Location, Location – The Silent But Crucial Supporting Character in Movies

north by northwest rushmore

The magic of cinema is the power to transport the viewer to another time and place.  We can sit back in our seats at a local cinema or lounge in front of the TV in our living room and have the world around us slip away once we settle in and let the movie grab a hold of us.  To audiences, the movies are alive.  A lot of work goes into pulling off that magic trick, whether it be the effectiveness of the production and costume design or the authenticity of the actor’s performance.  But, if there is one aspect of film-making that sometimes goes unheralded, it’s the effectiveness of the setting itself.  Yes, a lot of artificiality is involved in staging a scene in a particular place, especially when shooting entirely indoors on a manufactured set.  But, there are quite a few movies that use the natural world for the setting of their movies, and just as much consideration goes into finding the right location for a film as it does finding the right actor for a role.  There are many movies where the setting plays a crucial role in the story, and in many cases, is often a character unto itself.  It may not be an active player, but you will often find movies where the setting is either a threat to our main characters, a safe haven, or a place of endearment that is valued by many.  A place can also have it’s own personality, based on the collective characteristics of it’s inhabitants.  But, when the importance of location is not taken into consideration, it can often reflect poorly on the identity of it’s own story.  Over the years, we’ve seen many amazing locations presented in movies, but not enough has been said about the work that goes into making those same locations an integral part of a movie’s success.

Producing a film often starts with the process of location scouting.  Often supervised by the directing team itself, finding the right locations for a movie is important for finding the vision for a story-line.  It’s one thing for the filmmaker to have an idea in their mind of what their setting will look like and how the story will progress within it, but it’s another thing to actually see it in person.  Blocking a shot takes on different challenges when done in the real world.  A director must deal with details and obstacles that normally wouldn’t occur on a controlled set, and this often leads to some interesting directorial choices.  Sometimes, a story can even drastically change in the development process when a location is found that presents a whole bunch of new possibilities to the filmmakers.  And it’s largely a part of the way that a location lends itself cinematicly in different ways.  It can either be the embodiment of one particular place in your story, or can act as nowhere in particular but serve your needs.  Sometimes you want a setting that looks unlike anything you’ve ever seen, but can also have that chameleon like ability to be any number of places.  It’s all to the discretion of the filmmakers.  Because of the importance of a location’s impact on a story, they often have to be more carefully chosen than the actors that inhabit it.  And, as we’ve seen in many important and monumental films, locations and setting often make these movies stand out and retain their own identity.

Some filmmakers choose to use their movies not just to tell the story of their characters, but of the specific places themselves.  Most of the time, they are love letters to a filmmaker’s hometown or place of origin; most often a major city or a cultural region.  Directors do this intentionally for the most part, but sometimes it just comes as part of the filmmaker’s own style.  New York City is often presented as a crucial part of many film narratives; probably more so than any other place in the world.  One particular filmmaker, Woody Allen, created an identity as a director by using the Big Apple in so many of his early films, identifying himself with New York while at the same time presenting an loving image of the city through his own cinematic eye.  Films like Annie Hall (1977), Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), and Bullets Over Broadway (1994) probably wouldn’t have the same impact if they weren’t set within Woody Allen’s own idealized version of New York, which is often as quirky and unpredictable as the man himself.  His Manhattan (1979) in particular is almost the very definition of a love letter to a single location.  But, as much as celebrates the city through it’s wondrous aspects, there are other filmmakers that celebrate  New York in less glamorous ways.  Spike Lee presented New York as a grittier place in his 1989 masterpiece Do the Right Thing, which depicted the racial tensions that undercut much of the daily life in the city between law enforcement and the poorer black neighborhoods.  Though far from the idealized New York of Woody Allen’s movies, Spike Lee’s NYC is no less a potent character in his movies, and Lee celebrates the vibrancy of the people who inhabit it, and likewise celebrates the indomitable spirit of the city’s often forgotten poor.  It shows how much a single place can carry so much character in a movie, even through different kinds of perspectives.

It’s another thing altogether to take a location and make it someplace that exists nowhere else in the world in a believable way. What I’m talking about is recreating a place from a work of fiction by using real locations in different areas and stitching them together to create the illusion that it’s all one place.  This is a trick that’s been used in Hollywood for many years, but has grown in complexity as film-making tools have improved.  Through the magic of editing, you can make real world settings become anywhere you want it to be. This is often used to great effect in comic book movies, where New York City has on more than one occasion played the role of Metropolis in the Superman franchise.   It helps to give extraordinary stories like those a more grounded reality, which in turn helps to transport the viewer more effectively into these fictional worlds.  One of the filmmakers who has done this to spectacular effect is Christopher Nolan, who is renowned for his insistence on real world authenticity in his epic scale movies.  He showed his expertise with this effect when he chose real world locations for his Dark Knight trilogy.  Sometimes his choices of location were pretty obvious to pin down (Downtown Chicago acting as Downtown Gotham City in The Dark Knight’s spectacular chase scene), but there were other scenes that displayed quite a bit of ingenuity to make the fictional Gotham feel real.  In The Dark Knight Rises (2012) Nolan managed to combine three different cities into one chase scene and make the audience feel like they were authentically taking a tour of a real Gotham City.  It was when Batman chases the villainous Bane on motorcycles, with the on-location shooting starting on Wall Street in New York, heading through the underground tunnels of Chicago, before ultimately ending up in Downtown Los Angeles.  That’s a spectacular use of multiple locations to make a fictional one feel as real as possible, and as a result, it gives it a more authentic impact to the story.

But this kind of technique isn’t just limited to giving a fictional place authenticity; it can also allow for a filmmaker to create any world they want, no matter how otherworldly, and still make it feel real.  Inspiration can often come from the natural world in this sense, as the camera can transport the viewer anywhere, but with the story filling the context, and not the location.  Natural wonders across our planet, especially obscure ones, often play the part of different worlds, and these are locations that are given special consideration during the scouting phase.  In the fantasy and science fiction realms, a location has even more influence with the shaping of a story than anything else, so the better you can present it on film, the better.  This is a case where locations must have that trans-formative effect to look unlike anything we’ve ever seen, but still come off as believable, and this often leads to some very complex planning on the filmmakers part.  Peter Jackson managed to this spectacularly well with his Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies, where he found the ideal locations to make J.R.R. Tolkein’s Middle Earth come to life through the natural beauty of his own native New Zealand.  New Zealand was a mostly untapped source for location shooting before these movies came out, but with Peter Jackson’s vision, he managed to showcase it in a spectacular way, while at the same time authentically visualizing the wonders of Tolkein’s world in there as well.  It’s much better to see the Fellowship of the Ring climbing real mountains than recreating it on a stage with visual effects.  As a result, a natural looking Middle Earth became just as much a part of that movie series’ success as anything else, and that same devotion to detail is influencing many more movie projects today, not to mention boosting New Zealand’s tourism industry significantly.

But, it’s not just the expanse nor the many layers of a location that helps to make it a significant factor in a story.  Sometimes a single iconic look to a place can drive the story along as well.  Some movies can even be identified by a single iconic structure or a scene that utilizes the most unbelievable of settings.  The Bradbury Building, for example, is a real place in Los Angeles known for it’s amazing interior ironwork within it’s atrium.  The location has been used in many movies, but none more memorably so than in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), where it served as the location for the climatic showdown in that dystopian futuristic classic.  It’s a great example of using an iconic location in a nontraditional way, and as a result, giving it a whole other identity in the story than it’s own real purpose in reality.  But, no other filmmaker made use of iconic locations in his movies better than Alfred Hitchcock.  Locations have always played a crucial role in his stories, even during his early years in Britain when he used the Scottish Moors so effectively in The 39 Steps (1935).  After coming to America, Hitchcock became enamored with the many different types of iconic Americana in our society and all of his later movies would highlight much of these in both spectacular and sometimes even subversive ways.  Some of them are pretty spectacular, like Kim Novak’s attempted suicide by the Golden Gate bridge in Vertigo (1958), or the thrilling chase across Mount Rushmore in North by Northwest (1959).  But, Hitchcock would also make minor locations take on identities of their own; including the most frightening roadside motel ever in 1960’s Psycho.  As often the case with these movies, it’s the singular location that stands out, and more often than not, it defines the movie as a whole.  In the case of Psycho, it’s the Gothic mansion that’s becomes the selling point of the movie, and not the actors, which tells you a lot about the power that an iconic location can have on it’s audience.

Though a lot of movies take into consideration the importance of a location, a movie can also run the risk of feeling too disjointed from one as well.  Filmmakers sometimes do not see the importance of a location when they are working on a much smaller scale, but they run the risk of limiting their storytelling options that way.  A setting can reveal many different things about the characters, sometimes in unexpected and unplanned ways.  It’s a part of piecing together the character’s life outside of the narrative; revealing to us how they live day to day within their larger world.  Showing that a character lives in the city may hint at a more cosmopolitan side to their personality, or if they come from the country, perhaps they have a more laid back and simple outlook on life.  If your character is from Genericsburg U.S.A., then it’s more likely that they will have no defining characteristics to them at all.  In the movies, a character is defined by their surroundings more than anything else, and that’s why a setting is often the most important supporting factor in their story.  Authenticity is also a huge factor, especially when audiences can tell when a movie is accurately reflecting a real location or not.  One of the worst examples I’ve ever seen of using a location in a movie was in the film Battle Los Angeles (2011).  Speaking as someone who lives and works in LA, I can tell you that this particular film in no shape or form looks and feels like it’s in the real city of LA.  And that’s because not a single frame of it was shot there.  The whole thing was filmed in Louisiana, with sets constructed to look like streets in Los Angeles and nearby Santa Monica.  Unfortunately, it robs the film of it’s character by feeling so fabricated.  As a result, it’s a generic action flick that will tell you nothing about the city of LA, showing the downside of not treating your location with the respect it deserves.  You want an authentic portrait of the city of Los Angeles, watch some of Michael Mann’s films like Heat (1996) or Collateral (2004).

It may not be apparent from the first time you watch a movie, but the setting of the story plays perhaps the most crucial role in it’s overall effectiveness.  And it can be through specific intention on the filmmaker’s part, wishing to highlight a specific place, or by finding a setting that perfectly supports the action and characters that exist with it.  It is the silent supporting player in a movie’s plot and can surprisingly be the thing that most movies hinge their success on.  Any filmmaker who values the process of capturing a sense of reality in their movie will tell you how much they appreciate the variety of cinematic choices they can have when they find an ideal location.  If the location is interesting enough, anywhere you point your camera will reveal new things for the audience, helping to enrich their experience.  When I was working on sets back in film school, I often enjoyed the location shoots much more than the ones in a studio.  A real, authentic location just has a lot more variety, even when it isn’t meant to represent no particular place.  One of my favorite location shoots was on a film set called Four Aces, located out in the Mojave Desert, about a 2 1/2 hour drive from Hollywood.  It’s been used for films like Identity (2002) and Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003), plus a dozen other music videos and commercials, as well as the student movie that I crewed on.  What struck me is how this fabricated set made to look like a gas station with an attached diner and motel out in the middle of nowhere could be so many different things, and yet almost always stand out with it’s own identity no matter what movie project it was in.  That’s the power of having a great location in a film.  Locations are sometimes the most important supporting character a movie can have, and they become so without saying a single word of dialogue.

Evolution of Character – Robin Hood

robin hood painting

Few heroes of film and literature have had the long lasting legacy that the prince of thieves has had.  Robin Hood’s origins date back to medieval times, possibly even beginning from the exploits of a real person.  Though his historical roots may be disputed today, the legend of Robin has not diminished over time.  For many, Robin Hood is the quintessential freedom fighter; a person who works against the system in order to solve an injustice.  And that distinction has made him a very commonly reinterpreted image of heroism.  Really, he represents many different things to different people.  He’s a rebel, an activist, and a noble protector.  In the world of politics, conservatives view him as a hero who stands up against big government overreach, while liberals view him as a hero who re-disperses wealth from the rich to the poor, both fitting that mold of righting injustices.  And perhaps the most interesting aspect of Robin Hood’s character is his selflessness, which is something that has helped him earn almost universal admiration.  In most versions of his story, Robin Hood is a nobleman who gives up his title and lands in order to achieve social justice outside of the law, which he views as corrupt and illegitimate.  The main story of Robin Hood is set during the post Norman invasion years of English history, where the native Saxon people were at odds with their Norman overlords.  Robin of House Locksley sees the dishonesty in the rule of Prince John, who’s using taxation as a way to oppress the Saxon people, and he uses his expertise as a knight and an archer to subvert the usurper king, and restore the throne to the more just King Richard, who is returning home from the Crusades.

It’s Robin Hood’s nobleness that defines him in his tale, but at the same time, most interpretations also build up the charming playfulness of the character as well.  There’s a reason why Robin Hood and his band of outlaws are known as the Merry Men.  He is both a crusading hero as well as a romantic one, which has endeared him to readers and audiences for centuries.  And that specific aspect is what has made him an ideal character for the silver screen.  Robin Hood has enjoyed many cinematic variations, some of which have left their mark on the character for modern times.  Even with reinterpretations, the essential aspects of the character and his story have remained mostly unchanged.  In each film, Robin steals from the wealthy and gives to the poor; he woos the beautiful Maid Marian; and he restores Richard the Lionheart to the throne bringing peace and prosperity back to the land.  Interestingly, the most common thing that changes from each different film version is Robin Hood’s ultimate nemesis.  Usually, it’s a choice from one of the story’s three central villains; the conniving Prince John, the ruthless Sir Guy of Gisbourne, or the thuggish Sheriff of Nottingham, but almost never all three in the same film.  Sometimes one of those characters is written out entirely, leaving more time to focus on one or the other.  But, what always ends up being the highlight in each movie is Robin Hood himself, and Hollywood has given us many spectacular and varied versions over the years.  Like other articles in this series, I will be looking at a few of the most notable versions of the character on film, and see how Robin Hood has evolved over the years as an iconic screen hero.

robin hood fairbanks


Of course, we start with the man who effectively became a legend playing the character.  Douglas Fairbanks was arguably Hollywood’s first matinee idol, and the role of Robin Hood is certainly what helped to cement his image.  What Fairbanks brought so effectively to the character was the fearlessness.  In the film, Robin Hood must accomplish many death-defying feats in order to save his love Maid Marian from the diabolical Sir Guy of Gisbourne.  What is particularly special about all the spectacular heroic feats in the film is that Fairbanks did most of them himself, without a stunt double.  The early days of Hollywood allowed a bit more leeway with what actors and filmmakers could get a way with, and that suited Fairbanks just fine because he was a bit of a showoff, which comes across in his performance.  He’s gutsy, but at the same time debonair, and he brings out every aspect of the character perfectly, despite the restrictions of silent cinema.  His leaping jump from a galloping horse on a raising drawbridge, without the help of visual effects, is a particularly spectacular feat to watch in the movie.  Fairbanks also set the standard on the visual representation of the character, with the pointed cap and the neatly trimmed facial hair.  Indeed, that look would define the character throughout most interpretations in the years ahead.  It’s a movie that clearly proves that Robin Hood was tailor made for cinema, and it took an actor of Fairbanks’ caliber to pull it off.  What Robin Hood needed was the swashbuckling treatment in order to connect with modern audiences, and it came at a time when Hollywood was ever so eager to create one.  And with Fairbanks’ guidance, Robin Hood entered the twentieth century in a big way.

robin hood flynn


After the introduction of sound and color to the film medium, Hollywood again saw the opportunity to once again bring Robin Hood back to the big screen.  And the result is this now classic version, which some often cite as being perhaps the greatest screen version of the story ever.  And that’s hard to argue.  This beautifully crafted, Technicolor marvel is everything you want a Robin Hood movie to be.  It’s got adventure and romance, but also a surprising bit of political subtext.  The movie was directed by Michael Curtiz, an Jewish Hungarian filmmaker who fled Nazi occupation of his homeland at the start of WWII by fleeing to America and finding work in Hollywood.  This story about suppression of people based on their ethnicity probably felt very personal to someone like him.  But, that’s not to say that this movie is just a product of it’s time; it’s actually quite timeless.  And a large part of the film’s success is due to the casting of Errol Flynn as Robin Hood.  He exudes charisma throughout the movie and commands every scene.  Where Fairbanks brought out the physicality of the character, Flynn brings out the humanity, displaying the character’s intelligence and open heart in a very effective way.  The movie also has him dealing with all three of his main foes, for the only time that I can think of in any version.  Of particular note is Sir Guy of Gisbourne (played perfectly by Basil Rathbone), whose final duel with Robin is an iconic scene in it’s own right.  Flynn would become the quintessential version of the character for many years, and probably still is today.  No other actor before or since has been able to embody all the nobleness and virtue of Robin Hood, which ironically Errol Flynn had very little of in real life.  I guess that makes this a truly unexpected performance as a result.

robin hood disney


With a larger than life hero as popular as Robin Hood, you knew that Disney would eventually take their own stab at the character with an animated film.  What was surprising about their version was the way they did it.  In Disney’s Robin Hood, the cast is entirely made up of animals playing all the characters.  And remarkably, it works.  Some of the character choices are pretty obvious (Richard the Lionheart is literally a lion here, as is the villainous Prince John), but some are cleverly unexpected; Prince John’s executioners being vultures for example.  But the obvious choice of animal for the titular hero had to be a fox.  For such a cunning and deceptive hero, what else could he be?  The character is perfectly designed around both aspects of the character; embodying the persona of a fox while still maintaining the traditional image of the hero, complete with green tunic and pointy hat.  The voice, provided by British born actor Brian Bedford is also perfectly suited for the character.  He commands the same suaveness of Errol Flynn, but has a bit more modern sarcastic sense of humor.  I also like the way he hams it up whenever Robin is in disguise; whether it be a gypsy fortune teller or as a feeble beggar, it’s always funny.  This version may be quite the departure from the traditional story, but it still does a good job of presenting the character in a heroic and noble way.  As far as a Disney-fied version of the classic character, this Robin Hood proved to be a crowd favorite and it’s widely viewed as one of the more popular versions of the story for modern audiences, despite all the modern liberties taken with the story.  It’s a clear sign of just how universally effective Robin Hood is as a big screen hero.

robin hood connery


Here we have a decidedly different take on the character than previous versions.  This particular film tells us the life of the hero after his daring exploits have already made him a legend, and thus, shows him trying to cope with his legacy into his later years.  This version of Robin Hood is really a deconstruction of the Robin Hood mythos, portraying Robin as a man torn between duty and honor.  In the movie, Robin (played by Sean Connery) is growing older and he’s seen all the good will that he has brought to the kingdom undone by more war and greed.  Richard has again abandoned his throne to fight another Crusade and Robin leaves his king to return home after he becomes disillusioned by the futility of his king’s foolish mission.  Upon returning home, Robin seeks to redeem the one thing left in his life that he feels is still within his reach, and that’s his relationship with Marian (played by Audrey Hepburn) who has become a nun in the years since he left.  The fact that this movie was made in the wake of the ending of the Vietnam War probably has something to do with this more revisionist take on the character, as society was trying to reevaluate the true makings of heroism and justice.  Robin Hood is still pure of heart here, but he begins to doubt his purpose once he’s seen all the good he has done has been for naught.  The movie is touching, particularly in the Robin and Marian scenes, but I do have to say that Connery is a bit miscast here.  The man is too strong of a persona to play this more vulnerable version of the character.  His performance is still good, don’t get me wrong, but I think it’s the least effective representation of what Robin Hood is all about in the end.  But, in a future version of the story, we would indeed see Connery much better placed in the world of Robin Hood.

robin hood costner


For modern audiences, this is probably the version of the character that more quickly comes to mind.  This is also one of the more divisive versions of Robin Hood put to film.  Many critics balked at the casting of all-American Kevin Costner as the titular hero.  The unsubtle approach to the story and characters also made a few people turn their noses up at this version, as well as towards a few other strange film-making choices made by producer Costner and director Kevin Reynolds.  But, I do have to say that I consider this movie a bit of a guilty pleasure.  Is it a perfect interpretation of the Robin Hood story?  Hardly.  Taking away Robin Hood’s sense of restoring well-being to the unfortunate and instead making the movie a revenge tale between Robin and the man who killed his father, the Sheriff of Nottingham (a delightfully campy Alan Rickman) is definitely not the way to go to be faithful to the character.  But, Prince of Thieves works for me based on it’s own merits as a standalone story.  I enjoy the white-knuckle action scenes as well as the beautiful music by Michael Kamen.  And even though Kevin Costner’s attempts at a British accent are laughable, he at least has a commanding presence as the character.  Can’t say the same about Christian Slater’s painfully bad turn as Will Scarlett.  And Costner makes up for his shortcomings by adding charm to the character when needed.  Not to mention, he sells that cold stare when firing an arrow at his target perfectly.  I also love the addition of Morgan Freeman as a Moorish companion for Robin; something worthwhile that this version added to the mythos.  It’s not perfect, but this Robin Hood story still engages me every time I watch it.  Also it allowed Sean Connery to find his rightful place in the world of Robin Hood when he cameos at the end as King Richard himself.  Now there’s a suitable role for the former 007.

robin hood elwes


Made partially in direct response to the Kevin Costner version of the Robin Hood tale is this spoof movie directed by Mel Brooks.  Though Costner’s version is mocked heavily, the movie also takes a fair deal of aim at the classic Errol Flynn version as well.  As far as Brooks directed spoofs go, this one isn’t quite as strong as past efforts like Blazing Saddles or Young Frankenstein (both 1974), or even Spaceballs (1987).  But, that’s not to say that it’s a bad parody either.  There are some jokes that fall flat (the chastity belt gag is a little weak), but others are just as good as anything that Mel Brooks has written before, particularly the subtle ones (I especially love the bit where Robin learns how each of his family members have died since he’s been away, including his pet cat and goldfish).  But, the thing that works best in the movie is the casting of Cary Elwes as Robin.  Elwes was tailor made for the character, not only looking the part with his Flynn-esque features but also by perfectly displaying the charisma of the character; having come out of playing Dread Pirate Roberts in The Princess Bride (1987) probably helped.  I also like the way he  brings that out even with all the gags and puns thrown about in the film.  There’s a great line in the movie where the English born actor even gets to brag about his role as the character; “Unlike other Robin Hoods, I can speak with an English accent,” which is a not so subtle jab at the American Costner and probably even to the Aussie Flynn.  And because of Elwes contribution, this is actually one of the better interpretations of the character we’ve seen on the big screen.  It’s funny without betraying what makes the character great in the first place.  And it also taught us the important fact that real men wear tights.

robin hood crowe


On paper, this should have been an interesting idea, but sadly the execution left a lot to be desired.  Directed by Ridley Scott and starring his go-to star Russell Crowe, this version of Robin Hood actually deconstructs the origins of the character, showing how he became the Outlaw of Sherwood Forest.  Instead of coming from noble lineage, we see Robin rise up from being a lowly archer in King Richard’s army.  He decides to flee back to England after Richard is killed in battle, but not before assuming the identity of a dying nobleman by the name of Robert Loxley in order to gain safe passage.  Once home, he learns of the growing tensions between nobility and the peasantry, while at the same time trying to gain the trust of the Loxley family that he is now in charge of, including the Maid Marian (Cate Blanchett).  At the same time, a plot to help an invading French force is arising, conducted by the villainous Sir Godfrey (Mark Strong).  If that seems like a convoluted premise, it is.  This version is too bogged down with plot details to work effectively as a Robin Hood story, and sadly what gets sacrificed in the process is character development.  Russell Crowe in particular gets nothing to do with the character.  It’s almost like Scott and Crowe are just trying to rekindle the same kind of magic that they showed in the far superior Gladiator (2000), but have since forgotten how to do it the same way.  It’s an origin story where none is needed.  We want to see Robin Hood steal from the rich to give to the poor, but this movie seems less concerned with that aspect then to showing us how Robin got his name.  It’s beautifully crafted, but a dull sit through of a story, which is decidedly uncharacteristic of a Robin Hood movie.  Mostly, this movie just proves to us the wrong way to bring Robin Hood to the big screen.

Robin Hood has always remained relevant to audiences of all generations.  Everyone knows the tale, whether they’ve seen any of his movies or not, and I guess that’s why so few of these films have actually deviated very far from the traditional plot itself.  I think that a large part of his resiliency is because of the timelessness of the character.  Though medieval in origin, Robin Hood has since become an archetypal hero.  His selfless crusading for the underdog has been a favorite character asset that we’ve seen carried over into other respected heroes in film and literature, such as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962).  The films based on his exploits have also left their mark on modern action and swashbuckling films over the years too.  The Adventures of Robin Hood (1939) in particular stands out as an iconic work of film art, and one that definitively establishes Robin Hood’s place in the pantheon of cinematic heroes.  Though modern versions of the character have been shaky (particularly the tired Russell Crowe version), he’s still a character that will undoubtedly live on well into the future with more big screen adaptations, and hopefully they’ll continue to add more depth to his hero’s journey.  If there is one thing that all these different versions have shown us is that the story continues to evolve.  That’s the special thing about heroic tales in folklore; they continue to grow the more you share them and add your own special twists.  And in that respect, Robin Hood has grown more as a character on the cinematic screen than he has in many centuries before in literature, making him a truly modern hero.

The Big Twist – The Rise and Fall of M. Night Shyamalan

One of the most valuable things to have in the film industry is a unique voice.  Whether it’s through the lens of a camera or with the mastery of the written word, being able to distinguish yourself among all the other artists in film is something that everyone aspires to.  Many try, but few actually can achieve the status of true originality.  Oftentimes, in order to make a living in the film industry, some filmmakers will sacrifice originality and adopt a standardized style that gets them work more readily.  Other artists will toil for years to create something that appeals to their senses, and possibly alienate their audiences with too much artistic self-indulgence.  But, there comes a time when some artists are struck with inspiration and create something unexpected that helps to propel them to the next level, which itself can also have it’s own consequences.  This particular career trajectory happened to Indian-American filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan.  Shyamalan, perhaps more than any other filmmaker in recent memory, has had one of the most tumultuous careers in film.  At one time a struggling wannabe filmmaker, Shyamalan managed to break out with an unexpected hit called The Sixth Sense (1999), which then led to high demand for his next projects.  The Sixth Sense‘s unbelievable success was both a blessing and a curse for the director over time, because even though it propelled his career and made him a household name overnight, it also laid unrealistic expectations on him as well, something which has plagued him ever since and ultimately turned Shyamalan’s career into something of a cautionary tale.

M. Night Shyamalan can be either considered a unique visionary, or a pretentious hack, depending on who you talk to.  But, there is one thing for certain and that’s the fact that his career has taken a tumble over the years.  He did follow up The Sixth Sense with another critical hit called Unbreakable (2000) and a box office smash called Signs (2002), showing that he’s more than just a one hit wonder.  But, all the movies he’s made since then have either been panned by critics or have flopped at the box office, or both.  And the strange thing is that most of the reasons why people say they hate his movies is because of the director himself.  It has become a bizarre reversal of fortune for Shyamalan.  At one time, his career was so hot that putting his name above the title proved to be a mark of quality.  Now, film studios are actively hiding his involvement in film projects, so as to not incur the wrath of hostile audiences.  But, why has Shyamalan’s brand dropped down so much?  Audiences hold his movies up to so much scrutiny, more than any other active director, and it doesn’t have anything to do with the man himself.  As a person, Shyamalan seems like a nice guy with nothing in the way of negative baggage.  So, why the hate?  Simply put, his rise and fall as a director more or less has to do with the way we value the quality of storytelling, and how much effort a filmmaker puts into his own work.  In the case of M. Night Shyamalan, we experienced the arrival of a unique voice in Hollywood who unfortunately couldn’t shake off the shadow of his own metoric rise.  By sticking to the formula for success that he pioneered, Shaymalan became a parody of himself.

When you look at the career of M. Night Shyamalan, the one thing that instantly defines the whole of it is the term, “plot twists.”  Shyamalan proved to be the master of pulling the rug out from under his audiences and presenting them with completely unexpected plot swerves that no one saw coming.  In fact, if one were to compile a list of the greatest plot twists in movie history, I’m sure you’ll find two of his there.  The first one, and really the one big thing that put Shyamalan on the map, was the big twist at the end of The Sixth Sense.  I won’t spoil it here (though honestly who doesn’t already know it by now?), but it hit audiences so hard that it caused a word of mouth campaign that boosted it’s box office numbers, just based on the notion that everyone had to see it to experience it fresh to get the true impact.  The twist took on a legendary life of it’s own and people were anxious to see if Shyamalan could one up himself the next time around.  What he made next proved that he indeed had more tricks up his sleeve, but in a wholly unexpected way.  Moving from ghost stories to superhero origins, Shyamalan crafted an equally compelling film called Unbreakable, re-teaming himself with Sixth Sense star Bruce Willis.  Unbreakable didn’t have quite the box office success that Sixth Sense did, but it was well received by audiences who saw it, including myself (I named it my favorite film of 2000, and I still stand by the pick).  But, what was remarkable about Unbreakable was that Shyamalan managed to work in another unexpected plot twist, one that even rivaled his last one.  The twist would soon became a Shyamalan trademark and it would continue to become an expected part of his later film projects, including his follow ups Signs and The Village (2004).

But, when your career trademark becomes something that is supposed to be unexpected, it begins to rob some of it’s power once it stops being a surprise.  This is largely what caused a downturn in Shyamalan’s latter career.  His style no longer had the power to surprise.  When he was just starting to make a name for himself, he could blind side his audiences with his twists, because they were far better hidden in less familiar style.  Now, after seeing Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, people anticipated the twists, which made it harder for Shyamalan to be creative with them.  As a result, his twist endings became more confounded and pretentious over time, loosing their intended impact and leaving the audience underwhelmed as a result.  A perfect example of how poorly his trademark twists were handled can be seen in The Village.  The premise of the movie is intriguing; an isolated turn-of-the-century village is attacked every  night by cloaked monsters, and the only thing that saves it’s residents is strict adherence to traditional customs and complicated rituals meant to ward off the intruders.  The movie, at times, has some chilling tension, as well as some good performances from actors like Joaquin Phoenix and Bryce Dallas Howard.  But, all the momentum of the story is undermined once the truth behind the monsters is revealed.  Spoilers, they’re not real.  Not only that, but the big twist at the end (that all of this was really set in modern times) is telegraphed way in advance by some of the ways the adult characters speak to one another.  Overall, The Village  proved that M. Night Shyamalan’s formula wasn’t infallible, and that by forcing it into a story that would’ve been better served without it, the twist ended up becoming a negative rather than a positive.

Another factor that also alienated Shyamalan from his audience was his insistence on showing off his style in every movie.  When Shyamalan was unknown, his flashy style was more effective, because it helped him stand out.  People saw the clever use of color symbolism in Sixth Sense and the cold, washed out cinematography of Unbreakable as bold choices made by a man who knew exactly how cinema should work.  But, those two movies were perfectly suited for the Shyamalan style.  Once the director moved out of his comfort zone into other genres, his style became more distracting as it was forced into movies where it wasn’t needed.  The Lady in the Water (2006) should have been an uplifting fantasy tale, but it ended up getting bogged down by Shyamalan’s deliberate pacing.  The Happening (2008) takes itself way too seriously with it’s ludicrous premise, and ends up being unintentionally hilarious for it’s ineptness.  And these were two movies that should have been interesting experiments for him, and he chose to neither take advantage of the opportunities nor challenge himself.  Shyamalan’s major fault was his inability to adapt his style over time.  Many directors take on a variety of projects in different genres, but they make the jumps more effectively when they conform to what is best for the project, rather than forcing their own style into places where it shouldn’t be.  That’s how Steven Spielberg can be the director of both E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and Schindler’s List (1993), and Martin Scorsese can be the director of both Goodfellas (1990) and Hugo (2011).  It’s the secret to longevity in the business; challenging yourself with variety rather than staying in your comfort zone.

But, at the same time, M. Night Shyamalan had to deal with the cost of fame, and the unrealistic expectations that were laid out in front of him.  As a result, those of us who considered ourselves fans of Shyamalan are also to blame for his downfall.  We expected far too much of the man, and unfairly blamed him for not meeting our demands.  There is a peculiar thing in our collective culture where we like to build up icons only to take them down later if they show us even the slightest hint of impurity.  Shyamalan certainly has his faults as a filmmaker, but he at least earned the spotlight that would soon put everything he made under harsher scrutiny.  For him, the rise in public image was too fast and too overwhelming, and it’s probably due to the fact that Hollywood was all too eager to crown a fresh new face in the business.  Newsweek Magazine prematurely declared Shyamalan “the next Spielberg,” which was a little unfair for a director who had only had just a couple movies to his name at that point.  Though, truth be told, Shyamalan did buy into some of the hype himself by creating a brand to distinguish his works from everyone else.  Not only did he put his name above the title for a while, but he injected himself into all his movies as well.  And this was more than just Hitchcockian cameos.  In The Lady in the Water, there is a writer character who is prophisized to one day change the world with his work, so naturally Shyamalan cast himself as the character.  Not very subtle there M. Night.  Still, he’s not alone as a fallen idol in Hollywood.  Whether you’re Orson Welles or Michael Cimino, Hollywood seems to enjoy tearing down their wunderkinds whenever they fly too close to the sun; perhaps as a way to curb unchecked ambition.  But, even though Shyamalan contributed to his own fall from grace, the pedestal on which he stood shouldn’t have been so high to begin with.

In addition to the unfair expectations, there were also the unfortunate circumstances of M. Night Shyamalan becoming involved in projects that were never a good fit for him from the start.  As a way to keep himself working as his own ambitious projects failed, Shyamalan took on directing duties in projects developed from outside sources.  This included the big budget adaptation The Last Airbender (2010), which was based on the popular Avatar animated series on Nickelodeon, as well as the Will Smith sci-fi vehicle called After Earth (2013).  Both films were slammed by critics and audiences, and a lot of the blame was laid at Shyamalan’s feet, which I find to be a little unfair.  For one thing, adapting Avatar: The Last Airbender into a two hour movie was doomed from the start.  I’ve never seen the series, so after watching the movie, I didn’t have the visceral hatred for it that other people did.  It’s certainly flawed, but only in a storytelling standpoint, which I account to the adaptation, as well as to some very poor casting choices.  But, what I do admire in the movie is seeing Shyamalan branch out and try new things.  The Last Airbender is the least Shyamalan-esque movie that he has made, and it’s interesting to see him work with bigger scale and scope.  But, then again, if the purpose was to adapt the series correctly, then I can understand the view of this being a massive failure.  But, was it Shyamalan’s fault, or Nickelodeon’s for believing that he was right for the material?  With regards to After Earth, I lay more blame on Will Smith than on Shyamalan, because he was clearly the driving force behind the movie; using it as a platform to spotlight his less talented son Jaden Smith.  Sadly, Shyamalan was just along for the ride and it ended up dropping his stock even more, even though his mark on the movie was minimal.  It just shows that circumstance also was a part of the director’s downward spiral, and that disappoints aren’t always of the artists own doing.

So, is Shyamalan forever doomed to be a shadow of his former self.  It’s entirely left up to him.  What I have seen in recent years from Shyamalan is a drive to reinvent himself as a filmmaker and try new things.  Sadly, those new things have failed him, but not without effort on his part.  What I do like is the fact that he’s abandoning the things in his career that were clearly holding him down, like the trademarks that had lost their effectiveness and the self-indulgent directing choices as well.  Also, he’s injecting himself less and less into his own movies; fewer cameos and no name above the title anymore.  But, can he make it work?  Well, this week marks the premiere of his new film, The Visit, which is his return to the suspense thriller genre after a long absence.  Already, he is receiving far more favorable reviews from critics for this one (it currently has a fresh rating on Rottentomatoes.com) which is something that he hasn’t achieved in over a decade.  And probably the reason for this is because it’s a smaller budgeted, more intimate story; relying on far less hype and instead it just allows M. Night Shyamalan to craft something closer to his own interests.  The Visit appears to be a perfect recharge for the director; free of the Shyamalan brand and able to just stand on it’s own merits.  And if that’s what Shyamalan needs to regain his status as a respectable filmmaker once again, then it will be just the right thing for him.  Overall, the rise and fall of M. Night Shyamalan is a Hollywood caution tale, showing us the risks of becoming too big too fast, and also showing how we can fall victim to too much hype and/or our own lack of restraint.  M. Night Shyamalan learned all of this the hard way and only now is he starting to alter the course of his career in the right direction.  Who knows?  Perhaps the greatest twist Shyamalan has ever made is the one that may yet decide which way his remaining career will go.

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.

john carter 4

“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.

john carter 3


“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.

john carter 1


“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.