Category Archives: Movies

Do Sci-Fi Movie Directors Dream of Electric Scripts?

This month’s Fictorians’ theme is “movie adaptations.”

I got lucky and snagged “Blade Runner.”

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When Blade Runner came out, I wasn’t paying attention enough to remember the obscure novella I had read at about the age of twelve. I was well into the movie before I put two and two together and realized I had read the source material. I remember thinking at the time, “When is he going to find that toad?”

That’s pretty close to a spoiler, I suppose. There is no toad in the movie. I don’t remember origami in the novella. Maybe there was some. Honestly, I didn’t remember that much about the novella. I had read it during a period of my life that I was reading three or four sci-fi novels a week. Plus classics like “Gone With the Wind” or “Moby Dick.” The novella simply hadn’t made that much of an impression on me. I had to go back and review “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” to realize just how far the movie had strayed from the original story. How far was that? Well, maybe not as far as the shoulder of Orion, but certainly well past the Tannhauser Gate.

So, since the movie is such a radical departure from the novella, you might think that would count against it as a “movie adaptation.” But I can’t say that, because “Blade Runner” the movie, is better than the novella. By a large margin, in my opinion. Ridley Scott took the basic story of a bounty hunter wrestling with the morality and mortality of “retiring” androids, and created a revolutionary multi-media experience, spawning an entire sci-fi sub-genre in the process.

There is power in the imagery of the film. The fusion of film noir and dystopian post-apocalyptic pathos simply oozes gritty, bloody, sweaty authenticity. By abandoning the original sub-plots involving Deckard’s wife (yes, wife) and their search for an animal of their very own, Scott was able to focus his grimy camera lens directly on the question of what makes us human. That gritty, shadowy vision paradoxically grants the movie near-perfect clarity.

That clarity reaches its climax with Roy Batty’s iconic farewell, sometimes known as the “Tears in Rain Monologue.”

I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.

Time to die.

Like all great works of art, the movie has an ambiguous ending, allowing the viewer to decide for themselves what Deckard’s and Rachael’s future will be. The viewer isn’t even certain if Deckard himself is a human or a replicant. And that is the movie’s ultimate message. In the end, it doesn’t really matter. As Roy tells us, the value of life is not measured in the number of years we are given, it is measured in what we do with the years we have.

Adapting the Past

I grew up on the Shannara books. I loved them. Oh, looking back I see them for what they were; Tolkien- ripoff hackery. They are not good books. But as a twelve-year-old just taking his first steps down this path, I loved them. And when I pick up those cliche tomes these days, I am still overcome with a sense of nostalgia.

So, last year, when I saw that MTV (of all channels) had decided to do a Shannara adaptation, I had two reactions, in sequence:

1. Sqquuuueeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!

2. How in the heck are they going to do that?

Now, I am not alone in my Shannara geekery. For books that would never see the light of day if they were written now, they have a strong following. A lot of us, young in the eighties and seeking some form of fantasy, devoured and loved them despite their flaws. And a lot of us are very, very committed to the books; even the parts that suck.

But not enough of us to make an MTV audience. Let’s face it; most Shannara fans are my age. You had to be young enough to dig fantasy and old enough to live in a time where there weren’t other options. And most of them are male, because the Shannara books aren’t particularly great about depicting women. MTV, of course, does not even come close to targetting my demographic. So who in the world thought it’d be a good idea to put this niche show there?

And, as I processed all of these factors, my third reaction began to dawn, ever so slowly.

3. This is going to suck.

Why did I think this? Well, let’s start with this. This picture, just to the left here. You know what that is? That’s the original group of adventurers from the first Shannara novel. It’s a pretty racially diverse cast; you have a dwarf, a couple of Valemen, some humans, a druid, and two elves. Of course, they’re all white males, but still…diversity, right?

Now, I knew MTV wasn’t about to put that cast up on the screen. I figured we’d see some gender-swapping, and some characters would end up being not-white. Which I was OK with, really. I am not someone who believes you can’t gender-swap a character. Obviously, there are series that have done this, and done it well.

So, the first thing that relieved me on this was where MTV decided to start. Oh, the great community of nerds had some things to say when we discovered that Sword of Shannara was merely backstory. That, instead, we would be dealing with Elfstones of Shannara, the second book in the series. Upon seeing this, it occurred to me that MTV had actually sat down, read the books, and figured out what the heck it was doing.

The Shannara Chronicles are not point-by-point true to the original book. There’s no King of the Silver River, Grimpen Ward is never mentioned, the Witch Sisters barely make an appearance, and the great mid-air confrontation between Allanon and the Dagda Mor is more of a couple of seconds on the ground. Special effects budgets, storyline, and the need to get some kind of episode-based rhythm account for much of it, but honestly, there’s something else.

The Shannara Chronicles is simply written better than the original books.

Remember what I said at the beginning of this article. The Shannara books are not well-written. They’re basically hackery of the lowest sort. I know, I know; if you’re an old-school geek like me, you remember them fondly. But you know what else I remember fondly? The Thundercats cartoon. I tried to re-watch it, once. bad idea.

The Shannara Chronicles cut down on the cast. Now, obviously there’s a budgetary reason for this; when you’re making a TV show, each new character is a new person you have to pay. But that also had the effect of streamlining the story, which the book very badly needed.

The series made the story one of the personal relationships. They did that for their demographic, of course, but doing it made us far more focused on the characters. Cephelo isn’t just a lovable rogue in the series; he is very, very dangerous. Eretria isn’t just “the other girl,” or “Wil’s second choice.” She’s a kick-ass survivor with her own set of priorities. And Amberle isn’t single-minded in her devotion to the cause; she has to examine what’s being asked of her again, and again, and again.

Wil, on the other hand, is all too aware of what happens after the heroism. He’s constantly worried about the price he’s going to pay long-term for his exploits, and he has the shadow of his father, Shea Ohmsford. Shea’s exploits from Sword are referenced, often in praising terms, but Wil’s problem is that he knew his dad as a worthless, drunken waste of humanity. And he fears, deeply, that he’s on the same path. Save the world, but lose yourself in the process.

All the characters are wrestling with their internal demons instead of just the external ones trying to kill them. And that kind of internal conflict makes the series simply better than the books.

***SPOILER ALERT – I’M GOING TO TALK ABOUT THE END OFSEASON ONE. STOP READING IF YOU DON’T WANT IT SPOILED***

The thing that most scared me when I saw that Elfstones was the adaptation was simple: Elfstones’ best story point is its ending. The heroes win, but there is a huge sacrifice to be made. Amberle must become the Ellcrys. She doesn’t die, no, but we’re talking about killing off one leg of your love triangle in the end of the first season. I was terrified that MTV wouldn’t have the guts to do it–and I’m really happy I was wrong.

***END SPOILERS***

The point, here, is that stories were a certain way in the 1980s. And they’re just better now. Our profession has gotten a lot more involved in the internal dramas, and beating the great evil thing using the Macguffin simply doesn’t cut it anymore. MTV took a story from the past, a beat-the-evil-with-the-thing work of hackery, and made it three-dimensional. It’s an exceptionally well-done adaptation, and it stands as an example of how to update an old, tired, tropey work.

Now that the season is done, we have a new question for MTV. Season 2 is in the works, and we know that it deals with the same characters. That’s really interesting, because…Wil doesn’t do anything else in the books. Wil Ohmsford, in the books, goes back to Storlock, finishes his studies to become a healer, and settles down with Eretria. They have a pair of kids, and those kids go on to have their own adventures. The next book in the series is Wishsong, and it’s not about Wil at all.

It doesn’t sound as though MTV wanted to rotate their entire non-Allanon cast to deal with Season 2. And I get it; you want your fans to become attached to a main character, not someone entirely new. But there’s another adaptation challenge ahead. Do they simply make up new storylines? Do they try to adapt the Wishsong storyline into Season 2?

I’m honestly not sure, but I’m interested to see where it goes.

Was Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit Trilogy Good?

 

Contestant: I’ll take Geek Controversies for $500, Alex.

Alex Trebek: A Smaug-sized question of cinematic taste to tongue-tie any dwarven fellowship of thirteen or less at one’s local ComicCon.

Contestant: Was Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy good?

Alex Trebek: Yes, well done. You are now in the lead.

The Hobbit

Was Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy good? Now there’s a hobbit-hole-burner for the ages, and the deeper you’ve burrowed into the gentle slope of Bungo’s figurative Hill, the more fervent your opinion is likely to be. While it’s less fashionable to impinge on the honor of Jackson’s near-hallowed Lord of the Rings trilogy, a plurality of fans have been giving The Hobbit films the side-eye since the first installment premiered. For many, those side-eyes turned to full-fledged eye-rolls by the time the credits faded on the final film two years later.

I prefer to shift to a slightly different but closely related question: was Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy a good adaptation? Note that this is different than asking if it’s a faithful adaptation; as many have observed, a faithful adaption would have been… well, much shorter, it’s safe to say. It seems clear to me that Jackson wasn’t so much interested in faithfully adapting J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel as reimagining it as an epic precursor to Lord of the Rings. I doubt there will be many dissenters to that. After all, Tolkien didn’t have the later events clearly established in his mind when he wrote The Hobbit, so the two works aren’t quite as much of the same piece as Jackson might have preferred.

Despite that, were The Hobbit films a good adaptation?

And now we get to the part where there will be more dissention. Deciding whether the films are good adaptations requires you to decide a few things about the original novel. If you have come to the conclusion that Tolkien’s novel is an untouchable classic, one of the high water marks of English literature—nay, of all literature anywhere—then the films must by definition fall short, because even the most charitable reviewer must acknowledge that the films are merely good films, not the high water mark of cinema.

But I’m not sure the book is all that and a bag of lembas bread. (I bet you didn’t know it came in bags.) Don’t get me wrong; I love the book. I have very fond memories of it, going back to my Grade Five year when our teacher guided us through the story chapter by chapter. I’ve read it several times since, and enjoyed each successive re-read.

The thing is, like many books written a long time ago, I’m not sure this book is good by current (modern) standards. Which is certainly not a problem for the book itself, because it must be judged according to its context, and The Hobbit is revolutionary in context with everything that was going on contemporaneous with its release.

But Tolkien makes some rather strange literary choices. Some might go so far as to unkindly call them shortcuts.

Let’s cast an analytic eye to the book’s structure. Bilbo Baggins is the central figure, the eponymous character, the dominating point of view for most of the novel, to the point of eclipsing the other characters with him. You’ve got Gandalf (who disappears midway through and returns only for a cameo at the end), you’ve got Thorin Oakenshield, you’ve got Fili and Kili… and as for the rest of the company (there are 15 of them in total), they are hardly mentioned.

Peter Jackson rightly points out in the supplementary materials that while this can work in literary terms, it’s impossible in filmic terms.

Not to sound too much the Jackson apologist, but he really had no choice but to flesh out the other dwarves as fully as he could, constrained by the fact that the dwarves really aren’t important; they don’t contribute much, and they don’t exert influence on the plot. They seem to have been inserted by Tolkien to serve as a bit of poetry, a literary grace note.

Tolkien was a minimalist. If a character didn’t significantly further the story, he all but erased them from the narrative. Gandalf is important, but the moment he’s not, he’s off to Mirkwood and out of sight; Thorin is a tragic figure, slouching toward his eventual demise (and redemption); and Fili and Kili are likewise destined for death. Sure, there’s Elrond and Gollum and Beorn and Smaug. They serve their purpose and exeunt stage left.

The movie can’t get away with this, so perhaps it overcorrects. Jackson gives us a bustling Hobbiton full of memorable characters. All thirteen dwarves are painted larger than life and given distinctive traits, running gags, and backstories. The small role of Radagast is writ large. Galadriel joins the fun in Rivendell, perhaps unnecessarily—and Saruman, too. The Goblin King wrests the spotlight from our heroes for an extended musical sequence (in fairness, this probably hews closely to Tolkien’s intent). We get a resplendent and scene-stealing Thranduil. Oh look, there’s Legolas! And now an all-new elven maiden named Tauriel who gets an awful lot of screen time. There’s Azog and Bolg, footnotes in the book but major villains fighting for relevance and attention on the big screen. Once we get to Lake-town, whose denizens barely register on the page, we get a host of named characters who demand motivations and personalities on their own. Did I mention Sauron, glaring at us all the while? At last, Dain rides over the hill in undercooked (overcooked?) computer-generated glory.

The oddest of Tolkien’s literary choices/shortcuts is the fact that the entire climactic battle, around which Jackson created a whole movie of its own, is played out in a few pages of exposition, told to Bilbo after he is knocked out in the opening frame. This is the best example of Tolkien getting away with something that no author today could get away with. Some would charitably call it a quirk.

My thesis is basically that Jackson didn’t have a choice but to flesh this all out. I suppose he could have fleshed it out a bit less comprehensively, and delivered two films instead of three. Maybe Galadriel and Saruman stay on the sidelines. Maybe you don’t bother to show Gandalf’s investigation of Sauron. Maybe you resist the urge to bring back Legolas. Maybe you leave out Tauriel and just accept the fact that this movie has no women in it. Maybe Lake-town gets limited only to Bard. Perhaps the extra dwarves are reduced to window dressing.

I contend that several of these choices would have been very bad choices indeed, and every fan is going to pick and choose which of them were most and least essential. Essentially Jackson didn’t pick and choose; he expanded everything, leaving on stone unturned. I don’t think it’s in Jackson’s DNA to do things halfway, and I don’t really blame him for that. (Granted, others do.)

In short, Jackson turned Tolkien’s one-man play into a 50-man ensemble, thus entirely changing the character of the story. But my god, if The Hobbit had been filmed in the same manner it was written, it would almost certainly have been the most baffling film of the modern era.

So the movie is different than the book, a wildly different experience. Is it better? No. But if you’re dead-set on adapting a strange, nigh unadaptable story like The Hobbit, you could do a lot worse. Peter Jackson didn’t give us great movies, not by any stretch of the imagination, but he gave us serviceable ones that at least hold together and stay consistent with his previous work.

And if you can’t have greatness, consistency is a pretty good consolation prize.

Howl’s Moving Plot Points

As far as film adaptations go, Howl’s Moving Castle isn’t the best. It hardly resembles the book at all…and you know what? I don’t mind. I love them equally.

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(Spoilers ahead)

Diane Wynne Jones’ book is delightful. Even though it was written for kids it has some unexpected clever twists and a delightful subtext. As the title suggests the central figures are Howl and his moving castle, but oddly it’s not told from Howl’s point of view. It’s told from Sophie Hatter’s point of view. In the books, Sophie (the eldest of three sisters) is a pessimist who thinks she’s doomed to live a boring, monotonous life — so of course she’s my favorite character. She has the ability to bring objects to life by simply talking to them — an ability that she’s completely unaware of for most of the book — and an incredible inner strength. Sophie gets cursed by a witch that confuses her for one of her sisters. The curse turns Sophie into an old woman. Rather then explain it to her family she runs off, gets a job as Howl’s cleaning lady, and makes a deal with Howl’s fire demon in order to break her curse. By the end of the book Sophie’s curse, and a few others besides, have been broken, the villain is defeated, Howl and Sophie are madly in love, and they live mostly happily ever after.

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The film version eliminates one of Sophie’s sisters, Sophie herself has no magical abilities, Howl’s backstory is completely different, and it turned one of her sisters’ suitors into a Marty Stu. There are other changes and omissions but those are the most glaring differences. That aside, it makes up for it with one of the most compelling love stories in anime, the increased strength and resourcefulness of Sophie’s character, and Howl’s abilities as a wizard are much greater. How much greater? Lets say that in the book Howl is Gandalf the lazy grey and in the film he’s sexy Gandalf the White. The English dubbed version also has Christian Bale’s yummy voice as Howl. Seriously yummy! It’s chocolate fudge lava cake with black cherry compote yummy!

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Another boon for the film is the GORGEOUS score composed by Joe Hisaishi. (I’m a big fan of Hisaishi’s work. The scores for Howl’s Moving Castle, Princess Mononoke, My Neighbor Totoro, and Robot Carnival are his best!) I know a voice talent and music might seem like cheating since a print book can’t employ those. But it’s one of the advantages that film has.

Any novel adaptation is going to have scenes that either don’t work on film or don’t fit in a script that’s a third of the size of the original work. Sometimes the percentage is much less than that. In my opinion it’s impossible for a film to be scene-by-scene faithful to the original work. The best a screenwriter and director can do is be faithful to the overall message of the story. That above all is why I love this film adaptation. Even though the route it takes to the happy ending is different, the core message — that if you’re strong you can endure any hardship, and love conquers all — is still as strong as ever.