Tag Archives: Adaptations

Off the Page – Dune

Science Fiction is largely seen as a primary genre within cinema, but it doesn’t quite get the same amount of respect as a great pillar of the literary world.  Sure, sci-fi literature is as successful of a genre in bookstores as anything else, but it’s only in recent years that science fiction has gained the due respect of the literary world that usually has been reserved for what is considered “high art.”  Now no longer dismissed as commercial, science fiction writers like Asimov, Heinlein, and Bradbury are now spoken about in the same esteem as the likes of Dickens, Fitzgerald, Joyce, and Faulkner.  And indeed, the influence of the 20th Century’s most celebrated science fiction writers are having a profound effect on cinema itself, as their work is sought after more and more for adaptation, and is often referenced multiple times by filmmakers who were inspired by their work.  Of all the most celebrated works of science fiction from the last century, one that particularly stands out as the most fascinating and influential of all is the 1965 novel Dune, written by American author Frank Herbert.  Herbert’s Dune is so highly regarded in literary circles that it’s often been called the Lord of the Rings of science fiction.  That comparison is fairly apt because like J.R.R. Tolkein’s masterwork, Dune is a immensely detailed chronicle of a people, a culture, and a place that feels foreign yet familiar, and it absorbs the reader into it’s world.  Upon reading Dune, you become wrapped up in the internal politics of a galactic empire that spreads across the cosmos and take in the sights, feels, and yes even smells of each new planet the story visits, as Herbert spends a meticulous amount of time describing his world to you, in that same Tolkein-esque way.  it’s a masterpiece of world building literature and rightly has earned it’s reputation as a touchstone of science fiction.  But, as remarkable a reputation Dune has claimed within literature, it’s road to the big screen has been a problematic one, even though it’s influence throughout the sci-fi genre is widespread.  And in one particular case, we’ve also seen how difficult it truly can be to do the writing of Frank Herbert justice through a cinematic interpretation.

Dune is, like Lord of the Rings, a dense and complex book, though not particularly in a narrative way.  It’s basically an Arthurian legend combined with super hero origin.  The stakes are made very clear, and the heroes and villains are easily defined.  Where the complexity rises is from the way that Herbert describes the internal politics and the ecology of the desert planet that makes up the setting of the story and it’s title; the planet Arrakis, also known as Dune.  Arrakis is one of the most fantastic worlds ever dreamed up for any form story-telling; a desolate world that holds so much influnence for the whole of society because it’s primary export, the Melange spice, is the most important resource in the galaxy, and it is only produced on Arrakis.  The spice heightens mental consciousness, enhances human evolution, and enables interstellar flight, and the galactic empire that has discovered how to mine the spice has thrived because of it.  But, the result of the spice’s importance has been the growing desire to control it, and this has led to a feudal society where great houses go to war with each other in order to gain control of the spice.  In particular, the Houses of Atreides and Harkonnen are the ones jostling for power, with the emperor, Shadam IV, using the governance of Arrakis as means of subduing a potential rival to the throne.  At the same time, a coven of spice enhanced witches named the Bene Gesserit have been managing selective breeding among the noble houses in the hopes of creating the next step in human evolution, creating a super being known as the Kwisatz Haderach, who can channel mental awareness beyond the limits of both male and female consciousness.  And despite their intentions of finding this being among the Bene Gesserit themselves, the most promising candidate has instead turned out to be the son of Duke Leto of House Atreides; Paul.  Paul Atreides rises to become a messiah like being through the course of the story, gaining immense mental powers as well as the loyalty of the native people of Arrakis, the Fremen, and with that, he challenges the hold of the empire over the planet and proves once and for all that he indeed is the Kwisatz Haderach, with the power to both control and destroy the production of the spice.

“Arrakis. Dune. Desert planet. Your time has come.  A storm is coming. Our storm.  And when it arrives, it will shake the Universe.”

The difficulty in taking Dune and translating it for the screen is that no one can match the imagination of Frank Herbert’s writing.  He details so much in his novel with regards to the state of his characters thought processes, the many cultural traditions that they adhere to, as well as the epic scale in which he describes the immensity of Arrakis itself.  For a movie to work, a filmmaker needs to condense a lot down into something palatable and cinematic to make the narrative work for the screen and that is a lot more daunting than you would imagine.  Upon the book’s original publication, it caught the imagination of the counter-cultural movement of the late 60’s, especially with it’s emphasis on using substances to heighten one’s mental awareness.  One filmmaker especially interested in Herbert’s novel was Chilean avant garde director Alejandro Jodorowsky.  Jodorowsky had an ambitious vision for his take on the novel, expanding Herbert’s themes to represent a more new age spiritualism, and he managed to put together a remarkable cast and crew that included actors like David Carridine, Gloria Swanson, Mick Jagger, Salvador Dali and Orson Welles, as well as artists like Jean Giraud (Moebius) and H.R. Geiger.  But, just as the film was entering the final stages of development, the funding dried up and no studio wanted to make it, especially given Jodorowsky’s vision for a 10 hour run-time.  Soon after Jodoworsky’s Dune was shelved, the rights fell into the hands of legendary producer Dino de Laurentiis.   Laurentiis spent many years of serious development on the project, including having Frank Herbert himself draft a script, but again the project lingered in development hell as the project became too daunting for some.  Ridley Scott, hot off the success of Alien (1979), was at one point attached to direct, but he opted to make Blade Runner (1982) instead.  So, with the rights about to fall out of their hands, the De Laurentiis Company needed to think outside the box in order to make their project a reality, and their search ultimately led to the most unlikely of candidates; avant garde director David Lynch.  Lynch had made a name for himself as a master of the bizarre and grotesque on the silver screen, but science fiction was new territory for him, but he accepted the job nevertheless, seeing the potential to expand his unique vision on a much larger scale than he ever had before, and while it was fortunate for him, it may have been the wrong choice for the story he was about to tell.

“I must not fear.  Fear is the mind-killer.”

Here’s the thing that will jump out the most to first time viewers of David Lynch’s Dune; the movie is a fascinating look at what at what happens when you give a subversive, avant garde filmmaker a big budget to work with, and will please people who are fans of that style.  But, if you are someone who has read the book and wanted to see it faithfully brought to the big screen, you will be incredibly frustrated with the results.  David Lynch took the job of directing this film and insisted on writing the script himself, even though he had never read the book or was familiar with the story.  That lack of insight is palatable when watching the movie because the film cares little about the important things within the novel like character motivations, pacing, establishing a sense of time and place, and so much more.  It essentially is David Lynch playing around in a literal and metaphorical sandbox where he gets to indulge in his cerebral weirdness while only using the framework of Herbert’s novel to guide the movie.  It’s one of the most bizarre mismatches between director and source material that I think Hollywood has ever seen, and the story really suffers because of it.  One of the things that particularly lacks in Lynch’s take on the novel is it’s sense of grandiosity.  When you read the novel, you have this sweeping epic of vast expanses of desert and opulent palaces described to you, like something out of a film by David Lean (who was also approached to direct at one point, but quickly refused).   Lynch vision works in a more out-of-the-ordinary field which is best realized in movies like Blue Velvet (1986) and Mulholland Drive (2001); creating nightmares made real.  His style doesn’t translate into Herbert’s world, because it’s too constrained and focused on the wrong things.  He spends more effort portraying the oddities of the world and less on the drama and the character development, and that’s where the movie ultimately fails.

Perhaps the biggest flaw in Lynch’s adaptation comes in the way that it takes narrative shortcuts in order to condense the entirety of Herbert’s novel into a quick 2 1/2 hour run-time.  Anyone who was frustrated with the seemingly rushed final season of Game of Thrones would be even more infuriated by the way that Lynch’s Dune jumps ahead through the story without any regard for the story, especially when you’re already familiar with it.  To make things worse, he adds this weird internal monologue for every character into the script, having the characters state the obvious in a eerie whispering tone over the action that is taking place.  This internal monologue with the characters, by the way, appears nowhere in the novel.  What Frank Herbert does is detail what the characters are thinking, but he never has the characters actually voice them out to the reader themselves.  It’s something that in many ways can only be done on the page, and it’s an effective tool for authors to add character development that helps the reader identify with the characters more.  Herbert even included the effective trick of multiple points of view within his chapters, which allowed him more creative freedom to jump around in the story from one location to another, something that author George R.R. Martin has also effectively used in this Song of Ice and Fire novels, the source material of the Game of Thrones series.  But, David Lynch shoehorns the inner monologues in a strangely invasive way that it cheats the movie of any real mystery and holds the characters at a frustrating distance from the viewer.   Not only that, but significant plot details are ignored or minimized.  Paul is inducted into the Fremen’s ranks with little resistance.  Baron Harkonnen’s torture and exploitation of the Arrakian citizens are barely even mentioned.  Paul’s love story with the Fremen girl Chani is laughably brushed off in a quick montage.  It’s a strange way to adapt such a complex novel and shows just how much more interested Lynch was in indulging his own desires for the story.  A longer cut of the movie exists, but it’s one that David Lynch, strangely enough, has disowned, seeing as he prefers the shorter, less faithful adaptation.

“They tried and failed?” “They tried and died.”

The cast of the movie also represents a problem with David Lynch’s portrayal of the story.  Lynch chose actors that less fit the roles they were playing, and fit more into the kind of story he wanted to tell.  That’s why you get a more passive portrayal of Paul Atreides through Kyle MacLaughlin.  MacLaughlin can be a good actor, and he would go on to have a prolific creative relationship with Lynch years after with both Blue Velvet and the series Twin Peaks.  But, his portrayal of Paul is so stilted and uninspired that he makes none of the transformations that the character goes through remotely interesting or surprising.  Paul is supposed to be this inspiring figure with supreme intelligence, the finest training in all forms of advanced combat, and charisma that can inspire the revolt of a once forgotten people.  Herbert’s writing even offers up the interesting introspection of the character as he realizes that his rise in power and influence will have it’s own dark consequences in the future, as zealots will commit atrocities in his name as he becomes a new god to the known galaxy, based on his foresight into the future.  The movie forgets all that and Paul becomes this all powerful figure purely because the plot says so.  MacLaughlin does attempt to look the part, despite being several years older than the actual character is in the book, and he does capture some wide eyed wonder that you’d want your protagonist to show in such a fantastic story, but at the end when he claims his status as the Kwisatz Haderach, you are left with this empty sense of what it really means, because nothing up to that point made him special.  The movie does better at portraying the villains, who feel more at home in Lynch’s nightmarish vision, though they themselves also feel like they don’t match up with Herbert’s depictions of the characters.  Baron Harkonnen should be this morbidly obese, grotesque monstrosity, but instead Lynch cast heavy set but not fat actor Kenneth McMillan, who doesn’t quite command the evil presence in the story that he should, though his hammy acting does help.  The movie also slightly elevates the character of Feyd-Ruatha, who goes from a minor villain in the novel to a more significant threat in the film; but that’s only because he’s famously portrayed by recording artist Sting, whose steam bath scene has developed a notorious reputation all on it’s own.   Mostly it’s less how Lynch cast his film and more how he wastes characters that fails the film, as important characters like Chani, Kynes, Stilgar, and Alia are brushed aside, because they don’t fit the narrative that Lynch wants to tell.

Lynch’s version of Dune does at times come close to reaching the vision of Herbert’s novel, and it’s largely through the stuff that fits more closely to Lynch’s own tastes.  For one thing, the movie thankfully does justice to the one element of the books that the story is most famous for; the mighty sandworms of Arrakis.  The sandworms are probably among the most imaginative creatures that have ever been conceived for science fiction, or any fiction really.  The are much like the regular earthworms that burrow underneath the soil here on earth, but they grow to an almost unimaginative scale.  Imagine if an earthworm were the size of the Empire State Building, and could swallow entire villages whole in it’s gaping mouth full of razor sharp teeth.  That’s what the Sandworms of Arrakis are like, and to portray them as any less would be a great insult to the imagination of Frank Herbert.  Thankfully, most of the film’s special effects budget went into portraying the worms with the sense of scale that they needed, and the effect is pretty impressive.  You really feel the size of these things, and their importance in the story is adequately portrayed, both as a threat and as a necessary component of the ecology of Arrakis.  Being the primary native species of the planet, everything on the planet revolves around the worms, including the production of the spice.  Lynch’s portrayal of the introduction of these creatures is the one point in the movie that lines up exactly with the novel.  Duke Leto and Paul Atreides are taken to observe production at a spice mine, only to have a worm sighting cut their visit short.  They watch in amazement as the vast jaws of the monster rise out of the surface of the sand and swallows the mine factory whole.  It’s an unforgettable scene in both the book and movie, and I do give Lynch the credit for doing that part justice.  But, even despite the effectiveness of the worms, the rest of the movie feels unimaginative.  The ducal palace of the capital city Arakeen feels uninspired, as it is literally just hallways carved into rock, and Baron Harkonnen’s industrial inspired palace feels like it belongs in another movie entirely.  The costuming also is basic and unimaginative, as the water preserving stillsuits just look like glorified scuba gear.  It all falls to the fault of misplaced ambition in the story-telling, as some parts of the movie get due respect, while others are treated as an afterthought.

“We have wormsign the likes of which God has never seen.”

I haven’t even touched upon all the other bizarre creative choices that plagued Lynch’s version of Dune, including the odd choice of rock band Toto to do the music (yes, the same guys who sung about blessing the rains down in Africa).  Long story short, David Lynch was never the ideal choice to bring Dune faithfully to the big screen.  And that was well reflected in it’s reception.  The movie was a critical and box office failure.  Strangely enough, the movie was heavily criticized for being a pail imitation of the more celebrated Star Wars (1977). Which is ironic since Dune the novel was one of the inspirations for George Lucas with his own story, and there are many parallel elements found in both; the desert planets of Arrakis and Tatooine, both Paul Atreides and Luke Skywalker learning to master their super powerful abilities, grotesquely fat antagonists with Baron Harkonnen and Jabba the Hutt, an evil empire, the list goes on.  The legacy of Frank Herbert’s Dune can in fact be felt in most modern science fiction, and quite honestly it’s Lynch’s film that shares the least of that impact.  One surprisingly influential byproduct of the novel’s legacy was Jodoworsky’s unmade version.  All of the pre-production material made for the movie has since been visual inspiration for a number of other things.  H.R. Geiger, who first worked on designing for Dune would later famously provide the visual look for Ridley Scott’s Alien, including the now famous design of the xenomorphs, which were actually spiritual successors to designs he made earlier for Jadoworsky.  There was an incredible 2013 documentary made about Jodoworsky’s Dune that your should definitely check out.  Also, even after another long development period, we seem to now be getting a new adaptation coming soon that will attempt to more faithfully adhere to Herbert’s vision.  After directors like Terry Gilliam, Peter Jackson, and Peter Berg all flirted with the project before dropping out, Denis Villeneuve (Sicario) is the one now tasked with the job, and he seems to be taking the role very seriously.  The cast he’s assembled, including Timothee Chalamet, Stellan Skarsgard, Josh Brolin, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac and Javier Bardem is one of the most impressive in recent memory, so a lot of hopes are high for this one.  Though David Lynch’s Dune has a somewhat small cult following, most people view it as a cautionary tale of how not to adapt a complex science fiction epic into such a narrow and uncharacteristic mold.  Frank Herbert’s masterpiece is a story that demands a grand cinematic treatment, and with David Lynch what we got instead was weirdness for weirdness sake.  And great science fiction rises above the confines of weirdness, and makes the reader and the viewer find truth in the unbelievable, which is exactly the majesty found in the pages of Dune.

“And how can this be?  For he is the Kwisatz Haderach!”

Off the Page – I am Legend

With the month of October arriving once again, audiences begin to crave the twisted thrills of horror on the big screen as it provides the right kind of atmosphere to match the tidings of this Halloween season.  Hollywood has long provided generations worth of taut, scary thrillers of all kinds to satisfy their audiences, and it’s interesting to see how many different varieties have sprung up over the years.  Universal Pictures popularized the monster flick with their rogues gallery of classic baddies.  The 1950’s sci-fi craze began the era of the creature feature, which also saw the international contributions of Japanese cinema which popularized their giant Kaiju creatures like Godzilla (1954).  Then of course the 70’s and the 80’s brought the rise of the slasher flick, which would go on to popularize new, very human monsters like Jason Voorhies, Freddy Kruger, and Michael Myers.  But the current era of horror has yet to yield it’s own definable icons like ages past.  More often than not, the nostalgia heavy culture we live in is more concerned with reinventing past movie monsters rather than creating new ones, like the upcoming Halloween reboot is about to.  But if there is one cinematic creature that has really carved out an identity in the last couple years, it would be the zombie.  For a while, zombie flicks became a red hot property in Hollywood, with both major studios and independent companies all taking their stab at it.  Some would say it probably became over saturated for a while, as it seemed like it was all that Hollywood was producing at the time.  But it’s all been in response to a genre that largely became devoid of anything original for a long time, and at least with the zombie flick, you didn’t have to rely on the same monster every time.  Zombies became popular because of their lack of definition and because audiences recognized that the scariest possible thing in the world is that the monsters could be us.

The zombie flick may be popular now, but it’s roots extend further back.  There were many films about the rising of dead dating back to Hollywood’s early years.  There was the Bela Lugosi headlined thriller White Zombie (1932), though that was more about hypnotic control rather than the undead.  Ed Wood had alien controlled zombies in his camp classic Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959).  But, the genre wouldn’t see it’s true cinematic emergence until George A. Romero’s universally beloved Night of the Living Dead (1968).  Romero’s film has since become the gold standard for all zombie movies since, defining among many things how the creatures would appear and act, what their weakness are, how they pose a danger to society, and most importantly, showing how survivors react when faced with the threat of a zombie attack.  The legacy of that low budget, but extremely effective film are still felt today.  But, despite how ground-breaking Living Dead was as a touchstone for the zombie sub-genre, the movie still owes a great deal to another inspiration; one that of course comes from literature.  George Romero does point to the novel I am Legend as an inspiration for his film, and it’s clear to see what left an impression on him.  Published in 1954 from writer Richard Matheson, I am Legend is largely seen as the originator of the modern zombie narrative, chronicling the aftermath of a pandemic that wipes out most human life on earth and showing a lonely survivor’s livelihood in a world now filled with the infected.  It’s easy to see that the concept of the survivors’ story in a post apocalyptic world really resonated with the likes of Romero plus many others, and it’s effect no doubt touched Hollywood as well.  Several adaptations have been made of I am Legend, including some wildly disparate versions like The Last Man on Earth (1964) and The Omega Man (1971).  A far more earnest take on tackling the novel faithfully didn’t come until 2007 however, with the big budget version directed by Francis Lawrence (Hunger Games series) and starring Will Smith.  But earnest doesn’t always mean faithful, and the 2007 film I am Legend shows how trying to bring a modern sensibility to a classic story doesn’t always result in a film that’s as effective as the written word.

“My name is Robert Neville.  I am a survivor living in New York City.”

For the most part, the movie does a fairly good job of following the basic premise of the story.  Society has fallen due to a pandemic that caused the human population to turn into vampiric zombies.  In the novel, Matheson does have rely on this hybrid concept of zombies that act like vampires, including retaining the same weaknesses like aversion to garlic and holy images, which in a way seems like a rather unnecessary addition to the story.  Why would a disease suddenly make these once human creatures react so harshly to crucifixes and the like?  Just wondering.  But, the one vampiric trait that does help drive the story is that these zombies cannot survive in the daylight.  The movie wisely uses this as the basic trait of the zombies, as they only pose a threat in the nighttime, which drives the feeling of isolation for the main character.  Neville, or as he’s known Dr. Robert Neville in the film, is the only human left immune to the disease that transformed humanity, surviving by himself in the crumbling infrastructure of a once booming metropolis (Los Angeles in the book, New York in the movie).  There, he scavenges for food, supplies, and other essentials before barricading himself up in his home while the zombie vampires swarm around his home at night.  All the while, he researches to find the cause and possibly a cure for the disease in the hope of reversing it’s affects and bringing society back to where it was.  The book and the movie stick very close together for the first half, and most of the movie’s earliest scenes do a really effective job of world building.  The images of Manhattan Island crumbling after years of neglect and foliage now overtaking the once concrete jungle are strikingly realized.  In this regard, I am Legend does the best job we’ve seen yet of capturing the landscape of the novel.  Only once the plot starts to deviate that some of the problems in the adaptation begin to arise and the film itself starts to fall apart.

“This is ground zero.  This is my site. I can fix this.”

It’s actually frustrating watching the movie version of I am Legend after reading the original novel, because there are many points that the movie does get right.  For one thing, Will Smith’s performance is actually quite good in the movie.  The actor forgoes his usually “slick Willy” swagger in favor of portraying a broken man who’s slowly losing his faith in a better tomorrow.  I love how the movie also portrays the way he deals with his isolation.  Throughout his daily routine, Neville goes out into the city and visits the same locations for his rations, including visiting a video store where he picks out something to watch back home.  In every spot, he has set up department store mannequins, posed individually like they are going about their lives, and he interacts with them as if they were real people.  One might look at this as a sign of insanity brought on by extended isolation, but it’s also a clever coping mechanism to allow for Neville to keep his remaining sanity in tact.  The mannequins are an addition to the movie not found in the novel, and it works really well, helping to add another dimension to Neville’s character that is worthwhile.  The film also expands on a subplot from the book involving Neville befriending a dog, who becomes his companion for a while.  The film’s highlight is the heartbreaking point where the dog becomes infected and Neville has to put him down, which is effectively staged for the maximum amount of pathos.  And these moments hint at a movie that not only could have been faithful to the source material, but also could have transcended it.  Unfortunately, the film’s second, more conventional half reveals a different story, and one that sees a revisit from that old cinematic menace; studio interference.

The problem first begins when Neville is visited by other survivors who have the same immunity that he does.  There is a similar episode in the books, where Neville finds another person walking the streets in the middle of the day just as he has been.  This mysterious person, named Ruth, plays a wildly different role for the original story than the two new surviors in the movie, named Anna and Ethan (Alice Braga and Charlie Tahan) do in their roles.  For the most part, Alice and Ethan serve merely as motivation for Neville to do what he was already on his way towards doing without the despair getting in the way, which is using his resources to find a cure.  They are largely superfluous and are clearly there to give the movie a more conventional hero arc to Neville, basically meant to live to tell his story and make him a “legend.”  But that’s not the message that the book had in mind.  The big revelation about Ruth is (spoilers) that she is one of the infected as well, and has proven to Neville that those who have been infected have not lost all their humanity in the process.  In fact, during the nighttime hours in which Neville has been sleeping in fear, the more sentient of the infected (mainly those who succumbed to it while they were still living) are still conscious of their being and have been trying to live their lives normally under the conditions, even seeking medication themselves.  They have even domesticated some of the more feral (undead) zombies in the process, and have used them to hunt those who would hurt them, like Neville.  It’s through this revelation that Neville becomes aware that as he has grown to fear and hate the zombie infected, they have reacted the same to him, and that he is even more of a monster from their perspective.  It’s revealed that Neville was responsible for killing Ruth’s own husband, making Neville realize that his lack of view of their humanity has made him aware of just how much he has lost his own.  In the novel’s closing chapter, Neville reflects on how he has become the monster that preys on these new creatures while they sleeping, saying, “I am a new superstition entering the unassailable fortress of forever.  I am legend,” the passage which gives the story it’s name.

“The people, who were trying to make this world worse… are not taking a day off.  How can I? Light up the darkness.”

Through this plot development, we see how Richard Matheson takes his story about vampire zombies and turns it into an allegorical story of mankind’s cruelty towards the natural world.  It never dawned in Neville’s mind up until that point that he might be the villain; he was just doing what he could to survive another day.  It’s that compromise of morals in desperate times that becomes the message of Matheson’s story, and it’s one that has likewise been very influential in zombie flicks and post-apocalyptic stories ever since.  You see this in stuff like the Mad Max franchise and the Walking Dead TV-series, where the biggest threat isn’t the environment nor the undead zombies that have infested it. but rather the other desperate survivors among you who would just as readily kill you if it meant they would live another day.  Desperation is the great leveler of civilization found in the story of I am Legend, and it’s a powerfully delivered message as well.  So, it makes it doubly frustrating when the movie that is a direct adaptation of the book, completely disposes of that message.  The truth is, when Hollywood invests so much into a big budget film, they are less willing to accept a more downbeat moral such as the one found in the book as the backbone of their story.  Instead of being revealed as the layered character that he is the books, Neville falls into the mold of your typical savior figure who ends up saving the world.  The movie even has him going out in a blaze of glory, blowing himself up with a grenade in the middle of a swarm of zombies, after conveniently discovering a cure minutes earlier and giving it to Anna and Ethan as they make their escape.  There’s no allegory, no satisfying turnabout of Neville’s character.  Everything is shaded in the black and white morality of humans beating back the scary monsters, which makes the story feel very unoriginal and contrary to the way it started.

And yet there is even a more problematic aspect to the way that the movie ended; it wasn’t always supposed to be that way.  Director Francis Lawrence actually shot another ending for the film that was closer to the original.  In this alternative ending, after Neville and the other survivors are cornered in his basement laboratory by a swarm of enraged (and poorly animated) zombies, Neville makes the shocking realization that the test subject that he retrieved days earlier was in fact the mate of the zombie’s alpha leader.  In this moment, he realizes that he committed a kidnapping and that the zombies are only there to get back one of their own, and not to kill, unless provoked.  Like his novel counterpart, movie Neville realizes he’s been a monster by not seeing the humanity that’s still in these creatures and he makes the conscious choice to let his last chance at a cure go in order to settle a peace with the creatures.  This more complex ending, as it turns out, did not focus group well, and Warner Brothers decided to force a last minute re-shoot of the scene to create the more conventional ending.  But, in doing so, it robs the remainder of the story of any real satisfaction.  The ending from the book may not be ideal, but it is nevertheless though provoking.  The ending of the movie is generic and forgettable.  The movie may not have gained a bad reputation if this alternate ending was never seen, but for some reason Warner stuck it onto the home video release and marketed the alternate version as well, like they were proud of it.  But if you were so proud of it, why didn’t you include it in the original movie.  To me, it’s an extreme case of the studio not having the faith in the original story and not trusting their audience to be open to something more complex than the “save the day” narrative.  Couple this with a lot of unnecessary scenes of explaining to the audience what led up to this (including a weird cameo from Emma Thompson in the prologue, playing the doctor who inadvertently caused the pandemic with her believed cure for cancer) and you’ve got a clear indication that the studio was not fully on board with all this, and tried to dumb the movie down.  The thing that made I am Legend so memorable was that it made the reader feel unsafe and as a result terrified of what turn might come next.  The movie leaves no surprises and scares absolutely no one.

“God didn’t do this.  We did.”

And that’s a shame too, because there are flashes of brilliance in the movie adaptation.  Will Smith’s performance is effective up until that unnecessary ending, and I love the fact that his version of Neville is proactive in trying to retain some level of normality in this world.  I get the feeling from that and the alternate ending that both him and the director wanted to come close to the message of the original story, but were undercut by the powers that be at Warners.  In the end, the movie is a pale imitation of what could have been had the studio been more confident in the story.  Richard Matheson knew that he was making a story not about monsters, but about people, and how sometimes evil acts are committed once we begin to lose that grasp of humanity that is ever so crucial in our society.  There are so many cases where horrible, evil movements are created by demonizing another group as the “other” in modern society, and it’s even scarier when a person doesn’t even realize they are falling in that hole.  Like many others, Neville believes that he is doing the right thing by fighting back against these zombies, but once he sees that these are beings who are struggling to survive just like him and that he’s been the menace in their lives, then the horrifying realization becomes apparent and he has to cope with the awareness of the evil that he has wrought.  We are all susceptible to same downward spiral that Neville succumbs to, and that’s a frightening concept that has made this such a profound horrific story over time.   Unfortunately, we have yet to see a movie capture Matheson’s story faithfully, though many films inspired by the novel have lived up to the spirit of it.  Zombie movies can be quite scary when done right, but it becomes all the more unsettling once it shows the toll that it takes on those who manage to survive, and that even overcoming such a threat can awaken an even greater evil among the survivors.

“Nothing happened the way it was supposed to happen.”

Off the Page – The Great Gatsby

There are few other directors out there who can create such a divided opinion of his work than Baz Luhrmann.  The Aussie auteur either receives enormous praise for his lavishly made films, or is savaged by critics for his often indulgent tastes.  There is very little ground in between on most of his movies, and surprisingly enough those same critics directed at one of his films may end up switching allegiance on their stance towards the director based on the next film.  I think the strong feelings that Baz elicits from critics and viewers are due to the fact that he has an uncompromising style, which is certainly unique and all his own, but is also an acquired taste.  Starting off with his debut in the lavish Strictly Ballroom (1992), Baz has gone on to refine a style that emphasizes bold colors, quick paced editing, and an often operatic form of storytelling.  And when he uses his distinct style, it’s often used to challenge cinematic conventions by working it’s way into unexpected genres.  He re-imagined Shakespeare by putting a modern twist on Romeo + Juliet (1996), which was irksome to some Bard purists.  He also tried and failed to make a sweeping romantic epic centered around his homeland in Australia (2008).  However, his most highly regarded film, Moulin Rouge! (2001), is largely seen as the movie that revitalized the dormant movie musical genre, so while he may be divisive he at the same time has also proved to be highly influential.  I myself am mixed on his effectiveness as a filmmaker.  While I absolutely loathed Australia,  as I wrote in my scathing critique here, I do admire his bold visual style, especially in his earlier work like Strictly Ballroom and Romeo + Juliet (Moulin Rouge was borderline in my opinion).  But after the failure of Australia, Baz needed something to prove that he could balance style with substance again, and once again he made a bold choice in tackling a beloved literary classic; F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

Gatsby is not only a cherished classic in literary circles, but can also make a case for being the “Great American Novel,” taking that distinction away from the likes of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, or Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlett Letter.  Published in 1925, Fitzgerald’s novel is a snapshot of America in the Roaring Twenties, chronicling the decadence and greed that consumed the country at the time and dissecting the essence of the American dream that both drove the nation forward and also caused it to crack apart at the same time.  Fitzgerald drew heavily from his own experiences, having attended many lavish parties put on by the social elites of his day, and in particular, captured in his writing the types of characters that he would meet in many interactions.  Though Fitzgerald certainly observes the cultural awakening of the 20’s with an air of admiration, he casts a critical eye (through a quite literal metaphor even) on the class divisions that also define the era.  It’s a novel about dreaming, but also about the limitations of dreams, and it ultimately concludes on a very sour tragic note.  The bleakness of Fitzgerald’s Gatsby is largely what made the book a failure in it’s initial release, because nobody who was enjoying the decadence of the Jazz Age was interested in seeing the downside to all their fun.  Of course, the Depression Era that followed changed a few minds, and now The Great Gatsby is regarded as a masterpiece.  It is now considered essential reading for nearly all American school curriculum, because of it’s distinctly American themes and the way that it dissects the social issues and divisions that still resonate in modern society.  Though F. Scott Fitzgerald was disheartened by the lack of appreciation that his work received in it’s time, and also dying at the young age of 44 believing that his writing was lost to era, he may be appreciative of the fact that Gatsby’s legacy endures to this day; even when given up to new interpretations like the one in Baz Luhrmann’s film.

“In my younger and more vulnerable years, my father gave me some advice. ‘Always try to see the best in people,’ he would say.  As a consequence, i’m inclined to reserve judgement. But even I have a limit.”

One big difference that can be derived between the book and the movie is the intent of each.  What F. Scott Fitzgerald envisioned as an examination of the world that he lived in, Luhrmann sees as a canvas for his lavish production design.  Baz is clearly fascinated with the era of the Roaring Twenties, and all the visual splendor that can be drawn from it; the fashion, the opulent art deco architecture, and even the striking contrasts between the have and have nots of the era.  In The Great Gatsby movie, Baz wants to play around in this era and use his film-making talents to do it.  The movie does take advantage of the many lavish parties that Fitzgerald describes in his book, and films them with the same over the top vigor that he brought to Moulin Rogue 12 years prior to this production.  The quick editing and glitzy cinematography make a return here, but the movie doesn’t stop there with the modern aesthetics added to this classic narrative.  The movie also adds a hip hop flavored soundtrack, with music that is quite obviously anachronistic to the era, although in some cases inspired.  It’s certainly a jarring thing to hear the rapping of Jay-Z (who also served as the film’s executive producer) butting up against the likes of Cole Porter.  But, it’s part of the clashing of cultural elements that defines a lot of Luhrmann’s style.  But even with all the cinematic flair that he adds to delight the eyes of the viewer, is it really possible for this Aussie director to capture the essence of this quintessential American story.  Surprisingly, he does, albeit with a few less than successful elements.  Though I despised Australia, I actually found that I had more positive feelings towards The Great Gatsby, which strangely feels more natural to the director’s sensibilities than the love letter to his home country.  And while I don’t think that Fitzgerald ever imagined the same kind of story that Luhrmann tells in his movie, I do believe that both find common ground on a very crucial element; the character of Jay Gatsby himself.

“My life, old sport, my life… my life has got to be like this.  It’s got to keep going up.”

For a lot of reasons, the success of an adaptation of The Great Gatsby rests mostly on how well cast the role of the titular Gatsby is within the movie.  Baz Luhrmann’s film is certainly not the first to hit the big screen, and probably won’t be the last, so there are many examples to draw comparisons with.  Robert Redford famously took on the role in a 1974 version, with a screenplay adaptation by Francis Ford Coppola.  And while Redford certainly looked the part of the dashing young man, he unfortunately doesn’t resonate too well because he made the biggest possible mistake with the character; he tried to make him too relate-able.  The key with the character of Jay Gatsby is that he must remain unknowable; an enigma with a face that you can never quite understand.  He is a man of ambition, charming as well as cunning, but apart from that, no one quite knows where he came from and how he got rich so fast.  There are explanations given as to his past, but they are described by Gatsby himself, so one still is left wondering if it’s the truth.  The only thing that defines the motivations of Jay Gatsby is his sole desire to be loved, and in particular, to reconnect with the one love that he let slip away; the enchanting Daisy Buchanan.  Gatsby’s pursuit is the heart of the mystery behind Fitzgerald’s tale; why would one man go to such lengths just to fill this one hole in his life.  That’s the soul of the character that Baz knew he had to match, and luckily he didn’t need to reach out too far.  He reconnected with his old cinematic Romeo, Leonardo DiCaprio, and tasked him with bringing the character to life.  DiCaprio’s performance turns out to be just perfect because he distills the character down into a man who is always in the middle of a performance.  There is not an authentic bone in Gatsby’s body, and Leo brings that cadence out brilliantly.  With blustery proclamations, grand gestures of showmanship, and a desire to ingratiate himself to others by greeting them as “old sport,” Gatsby comes through the screen exactly as the unknowable man that Fitzgerald imagined in his book.  What the author wanted was to connect the ambition of Gatsby the Man with the limitations of the American Dream, and show that a man that has everything may still in fact lack everything.  In getting a bombastic performance from a reliable actor like DiCaprio, the movie managed to find that essence.

The effectiveness of DiCaprio’s performance helps to ground the rest of the movie and makes Luhrmann’s flashiness actually serviceable as a part of the overall experience.  In many ways, it reflects the reputation that the book has managed to amass over the years.  A story this iconic should be given the most mythical of treatments, and Luhrmann treats The Great Gatsby with the same ethereal wonder as a grand opera.  This is clear in what is absolutely my favorite moment in the movie, which is the introduction of Jay Gatsby into the film.  Any other movie would have probably given Gatsby a more dignified entrance into a scene, but Baz wanted something grander.  During one of the party scenes, the character of Nick Carraway (played by Tobey Maguire) is trying to navigate his way through a ruckus party at Gatsby’s mansion, hoping to catch a first glimpse of the mysterious millionaire.  A one point, he crosses paths with someone who he believes to be a waiter at first, and one who remains out of sight while speaking to him on screen.  Then in one magnificent shot, the mystery man turns to face the camera and says to Nick “For you see, I’m Gatsby.”  The moment is then punctuated with fireworks in the background and a crescendo in the score courtesy of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” all with Leonardo smiling straight at us with champagne in hand.  It’s the kind of moment that only cinema can capture, and it’s the kind of moment that allows Baz Luhrmann to elevate the character of Gatsby in the most epic way possible.  For this, the over the top treatment seems appropriate, because it’s thematically in tune with the excesses of the era it’s depicting and it helps to bring new life into a story that audiences are probably overly familiar with.   But, despite it feeling appropriate for the time period for which it is depicting, does Baz still manage to connect us with the lessons of Fitzgerald’s tale, or does it get lost in all the director’s indulgences.

“I remember how we had all come to Gatsby’s and guessed at this corruption while he stood before us concealing an incorruptible dream…”

Though Baz Luhrmann is an expert craftsman when it comes to visualizing a story, the one thing he isn’t known for is subtlety.  While a lack of subtlety can help some of his movies feel entertainingly aloof, it does however minimize the effectiveness of moments that should carry more weight.  And this is where his adaptation of The Great Gatsby shows it’s cracks.  In particular, while the minimal development of Gatsby’s character is appropriate for his place in the story, the same can not be said about the others.  Most of the other characters are painted in very familiar tropes, which ignores the complexities that defined them in the book.  They instead are turned into archetypes, which leaves little mystery as to how their characters will function throughout the rest of the story.  In particular, the characters of Tom and Daisy Buchanan are short changed the most in this version of the story.  Tom, in one moment in the movie, cites the controversial work of an author named Goddard, which was a thinly veiled reference to white supremacist author Lothrop Stoddard in Fitzgerald’s novel, and his book called “Rise of the Colored Empires.”  In the movie, this is equivalent to having a sign over Tom’s head reading “I’m a Racist Bigot and you should hate me.”  There are already many negative things to dislike about Tom Buchanan (serial infidelity for one), but this obvious connection to racist ideology is hitting it too much on the nose.  Daisy is also thinly drawn, becoming little more than just the object of Gatsby’s desire, rather than the duplicitous, femme fatale that she is in the book.  It’s funny that in this movie, Gatsby has more chemistry with Nick Carraway than he does with Daisy, but it makes sense since DiCaprio and Maguire have been best buds since childhood.  I don’t fault the actors for these portrayals; in fact I do think Carey Mulligan and Joel Edgerton do the best they can with their roles as Daisy and Tom respectively.  I especially enjoy the Clark Gable-esque cadence that Edgerton added to his performance.  But it’s very clear that for these characters that Luhrmann wanted to spell things out for his audience rather than to let the characters form naturally as part of the narrative.

It sometimes extends into the thing that Baz Luhrmann s usually good at too which is his visual flourish.  In the book, the most vivid and reoccurring symbol for the story is this billboard off the side of the road in the gray landscape of the Valley of Ash, where all the coal plants are.  The billboard is for a long out of business optometrist, visualized as large, bespectacled eyes, faceless and plastered on a plain starry sky, which has deteriorated over the years due to lack of upkeep.  In the book, these eyes metaphorically act as the Eyes of God, watching over our characters and appearing to cast judgment.  It’s a powerful symbol, and one that has gone on to be the trademark image of the entire story; appearing on the cover of many reprints of the novel over the years.  But, in the book, it performs purely as that; a symbol, which only gains significance through interpretation.  In the movie, however, Luhrmann’s lack of subtlety does away with any pretense regarding the billboard.  When a climatic vehicular manslaughter happens at the end of the second act, Luhrmann cuts right to the eyes, gazing down on the event, pretty much spelling out what was in the subtext of Fitzgerald’s writing, that these are the eyes of God, and he’s watching these foolish mortals destroy one another.  It robs that symbol of it’s power in the process.  There is also another strange element that Baz adds to the movie which proved to be distracting.  In some parts, Baz seems to love the prose of Fitzgerald’s writing so much, that he literally puts it on screen.  In place of Nick Carraway’s narration of remembrance from the novel, Luhrmann creates a framing device of Nick writing the novel out as a means of therapy, and as he writes, particular passages of the text transpose over the images of the movie itself, making you very aware of their importance.  While an interesting idea, I think they too robbed the power of the words by making us too aware of their significance.  In these two instances, Baz’s indulgences pull you out of the movie and reduce the effectiveness of what Fitzgerald wrote on the page.  It’s not a bad thing for Baz Luhrmann to feel so strongly about the mythical qualities of The Great Gatsby, it’s just that he should have understood that it’s better to let those things speak for themselves.

“I knew it was a great mistake for a man like me to fall in love…”

Baz Luhrmann can be infuriating as a director sometimes, but you can’t help but admire the way he swings for the fences with every project in a way that few other directors do.  The Great Gatsby may not be a great film in total, but it does more right than wrong, and at the very least does an honorable job of trying to bring F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel to life.  The book is almost too esteemed a piece of writing to ever get a faithful adaptation that’ll please every one.  Despite it’s flaws, I seem to find this version the best that we are likely to ever get, just because of the unique spin that Baz put into it.  His version of the story presents an idealized world, where the characters and the setting are larger than life, and mythic representations of the character of America.  Perhaps with his outsider perspective, Baz Luhrmann found himself to be the ideal visionary to carry this story into a new century and re-contextualize a classic without loosing too much of it’s essence.  That being said, some of his indulgences also do minimize the narrative a bit, and to really get a grasp of the power of this story, it’s better to go back to the original novel.  I will say, The Great Gatsby is one of Baz Luhrmann’s more restrained works of film-making, and it certainly is a breath of fresh air after the mess that was Australia.   It also worked out well for him in his career, as the movie became a surprise hit at the box office, which no doubt was helped by the widespread familiarity that the story continues to have.  The one good thing that can come from a flashy, cinematic adaptation like this one is to bring the themes of the story into the present and remind audiences that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s story still has a meaning today.  The American experience is still one of turmoil and prejudice, and The Great Gatsby reminds us of the struggle each of us goes through in order to pursue this fleeting thing that we call the American Dream.  In the story, we see through the persona of Gatsby that the hope of a dream causes us to cast aside too much of who we are deep inside, to the point that when we obtain a bit any bit of fame and fortune, we have to keep pretending to be someone else in order to keep up appearances.  That’s ultimately the tragedy of the unknowable man that is Jay Gatsby, and both Baz Luhrmann and Leonardo DiCaprio capture that element perfectly on film, which helps to make it a movie that honors the book’s long legacy.   As we see through their version, Gatsby becomes the face of America; broken and uncertain, but still beaming with a sense of hope for something better.

“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us.  It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther… And one fine morning – So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Off the Page – Treasure Island

Pirate movies have usually seen their highs and lows in Hollywood.  Popular in their heyday of Hollywood’s Golden Age, with stars like Errol Flynn making his mark on the genre, pirates later become outcast as movie budgets for high seas adventures grew higher and higher.  Eventually, pirate movies saw a resurgence in the early 2000’s thanks to Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean movies, but even there time has shifted the popularity away from swashbucklers once again.  Even still, you can see a long tradition of pirate movies throughout the history of film, and through them, you can find a whole variety of peculiar stories and characters worthy of cinematic treatment.  There are plenty of famous pirate stories that have been adapted over the years, either from true life or from literature, but if one were to pinpoint the most quintessential pirate’s tale from any medium, it would probably be Robert Louis Stevnson’s immortal classic, Treasure Island. First published 1883, in an era not too far removed from when pirates were really roaming the seas, Stevenson’s novel has gone one to become not just a beloved read to many, but also the basis for much of the pirate lore that we are familiar with today.  In Treasure Island, we see the beginnings of many tropes we associate with pirates, like treasure maps marked with an “X,” the Black Spot death mark, peg legs, and even the trope of parrots resting on the shoulders of their pirate masters.  It is, to this day, a widely read book and pretty much the first story that comes to mind when one thinks of pirates.  The tale of young Jim Hawkins and the feared pirate Long John Silver naturally has also found it’s way to the big screen as well.  Surprisingly, or not surprisingly to some, the studio that has been associated with this particular tale the most has been the Disney company, which has been responsible for two screen adaptations; three if you count Muppet Treasure Island (1996).

The second of these adaptations is the one that I want to focus on here, because it represents a very interesting thing that you usually see in Hollywood, and that’s the practice of re-imagining.  A re-imagined movie is one where it takes an already established and familiar story and re-contextualizes through a different setting or style.  You see this a lot when Hollywood imports a movie idea from the international market and remakes it.  Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) was remade into a Western called The Magnificent Seven (1960) for example, and while the setting and time period are very different, both movies still retained the same general plot.  One common re-imagining you see in Hollywood is taking a familiar story and setting it in an alien world, or out into space, which is exactly what Disney did with their animated feature Treasure Planet (2002). What’s interesting about Disney’s re-imagined version of the story is how much they ground it in the original tale, while at the same time taking it way outside our world.  It’s futuristic, and old-fashioned at the same time. Here we see 18th century aesthetic planted onto interplanetary technology from a far distant future and it leads to some quite amazing visuals.  Here, pirates don’t have peg legs but instead become part cyborg, and sailing ships are equipped for venturing through the stars instead of the open seas.  At the same time, the movie runs the risk of having these two styles clashing and causing a distraction from the overall story, but regardlesss of one’s feelings towards the look of the film, there’s no doubting that it is a bold choice.  Disney certainly gambled with this film, and sadly it didn’t click with audiences in the way they hoped.   It’s often cited as the movie that killed the traditional animation market, rather unfairly.  Still, it is interesting to see how much of the movie maintain’s the essence of Stevenson’s classic novel, even with all the sci-fi flourish.  And in many ways, it’s what helps to make the movie work as well as it does.

“The were nights when the winds of the Etherium, so inviting in their promise of flight and freedom, made one’s spirit soar.”

Disney’s development of Treasure Planet has an interesting history of it’s own.  The film was a dream project for longtime directing partners John Musker and Ron Clements.  Working together since the mid-80’s, they are the team responsible for such Disney classics as The Little Mermaid (1989), Aladdin (1992), Hercules (1997), and more recently The Princess and the Frog (2009) and Moana (2016).  But, for most of their partnership, they had always held onto Treasure Planet as their ultimate goal.  They pitched it to the top brass at Disney as far back as before The Little Mermaid, and would return back to it between projects over the course of almost 17 years.  At the turn of the century, with technology advancing to the point where it became more feasible to make a concept like Treasure Island in space a reality, Ron & John were finally given the green-light to work on their long waiting dream.  The reason that this project meant so much to them is because they were both big fans of the original novel and of science fiction in general.  It’s probably something that bonded them together as collaborators and what drove their determination to see it through.  Now, they knew that the story appealed to Disney, seeing as how Walt Disney himself had created a live action adaptation back in the 1950’s (a studio first by the way).  Their choice of setting it in space, however, was their way of distinguishing it from all other adaptations that have come before, and make it more visually appealing in the animated medium.  Animation can tell a story in ways that are too limited in live action, so why shouldn’t they take those kinds of liberties with Treasure Island.  It’s clear that Ron Clements and John Musker set out to make the movie with a lot of love and respect for Stevenson’s original, and resetting it in space was not an attempt to exploit the story for the purposes of making it more exciting.  No, once you see the movie, you’ll notice that it’s not the changes to the setting that make the biggest difference; it’s often the changes in the characters that leave the biggest impact.

“The Cyborg!! Beware the Cyborg!!!”

There are alterations to many of the main cast that were done mostly out of expedience.  Jim Hawkins companions, Dr. Livesey and John Trelawney are combined together into one character in the film; Dr. Doppler (voiced by David Hyde Pierce), who is re-imagined to have come from an alien race that appears to be canine based.  The savvy commander of the expedition, Captain Smollett, is completely re-imagined here, not only taking on a feline form, but also shifting genders to be female, in the form of Captain Amelia (voiced with authority by Emma Thompson).  Most other characters from the box are either excised or completely altered; the villainous Blind Pew is no where to be seen for instance.  Minimizing the cast benefits the film greatly though because it puts the focus where it needs to be, which is on the relationship that forms between Jim Hawkins and John Silver.  What Ron & John seemed to care about most from the original novel is how this unlikely friendship between the young boy and the fearsome pirate forms and inevitably shapes their destinies.  It plays out much in the same way as in the book, but whereas the novel allows the relationship to form over the course of a serialized recounting over several chapters, the movie has to build that connection in a rather short amount of time.  The way that the movie makes it work is that they establish very early on that Jim is dealing with the aftermath of his abandonment by his father.  Because of this, he has turned cold and distant to others around him.  Silver, spots this while on their voyage and instantly takes an interest in steering him in the right direction.  Now, of course it probably was Silver’s way of coaxing the truth about the treasure map out of Jim, but the great surprise within the story is that Silver actually proves to be a better father figure to Jim than either of them ever would’ve realized. And that was the appeal that prompted the directors to take the story so seriously, seeing the importance of mentor-ship in forming young minds.

It is interesting comparing Jim Hawkins and John Silver to other like minded characters in the Disney family.  John Silver in particular is very unconventional as a Dinsey villain.  Where most Disney antagonists are un-redeemable rogues who get what’s coming to them, Silver actually stands out for having a redemptive arc.  In fact, it is often hard to call him a villain at all, despite his often awful deeds.  It’s his relationship to Jim that makes him likable to us the audience, because we are witnessing the story from Jim’s point of view.  As he begins to warm up to Silver, so do we, and it’s that bond that drives the emotional heart of the movie.  It is, in many ways, what makes the film work so well, because the movie makes that relationship between the boy and the pirate work so well.  John Silver is one of literature’s most memorable characters, given as he has now become the archetypal pirate for most people, and the version in the film is really something to behold.  Using a combination of both hand drawn animation and CGI, Silver is a beautifully constructed hybrid.  Instead of his signature one leg, Silver is shown to be half man and half cyborg, with computer animated limbs that transform into a variety of tools at his disposal.  His hand drawn parts were done by legendary animator Glen Keane, whose long history at Disney has included animating complex characters like the Beast in Beauty and the Beast (1991) as well as Tarzan in Tarzan (1999), which made him a perfect fit for this character.  While his character animation combined with the CGI parts are impressive on their own, it’s the way that he puts emotion in the model that really drives home the brilliance of the character on film.  Matched perfectly with the voice of stage actor Brian Murray who plays Silver, the animation calls for some rather emotional moments and it delivers.  I was particularly struck by the subtlety of the moment when Jim asks Silver how he lost his limbs, to which he replies solemnly, “You lose a few things chasing a dream.”  It’s a great moment of vocal and animation acting that makes this, in my mind, the best version of Long John Silver we’ve ever seen on the big screen.

“At least you taught me something, “Stick to it,” right?  Well, that’s just what I’m gonna do.  I’m going to make sure that you never see one drubloon of ‘my’ treasure.”

The depiction of Jim Hawkins is somewhat different, especially from the book.  He’s depicted as a bit older than his literary source, and with far more of a chip on his shoulder.  For Jim Hawkins in the novel, his passion is driven by a desire to have an adventure, which literally comes falling into his lap once Billy Bones gives him the treasure map from his death bed.  In the movie, still reeling from the crushing abandonment by his father, Jim wants to set out on this journey to prove to both his mother and himself that he’s not a failure.  The early depiction of Jim at the film’s start might put off some literary purists, because he’s absolutely modeled after a moody, millennial teenager in those scenes.  We first see him recklessly playing some extreme sports on his solar surfer, which gets him in trouble with the law, and he often punctuates his conversations with modern anachronisms like, “cool,” “dude” or “whatever.”  But, as the film illustrates, these character flaws are what motivates the transformation that he goes through by film’s end.  He’s given voice by Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the film, who does a good job of bringing a lot of emotion to the character.  As an actor not too far removed from being a teenager himself at the time of this film’s making, Joseph manages to balance the maturing of the character in a believable and balanced way.  We see him grow from being pessimistic and self-involved to one willing to sacrifice his life even for those who have done him wrong.  In the depiction of Jim Hawkins, we see how important the need for a positive role model is in a young person’s life, and the great irony from the story is that that positive direction comes from a bloodthirsty pirate.  It’s a trope that you still see used today, such as the recent Oscar-winner Moonlight (2016), where a young man finds his positive father figure in his neighborhood’s local drug lord.  In Treasure Planet, this part of the story is given it’s full attention and helps it to resound all the more.  Stevenson managed to make the unusual relationship something that stood it apart from it’s peers, but the animated movie drives it home in a much stronger way.

Apart from the characters, the film makes the most profound changes in the visuals.  The blend of old and new in the film is fascinating to see realized.  According to Ron Clements and John  Musker, they took inspiration from the Brandywine School style of artwork, which emphasized fine detail and a mixture of cool and warm hues within their paintings.  You commonly see paintings of this type associated with literary book covers from the turn of the century, and that’s exactly what drew the directors towards adapting it for their film.  In order to make that work with sci-fi elements, Musker and Clements stuck to a 70-30 rule, which meant that their film would incorporate that ratio into every aesthetic element needed.  That’s how you get schooners that operate with solar sails, or grotesque aliens that wear 18th century clothing, and celestial skies that fill the place of open seas.  It’s a ratio that surprising works out very well.  Over time, you actually forget about the anachronistic disparity between the two styles, and just accept it as the world that it is, which helps to absorb you into the story all the more.  I believe that grounding it in this classical style helps to maintain the Stevenson touch, while at the same time modernizing it in an effective way.  Treasure Planet itself is a beautiful iconic image on it’s own, with it’s dual ring system that not surprisingly marks an “X” over the planet.  The visual effects themselves follow that same 70-30 rule, as it shows perhaps the most sophisticated blend of CGI and traditional animation that has ever been achieved.  With that, it brings a scale to the story that I don’t believe has ever been achieved before.  One of the most striking images is the reveal of the crescent shaped space port.  The incredibly complex shot zooms in from far away, showing what we thought was a moon is actually a intricately detailed port.  Coming in closer, we find that much of the detail resembles what early seafaring ports might have looked like in the 18th century, but with dimensions that defy the laws of physics.  It’s that blend that breaths new life in this old story and continues it throughout the film.  Some critics may not have seen the point of this change, and wondered why Disney didn’t just remake Treasure Island in a normal way, but after seeing amazing images like that one, who can argue with such a change.

“Doctor, with the greatest possible respect, zip your howling screamer.”

Disney’s Treasure Planet was a bold departure from the norm in animation, and it was a gamble that in the beginning didn’t do them any good.  The film has some devoted fans (myself included) and is growing a cult following.  But, some arguments still arise as to why Disney would bring sci-fi into Treasure Island.  The answer to this is that there is nothing about Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel that necessarily says it has to take place in a certain place or time.  In fact, Stevenson remains vague about the story’s actual setting, instead focusing on how the plot unfolds and the relationships between the characters.  Disney’s interpretation brings a new perspective on the story, while at the same time maintaining the heart of it.  In the end, it is about a young boy who comes of age, finding his way in life through the mentor-ship of an unlikely role model.  In the end, that’s what John Musker and Ron Clements wanted to explore, and for the most part, they achieved their goal.  You can tell that the whole film was made with a lot of love, and you don’t commit 17 years of your life to an idea just to do a mediocre job at it.  It does offer a great contrast with the original story, of which still serves as much of the backbone of the movie.  The film delves deeper into the personal struggles, but apart from that and the changed setting, it is essentially a faithful adaptation right down the line.  If only this film had come out a year later, with Pirates of the Caribbean revitalizing the genre, then it might have found a more accepting audience.  In the end, it is worthwhile to see both the movie and the novel itself.  Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic still holds up as the quintessential pirate’s tale, and Disney’s animated feature lives up to it’s legacy, while at the same time completely transforming it.  It is, in my opinion, Disney’s most misunderstood film and my hope is that someday it will be fully appreciated as the masterpiece that it is.  Visually, it stands out as one of Disney’s most spectacular achievements and it’s story is one that packs an emotional wallop.  Like Silver says of Jim Hawkins in the film, it’s got the makings of greatness in it.

“Look at you! Glowing like a solar fire.  You’re something special, Jim.  You’re gonna the stars, you are!”


Off the Page – Watchmen

Comic books have been an especially reliable source of material for Hollywood these days.  Marvel and DC have been in a heated battle for box office supremacy, with their collection of heroes and rogues turning into the matinee idols of our current modern age.  And sure, there is a lot to draw from given the countless amount of stories that have been written for the comic medium for nearly a century now.  It wasn’t until recently, when Marvel took upon developing their cinematic universe, that comic book movies resulted in a business model that has generated billions of dollars in grosses.  Now, comic book movies are mainstream, with even the most obscure of comic characters like Hawkeye or Rocket Raccoon become household names.  The downside of this is that comic book movies tend to become formulaic as a result; with studios wanting to take fewer risks as they invest more and more money into these potential blockbusters.  What this leads to is an increasing disconnect between what we see on the big screen and what we usually find on the page from the original source comics.  Comic books live by their own set of standards, and it’s usually a lot more open to challenging and evocative stories and characters.  There’s usually a lot more violence, sex, and profanity found in even some of your standard trade comics, and avenues taken by some of the most popular charcters that you wouldn’t normally see them do in the movies.  Comic fans usually embrace these riskier stories, and they hold the film adaptations to a higher standard as a result.  Filmmakers find many interesting ways to work around the risks of adapting some of the more problematic comics by making movies more inspired by the comic books instead of making straightforward translations; Marvel’s recent Civil War is a perfect example of this.  But, when the source comic is as highly acclaimed and renowned as a single piece, as many graphic novels are, the liberties taken tend to become more of a problem.

There is a significant difference between what we see as a comic book and as a graphic novel.   Comic books are short form stories, sometimes tied together in a serial fashion,  meant to be consumed by the audience as quick, action packed entertainment.  Graphic novels on the other hand are developed as deeper, long form stories that are often about headier subjects.  Essentially, they are novels told through comic strips.  Many of the most beloved graphic novels have taken on stories that you would never see on you average comic book stand, such as Art Spiegelman’s Maus, which re-imagines the horrors of the Holocaust with Nazi cats and Jewish mice; or Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, which portrays an autobiographical tale of the author’s coming of age in Iran in the aftermath of the Islamic Revolution.  But perhaps the most prolific graphic novelist of all time is English writer Alan Moore.  Praised for his often revolutionary and provocative style, Moore’s body of work has been a huge influence of the medium as a whole.  Moore’s heyday in comic writing was in the 1980’s, where he not only excelled with his own original work, but also crafted some of the most celebrated stories ever for icons such as Batman (The Killing Joke) and Superman (For the Man Who Has Everything).  His more political works, however, are the novels he’s best known for, such as V for Vendetta. Naturally, with a body of work as celebrated as his, it was inevitable that Hollywood would come calling.  What is interesting about Moore’s approach to film adaptations of his own work is that he is both the most accommodating and the least cooperative of authors.  He permits filmmakers to adapt his work, but he always refuses to take part in their making, even refusing any screen credit.  This leaves the people responsible for bringing his work to life with the extra responsibility of doing it justice because they have to work without the guidance and approval of Moore himself.  And perhaps the film adaptation that presented the hardest challenge to date was of Moore’s iconic 12-part behemoth, Watchmen (2009).

“We are all puppets, Laurie.  I’m just the puppet who can see the strings.”

The creation of a Watchmen movie was no easy feat.  Developed for years after the publication of Moore’s novel, Watchmen saw many interested parties come and go.  Even Terry Gilliam of Monty Python and Time Bandits fame seriously considered adapting the comic, until he abandoned it after famously stating that he thought that the novel was un-filmable.   Some serious consideration of an epic TV miniseries on one of the cable networks was also considered until eventually Warner Brothers and DC comics (the publisher of Watchmen) landed on a screen adaptation that they were pleased with.  Up until this point, screen adaptations of Moore’s novels had been mixed; from good (From Hell), to mediocre (the Wachowski’s V for Vendetta), to just outright bad (The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen).  But critical praise for DC’s The Dark Knight (2008), which was heavily inspired by The Killing Joke in it’s portrayal of the Joker, convinced Warner Brothers to take the risk of adapting Alan Moore’s epic.  There was only one crucial issue; who would they get to commit to such an undertaking.  They found their director in Zack Snyder, who had just recently received raves for his work adapting another famous graphic novel, Frank Miller’s 300, with almost obsessive faithfulness to the original comic.  By giving an exact page to screen translation, and done in an economical way (filmed against green screens with CGI rendered environments), Snyder had gained the confidence of studio brass with his work on 300, and it was believed that his same style of film-making would carry Watchmen through to the end.  But, being faithful visually to the graphic novel is much different than being faithful to it as a narrative.  What resulted was a mixed bag of a movie where some things worked and a lot of other stuff just didn’t.  You would think it would be easy to just carry over the comic pages like a storyboard for a movie, but adaptations are more complex than that, and the movie Watchmen provides an interesting examination into how such a translation can work.

“This city is afraid of me… I’ve see its true face.”

The big problem with adapting a novel like Watchmen is just the overwhelming mass of story.  Watchmen was published in 12 separate issues over a year between 1986-87, and then compiled together later as a complete book.  And each individual issue has enough story to fill an entire hour worth of screen-time.  The story covers much of the themes that has informed most of Alan Moore’s work, which is the deconstruction of the super hero mythos, and what it means to be a hero, and where violence is justified for the greater good of humanity.  Watchmen is the most overt statement made by Moore about all these issues, and it’s done with quite a compelling story.  The novel let’s us follow different generation of masked vigilantes known as the “Watchmen,” whose heydays have long passed them by and are now working outside of the law for what they believe is for the best of society.  The only problem is that their methods are increasingly problematic and do more harm than good, making them social pariahs.  The book takes it’s title from the classic Latin phrase, “Quis cutodiet ipsos custodes?” or “Who watches the Watchmen?”  It’s a story that calls into question where authority lies, and what do we do when power is unchecked.  This is reflected in varying degrees through the flawed characters within the story; the by the book Night Owl, the emotionally broken Silk Spectre, the autocratic Ozymandias, the nihilistic Rorschach, the manic Comedian, and the ethereal Dr. Manhattan.  Each of these characters is brought to moral crossroads through the actions they take and the novel does an exceptional job of devoting enough time to understanding who these characters are and what forces both external and internal made them who they are.  It’s an exploration of personal and societal dramas that you can’t possibly work entirely into a two to three hour run-time without losing a lot in translation.

I think what plagued the Watchmen movie the most was the fact that it was limited by the confines of cinema.  Even with a nearly three hour run time, Watchmen still feels like it just never breaks past the surface.  It’s presenting the story, but it never delves any deeper.  A lot of the story’s themes had to be streamlined and character moments dropped in favor of more action oriented scenes, which studios tend to value more.  As a result, we get a movie that has the look of Alan Moore’s Watchmen, but doesn’t have the same emotional impact, or is as thought-provoking.  Some of the edits were understandable, like the comic within the comic Tales of the Black Freighter, which was meant to serve as a parallel fable to underline the psyche of some of what the main characters were going through.  You lose some of the introspection without the Black Freighter, but you gain better pacing as a result.  Other things cut from the story prove far more problematic, especially the look into the history of the Watchmen.  We learn so little about the founding members, and the ones we do meet, including the original Night Owl and Silk Spectre, are so ill-defined that they are no where near as interesting as they are in the comics.  This makes one of the novel’s most shocking moments, the murder of Hollis Mason (the first Night Owl) feel sadly weak in the film, because we are so little invested in his story. The film’s socio-political message also gets short-changed in the translation, with Cold War politics taking a back seat most of the time, and questions of misuses of authority becoming less important than watching the main characters kick ass throughout the movie.  That, in of itself, is the biggest insult to Alan Moore’s story, because it misses the point of how the people behind the masks are imperfect people and that their judgments are just as flawed as anyone else’s, making their authority all the more problematic.  When you take those same characters and given them choreographed fight scenes that make them look cool, you’ve kinda lost the narrative.

“I didn’t mind being the smartest man in the world.  I just wish it wasn’t this one.”

Not everything about this movie is a failure though.  You can tell that the filmmakers do have an appreciation for the novel, and the faithful adherence to the symbols and iconic images within the novel help to make it at least recognizable as an adaptation of the story.  Can’t say the same about anything in The League of Extraordinary Gentelmen (2003).  Where the movie also succeeds surprisingly well is in the cast, at least for the most part.  In particular, the movie does deserve credit for it’s perfect casting of Rorschach.  Character actor Jackie Earle Haley looks like he was born to play the role, and he takes full command of every scene he is in.  His Rorschach is Moore’s creation come to life in every way, complete with the harsh raspy voice and volatile personality.  The iconic mask is also really well executed in the movie, with the inkblot shape constantly changing form throughout the movie.  But the biggest surprise is how well the movie portrays Dr. Manhattan.  The blue skinned, god-like super being known as Dr. Manhattan may have been the reason why other filmmakers abandoned the project, because he is such a difficult character to translate to the screen.  The comic even differentiates him from the others by making his speech bubble unique in appearance.  Casting actor Billy Crudup in the role may have been an unusual choice, but with a calm, scientific tone of voice, his performance actually works amazingly well.  I’ve always wondered what Dr. Manhattan would sound like, and Crudup’s understated delivery just feels right.  A person with unlimited power would speak in that matter of fact, reserved kind of way.  The motion capture animation of the character also is some of the movie’s best effects work.  Patrick Wilson and Malin Akerman are serviceable as Night Owl and Silk Spectre respectively, but nothing special.  Jeffrey Dean Morgan also shines in his brief moments as The Comedian.  If there is a disappointment at all in the cast, it’s Matthew Goode as Ozymandias, who just feels flat and uninterested as the arrogant antagonist of the story.

The movie and the book also have the glaring difference of very contrasting ideas about how to use the visuals to tell their story.  Zack Snyder has his many problems as a storyteller, but no one can take away his status as a strong filmmaker.  He is indeed capable of delivering some beautifully composed images in his films, and he does have a strong grasp on how to best use extensive visual effects in his movies.  However, he also has the reputation of putting too much emphasis on visuals and not enough in the story, making the former feel more hollow as a result.  His direction works best with something like 300 (2007), which is a story made for the sole purpose of showing off the visuals and little more.  Watchmen on the other hand puts much more emphasis on the story.  While artist Dave Gibbons does provide some amazing visuals in the story, like Dr. Manhattan’s clockwork tower on Mars or the Comedian’s bloody demise, his artwork is much more in the service of Moore’s text and less meant to be it’s own thing.  Most of Watchmen‘s panels look no more different than your average comic, and that’s intentional.  Moore and Gibbons were making a critique of the super hero genre made within the same style.  Snyder dispenses with this idea and flourishes his film with his own excessive style, which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t.  Dr. Manhattan’s rebirth is adequately realized on screen in a stunning, epic moment, and so is the realization of his tower.  Where the movie does loose some luster is in the depiction of Ozymandias’ fortress in the Antarctic.  What should have been a stunning contrast between the warm glow of the inside of the fortress and the harsh coldness outside is unfortunately lost through Zack Snyder’s muted color palette.  It’s the point in the movie that felt the most lacking to me compared with what was on the page, and considering that this is where the film’s climax takes place, it increases the unsatisfactory response to the movie as a whole.  Was Zack Snyder the wrong choice of director?  Well, he wasn’t a great choice, but considering how few others would even attempt this adaptation, I suppose he’s the best that this movie could’ve hoped for.

“What happened to the American Dream?  It came true!  You’re lookin’ at it.”

What the movie Watchmen shows us is that even something that seems destined for the silver screen in a visual medium like comics and graphic novels doesn’t always guarantee a successful adaptation.  In many ways, graphic novels are even harder to translate because the visual realization of the story is already there, making it harder for a movie to live up to that.  Alan Moore’s magnum opus is celebrated both as a critique of the super hero genre, and as a perfect representation of the genre itself.  It’s harrowing as much as it is provocative, and it has iconic characters that anyone working in the comic medium would love to have for their own.  In it’s thirty years, Watchmen has remained a high water mark in its field and still to this day is one of the best-selling graphic novels of all time.  I don’t think any movie could ever have come close to capturing what Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons captured on the page.  The movie exists purely as an example of how even the most earnest of adaptations can fail to capture the same kind of impact.  Was it necessary?  Well, you couldn’t expect for DC and Warner Bros. to just sit on the property.  The fact that Watchmen is not an incomprehensible mess overall is I guess a sign of some accomplishment.  It did nail some of the characterizations, and the fact that so much work went into at least preserving the imagery of what was on the page is worth something.  Much like Ozymandias, Zack Snyder took the unenviable burden of taking a job that would result in nothing but a harsh response, so that no one else would have to get their hands bloody in the aftermath.  He does add some nice new flourishes, including an outstanding opening credits sequence, but of his many other choices just seemed contradictory to what the story actually needed.  Graphic novels are by no means untouchable as sources for film adaptations, but the pressure to do them justice is almost always never worth the risk.  As Watchmen shows us, sometimes a story can be fully realized before Hollywood can ever get it’s hands on it, and any other attempt at it will always have to live up to a different standard.

“Rorschach’s Journal: October 12th, 1985.  Tonight, a comedian died in New York.”

Off the Page – Frankenstein


With Halloween once again around the corner, it’s time again that we look at some of the season’s most notable icons.  Monsters and ghouls are just as much associated with the Halloween holiday as Santa Claus is with Christmas.  They are the easy go to ideas for costumes every year, and any visit to your local grocery store or mall at this time will almost always feature some kind of holiday branding featuring one or two of these characters.  But, the interesting thing about the most famous of these iconic characters is that most of them were established out of the same unlikely source.  Unlike Santa Claus, whose origins begin as a real life saint who has been re-imagined into the mythical figure we know today, or the Easter Bunny whose origins come out of folklore, Halloween’s gallery of rogues originated from the world of 19th century literature.  Not only that, but many of them were created during the same literary movement; a pre-Victorian style emphasizing tales of the grim and unnatural known as Gothic.  Some of the most notable authors of the era all contributed to this movement, and created some of the most memorable monsters that continue to remain popular to this day.  Bram Stoker revolutionized the concept of vampirism with his now iconic villain Count Dracula; Robert Louis Stevenson gave us the psychological horror story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; H.G. Wells explored the spectral threat of the unseen with his Invisible Man; and even more earthbound authors like Charles Dickens would delve now and again into Gothic themes and characters.  But, perhaps the most unlikely source of one of the Halloween season’s most iconic characters was young Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, who brought the brutish Frankenstein monster to the world.

Mary Shelley was an unlikely Gothic author for her time, and one that no one could believe had a monster like Frankenstein within her imagination.  The daughter of political philosopher William Godwin and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley seemed destined to always be an author in her own right.  Her early writing primarily focused on recounting her travels across Europe, with her travelogues becoming valuable guides for her readers.  But, on a trip to Switzerland in 1814, she heard stories from some of the locals of peculiar scientific experiments being conducted by some of the local lords; mostly harmless, but nevertheless mysterious.  From this, Mary conceived the story of an experiment gone horribly wrong, creating a monster that would go on to haunt it’s creator.  Over the next few years, she wrote out what would become the novel Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus (1818).  It was one of the earliest works of the Gothic movement to become an immediate success, and many argue that it was one that was largely responsible for defining the genre as a whole.  In fact, it’s often seen as a precursor to all the other monster characters that I mentioned before.  So shocking it was when first published, that Mary Shelley had to remain anonymous as the author for quite some time.  But, since then she has become a much celebrated figure in Gothic literature.  Though her work was largely a product of it’s time, it has since captured the imagination of the world for nearly two centuries now, with it’s underlying themes of creation, identity, and male hubris.  And these themes, along with the iconic image of the monster himself, naturally was too good to pass up once it reached Hollywood.  In 1931, Universal Pictures delivered what is now one of the most celebrated adaptations of Shelley’s novel, as well as establishing the modern visual interpretation of the monster.  In many ways, the movie Frankenstein is a whole different creature from the novel it’s based on, and yet it stays true to it’s Gothic origins and presents a whole new set of sub-textual meaning behind it.  By comparing the novel and the movie, we can see some interesting results of how the myth has evolved over time.


“Think of it.  The brain of a dead man waiting to live again in a body I made with my own hands.”

Universal’s Frankenstein, like the novel that inspired it, redefined it’s genre and influenced it for many years to come.  Directed by James Whale, the movie took inspiration from  German Expressionism that became popular during the late Silent Era of cinema, using shadows and light and off-kilter art direction to convey psychological terror to the audience.  In addition, the movie also added a definite Hollywood spin on the story.  Instead of the conflicted Victor Frankenstein of the novel, we get Dr. Henry Frankenstein, a traditional Hollywood protagonist (played by Colin Clive), seeking to resolve the problem he’s created in the most humane way possible.  Hollywood’s Dr. Frankenstein is far different in that respect than the more weaselly Victor of the novel, who spends the entire story running away from his folly as opposed to resolving it.  It’s a big difference between the two versions, but not necessarily one that ruins the story.  The movie is attempting to do something different with the characters, giving the plot a much more rounded, good versus evil confrontation.  Mary Shelley’s take on the characters delivers a much more socially conscious message, which is the to explore the arrogance of a male dominated society.  Delivering on her own feminist ideals, some of which were quite radical for her time, Shelley points out that Victor’s own arrogance manifested itself in the creation of the monster and that his weakness is defined by the way that way he denies his own folly.  Shelley was very critical of the Romantics of the Enlightenment movement, whom she believed carried this same kind of chauvinistic arrogance as Victor, believing that power through revolutionary thoughts and ideas could lead to a more utopian world.  Shelley believed that such a notion was careless, because revolutionary concepts could also lead to disastrous results if reason and caution were left out.  She saw this as a primarily male-centric shortcoming, and she used the misguided Victor as a representation of this.


“It’s moving.  It’s alive. It’s alive. It’s ALIVE.  Oh, in the name of God! Now I know what it feels like to be God!”

But the movie is less concerned with Victor/ Henry’s story and instead focuses much more on the monster itself.  It’s easy to see why.  Universal Pictures wanted to define it’s studios with a definitive horror icon, and Frankenstein fit that bill perfectly.  Released at the same time as Dracula (1931), Hollywood finally defined the style of horror that would become a staple of the industry with these two iconic films.  And like Bela Lugosi’s iconic performance as the Count, the portrayal of Frankenstein’s monster would become the standard for years to come.  Boris Karloff portrayed the titular monster in a magnificent and surprisingly nuanced way.  Instead of being just the lumbering giant that most other actors would’ve portrayed him as, Karloff brings a surprising amount of humanity to the creature, showing him to have childlike wonder about the world around him in addition to the carnal instincts that make him a menace.  There’s a fantastic scene midway through the film where the monster encounters a little girl playing along the shore of a lake.  Instinct tells him that the child is not a threat and the two play innocently for a moment, throwing flowers into the water.  Of course, the uneducated monster doesn’t understand the difference between flowers and children yet, and he tosses the little girl into the water as part of this game, not knowing that he in fact killed her in the process.  It’s a scene like that which shows the depths of the character perfectly; a monster guided by emotion rather than reason, doomed to be a monster because of the lack of humanity that his creator has shown to him.  At the same time, Karloff does make the monster frightening on screen.  When he strangles his victims, you really get a sense of the power of this creature and how it can be a menace.

The image of the creature is definitely something that the movie contributed to the character.  In many ways, it’s true to Mary Shelley’s image, and yet very different.  Shelley’s monster is indeed larger than the average man like the film version, but her creation is in many ways more grotesque.  Her monster is made up of stitched up skin; yellow and translucent, and barely concealing the blood vessels and muscle tissue underneath.  He also has yellow and red eyes, as well as long pitch black hair and black lips.  It’s an image that immediately frightens away Victor after he brings the creature to life and makes him instantly regret his actions.  The movie’s creature is obviously more refined due to Hollywood standards, but nevertheless distinctive.  Huge and lumbering, he also is defined by his flat topped cranium as well as bolts sticking out of his neck.  This particular image of the creature, as Boris Karloff portrayed him, has since become the definitive look of the creature, through all subsequent interpretations.  Anytime you see Frankenstein represented today, it’s based off of this version, and not the yellow skinned monster of the novel.  The green tinged skin color has also been given to the creature over the years, which may date back to behind the scenes documentation of Karloff’s make-up for the black and white film, or it could have come from one of the pop culture spin-offs that took inspiration from the character; the TV series The Munsters for example.  Regardless, the image of the monster is the movie’s biggest contribution to the legacy of the story, but that in itself remains true to the theme of the story.  The movie and the book are about the foolish attempts of human beings to take control of their own destinies and command nature itself, and the unexpected ways that the monster has changed over the years is proof that there is no certainty with regards to how our creations in life will withstand the test of time.  Time has even given the name of Frankenstein over to the creature itself, and not to his misguided creator, something that I don’t think Shelley could’ve foreseen.


“Crazy am I?  We’ll see whether I’m crazy or not.”

But, where the novel and the movie offer the most interesting contrast is in the different ways they deliver on the themes of identity and where one’s place is in the world.  Shelley’s main emphasis with her story was looking at the role that man’s relationship with nature plays in the error of their ways.  Her novel begins with a passage from John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, which says, “Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay to mould me man?  Did I solicit thee from darkness to promote me?”  Along with the subtitle of The Modern Prometheus, Mary Shelley emphasizes that her story is all about asking why life exists with the creation not  knowing the intentions of it’s creator.  Victor, like Prometheus in Greek Mythology, defies the intended order of things just to see how his experiments will take hold, but never looks to what those consequences might be.  The creature, on the other hand, embodies the chaotic results of creation with a will all it’s own.  In the novel, the creature tries to find his own way in the world, separated from his absent creator.  He learns to speak and read all on his own, observing other humans from afar, and yet cannot make use of any of it because of his unnatural existence that makes him a monster to everyone else.  When he confronts Victor in the novel, he says that he’s the “Adam of you design,” referring back to the biblical first man, whose life is also recounted in Milton’s Paradise Lost.  It’s a critical examination of the conflict between man and God, with the creature not understanding why Victor gave him nothing but life.  Every useful thing he has is wasted because there was nothing to guide him towards a human existence.  As a result, the creature seeks nothing more than to destroy his creator, unless he gives him more of a natural existence, namely, to repeat the experiment again so that he can have a mate.  By refusing to repeat his past folly, the monster than haunts Victor, chasing him across multiple borders and even far North into the Arctic.  Like his literary predecessors, Victor attempts to play the role of God, and is undone by his own creation.

The movie on the other hand deals with identity in a different way.  The creature never quite grows out of his instinctual brutality, but this too is indicative of the neglect of his creator.  But, what James Whale emphasizes in his movie is a sense of the creature becoming a victim of his own status of an outsider.  Though it’s hard to say if Whale purposefully changed the story to suit this theme, but I feel like there was more than a little personal investment that the filmmaker put into the portrayal of the character in his story.  James Whale was one of the first openly homosexual filmmakers working in Hollywood, and it was something he struggled with for most of his life, professionally and personally.  His final tortuous years led to his untimely suicide, which were both dramatized in the film Gods and Monsters (1998), featuring Ian McKellan as Whale.  Though still closeted at the time, I believe that some of Whale’s own struggles manifested their way onto the screen with the way that the creature is hunted down in the movie.  Here you have a character who is shunned, condemned, and ultimately hunted down for merely being who he is.  It’s only the innocent and un-corrupted that give him any bit of compassion, like the girl playing with her flowers.  Albeit, it’s a bit harsh for someone to equate their own sexuality with the manifestation of a monster, but what I think Whale wanted to emphasize with his movie was how reacting to the monster also created a monstrous effect in society as a whole.  The movie concludes with the creature cornered in a decrepit old windmill, torched alive by angry villagers seeking to destroy him.  This plays into a fear that I’m sure James Whale probably had himself; being cornered by angry mobs of people who saw what he was as monstrous too.  The only reason that the monster acts the way he does is because of the mistreatment that’s been directed his own way; a misfit whose only crime is living.  I think that’s why the role of the creature is much more emphasized in Whale’s film, because it the character appealed far more to the issues that were important to him.  In Whale’s world, a lack of identity makes you just as much of a victim as it does a monster, and sometimes society as a whole can be the true monster.


“You have created a monster, and it will destroy you!”

Both the novel and the movie are very different creatures, but both are exceptional in their own right.  Mary Shelley’s novel defined the Gothic style and would go on to inspire all sorts of classics in the genre.  It could even be said that Frankenstein invented science fiction, because it was the first popular story written during the age of scientific discovery during the early 19th Enlightenment period.  All the wonders of the pre-Victorian and late-Victorian age were developed within the shadow of Frankenstein, and her novel proved to be an effective cautionary tale of taking experimentation too far and not dealing with the consequences of unchecked industrialization.  The movie, likewise, would go on to influence it’s own genre, becoming the definitive Hollywood monster movie.  Both also offer interesting insights into human behavior and how man’s relationship to nature is a volatile one.  Shelley’s novel gives an interesting insight into man’s own arrogance leads to self-destructive ends, while Whale’s movie establishes the interesting idea that intolerance itself creates an endless circle of violence, some of which leads to own own self-destruction.  Regardless of the different interpretations that each made, they have nevertheless made an unexpected icon out of it’s unforgettable monster.  Boris Karloff’s performance as the monster is especially a great one, and it’s because of him that I think the story continues to remain popular to this day.  It’s interesting to think that the oldest of these Halloween season icons is also the one who feels the most modern.  It’s a testament to the effectiveness of Mary Shelley’s imagination, where she was able to dream up a monster who would withstand the test of time and in a way, become timeless.  Whether he’s meeting his bride for the first time, or scaring off Abbot and Costello and Scooby Doo, or even being the mascot of a breakfast cereal, Frankenstein is an indispensable icon of the Halloween season, and one one whose resurrection will continue again and again.


“Whose life was one of brutality, violence, and murder.”

Off the Page – Heart of Darkness

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When Hollywood looks to adapt a popular book or series of books into a film, they often do so in three separate ways; they either translate it directly from page to screen, or they keep the story but change parts to make it more cinematic, or they just disregard the book entirely and use the title and premise only.  Most adaptations stay pretty faithful to the original source, but you’ll find quite a few that fall into the middle category.  And this is merely due to the fact that there are some books that are just un-filmable as they are on the page.  What works in prose doesn’t always work on screen, so it takes a few inspired filmmakers out there to figure out how to make the translations work in the visual medium.  Some of the most interesting examples of adaptations that take liberties with their source materials are the ones that transplant the characters and setting of the original story into a different time and place altogether, and still maintain the essence of the original story.  Writer and Director Amy Heckerling managed to successfully transplant the classy high society of Victorian England from the novel Emma into the modern excess of Beverly Hills in the movie Clueless (1995).  West Side Story took Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet and brought it into streets of New York City.  But perhaps the most striking re-appropriation of a classic novel into a new setting  was the adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella Heart of Darkness into the Vietnam War epic Apocalypse Now (1979), directed by Francis Ford Coppola.

Heart of Darkness is one of the most highly influential novels of the early 20th century, becoming one of the earliest examples of modernist literature.  Joseph Conrad’s book is a relatively short read (just a little under 100 pages), but it is heavy in theme and introspection.  The story is told from the point of view of Captain Marlow, as he recounts his experiences sailing up the Congo River into the heart of the African continent in search of a renegade Ivory trader named Kurtz.  As Marlow heads deeper into the jungle, he encounters more and more strange sights and perilous dangers, and all the while he learns more and more second hand accounts of this man Kurtz who has become something of a demigod to the natives out there in the wilderness.  When he finally finds Kurtz, the mythical man is deathly ill and a shell of his former self.  Marlow no longer fears the man, but instead pities him and seeks to bring him back to civilization.  Kurtz however dies before the journey can begin, his final words being, “The Horror. The Horror.”  Marlow doesn’t know what he means until he begins to go through Kurtz’s papers and uncovers the true insanity that the isolation in the jungle brought to him.  Heart of Darkness works as both a fascinating psychological character study as well as a commentary on colonialism.  The story is so much more than a journey into the wild frontier; it’s also a study of man’s effect on the world, the limits to which one is pushed to in extreme circumstances, as well as the disconnect between how things are viewed by the civilized and the uncivilized.  The complexity of it’s themes and the vividness of it’s imagery has inspired many artists since, such as poets like T.S. Eliot, who quoted Heart of Darkness in his poem “The Hollow Men.”  And of course, filmmakers found inspiration in Conrad’s writing as well, though in less direct ways.

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“Who’s in charge here?” “Ain’t you?”

You can see some of the ingredients of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in the films of John Huston’s The African Queen (1951), Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear (1953), and even to some extant in Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993).  But, a fully faithful adaptation by Hollywood had always been elusive.  Many filmmakers tried, including Orson Welles, but nobody could ever make it work out.  It’s perhaps because of the bleakness of Conrad’s novel, which wouldn’t work so well in an industry that demands happy resolutions to their stories.  It wasn’t until a young film student from USC named John Milius took up the challenge of adapting Heart of Darkness.  According to the making of documentary on the Apocalypse Now home video release, Milius was inspired to tackle the story after his professor proclaimed that the book was un-filmable, stating, ” If Welles couldn’t do it, than nobody can.”  Fortunately for Milius, there was a real world event going on that echoed the themes and visuals of Conrad’s novel and that was the Vietnam War.  Milius saw the mayhem and carnage of that conflict broadcast nearly daily on the news and the political upheaval that resulted from it and found that moral ambiquity of Conrad’s story had the same resonance with what was happening in Vietnam.  So, even before graduating from college, Milius began the first draft of what would become Apocalypse Now.  He initially wanted his fellow USC classmate George Lucas to direct, but eventually the script found it’s way to Francis Ford Coppola, who helped Milius with the final drafting of the script.  The conflict ended before cameras started rolling, but the experience was still fresh in people’s minds, and as we would soon learn, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness would become more relevant to the modern world than anyone would’ve imagined.

It should be noted that Apocalypse Now is not a direct translation of the novel to the screen, apart from the obvious change in setting.  Milius and Coppola’s adaptation actually doesn’t start to resemble Conrad’s novel until the very final act.  For the first 2/3 of the movie, the movie is more of a series of vignettes of wartime experiences that believably would’ve happened during the Vietnam conflict, and in some cases were directly inspired by real accounts.  Neither Coppola nor Milius served in Vietnam (Coppola due to his conscientious objection and Milius due to his health), but they determined to create a sense of what the actual war must of been like to the soldiers who fought it.  And the reality was that with such a divisive, unclear reason as to why American soldiers were fighting in the war in the first place, being shipped out to Vietnam really did in fact feel like a journey into the “Heart of Darkness.” The experience took a psychological toll on those who served, seeing the futility of their missions and oftentimes inhumane acts they would have to perform, all for something that few ever believed in.  The book Heart of Darkness dealt with some of the same themes, but did so with a critical eye towards the dehumanizing policies of colonization in uncivilized parts of the world such as Africa.  Like Marlow’s brushes with the wilds of Africa, the journey for the soldiers in  Apocalypse Now is no less a surreal clash between the known and unknown worlds, and the dehumanizing effects of that conflict.  Overall, the themes remain in tact throughout the film’s adaptation and the use of Vietnam as the setting couldn’t have been more perfect for the translation.

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“I love the smell of Napalm in the morning.”

One of the criticisms that has followed the novel over the years is the viewed racist tone of Conrad’s depiction of the African natives.   The natives are largely depersonalized savages in Conrad’s novel, and many critics have argued that this is representative of a colonialist’s view of different cultures, where because they are not civilized in the European fashion must mean that they are less than human.  While I do agree that Conrad’s depiction of the African natives is racially insensitive, at the same the novel points to their exploitation as the greater evil.  The book is strongly anti-colonial in it’s message, with Marlow making the argument whether it was the exposure to the the wilds of Africa that drove Kurtz mad, or was it the pressure of the colonial system being forced into a place it didn’t belong responsible for making the change in him.  Which asks the question, where is the true “Heart of Darkness;” in the civilized or uncivilized world.  Coppola and Milius wisely try their best not to dehumanize the Vietnamese people in their story by not shying away from the human toll that the conflict had on them.  The Sampan massacre scene in particular shows the brutality that the War brought upon those left helpless in the crossfire.  Another way that the movie addresses the racial undertones of the story is through the side-plot involving Colonel Kilgore (played brilliantly by Robert Duvall).  The character was entirely crafted for the film and perfectly represents the encroaching imperialism of military might in a land unable to fight against it.  Kilgore represents pure, disaffected exploitative greed in the form of someone who has the power to take what he wants, just because he can.  The entire ivory trade that Marlow interacts with in the books represents this too, but here in the movie, we see the system personified in someone maniacal enough to invade a village just because it has the best surfing beaches in the vicinity.  It’s a departure that really serves the film adaptation well in the end.

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“You’re neither.  You’re an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks, to collect the bill.”

Coppola and Milius departed from the book to help reinforce the anti-colonization subtext of the novel, but what they faithfully translated directly from the book was also brilliantly handled.  The ultimate destination of Kurtz’s compound is practically lifted off of the page, and the enigmatic Kurtz is also faithfully brought to life, thanks in no small part to Marlon Brando’s iconic performance.  This wasn’t without issue, however.  Coppola had to deal with Brando arriving on set overweight and having not memorized any of his lines.  He hadn’t even read the novel itself, to which Coppola had to read it aloud to him before they started filming, in order for him to have context for the character.  Even still, Brando’s eccentricity translates perfectly into the character of Colonel Kurtz.  Like the Kurtz of Heart of Darkness, he is a man both feared and worshiped by those around him, and the journey to see him is like a journey delving into the madness that has made him what he is.  This is also represented perfectly in the film through the narration, provided by Martin Sheen in the role of Captain Willard (the film’s stand-in for Captain Marlow).  Like in the book, we dissect the conditions that created Kurtz through Willard’s own journey deeper into the jungle and see the continuing, un-explainable horrors that would’ve driven him mad.  As Willard arrives at the compound, he sees that Kurtz’s philosophies have turned all who come to him into his disciples, including a photojournalist who worships him like a God (played in a zany performance by Dennis Hopper).  In this, Willard doesn’t just see the manifestation of evil in his encounter with Colonel Kurtz, but also a scary reminder of the kind of dark figure he might become if he falls too deep into this world.  That in essence is what Joseph Conrad’s book was meant to explore, which is the internal conflict of man’s struggle with his own baser instincts.  But, the question he posed in the book was whether it was the wilderness that brought it out of Kurtz or did it just naturally come through on it’s own.

The dichotomy between Kurtz and Marlow in the book translates quite well into the film, but is actually dealt with in a different way.  In many ways, the philosophies of both men are complete opposites and yet they find themselves agreeing on most things.  Kurtz is of a hard-line, militaristic mind while Marlow is of a more civilized, pacifist one.  It seems only natural that these two character types would translate so well into a wartime setting.  In the movie, Willard seems to admire Kurtz for his bucking of the system that he recognizes is broken and getting worse, and yet he can’t bring himself to join his crusade knowing the atrocities that Kurtz and his militia have committed.  In the movie, he states, “Part of me was afraid of what I would find and what I would do when I got there.  I knew the risks, or imagined I knew.  But, the thing I felt the most, much stronger than fear, was the desire to confront him.”  There is an understanding between both Kurtz and Willard about what the War has turned them into, and that neither is ever going to change the other’s mind.  It should be noted that a difference in the translation was that in the novel, Marlow is sent to save Kurtz, but in the movie, Willard is charged with killing him.  Kurtz’s fate is the same in both movies, but the conditions of his death changes the outcome somewhat.  In the novel, you get the sense that Marlow’s encounter with Kurtz will lead him down a different outlook on the whole practice of colonization, with maybe an eye towards fighting against the system in response.  The movie is a little more ambiguous.  Willard savagely murders Kurtz and leaves the compound and all of Kurtz’s followers behind.  We don’t know what happens to him after he’s completed his mission.  Is he changed for good or bad?  Will he become another Kurtz himself?  It’s a morally ambiguous finale that perfectly understates the insanity of Vietnam, and how no one left the conflict a better person than when they entered it.  It’s an interesting spin on the character dynamics found in the original book to give it an extra meaning.

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“‘ Never get out of the boat.’ Absolutely goddamn right!  Unless you were goin’ all the way… Kurtz got off the boat.  He split from the whole f***ing program.”

You have to give a lot of credit to Francis Ford Coppola and John Milius for adapting the un-adaptable into a film.  The result has become one of the most beloved war movies ever made.  It wasn’t an easy task either.  The experience for both men often resembled the novel’s journey itself.  The film’s many production woes nearly caused it to be shut down, and Coppola was famously pulled off the set at one time by Paramount execs who were worried that he had lost control of the production.  Coppola and Milius’ own philosophical differences also led to story conflicts during the film’s development about which direction that the film should take, Coppola being more of a left-wing pacifist, and Milius more of a right-wing militarist (sound familiar?).  This would ultimately lead to a six year production cycle, three of which were spent just editing the film itself (which was constructed from a staggering million feet of film).  But, despite all this, Apocalypse Now exists and it is a masterpiece of film-making.  And amazingly, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is still recognizably ingrained in the entire movie.  Apocalypse Now is a perfect example of taking a novel, changing it original setting, and actually improving upon it’s overall theme.  Heart of Darkness truly was ahead of it’s time with it’s morally ambiguous characters and deep philosophical introspection.  It just makes more sense having those themes explored in the insane and surreal experience of the Vietnam War.  The movie is easily recommended, but I would also say that you should read the book too, despite the obviously outdated racial stereotypes.  Comparing the two is an interesting look into how different examinations on the same themes can work, and how finding the “Heart of Darkness” may be scarily closer and more common than one might think.

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“The Horror. The Horror.”

Off the Page – War of the Worlds

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One type of story element that has been popular to both literature and cinema has been the use of allegory.  An allegorical story has the benefit of addressing issues that affect the reader and the viewer in their present day, without ever being tied down by the restrictions of time or setting, or even reality.  A storyteller can be as fanciful as they want with their tale, but the truths behind it will still be familiar and will resonate with the audience.  Because allegory is an effective tool for addressing important issues, it’s often been used by authors and filmmakers alike to inject social and political messages into popular entertainment.  We may think we’re going to read a story about animals running a farm by themselves after the farmer has left, but instead, we are treated to a meditation on the rise of Stalinist totalitarianism.  We may think we’re watching Batman fighting the Joker, but instead we’re presented with an examination of the corrupting power of paranoia, and how it erodes our moral judgments.  No ones goes into these story-lines expecting to be given a lecture on larger issues, but we’re rewarded with thought provoking ideas that actually enrich the experience overall.  However, though allegory is useful for tackling universal issues, there comes a risk of having that same allegory unfortunately tied to the time and place that it was used.  Now, time does shine favorably on antiquated allegories, because it does cast light on ideas from the past and how storytellers observed the world that they lived in.  But, when one storyteller tries to take one allegorical story and re-purposes that into a different setting or time, well then you start to see problems in the adaptation.

One of the most interesting authors who used allegory to great effect in his work was H.G. Wells.  Wells, along with his contemporaries at the time (Jules Verne, Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Rice Burroughs) created for the most part what we know now as modern Science-Fiction.  But, while Verne wrote about the ingenuity and wonder of science, and Burroughs wrote about the fantastical and otherworldly aspect, Wells was much more interested in the dangers of science.  Wells was a political writer in addition to being a creative one, and he often sought to address larger societal issues in his writing.  But, what set him apart from other political writers was the fact that he always wrote with an eye towards popular entertainment.  When his work was published in the late Victorian period in England, people were far more interested in stories about adventure and exploration, and far less about social issues of the day.  So, with an eye towards allegory, Wells found a way to force these important issues of the day into the public eye by including them in the kinds of stories they would normally clamor for.  His best example of allegory disguised as popular entertainment would be the 1898 classic The War of the Worlds.  Yes it’s got monstrous aliens and tension filled horror that readers would have found engaging, but when you read deeper, you see the intent of what Wells was trying to say.  He lived in a world corrupt by the idea of Empire and exploiting the less fortunate for the benefit of those who had everything.  By flipping the concept on it’s head, and having the seemingly mighty Great Britain invaded by a superior, extra-terrestrial force, Wells was making his audience see their world in a different light.  It’s an allegory that fits it’s time well, but when adapted for another period, like in Steven Spielberg’s 2005 adaptation, you can see how an allegory’s effectiveness can change with it.

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“No one believed in the early years of the 21st century that our world was being watched by intelligence greater than our own.”

Steven Spielberg’s 2005 War of the Worlds is a fascinating, if somewhat flawed adaptation of Wells classic novel.  In many ways, it retains a faithful adherence to the tension and paranoia of the original novel, and yet, some of that adherence ends up doing a disservice to the actual message that the director wanted to deliver in his movie.  What is fascinating however is how allegories from another time and place take on a whole new meaning when adapted into something else, and that’s the case with Spielberg’s film.  When H.G. Wells first wrote his novel, England was the dominant power in the world, with an Empire that included territory on every continent across the globe.  In his day, the notion of invasion from a superior power would have seemed foreign and purely in the realm of fiction, but Wells wanted to address this arrogance of such a notion in his novel and the foolish nature of viewing oneself as superior to others.  When Spielberg sought to tackle Wells classic story, England’s empire had long diminished and America had emerged in the years since as the world’s most powerful nation.  But, unlike when Wells had written his novel, in 2005, America was still reeling from the recent attacks of 9/11.  Though the country wasn’t attacked by a superior force akin to Wells’ Martians, it was still an attack that shook the foundations of our country and it’s a struggle that we have yet to shake off even today.  Spielberg adapted the story in a time when even the mighty could be brought low by outside forces, and in a sense, that’s where his adaptation actually gives a fresh new meaning to Wells’ tale.  According to Spielberg in the making of documentaries found on the War of the Worlds DVD, he wanted to create a vision of a refugee experience in America, where survivors of the alien invasion are forced to flee their homes and survive in an increasingly hostile world.  It’s something he says you don’t see in our society today, which is a concept close to Wells’ own intent.  Where Wells addressed a society arrogant in that they never believed they could be invaded by a superior force, Spielberg was addressing a society that felt apathetic towards refugees across the world because they too never thought it could happen here.

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“It’s the same everywhere – once the tripods begin to move, no more news comes out of that area.”

Now, with an adaptation, especially one that changes the time and setting of an original story, there obviously needs to be alterations made to both the plot and, specifically with this movie, the characters.  In this aspect, I actually believe that Spielberg did Wells one better.  Wells original novel was less interested in character development, and far more interested in describing the world in which they inhabit.  His main character isn’t even named in the novel, and it’s told entirely from his perspective.  In this case, it’s a presentation that suits Wells novel, because it allows the reader to better identify with the narrator and see the horrors of the alien invasion through a first person account.  It’s a presentation brilliantly re-imagined in Orson Welles legendary radio adaptation, which works because it’s another medium that allows for the audience to paint the picture in their own minds.  However, those same rules don’t apply to film, where we need characters with depth and personality in order to follow their story.  Spielberg and his writers Josh Friedman and David Koepp, created the entirely original character of Ray Ferrier to be the substitute for the nameless narrator.  In addition, they added a family dynamic to the story by having Ray (Tom Cruise) escaping the destruction around him by having his children Rachel (Dakota Fanning) and Robbie (Justin Chatwin) in tow.  Though some of their family drama is cliched in the movie, it nevertheless gives the story a human face it desperately needs, and all credit is due to the cast for believably immersing themselves into the film’s situations.  Tom Cruise in particular manages to put his matinee idol status in check and conveys to us that he’s a broken man who’s desperately trying to stay strong through a perilous situation.  And the movie smartly keeps the story focused on their survival.  It’s not about grander geopolitical ramifications.  It’s about survival, and that fits much better into Spielberg’s refugee allegory.

But, though Spielberg changes the human perspective and creates a whole new story-line with his new main characters, it doesn’t mean that Wells’ story is unrecognizable either.  In fact, much of the actual invasion that takes up most of the movie is pulled directly out of the novel.  The Tripods themselves in particular are almost exactly as Wells envisioned them.  The only difference made about the invading force is their origin, and it’s an understandable change.  In Wells time, Mars was believed to have been an inhabitable world filled with Martian people (a concept that Edgar Rice Burroughs also shared in his John Carter series) and it made sense to him and his audience that an alien invasion could naturally come from our nearest celestial neighbor.  Of course, we now know that Mars is inhabitable, so Spielberg is more vague about where his aliens came from.  And, in the end, it really doesn’t matter.  The tension actually comes out of not quite knowing what’s going on and it’s a story point that serves well both the novel and the movie.  Spielberg almost relishes the overwhelming threat that the Tripod vessels pose to the characters, giving them the sense of scale that they deserve.  From the moment that the first Tripod rises out of the ground, it invokes a sense of true terror into the hearts of anyone who sees it.  And when it begins blasting people away with it’ s heat ray, it is truly shocking.  I think that it’s what makes Spielberg the best possible choice to adapt Wells work.  They both work in the realm of popular entertainment, but they also take in the gravity of their story-lines, and address the fantastical bits with the same seriousness that one would with a real life emergency.  The Tripod attacks are easily the highlights of the movie, and where Spielberg adapts Wells’ vision to it’s fullest potential.

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“This isn’t a war any more than there’s a war between men and maggots… This is an extermination.”

But, the problem with transplanting the setting of your allegorical story is that not all the pieces will translate quite as well outside of their original context.  For a lot of people, where the movie actually falters is in it’s later half, after it appears that Ray has lost his son Robbie in one of the attacks.  He and Rachel find shelter in a nearby farmhouse being occupied by a mysterious and somewhat unhinged man named Ogilvy (Tim Robbins).  It’s this scene in the basement that really breaks apart the audience reaction to this movie, from those who love it to those who hate it.  I’ll agree that it is a problematic stretch of the film because it completely shifts gears and slows the story down to a halt.  What was a harrowing adventure about staying alive amid almost certain death suddenly becomes a claustrophobic human drama where the danger becomes more internalized.  I don’t dislike the scene (the part where they hide from the alien probe is spectacularly staged), but it does feel out of place in the film.  But, it’s also strangely enough from the original novel, albeit condensed.  People tend to forget that Wells, like many other authors of the time, published his work in serial form, and War of the Worlds was released in two separate volumes.  His first volume portrayed the invasion; the second, the aftermath.  Spielberg tried to put the two together into one narrative, but the mashing together is very awkward and diminishes the effectiveness of both sides of the story.  More than anything, I think it’s the abruptness that became the problem.   The farmhouse is indeed where much of Spielberg’s allegory of post-9/11 paranoia comes into play, but it does so in detriment to the momentum of the action.  He could have indulged himself in more of the spectacle of mayhem, but he would have lost that crucial allegory in the process.

The film falters, but not for the sake of trying on Spielberg’s part, nor because of trying to force Wells’ novel into modern times.  Adaptations are just difficult to pull off, even when they are faithful and done with good intentions.  For most of the movie, Spielberg actually delivers on the thrills and the sense of awe, but then he ends up undermining the things that he was trying to accomplish within even the very next scene.  I think one of the biggest mistakes he made overall was actually showing us what the aliens looked like.  True, Wells did that as well in his novel, describing the Martians as spindly, grey skinned tri-ped creatures.  It’s fine to be descriptive on the page, but visualizing that on the big screen is different, and will likely please no one.  This movie, as well as the 1953 adaptation produced by George Pal, were at their best when the aliens remained hidden within their machines.  But, you take them out, and show them as the more vulnerable creatures that they are, you lose the menace that they pose.  What Wells wanted to show in his novel was that these aliens were superior to us in every way, and that this superiority is what made them malicious towards us.  It was his critique of the concept of Social Darwinism, which proclaimed that the strong were entitled to rule above others because it is natures will; a perversion of Darwin’s theory of evolution that would go on to inspire many despised philosophies like Eugenics and even Fascism.  By showing humans as the weak instead of the strong, he is able to make us look at how our own arrogance about our place in the world has driven us to do horrible things to those that we view as inferior.  It’s a concept that could have worked just as well in Spielberg’s adaptation, in a world shaken by Terrorism and how confronting an undefinable enemy has left many displaced and disillusioned, but that all goes away once we see the bizarre looking aliens who carry none of the menace that this story needs.  And it’s a strange underwhelming tactic used by someone who has been so good at creating menace out of non-human forces (the shark in Jaws or the raptors in Jurassic Park) in the past.

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“When it’s ready, my body will just push it out.”

While there are flaws, you can’t say that Spielberg and Cruise didn’t try their best to bring Wells’ classic to life in the 21st century.  When it does get it right, it does so in a spectacular way.  The Tripod alien death machines are hauntingly realized and could be among the most frightening things we’ve ever seen in any science fiction film.  Some of cinematographer Janusz Kaminski’s best work is in this movie, including the amazing ferry boat scene and the facade of the church being destroyed by the cracking earth beneath it.  I can also praise the unsettling music written by John Williams too.  But, despite high quality work done by all involved, you can’t help but think that the sum of what they had didn’t quite add up to what they wanted.  And some of the fault of that might be in the adaptation itself.  Wells novel was a product of it’s time, but also one that addressed many issues that we still deal with today.  Wells delivered us a harrowing vision of what it might be like to have our securities challenged by something that is greater than ourselves, and he did so in a narrow, claustrophobic point of view.  It works because it puts us into the shoes of a survivor and asks us to see how one has to live when they have nothing.  Spielberg tries to do that by constantly pushing his characters into harms way, but he ultimately undermines his message by rewarding his characters with a happy resolution.  The only time that it doesn’t make things so easy is when Ray must commit a murder to save his own child, but sadly, this character defining moment is underplayed.  And seriously, his son appearing at the end is one of the worst plot twists ever, and more than anything is an insult to what Wells intended.  But, apart from that, I do admire Spielberg’s attempt to find new allegorical meaning in War of the Worlds in the chaotic world that we find ourselves in.  It shows that Wells story was far more prescient and universal than he knew, and that a message worth saying can still find it’s place in blockbuster entertainment.

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“By a toll of a billion deaths, man had earned his immunity, his right to survive among this planet’s infinite organisms.  And that right is ours against all challenges.  For neither do men live nor die in vain.”

Off the Page – John Carter of Mars

It’s pretty well established that adaptations of popular literature to the big screen is a hard business, and today’s example is no exception.  In fact it is the epitome of how difficult it is. In my first article of this series, I detailed the translation of Stephen King’s The Shining, which was a case where a brilliant filmmaker dramatically altered a brilliant piece of writing and came out with something equally as brilliant. In my second article, I covered The Road, an example of filmmakers sticking closely to the text of Cormac McCarthy’s masterpiece and coming up with something that was just okay. Now I’m going to tell you about a movie adaptation of a classic novel that proved to be an outright disaster, at least at the box office.   This of course is the failed big screen adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ early twentieth century classic, John Carter of Mars.  John Carter (2012) was Walt Disney Pictures attempt to jump start a new big screen sci-fi franchise, one which already had a nearly hundred year long legacy behind it in literary circles, but once the movie made it to theaters, it was sadly met with indifference by critics and audiences, which did not bode well after Disney had spent a quarter of a billion dollars making the film.  Some have argued that the reason behind John Carter’s box office failure is because it had long become irrelevant over the many decades since the series was first published and that all of its many influences have since overtaken the original in notoriety. In this article, I will look at how the movie stands up to the original novel, and see exactly if it was a problem with the translation or if the original story was too out of date to become a hit with modern audiences again.

Although the story of John Carter of Mars may not be as fresh in everyone’s minds today, its influence has been widespread in both literature and in cinema.  The story first appeared in serial publications all the way back in 1912, written by an imaginative young American author named Edgar Rice Burroughs.  Burroughs’ serial, then titled Under the Moons of Mars, detailed the adventures of Sergeant John Carter, a former Confederate soldier who is magically transported to the planet Mars while on the run in the deserts of Arizona.   Once there, he learns that his strength and agility are increased ten fold because of Mars’ lower gravity and thinner atmosphere. His special abilities catch the attention of a tribe of tall, green-skinned warriors known as Tharks, who quickly adopt Carter into their clan.  Over time he learns their language and gains their trust, especially with regards to the Thark chieftain Tars Tarkas and his estranged daughter Sola.  In time he learns more about the different cultures of Mars, which the Martians call Barsoom. And John Carter learns that Barsoom is just barely clinging on to life, with the oceans dried up and only two major cities left on the entire planet, both of which are entangled in a civil war.  One is a city of scientific research known as Helium and the other is a mobile scavenger city called Zodanga.  The Tharks are a nomadic tribe who avoid contact with the red skinned human-like residents of the two cities, but conflict finds them when a Helium expedition team runs into a Thark encampment, which brings the Princess Dejah Thoris into John Carter’s life and soon brings the outsider into this global conflict.

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“When I saw you, I believed it was a sign… that something new can come into this world.”

A lot of John Carter’s plot may seem very familiar if your familiar with a lot of sci-if tropes and superhero origins.  But, it should be noted that John Carter of Mars actually predates most of what we know of science fiction today, so if anything what time has actually done to make people forget how revolutionary a piece of literature it was.  Along with his contemporaries across the pond, H.G. Welles and Jules Verne, Edgar Rice Burroughs was inventing what we know as the Science Fiction genre.  But while Verne was celebrating wonders of science in fantasy, and Welles was using science as a basis for social commentary and cautionary tales, Burroughs’ was using science as a basis for swashbuckling adventures. John Carter was mostly inspired by other larger than life heroes of the era like Zorro and Davy Crockett, only his adventures were taken into a more celestial setting, giving rise to new possibilities in adventure writing.  Burroughs would write 12 novels in total set on the world Barsoom, detailing the exploits of John Carter and his offspring. Not only that, but Burroughs also put so much effort and detail into his novel that he even crafted a dictionary detailing the rich vocabulary of Barsoom and its many cultures, a concept authors like J.R.R. Tolkien would later adopt through appendices and side stories connected to their novels.  Because of the enormous success of the John Carter books, there are decades worth of different works of literature and cinema that have either been influenced or have outright copied it over the years. Of course, the similarities to the origin of Superman are pretty obvious, swapping out a hero sent from Earth with a hero sent from the planet Krypton. But, there are also elements of John Carter’s story found in everything from Star Wars, to He-Man, to even James Cameron’s Avatar (2009).   So, why did it take so long for John Carter to make it to the big screen himself?

For the most part, it was just several cases of bad timing and filmmakers not finding the right angle on the story. Several attempts were made through the years to bring John Carter to the big screen.  Warner Brothers worked with Edgar Rice Burroughs directly to bring an animated version of the character to life in a project that would’ve predated Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937) as the first full length animated feature.  Sadly, the project never took off, mainly due to budget concerns and all that remains of the project is demo reel recently discovered in the Edgar Rice Burroughs archives in Tarzana, California. Live action versions surfaced off and on over the years, including one in the 80’s directed by Die Hard (1988) helmer John McTiernan and starring Tom Cruise as the title character. Sadly, this two never gained traction.  Disney stepped in twice over the years, once in the 70’s and again in the 2000’s to get a John Carter movie made, and it wasn’t until the second time around that the film finally gained footing.  Part of Disney’s confidence in the project came from their successful collaboration with the Burroughs estate, adapting the author’s other popular character Tarzan into an animated film.  And with CGI becoming much more reliable, it seemed more possible to bring Burroughs’ vision of Barsoom to reality, magnificent creatures and all.  To undertake the adaptation, Disney gave directing duties to Andrew Stanton, an award winning animation director from Pixar, who had never directed a live action feature before. It was an unusual choice, but Stanton was a proven storyteller, with his enormously successful Finding Nemo (2003) and Wall-E (2008) earning huge raves. But, as was soon apparent, bringing John Carter to the big screen proved to be more difficult endeavor than anyone anticipated, and there is no easy answer as to why.

“I tell you truly, John Carter of Earth, there are no Gates of Iss.  They are not real.”

Opening in Spring 2012, John Carter struggled immediately at the box office, falling way short of it’s production budget and causing Disney to declare a huge shortfall for their company profits that year, leading to a write off.  And though part of the failure of the film falls upon the quality of the film itself, it’s not entirely to blame.  John Carter was a nightmare for Disney’s marketing department, leading to several title changes, until ultimately doing away with the “of Mars” moniker and just labeling it with the very bland sounding John Carter.  While the title didn’t help much, the main struggle was the fact that there was nothing here to distinguish John Carter from every other sci-fi film of the last half-century, which is ironic given that the John Carter novels are what introduced the world to the concept of science fiction.  As a result, John Carter became an unfortunate victim of it’s own legacy.  Too much time had come between the introduction of the character and his eventual appearance on the big screen, with the movie ultimately being released on the character’s centennial anniversary in 2012.  But, did the fault come from an outdated story-line?  Frankly, having read the first book on which this movie is based, I was astonished how little about it was dated.  Sure, some of the morals and racial undertones don’t quite fit today’s standards, but Edgar Rice Burroughs’ writing style is so timeless and easily comprehensible that it can be just as easily enjoyed today as it was when it was published 100 years ago.  The main problem is not the text, but the fact that it’s become too absorbed into everything else in science fiction, making it far too familiar to newer audiences.  Disney could have done something interesting with the text and make John Carter either a uniquely artistic interpretation of the source, or give the story a very modern twist that could help set it apart.  Instead, they went the safe route, and basically rip off all the other properties that John Carter had inspired, creating a mobius strip of mediocrity.

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“When I was little and we would look up at the stars, you would tell me of heroes whose glory was written in the sky.”

One big thing that was lost in translation between the book and the film was actually the character of John Carter himself.  In Burroughs’ original novels, we are treated to a first hand account from the main character himself, helping to put us right inside the mind of John Carter on his journey.  By doing this, Burroughs perfectly illustrates the wonders of Barsoom by putting the reader into the mind of the outsider, experiencing this new world first hand.  We also get to know the man John Carter much better this way, seeing him as a somewhat arrogant but still very courageous and cunning hero.  In the movie, that first person experience is minimized.  In the movie, Carter (played by Taylor Kitsch) recounts his story through his last will and testament to his beneficiary, Edgar Rice Burroughs (played in the film by Daryl Sabara).  It’s weird to see Burroughs himself depicted as a character in a movie based on his own creation, but it’s actually something they adapted correctly from the book.  From there, the movie has Burroughs reading the account of Carter’s journey, but once the flashback begins, the movie begins to fragment, moving away from the first person perspective.  This is unfortunately where the movie falters because by cutting away from Carter’s story to tell the larger political plot across Barsoom, we ultimately loose focus on the character.  And unfortunately, Taylor Kitsch is not a good enough actor to fill that charisma hole and make John Carter interesting.  Instead, he’s purely there to look good in the costume, which is sadly true for the rest of the cast.  Everyone, including some good actors in the cast like Dominic West, Mark Strong, and Bryan Cranston are purely in costume drama mode and hardly ever make an impression in the movie.  The only characters with a little personality in the film are the CGI animated Tharks, especially Tars Tarkas (with the voice of Willem Dafoe) who is by far the best realized character in the movie.  But, by trying to remove the focus off of the main hero, and tell the story in a more standardized way, it robs a little power away from John Carter’s character in the process.

A lot of the remaining problems with the movie, besides the bad timing of it’s release and the loss of focus on his character, is the fact that there is no passion behind it.  It seems like Disney put the film into production purely as an obligation, and the end result is a paint by numbers approach to epic film-making.  Andrew Stanton is a fine filmmaker and a brilliant storyteller, but he was clearly out of his element here.  Unfortunately, he was tasked with adapting a story that modern audiences were unfamiliar with, and yet also had this monumental legacy behind it.  Too much pressure was put upon his shoulders and all he could do was just ride out the storm.  Unfortunately, by just checking off the list of familiar story tropes, he was left with a film that lacked any resonance.  At best, he made a movie that looked pretty, but had no memorable dialogue, no distinguishable characters, and no sense of adventure.  But the task shouldn’t have been dealt with so lazily by Disney.  Burroughs’ novels are tailor made for the big screen and the only thing that was holding them back was the fact that technology couldn’t fully present Barsoom in the way it needed to be seen.  Disney held up that end, but they didn’t allow the story to define itself.  A large reason for that is because too many science-fiction films today have become action packed extravaganzas, and Disney didn’t want their film to feel too different.  Therefore, much of John Carter is filled with needless action set pieces that don’t advance the story in any way.  Only a standout scene in an arena where Carter fights Martian White Apes actually stands out, and that’s mainly because it comes straight from the source; and has of course been imitated in countless other sci-fi stories (the Rancor pit in Return of the Jedi for example).  Couple this with a lack of character development, and you’ve got a movie that is neither immersive nor engaging.  It sadly becomes a cliff notes version of Burroughs’ original story, stripped down of actual originality in order to appeal to all audiences, and appealing to none in the end.

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“Did I not tell you he could jump!”

But, does this reflect badly on the original novels themselves?  I don’t believe so.  John Carter of Mars has been around for over a hundred years now and will continue to stick around long after.  And the movie itself could have been a lot worse than it is.  It doesn’t exploit the novels in a bad way; it’s not even that bad of a film overall.  It’s just a disappointment in the end.  A great film could have come out of this had a more creative vision been behind it.  Sadly, John Carter could not escape the fact that too many years had passed the story by, and everything that it had pioneered had already become normalized in other works of science fiction.  By the time this movie came out, it had nothing original left to add.  That’s not to say something new and interesting could have been done with it.  By playing it safe, Disney spoiled any chance of actually bringing John Carter back to relevance again in it’s second century of existence.  What I think they should of done is take the same route they took with Edgar Rice Burroughs’ other famous creation, Tarzan, and make an animated feature based on John Carter.    It probably would have retained more of Burroughs’ original vision of the character and the world he inhabits had they chosen that medium, but working in live action with the tools we have now is not unreasonable either.  Sadly, Disney was one and done with John Carter; scrapping plans for a trilogy and letting the rights revert back to the Burroughs’ estate, who can shop the story out to other studios now.  Still, it is admirable that Disney allowed for the movie to be made, given the long wait for the character.  Hopefully, we’ll get a better John Carter of Mars movie in the future.  For now, you can find it in any book store, and the stories remarkably hold up to today’s standards.  But, what this proves is that even earnest adaptations can go astray and it may be as a result of not knowing how to handle the story right, or trying to deal with it too delicately for it’s own good.  Time was not on John Carter‘s side, but a failed movie shouldn’t be an indicator of a flawed story.  John Carter still stands as a legend and hopefully his time will come again.

Off the Page – The Road

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There are few if any American authors today who are as influential as Cormac McCarthy. And even fewer are as popular with Hollywood filmmakers at this moment.  The now octogenarian writer has been actively writing since the 1960’s and has published a series of highly acclaimed novels over the years. A few of these have especially drawn the attention of some high profile film producers, who are drawn to McCarthy’s very unique sense of storytelling.  Working mostly in the Western and Southern Gothic genres, McCarthy’s novels often deal with the loss of the American frontier and the plights of the isolated rugged individual dealing with the growing modern world. His novels are often bleak and are not usually known for having a happy ending.  In fact, another characteristic of McCarthy’s writing is the lack of traditional beginnings and endings, as if the story just plops the reader into the middle of an already unravelling plot.  But, what really makes McCarthy a favorite amongst readers are his vivid characterizations.  McCarthy says more about his characters in just a few short words than more authors do in an entire chapter, and he has created some of the most interesting character dynamics we’ve seen in modern literature.  While his stories are grim, they are nevertheless captivating, and they have rightly helped underline the definition of the modern Western narrative. And of course, when your novels are popular in print, they are almost certainly destined for a trip to the big screen, whether or not that’s a good thing.

Luckily for Mr. McCarthay, his novels have largely been treated respectfully when adapted for the cinema. Actor and director Billy Bob Thornton was the first to take a chance on a McCarthay novel, with his movie version All the Pretty Horses (2000), which tackled the first in what has been dubbed McCarthay’s “Border Trilogy.”  Unfortunately, despite critical acclaim, the movie didn’t do well enough at the box office to justify completing the rest of the trilogy, and the remaining novels, The Crossing (1994) and Cities of the Plain (1998) have yet to be adapted.   But in a few short years, Cormac McCarthy would explode onto the Hollywood landscape in a big way when the Coen Brothers decided to bring his 2005 five novel No Country for Old Men to the big screen. The end result was a huge success, performing well at the box office and winning all sorts of awards, including the Oscar for Best Picture of 2007.  Suddenly the author was in high demand, and the rights to his next novel was quickly scooped up. Surprisingly, McCarthay’s follow up was a complete departure in terms of genre. Instead of staying true to his Western roots, McCarthay decided to tackle a post-apocalyptic world with his 2006 novel, The Road.  But even despite this change in genre, McCarthay’s writing style remained true to form and The Road became the author’s most successful book to date, winning even the prestigious Pulitzer Prize.  To bring the novel to life, rights holders The Weinstein Company tapped Australian filmmaker John Hillcoat, whose 2005 film The Proposition became an instant modern Western classic for many filmgoers, and a perfect indication to what was needed to bring The Road to life.  While hype was strong for the movie, the end result was sadly mixed, and in this Off the Page article, I will explain how even well intentioned and faithful book adaptations can go astray.

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“God never spoke.”

One of the biggest challenges in adapting a novel is to decide what needs to make it into the film, and what can be left out.   This is not as difficult as you would think. Oftentimes, it’s just about finding the central element and focusing on it to drive the story along, whether it be a character or a McGuffin device.  Other things like subplots and character details can often be minimalized without damaging the effectiveness of the story.  McCarthay’s The Road is especially challenging in this sense, because of the way McCarthay writes. His novel is told entirely from the perspective of two characters, a father referred to only as The Man (played in the movie by Viggo Mortensen) and his son known only as The Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee).  And telling the story only from their point of view limits an element that helps to make translations to the big screen easier for the filmmaker which is the perspective.  In The Road, we witness an account of a cataclysmic event on Earth, but without the why and the where.  McCarthay never states what caused the sudden destruction of the planet’s environment (some readers theorize an asteroid strike or a supervolcano eruption), and his narrative is far more focused on the aftermath. But even still, McCarthay is scarce on details, with his writing style instead focused on the thoughts and actions of the present in these character’s lives.  This works amazingly well on the page, giving the reader a very “in the moment” reaction to the horrors that the characters encounter, but it also makes the transition all the more difficult.  A filmmaker needs to have a sense of place from the page in order to make it come alive for audiences.  When you have a writer who is purposefully vague in his descriptions, it tends to leave the filmmaker in an awkward position of trying to figure out what’s being seen and if that lives up to the author’s intent.

Now thankfully for John Hillcoat, the author is still present and has been helpful in the past consulting on adaptations of his work.  No doubt the visualization of The Road meets the author’s standards, but even still, McCarthay is not the only one who holds up high standards over the look of his settings. The enormous popularity of The Road has also made its readers especially judgmental about how the film should appear. The unfortunate by product of McCarthay’s intentionally vague sense of place is that it has opened up infinite possibilities in people’s minds about what the settings should look like.  The only consistencies throughout are images of vast expanses of fire-ravaged woodlands, open fields devoid of vegetation now covered in ash, ghost towns devoid of activity, and the final destination being a rocky, coastal beach against a tumultuous ocean.  McCarthay makes all these places memorably haunting, but they could also be located anywhere in the world.  I think the only certainty is that it’s set in the Western United States, or what’s left of it after the cataclysm.  When I read the novel for myself, I had the image in my mind that the characters were making their  way across my home state of Oregon, because most of what McCarthay describes coincides with a lot of the rural scenery that I’ve benergy familiar with growing up there, at least in a pristine and alive state (especially the coastline).  This was further reinforced by the movie, which indeed shot significant parts of the film on location in Oregon.  But, I’m sure other readers from other parts of the country imagined something entirely different, and probably closer to home, and this is the dilemma that director Hillcoat had to face.

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“I told the boy when you dream about bad things happening, it means you’re still fighting and you’re still alive.”

I think the most mixed result of Hillcoat’s adaptation of the novel is with it’s visuals.  For the most part, the movie does a commendable job of bringing the novel to life, particularly in imagining the desolate wastelands that the characters must cross. But, it’s also here that the movie has some of its shortcomings, and that’s a result of its adherence to the source material. Cormac McCarthay only allows for certain details in his account of the settings, which limits what Hillcoat is able to visualize and it opens up the risky challenge of trying to expand upon the text.  Director Hillcoat works at his best with smaller settings that come vividly out of the book, like the macabre horror house of ranging cannibal hunters or the clean and sterile  safe haven of the storm shelter bunker.  But other moments feel out of place, or not quite up to the scale that was presented on the page.  Whether it was due to budget constraints or not, some of the larger set pieces feel surprisingly small in the movie.  A search through a shipwreck from the novel is almost non-existent in the film.  But most of this is the result of the risks you take when adapting a novel to the big screen.  Hillcoat may have had to lose some of the novel’s most memorable set pieces in service of the story, but it was in order to make the ones that matter most stand out all the more prominently.  Hillcoat also ran the risk of going too far with the visuals, making the world he was depicting feel too visually striking, which would have looked artificial as a result.  Thankfully, his gritty style was perfectly suited, as the movie feels very true to the overwhelmingly bleak landscape of the novel, with grey and brown tones dominating every frame.  Some of it is quite oppressive, giving the viewer a very realistic sense of what a dying world would look like.

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“Do you ever wish you would die?”

“No.  It’s foolish to ask for luxuries in times like these.”

I think where John Hillcoat succeeded the most, and may have even bettered the novel, was in his depictions of the main characters. Translating Cormac McCarthay characters can be a daunting task, because they are entirely of their own world, and are so defined by the way McCarthay writes them. For an actor to make these characters work, they must have a good sense of Cormac McCarthay’s intentions for the characterizations are and make it feel natural. These characters often have to live by their own code and exist outside of the what society has set out for them. This is made even trickier by the thinly detailed characters we get in The Road, who exist without names or backstories.  Given these limitations, it’s incredible that the characters work as well as they do in the film.  The pain of everyday life that McCarthay describes in his book is read completely on the faces of the actors, and they manage to believably live in this gritty, dangerous world.  Viggo Mortensen feels especially right at place in this movie, given the method actor’s proclivity for delving completely into character. He pulls off the disheveled look much better than most actor’s would have.  Same with Kodi Smit-McPhee, whose character may have been even harder to believably portray based on how he is in the book. But what the movie does best is to bring the minor characters to life.  John Hilcoat manages to make these briefly seen characters work as highlights in the movie by casting them perfectly. The likes of great character actors such as Guy Pearce, Garret Dillahunt, and Michael K. Williams lend great support, while at the same time disappearing into the fabric of the film. But, even they are overshadowed by an unrecognizable Robert Duvall in a very memorable role as the Old Man. The already blessed cast is made even better by the presence of the legendary actor, who makes this minor character in the novel shine bright, and exceed what was on written on the page.

But, if there was a place where the translation suffered the most between the novel and the movie, it would be in the story itself.  And it’s primarily in how John Hillcoat tries to force the elegance and simplicity of McCarthay’s writing into the film’s screenplay.   The movie does fine with the script for the most part, but because McCarthay’s novel is defined by long dialogues between the Man and the Boy, it unfortunately leads to long talky exhanges in the movie, which kind of gets distracting after a while.  Thankfully, most of the things said are interesting, but you also get the sense that the less said between the two might carry more impact.  Silence is the best asset of the story, given the empiness of the setting, so trying to include a lot of dialogue works against the movie ultimately.  What also becomes problematic is Hillcoat’s attempts to depict the internal struggles going on in the character’s psyche, which is presented in the film through voice-over narration.  This is always one of the big cliches in movie adaptations of famous books, as the filmmakers try to spell out everything from the text that can’t be explained in the dialogue.  The unfortunate side effect is that it exposes the film’s literary roots and takes the viewer out of the immediacy of the setting.  I for one think the movie would have been better off trying to leave the McCarthay prose out, and instead let the story drive itself along.  There’s still enough said by the characters and events that take place that still bears the mark of the author’s style.  Sometimes it just becomes a product of a director trying to be faithful to a fault with the source material.  The movie isn’t spoiled by such decisions, but it does encumber what could have been a real game-changing film, and instead just makes it about average as film adaptations go.

Road 5


“You have to keep carrying the fire.”

While far from perfect, John Hillcoat’s film adaptation of The Road is still a commendable effort.  It’s perhaps that the reputation of the novel may have overwhelmed any possibility of this movie ever becoming just as popular.  Hillcoat is risk taker as a filmmaker, but perhaps he played things too safely with Cormac McCarthay’s masterpiece and made a movie that was passable but unremarkable.  Maybe separated from its place in time, the movie will eventually find an audience.  Hell, if something cataclysmic like this does happen, Hillcoat’s bleak vision of the apocalypse could even become more prophetic then the book. But even still, I’d say that if you want to see a perfect cinematic translation of McCarthay’s writing, you’re better off with No Country for Old Men. The Road, in the end, is a perfect example of taking a well intentioned approach to cinematic adaptation and coming up with something just ordinary.  It’s not a bad film, but it won’t replace the novel in anyone’s eyes either.  Most literary adaptations usually fall under this category, especially the ones that try to take on an acclaimed source.   Its the result of just giving enough thought into the adaptation of the material, while at the same time avoiding any risks.  Hillcoat took enough risks to avoid failure, but the movie just feels too encumbered by avenues not taken.  At least it did show the value of Cormac McCarthay’s status as a writer.  His library of work is still untapped for the most part, and is just waiting for capable filmmakers to bring them to life. The best thing that can be said about the movie The Road is that it took probably the riskiest of McCarthay novels and did something respectful with it, which hopefully sets a good standard for any other adaptations in the future.