can write conspiracy mysteries and give you a creepy bad guy pretty well. What he should do is read some Agatha Christie, P.D. James, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Dashiell Hammett to get a sense of how you make a more interesting character than the bland symbologist Robert Langdon. I present to you our introduction to Langdon in the novel The Da Vinci Code: “Robert Langdon awoke slowly.” Wow. What resonance. What a strong verb. Detect sarcasm? I hope so.

The issue here is that Dan Brown crafted a controversial thriller and perfected the art of the chapter cliffhanger, producing a worldwide bestseller. Then, with dollar signs in their eyes, Columbia Pictures bought the rights and an impressive cast and crew: Ron Howard as director; a cast that includes Tom Hanks, Jean Reno, Alfred Molina, Paul Bettany, Audrey Tautou, and Ian McKellen; a musical score by Hans Zimmer; a script by Akiva Goldsman (and mind you, the last time Goldsman wrote a script for Ron Howard, it was Cinderella Man, and before that A Beautiful Mind). So why didn’t this work out? Because the source material is not that great, if you stay loyal to it. A long scene where an old art collector explains the finer points of conspiracy art theory is kind of interesting on the page. On film, it’s slow and taxing, watching Ian McKellen and Tom Hanks lecture us on art, which is basically what it is–a poorly orchestrated sequence of exposition and Q&A about Renaissance painters. There is very little action in the story, a lot of globetrotting but lackluster locations, and the Louvre is amazing, yes, but it isn’t shot well.

Paul Bettany as "Darth" Silas

The only character of interest, Silas (played by Paul Bettany), is killed off way too easily, and all tension leaves the movie. The mystery is already solved, because everyone’s read the book, so relying on a mystery is boring. Like I said in my first article on adaptations, it’s about how you tell the story. We all know Romeo and Juliet die; you have to make us care. You get great actors to imbibe the characters with something new, not just walk around old historical structures and look at the ceiling.

The Da Vinci Code is basically the strangest and most expensive thing ever made by the Travel Channel. It’s a randomly planned tour of Europe for only nine dollars. Books do not translate perfectly to the screen. Being loyal to an audience can mean ruining your art form. It takes away the ability of the director, the writer, and the actors to create a quality product. (I don’t know what Hans Zimmer’s excuse was). The book should have been rehashed like Tom Clancy’s novels have been, or even better, Robert Ludlum’s Bourne novels. Take the premise–a symbologist solves the mystery of a historical conspiracy while running around Europe. That’s pretty exciting. But it isn’t.

When it comes to a straight adaptation, make sure of two things: that the source material is interesting and well written, and that it translates to film well. Without good writing and good visual descriptions, it won’t work no matter who’s involved in the project.

Next I’ll take a look at the most common of adaptations–the basic adaptation–with the movies Holes and The Golden Compass.

Loose Adaptations: Children of Men & War of the Worlds

By Nathanael Griffis

A loose adaptation is simply when the source material, a novel normally, is used only as a conceptual basis for a story. Sometimes characters are kept, themes may remain, but the overall plot is basically rewritten. Loose adaptations are tricky. On the one hand you allow for a more creative take on a story. On the other you may offend the loyal fan base of a book. Deciding to adapt a novel loosely is always interesting and for the most part relies on the talent surrounding it, so when you have Alfonso Cuarón, Clive Owen, Michael Caine, Julianne Moore, and Chiwetel Ejiofer on a film one can produce one of the best films ever made. Talent isn’t everything though, because Tim Robbins, Steven Spielberg, Dakota Fanning, and Tom Cruise should spell success, but it didn’t. So here’s my look at why these two loose adaptations succeeded and failed respectively.

Plain and simple, one of the greatest moments in film.

Children of Men: If at all possible, let’s forget the revolutionary cinematography, the haunting performances, and the sharp editing of the film, and focus on the story. Theo Faron is asked by his ex-wife Julian to acquire a pass to the coast for a young woman whom we later discover is pregnant in a world where there has not been a pregnancy in 18 years. This is the basic plot of the movie, but it is slightly different from P.D. James’ novel. Theo was never married to Julian, and is significantly older; Julian merely wants an audience with the Warden of England; oh, and Julian is the pregnant woman. So, besides keeping characters’ names and the overall concept of an infertile human race, the differences are significant.

The novel is quieter and more slowly paced, exploring the political side of power structures controlling a population. The government executes the elderly in a mass drowning off the coast of England. The powers that be then use these events to maintain a sense of order through indirect threats, while also satisfying a dying population’s desire for release from the torment of the end of humanity. They dictate what pleasurable activities are allowed and round up foreigners and miscreants (which is kept in the movie). The book is also concerned, as most books are, with being more subjective. We stay with Theo, and his inner struggle is more the story than anything else. Director Alfonso Cuarón keeps this concept in Children of Men, as the camera never really sees what Theo can’t, but we don’t spend time meandering around his brain reminiscing. The book is brilliant and has wonderful characters and descriptions. I have to say the film and the novel are even; neither outshines the other, which is rare.

The film takes the concept of infertility and runs with it, adding ideas of racism and social revolution, which are in the book but not major themes. The decision to connect Julian and Theo is brilliant–it adds another layer to the characters. Both versions have a bleak tone with hopeful endings amidst death and suffering. What is different is that Cuarón understands that his medium is a visual one. He needs the visuals to enhance his thematic ideas. The setting becomes as desolate as the situation. I think of the scene of Theo and the mid-wife, played by Pam Ferris, waiting in an abandoned school. It’s subtle because Cuarón doesn’t meditate on it, but unforgettable as we see the pregnant Kee (played by Clare-Hope Ashitey) stolen through rotting playground equipment.  The book relies on description and dialogue to show us man’s reliance on order and power despite a decaying future. The long single takes throughout the film heighten the tension, increase the reality, and provide a more subjective sense for the audience. Cuts give film a sense of fabrication, which is not necessarily a negative thing, but a long single shot of a car being attacked or an entire neighborhood at war places the viewer inside the situation. P.D. James wants us involved in the discussion. Cuarón provides us with an experience. Children of Men is the ultimate example of how to successfully loosely adapt a novel.

War of the Worlds: There are several loose adaptations of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, but I am only going to mention two: the infamous Orson Welles radio adaptation that sent America into a panic, and the middling action flick that Spielberg offered us in 2005. H.G Wells’ novel is tough to adapt, as any classic is, but especially since it is a science fiction period piece. How does one do futuristic 1898? Well, you have to modernize it, which almost always means a loose adaptation of sorts. What Orson Welles did was brilliant. He took the concept of the alien invasion and its themes of science, warfare, and the ineffectiveness of Victorian mores, and used it to scare the bejeezus out of the country. That is how you loosely adapt something. I can’t speak to much to that performance as I’ve never heard it, but its impact alone is legendary, so we can assume it’s good.

Tom Cruise coming to terms with the film.

Steven Spielberg, we should be able to assume is good too. After Minority Report, a good adaption of a Philip K. Dick short story, the pairing of Cruise and Spielberg should have been welcome, and it was, but the product was underwhelming. Wells’ novel is a cautionary tale at heart. It warns man of the dangers of science for the advancement of warfare. The aliens metaphorically are not some outside force, but a superpower gone wrong. They destroy without any warning, any forethought, out of nothing but a sense of greed and desire to conquer. The novel is frighteningly prophetic when one considers that two world wars followed it and were started, at the basest of levels, out of humanity’s desire to conquer others. These concepts could be taken and placed into a modern day context to warn a growing scientific community that is becoming heavily reliant on government defense contracts to take heed. Instead we are served up with what eventually becomes a run-of-the-mill sci-fi action flick.

Spielberg’s film keeps the concept of a cylinder burying itself in the ground. It keeps the death of the aliens by the common cold, which should signify that humanity/science will ultimately not be able to combat nature in a warfare setting, but here feels like a lame cop-out ending. They add an interesting reference to Harlan Ogilvy, one of the few named characters in the novel, in Tim Robbins. I can’t help but feel though that a lot of this is wasted potential. The beginning has some haunting Holocaust imagery. Tom Cruise as Ray Ferrier shaking the ashes of victims from his hair sets a frightening tone. The bodies floating down a river as Ray’s daughter Rachel (played by Dakota Fanning) watches leaves us startled. The blood-drenched trees and landscapes that Ray walks out into horrifies. All these images seem like wasted art, bad abstraction without a directed substance or meaning. They symbolize things and matter within the scene and build character, but they don’t hold weight in the overall story.

Run! No, don't stare at the alien tripod, run, Ru...uh too late.

What both Orson and H.G. did in their stories by keeping the narrator anonymous, was provide the sense of subjectivity we got from Cuarón’s Children of Men. The protagonist becomes an everyman of sorts and we place ourselves in his role, asking what reaction we should have. In the case of Orson Welles, it was such an effective subjectivity as to transcend the line of fiction and lead the masses in the expected reaction of a panic.

There is nothing wrong with building characters in a film. In fact, a film adaptation would require it. Spielberg attempts this with Ferrier as a single father trying to connect with and raise his kids. Initially it works, but there are two problems: First, Tom Cruise is not an everyman. He’s a character actor who portrays an intensely specific persona. I’ve  never seen a performance of his and felt I could relate to it; several times I’ve been impressed, but relate, no. He’s not Jimmy Stewart or, dare I say, Matt Damon.

The second problem is the lack of a consistent theme, along with egregious plot holes. Spielberg’s penchant for tying things up in a bow in his blockbuster films falls flat here and leaves the viewer confused. Why does the son survive and randomly show up with perfect timing? If all it takes is a few grenades, how are the aliens still fearsome? The action becomes the focus in the second half of the film, and the death of the aliens at the hands of the common cold doesn’t resonate. It feels like another unnecessary bow on a muddled package.

So if you’re going to adapt something loosely, make sure it has good themes, and make sure you utilize them. Having the title of the novel, a star actor and director, and good special effects is not enough. It takes innovation, a great script, and an overall sense of purpose to garner success. You don’t have to be unrepentantly loyal to a source material to make a successful story–but what would happen if you were? We’ll see next time when I discuss straight adaptations with The Road and The Da Vinci Code.

Adaptations: there are no new ideas, so stop whining.

These are books. Inside are ideas ripe for stealing.

There are no original ideas. Everything’s based on a book. Oh how the populace moans. We demand that Hollywood be the center of all creative genius when in reality they’re predominately effective adapters of other people’s writing. Writing that is probably based on someone else’s story or some series of historical events. If it bothers you that there are no original ideas in Hollywood, you’re probably going to contend with many a sullen and grumpy weekend because there are no original ideas. There’s nothing new under the sun. Story expresses the human experience, which hasn’t changed that much. We’re still born, live, and then die. What’s fascinating is how you tell the story, how it’s presented, how it’s interpreted. New is simply a way of adding to or building upon something else. Of course, what you add is probably just a rehash of a previous idea. Everyone, not just some, stand on the shoulders of other giants.

Alright, enough philosophizing, I’ve probably lost half–if not all–my readership, so for the loyal few who’ve dared to push beyond the first paragraph, I reward you with whining. Adaptations are hard to do, and a poor adaptation can be beyond frustrating. Why oh why does Moaning Myrtle get all seductive on Harry Potter in The Goblet of Fire? Why, Mike Newell, huh, tell me, why? It’s cool that the Elves fight at Helm’s Deep in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, but that never happened in the book, and why not end with Shelob killing Frodo? That’s an awesome ending!

Should I continue? Yes, I should. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen–the whole film. Or, how about taking all the heart out of E.B White’s writing–see, or don’t, Stuart Little and the 2006 adaptation of Charlotte’s Web. Apparently, someone forgot that The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy was funny. Or how about the decision to end The Golden Compass on a shot of an airship–really not the monumental cliffhanger of the book.

And Prince Caspian, how do I loathe thee? Let me count the ways:

1. Eddie Izzard as Reepicheep.

2. Bad fight scenes stolen from The Lord of the Rings. (If you’re going to screw up an adaptation, at least adapt the right book so it seems like you tried.)

3. Prince Caspian and Susan making googly eyes and kissing, and bad pop music [insert expletives].

4. The stupid water nymph/Poseidon at the end.

5. The White Witch again. Did Tilda Swinton have a two movie contract and figure she’d bang the second one out?

6. Adding a whole castle “fight.”

Okay, I’m done. There are more, I’m sure–in fact, why don’t you complain about them in the comments section. It’s good to get our grievances out ther–that’s what the Internet’s for, you know.

In the end, we all know the book is better than the movie, with a few exceptions, so why even make the movie? Well, because they can, and sometimes it turns out good and actually helps the book make more money. Although, we do have to contend with lame new book covers with Ben Affleck or Will Smith’s visage plastered over it. I sound like a whiner, and it’s therapeutic to write some of this down, but a while ago I had to stop expecting things from adaptations in film. Otherwise, I would leave the theater each time sulking and kicking up invisible dust in protest at the villainous harm done to my beloved source material. Since you’ve read this far, I feel confident in giving you advice. You have to judge the two separately and not demand certain things be made a certain way. You’ll hate every adaptation if you do. Let it go. Let all the pain done by Akiva Goldsman, Matthew Vaughn, and Stanley Kubrick, the serial adapter, go. Forgive them.

Good, now that we’re in the right state of mind, I’m going to start presenting a more in-depth look at the different ways we adapt various things. I’ll look at loose adaptations that take characters and concepts only; straight adaptations that change nothing; the basic or common adaptation; adaptations of classic works; reworkings or modernizations of classics; remakes of older films; song adaptations; theme park ride adaptations; and the unique, like Spike Jonze’s Adaptation. I won’t be looking at movies that are purely based on historical documents. For this series I’m simply exploring how someone takes one person’s interpretation or presentation of a story and makes it their own. For each article, I’m simply going to take a category (e.g., the classic adaption) and discuss it in the context of both a well-done example and a failed example (e.g., Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings vs. Ralph Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings).

Up first: the loose adaptation. (Of course, you’ll have to wait a week, unless you’re reading this after the fact, in which case, click away.)