Category Archives: Off the Page

Off the Page – One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Just like the same movement in cinema, American literature also changed significantly during the rise of counter culture in the 60’s and 70’s.  Rising out of the Beat generation and it’s poetic forbearers like Allen Ginsberg, the hippie movement brought it’s own wave of groundbreaking, socially conscious writing to the forefront of attention in the minds of young American.  Tackling everything from social taboos, to the rights of the oppressed, to psychedelic philosophizing, to just plain old “sticking it to the man,” there were many books both fiction and non-fiction that helped to define that turbulent era.  One prominent voice to emerge from that time period, whose writing particularly evoked all the rage, restlessness, and free-spirited thinking of the hippie movement, was novelist Ken Kesey.   Kesey was not your stereotypical hippie.  He was broad shouldered, had a horseshoe haircut that he often hid under a beret, and was also an avid outdoorsman who hunted. He often viewed himself as a bridge between the beat generation and the hippies, as he embodied the enduring spirit of one into the other.  He founded the hippie collective known as the Merry Pranksters, who travelled across the country aboard their psychedelically painted school bus and hosted “happenings” in numerous cities where they would share their art as well as psychotropic drugs with new people.  These “happening” were immortalized by fellow novelist Tom Wolfe in his 1968 book The Electric Kool-Aid  Acid Trip.  He was also an early mentor of a little band known as The Grateful Dead.  But, it’s through his writing that we best know him.  He didn’t write much throughout his career, often spending most of his time as a cultural ambassador as well as a teacher, but the stuff he did write are touchstones of the era that he participated in.  He often considered his second novel, 1964’s Sometimes a Great Notion, to be his magnum opus, but the novel he is better known for is his debut, which of course spawned it’s own Oscar-winning adaptation; 1962’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Kesey had it in his mind to be a writer very early on.  After earning his English degree at the University of Oregon, he continued onto a graduate creative writing program at Stanford.  While there, he worked part-time on a graveyard shift at mental health facility.  At the same time, he also earned a bit of extra cash volunteering to take psychoactive drugs as part of Project MKUltra.  Both of these side gigs during his formal education no doubt inspired him with the subject of his first novel.  He completed his manuscript almost immediately after graduation, and it was published not long after in 1962.  It was a controversial book to say the least in it’s time, with it’s very anti-authoritarian message, and it was even banned in some parts of the country.  But, in general, it caught on with young readers, especially those of the beat generation and in the burgeoning counter culture.  Also surprisingly, it caught the attention of some big names in entertainment.  Actor Kirk Douglas optioned the book almost immediately for a stage adaptation, which was brought to Broadway by playwright Dale Wasserman.  The play was likewise also a hit, and it’s been revived and staged many times over the years since.  However, a film adaptation took a bit longer to come together.  Douglas maintained the film rights as well, but no studio would finance the project, often objecting to the tone and message of the story.  After a decade, Kirk Douglas had grown too old to play the lead part of Randall McMurphy anymore, and he was starting to look for other parties interested in taking the project off his back.  Well, that interested party turned out to be his son Michael Douglas, who was eager to prove himself as a movie producer.   Michael eventually landed a deal with Warner Brothers, with a script adaptation by Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman.  Czechoslovakian filmmaker Milos Forman was tapped to direct, this being only his second English language film after Taking Off (1971).  Kesey largely remained hands off during the making of this movie, but the production did honor his native Oregon roots by filming the movie at a real asylum in the city of Salem.  Indeed, comparing the book with the finished movie, one will find an almost faithful adaptation, though with some very crucial difference.

“I must be crazy to be in a loony bin like this.”

One thing that the movie gets almost exactly right in it’s adaptation is the core theme of the story.  The book One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a novel about individualism, and how institutions are built to break down the free will of those within it and why it’s necessary to fight back against it.  At the heart of the story is the clash between two different mindsets; that of the revolutionary fervor, embodied in the character of inmate Randle Patrick McMurphy, and that of rigid conformity, embodied in the caretaker of the facility, Nurse Ratched.  The brilliant thing about the story is that neither character is purely good or evil.  McMurphy enters the mental asylum feigning illness as a way to receive what he thinks to be lighter incarceration than prison, which he’s been sentenced to for statutory rape.  Nurse Ratched is by all accounts well liked outside of work, but in the asylum, she is a manipulative, passive aggressive tyrant.  There are a lot shades of grey with these characters, which is what makes Kesey’s novel such a richly layered narrative.  McMurphy is likewise manipulative, but his challenging of Ratched’s authority and refusal to comply, even if it’s sometimes for selfish needs, is an inspiring shake-up of the established order.  What Kesey celebrates in McMurphy is the refusal to just let the system grind down the individualism of the people within it.  As demonstrated through scenes where we meet the individual patients at the asylum, they are often kept under control through rigorous routine, harsh rules for stepping out of line, coercion through rewards and public shaming.  McMurphy, unlike Ratched, sees the individualism in each of the different inmates and treats them like they should be treated; as human beings.  The other inmates suddenly gain a sense of their own self worth once again, and one by one begin to rise together with Randle in pushing back against Ratched.  The rebellious spirit of course doesn’t last long and McMurphy pays the price.  But, in a very important line of dialogue, he implants the seed of rebellion in all of them, after failing to lift a hydrotherapy console in the washroom he says, “But I tried, didn’t I?  Goddamnit, at least I did that.”  Even if rebellion leads to destruction, as it does by the end of the story, the idea itself endures and thrives.

“Mmmmm, Juicy Fruit.”

It cannot be said enough how well this movie is cast across the board.  After Kirk Douglas had outgrown the role that he originated on stage, there really was only one logical choice for Randle McMurphy.  Jack Nicholson was at the time of this film’s making hitting a career highpoint.  He had already won acclaim for roles in Five Easy Pieces (1970), The Last Detail (1973), and of course Chinatown (1974), all three which earned him Oscar nominations for Best Actor.  He was steadily becoming the movie star of the moment in the mid-70’s, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was a movie that was just tailor made for him.  When you read Randle McMurphy on the page, you can think of no one other than Nicholson in the role.  Fast talking, abrasive, and irreverential, you would almost think Ken Kesey wrote the character with Nicholson in mind; which I doubt was the case as Nicholson was just a bit part actor back when Cuckoo’s Nest was first published.  It’s honestly a good thing that the movie adaptation had to wait ten years just so Jack could be ready to play the part.  He nails every part of the movie, capable of being laugh out loud funny but also sincere in the more dramatic moments as well.  But, he is pretty much matched in every way by the breakout performance of Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched.  Fletcher in many ways improves upon the character as she is written in the novel.  The way that she exudes menace through such a cool demeanor and controlled voice is remarkable.  She is the perfect embodiment of every stuffy bureaucrat who dehumanizes people down to pawns in their own little power play.  The way she breaks down her patients, especially Billy Bibbit in the film’s finale, with her cold hearted use of shame is a very chilling portrayal of institutional evil put on screen.  Fletcher won out the role after performers like Angela Lansbury and Anne Bancroft passed on it, and like Nicholson as McMurphy, it’s a part that seemed to be made just for her.

What I find the most interesting about the remainder of the characters is how they are fleshed out by the movie in a way that they aren’t in the book.  The biggest example of this is the thing that is most different between page and screen.  That would be the character of Chief Bromden.  The tall, silent Native American patient at the asylum, played in the movie by Indigenous actor Will Sampson, is a secondary but still very important character in the film.  However, in the book, his role is fleshed out because he is actually the point-of-view character through which we witness the story unfold.  We get much more insight into Bromden’s mindset, and it’s interesting seeing how someone like McMurphy is observed through someone else’s eyes.  In the movie, McMurphy is the focal point character, and Bromden grows into an important part of the story the more that McMurphy interacts with him.  Even with the different POV’s on which the book and movie hinge around, the story still effectively gets it’s themes across.  It kind of works a little more interesting in the film, as Bromden remains an enigma for much of the first half, being a stoic mute.  It helps to raise the surprise level even more when he does break out of his shell, demonstrating the McMurphy’s influence on him.  Even as McMurphy succumbs to the limits of his rebellion, it’s Bromden who in the end carries his spirit on, as he smashes the window open with the hydrotherapy console that couldn’t be lifted up before, leading the the movie’s bittersweet but uplifting conclusion.  The book allows the reader to understand the thought process of one taking in the lessons of defiant rebellion, but the movie also makes that transformation feel rewarding as well, because we are able to see what the spark of rebellion is like when found in the unlikeliest of places.

“You know Billy, what worries me is how your mother is going to take this.”

I will also say that the thing that also brings out the authenticity of the adaptation is the choice of location as well.  The insane asylum that we see in the movie is the real deal, and probably not that unlike the one that inspired Kesey in his writing.  An interesting side note, the role of the asylum’s director was played by the actual director of the Oregon State Hospital where they filmed.  Milos Forman and his team did such a remarkable job turning the asylum itself into a character.  The way that Kesey describes the interiors of the hospital in his novel, with it’s cold sterile feeling, comes across perfectly in the movie.  Not only that, but Forman also utilized the local Oregon flavor of the setting as well.  Being an Oregon native myself, I can tell you that this movie is a source of pride among Oregonians.  No where does the movie show off the beauty of the state of Oregon better than in the scene where McMurphy hijacks the asylum’s field trip and takes the patients on a fishing trip off the coastline.  This is another moment in the movie that perfectly captures the spirit of Kesey as a character, since he himself was an avid fisherman, and often spent many trips fishing up and down the coast.  My hometown of Eugene, Oregon was ground central of Kesey’s Merry Prankster movement.  To this day, many of Kesey’s disciples still live in the Eugene metro area and are continuing to contribute to the counter culture flavor still found there.  Kesey remained a fixture in the local arts scene until his death in 2001, and the city honored him with a statue in the town square.   Kesey’s home state of Oregon was just as big of a muse in his writing as anything else, and though it’s as integral to the plot of Cuckoo’s Nest as it is to Sometimes a Great Notion, it’s still nice to see that the movie went the extra mile to bring it’s location shoot to the Beaver State.  That’s a major contribution brought to the film by director Milos Forman, whose style was very much shaped by his years working in documentaries for Czechoslovakian television.  He knew the importance of having his movie set in real places rather than on a soundstage.  It’s something he would apply on even larger scales later on, including the Oscar-winning Amadeus (1984).

It’s interesting to see how differently both the book and the movie were received in their respective times.  The book One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was in many ways far more subversive in the early sixties than the movie was in the mid-seventies.  For the book, the country had yet to go through traumatic experiences like the Assassination of President Kennedy or the Vietnam War, so it’s plea for rebellion was not as widely accepted in it’s time.  It was subversive to challenge authority, something that was only valued by the beatniks and counterculture, and not the mainstream.  But, of course, there was plenty to be rebellious about in that time.  Marginalized groups like African Americans, the LGBTQ community, and Indigenous Tribes were beginning to march for their rights in the time period that Kesey was writing his novel.  Though he used the allegory of patients within an insane asylum, the same theme of demanding dignity in a world built to suppress them still rang true through in Kesey’s writing, and so many activists found inspiration in the way Randle McMurphy created what the late congressman and activist John Lewis called “good trouble.”  By the time the movie was released a decade later, the world had changed dramatically.  The psychedelic 60’s gave way to the rebellious 70’s, and when One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest reached theaters in 1975, the counterculture was not only thriving, it had become the culture.  The war in Vietnam was in it’s final, miserable days and the hard fought for Civil Rights Act was the law of the land.  But, this was also the era of Watergate, and America was still facing a crisis of authority pushing down on the oppressed.  However, in that expanse of time, people now knew to spot the flaws in the system, and call out those who were abusing their power for their own satisfaction.  In that respect, Nurse Ratched changed from a symbol of the system to a much more defined monster, reminiscent of the would be authoritarians like President Nixon who were trying to put the counterculture back into the shadows of society.  Across it’s different eras, the story remarkably maintained it’s resilience, but as we saw, it also gained new and interesting layers between book and film.  Even almost 50 years later, there are still many other elements to the story that gain new significance in perspective with the times.

“You’re not an idiot.  Huh! You’re not a goddamn looney now, boy.  You’re a fisherman!”

As a movie, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s remains a landmark in cinema.  It was only the second movie ever to sweep the top five honors at the Academy Awards (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay) after It Happened One Night (1934), and the only other movie to do that since has been The Silence of the Lambs (1991), putting Nest in an exclusive club.  Nicholson of course finally walked away a winner after so many nominations, and honestly, of all his performances this was the right one to honor him for.  His work as Randle Patrick McMurphy is just iconic, and so full of energy.  Ken Kesey gave his protagonist the initials R.P.M. for a reason, and Nicholson is the one and only actor to truly bring that character to full potential on screen.  Louise Fletcher likewise delivers an iconic performance as Nurse Ratched, turning her into one of cinema’s most unforgettable villains.  The supporting cast, many who came from the Broadway and Off-Broadway stagings, also includes an incredible group of up-and-comers from that era like Danny DeVito, Christopher Lloyd, and Brad Dourif.  But, it’s also interesting to see how much of the book is maintained through the translation.  Every moment of the book makes it on screen and the only real big difference is whose eye’s the story is seen through.  Speaking of the character of Chief Bromden, you couldn’t ask for a more emotionally stirring finale than what happens between him and Randle in the closing minutes.  There you see the true power of rebellion manifest.  As the spirit is destroyed in one person, the lobotomized Randle, it is carried forward through Bromden, the one he inspired the most.  And as Bromden runs off into the horizon after making his breakthrough, we are left feeling optimistic about the future, even through a moment of despair.  The will to fight for a better world is greater than one man.  Ken Kesey saw injustice in his world, and it’s interesting that he chose to spotlight those deemed broken by society as his champions in a cry for humanity.  To this day, that is what has kept One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest such a powerful and relevant story.  We still see people treated unfairly in uncaring engine of our society.  For Kesey, the purpose of his story was to help convince the reader that no one is helpless and doomed to a life within walls.  We just need to be convinced that we matter in the world, and that it’s worth demanding better of the system that is built to look over us.

“One flew East. One flew West.  One flew over the cuckoo’s nest.”

Off the Page – The Grapes of Wrath

It’s hard to contemplate how harsh the Great Depression was on working class Americans so many years and generations after it happened.  Today, we worry about pandemic related mass unemployment and supply chain disruptions resulting from a year of lockdowns, but the Great Depression was a whole different kind of monster.   With an unemployment rate that reached a staggering 24% of the population which persisted for several years due to stagnant growth in the economy, it still remains unchallenged as the greatest economic downturn in US history.  With the stock market crash came the collapsing of the banks, which could no longer provide loans to boost business or help average citizens hold onto their homes.  Eventually, foreclosures drove many people out of their homes and into tenement camps that later became known as “Hoovervilles,” named after then President Herbert Hoover, whose botched handling of the economic crises was largely blamed for the prolonged Depression.  It was a harsh time in America, as people were desperate to find any work they could, and that often led to many people falling victim to scam artists and greedy opportunists who would prey upon the desperate for cheap labor.  This in turn led to a rise of push back from the workers, and they started organizing and demanding better may and living conditions.  Sadly, the workers faced resistance by being labeled communist agitators, and wealthy business owners used their powerful influence to manipulate the legal system to deny workers the rights that they were seeking.  Still, the rise of unionization and the clear devastation brought on by the poor handling of the economy led to a change in the American political system, which eventually led to the election of Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt to the presidency, who ran on a promise of a “New Deal” overhaul of the Social Welfare system in America.  Though it would take many years of tough battles in the halls of congress, Roosevelt eventually got his New Deal programs passed, which brought about pivotal new safety net measures, like Social Security and a Federal Minimum Wage.  Probably no other era in 20th century had as much of a profound effect on the future of America as those Depression years.

And yet, as time has pressed forward, the lessons taken from the Depression seem to have faded as well.  Today, we take Social Security for granted, and unionization is at the lowest level it has ever been, which in turn has led to another era of wealth inequality and corporate exploitation of labor.  What we have left to remind us of the horrible legacy of the Great Depression are the stories told by our elders and the documentation of that time period that survives to this day.  The Dorthea Lange photographs of migrant workers living in Hoovervilles still vividly capture the horrific reality that ordinary American citizens endured over those years.  Several news articles and news reels that have survived also have given us an idea of what it was like, though they feel more and more detached so many years later.  For many, the most enduring portrait of the horrors of the Great Depression comes from the pages of what many consider to be among the “Great American Novels;”  John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, as well as the famous 1940 movie that it inspired.  Born and raised in Salinas, California, Steinbeck saw the effects of the Great Depression all too clearly, as he witnessed the mass migration of poor farmers from the Prairie states making their way to the fertile lands of his home state, only to see them being either threatened, mistreated or generally exploited by his fellow Californians once they got there.  In his writing, he expressed sympathy for the working man, and sought to tell their story.  He wrote articles for the San Francisco News about the plights of the migrant workers in a series that came to be known as The Harvest Gypsies, which told the story in the workers’ own words.  He would also write many short stories and novels that offered many different windows into the lives of poor working farmers, such as Of Mice and Men and of course The Grapes of Wrath.  His writing has often been described as Dust Bowl Fiction, relating to the simultaneous catastrophe of the Dust Bowl famine of 1935-36, which exacerbated the Depression even further.  Though a lot of his writing gave a much needed compassionate voice to the too often overlooked migrant worker, it was not always met with favorable reception.

“Takes no nerve to do something, ain’t nothin’ else you can do.”

John Steinbeck wore his New Deal progressive politics proudly on his sleeves, which often opened him up to accusations of being a communist sympathizer or just an outright card carrying member.  The Grapes of Wrath was his most pivotal work to date, detailing through the eyes of one family all of the harsh realities of Depression Era exploitation.  In his novel, he makes no illusions of where he stands, with every authority figure and capitalist portrayed as corrupt, and the only compassionate party in the story other than the migrants are the supervisors of a Government run camp that helps keep the law enforcement at bay.  For it’s perceived anti-capitalist viewpoint, The Grapes of Wrath was banned in many corners of the country, with censors fearing it would inspire communist infiltration of the workforce.  Even in Steinbeck’s home state his novel met resistance, with the Kern County Board of Supervisors out right banning the sale of the book.  But one other part of the state that responded well to Steinbeck’s novel was Hollywood, and in particular, a very unlikely champion named Daryl F. Zanuck.  Zanuck, the head of 20th Century Fox, was a lifelong Republican, but he was sympathetic to the struggles of the working class during the Great Depression and the movies from his studio often reflected a progressive attitude towards social issues.  Naturally, he found the appeal in Steinbeck’s vivid portrait of Depression era suffering. and optioned the novel right away, long before it even went into wide publication.  Still, Zanuck had to get around the censorship issues that plagued The Grapes of Wrath.  He sent investigators to tenement camps up and down the state of California to see how accurate Steinbeck’s accounts of the horrific conditions the migrant workers lived in were.  Not only did their findings back up Steinbeck’s accounts, but they proved to be even worse than expected.  With that knowledge, Zanuck knew that it was not only worthwhile to adapt The Grapes of Wrath for the big screen, but also essential.  He tapped one of the most celebrated filmmakers of that period, John Ford, to bring the novel to life, and it would prove to be one of the most ideal matches of filmmaker and author Hollywood would ever see.

“I never had my house pushed over before.  Never had my family stuck out on the road.  Never had to lose everything I had in my life.”

John Ford’s film largely sticks pretty close to the book for the first part, but diverts significantly in the later half.  Those second half differences in particular reveal a lot about what it took to get the movie made in the midst of the threat of censorship.  It also reveals a lot about the different world views of the author and the director.  Even with the limitations, the movie still manages to paint a vivid portrait of the Great Depression and the horrifying affect it had on the people who lived through it.  Like the book, we are introduced to the Joad Family, a tightly knit unit of Oklahoma farmers, known as Okies, who have no other choice than to hit the road and head off to a hopefully better life in California.  After the bank forecloses their farm, with the Dust Bowl rendering their soil useless, the Joad family straps everything in their possession to the back of a beat up old truck and leaves the land that has sustained them for generations behind.  The book and movie detail the sights and events that follow them along the way as they drive down Route 66 to their destination.  The movie removes a couple of the different vignettes on the road trip out, but still keeps the important ones in the film, including the losses of loved ones.  Where John Ford really proves he’s the perfect director to tackle this kind of subject matter is in his no nonsense approach to his visual story-telling.  His film feels completely devoid of the usual Hollywood glitz and you would almost believe that he’s shooting a documentary at times.  One of the most remarkable moments in the movie is when the Joad Family arrives at their first Hooverville in California, and Ford shows their arrival through an incredible POV shot from the front of their truck.  The camera pans across the view they see of the camp, with poor and destitute people staring back as the truck passes through.  You really see the influence of Dorthea Lange’s heartbreaking photographs in this memorable POV shot, with the camp appearing to be the real deal.  This must have been a shocking thing for audiences in 1940, which was only a couple short years removed from the worst years of the depression.  People who avoided seeing the conditions within these camps were now suddenly witnessing it first-hand on the big screen, and the Ford style was very instrumental in making that happen.

But what mattered the most in making the story resonate within the film was how well audiences connected with the characters.  In many ways, this is where we see some of the big differences between the novel and the film.  In Steinbeck’s novel, all the members of the Joad family are spotlighted with their own different struggles during the journey.  In the film, it’s really only three principle characters that are focused on.  One of course is the protagonist eldest son of the family, Tom Joad.  Tom Joad was very much a coveted part to play, as he embodied the idealized American working man identity, fighting for justice in a world that has treated the helpless poorly.  Daryl Zanuck would end up giving the role to one of the rising stars in Fox’s stable of talent; a young man named Henry Fonda.  Fonda had already been under contract at Fox for many years, but had never been the central lead in a film until now.  With Tom Joad, Fonda’s folksy Nebraska background came in handy, because he could believably portray a destitute migrant farmer while still maintaining his movie star, golden boy profile.  In many ways, straddling both of those two worlds enabled Fonda to create Tom Joad into this more mythic figure as a result; becoming the epitome of the righteous crusader for the rights of workers.  Something I’m sure Fonda welcomed as he shared much of Steinbeck’s progressive political views.  Apart from Tom Joad, the other crucial characterization that’s central to the story is that of Ma Joad.  Ma’s part in the story is more or less exactly as Steinbeck wrote, with her being the crucial glue that keeps the family together through all the hardship.  But, as the movie elevates Tom Joad to a more central role in relation to everything else, her maternal relationship to him likewise also gets elevated.  Veteran actress Jane Darwell, in the role that won her a supporting actress Oscar, is absolute perfection as Ma Joad.  Her resilience and practical outlook on life is both inspiring as well as heartbreaking.  She has got to be the pillar of strength that keeps hopes up even as the seems to be none left.  And Ms. Darwell perfectly conveys that in her performance.  A particularly memorable scene comes early as she burns the last of her remaining possessions before they leave their Oklahoma homestead.  When she looks at herself in the mirror while dangling a pair of old earings next to her head, she conveys without words the warming nostalgic memories of her past and how the dread of the future cast a cloud on her now.  They are both two mighty performances that bring these pivotal characters to life.

“Tom, you gotta learn like I’m learnin’.  I don’t know if right yet myself.  That’s why I can’t ever be a preacher again.  Preachers gotta know.  I don’t know.  I gotta ask.”

The remaining members of the Joad family are all still present, but Ford’s film chooses to relegate them to very minor roles in comparison to Tom and Ma.  Instead, the other character given focus in the story is an unrelated tag along on the Joad’s journey named Jim Casy.  Casy is a one time preacher who lost his faith and believes like the Joad family that a better life may await him in California.  He’s pretty much exactly the same kind of character as he is in the books, played memorably in the movie by Western film stalwart John Carradine.  Casy, in many ways, is where Steinbeck brings in his own voice to the story, as the character begins to become the voice of righteous indignation to the mistreatment of the migrant farmers.  Though he’s a man who lost his faith before the beginning of the story, he becomes enlightened again after seeing the injustice committed all around him.  He radicalizes and begins to assemble other workers to join him in unionizing.  It’s largely because of the character of Jim Casy that the book found so much resistance from the censors.  One, the character was a sympathetic and in many ways inspirational view of a labor organizer, someone that the capitalist establishment was desperate to vilify.  Secondly, it’s pretty clear that Steinbeck also wrote the character as something of a Christ allegory, one of many allusions to religious symbolism in the book as a whole.  His initials are JC after all.  And in the same spirit as the symbol he represents, Casy also meets his end not long after his enlightenment, leading Tom to pick up his mantle after being shaken by Jim’s murder.  For a lot of establishment figures, the use of this Christian allegory was especially seditious in their eyes, particularly those in the Religious Right.  That, as well as a lot of the frank depictions of violence and sexuality in Steinbeck’s novel led to to it being so widely banned across the country.  For Zanuck and Ford, they needed to find a way to make the message of Steinbeck’s writing work without running into those same censorship hurdles.  Carradine’s performance greatly helps to make Jim Casy a believable character.  He’s not overtly Christ-like in the way the character in the book is, but he still comes across as an inspiring voice that brings to the front all the righteous rage his character should have.  Carradine’s mellow voice and wide hopeful eyes also help to imbue the character with the same kind of spirit that Steinbeck’s words bring to the character.  To make this character work and appeal to a broad audience, the filmmakers managed to walk that fine line perfectly.

Essentially, the movie tempers the more radical nature of Steinbeck’s prose while still retaining it’s essential spirit.  But where Steinbeck and Ford diverge is in their ultimate outlook on the fate of the Joad family, which in many ways reveals how both men viewed humanity as a whole.  The endings of the books and the movie are very different, which in some ways make sense considering what a book can get away with more than movie.  Both stories do eventually lead to Tom Joad’s departure from the family, as he is being pursued by the law for killing the man who slayed Jim Casy.  But what happens after that is where the split happens.  John Ford follows up Tom’s heartbreaking exit with a beacon of hope for the Joad family.  A good job opportunity has presented itself, and the Joads hit the road for Northern California with hope that something good waits on the other side.  In these final moments, Ma Joad reflects on how, after everything that has happened, the family has the ability to press on and be hopeful.  In her words, “we’re the people,” she basically underscores the idea that by sticking together, they’ve managed to make themselves stronger, and that is what will get them to an eventual better life.  It’s basically a statement to reinforce the idea of change through solidarity, reinforcing the call for unionizing that the book promote.  Steinbeck on the other hand leaves the story on a bit more bleak note.  Things don’t go well for the Joad family up to the final page.  The eldest daughter of the family, Rose of Sharon, has been with child for the entirety of the story.  In the final chapters, she gives birth to a stillborn baby.  After this tragedy, the Joad family are also forced to take shelter from a storm during their travels.  When they find an abandoned barn to hide in, they also find another migrant farmer dying of starvation.  Realizing the man’s need for nourishment, both Ma Joad and Rose realize what they must do.  So, in a rather bleak final note to end the book on, Rose let’s the starving man drink the breast milk that she’s been lactating post-pregnancy.  You can probably see why John Ford opted for his ending.  It does offer an interesting contrast, though, as Steinbeck seems to express a more pessimistic outlook on the state of humanity.  Ford clearly wanted to inspire his audience with a glimmer of hope, but Steinbeck clearly wanted us to see just how bad it had gotten in America, and that hope was very much fleeting.  Steinbeck’s ending overall feels far more like an indictment of the system that he viewed as broken.  I imagine this must have been an image that he probably witnessed while investigating the camps, and it’s one that he wanted the reader to clearly understand as well.  Both Ford and Steinbeck clearly wanted to instill sympathy for their subjects, but Steinbeck’s approach feels far less like a Hollywood ending, and more of a wake-up call to his readers to see the world for how it really is.

“Wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there.  Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there.  I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad.  I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready, and when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they build – I’ll be there too.”

With nearly a century gone by since the deepest depths of the Depression, we have less of a comprehension of how bad it got.  My one connection to that time comes from the lessons I learned from my Grandparents.  My Grandpa and Grandma on my mothers side in particular were very familiar with the kinds of narratives found in John Steinbeck’s novels, because they themselves grew up in the same California farming communities that these migrant farmers flocked to during the Depression.  They didn’t tell me much about the horrific kinds of exploitation that was going on during that time, partially because they weren’t near any of those farms and they were probably too young to realize what was going on.  They did tell me about how their families often had to ration goods in those days, and that something as commonplace today as an orange was seen as a luxury to them during the Depression.  As a tradition every Christmas in the years since, my grandparents would place an Orange in our stockings, done as a way to remind all of us of what their families went through to endure the hardship of the Depression.  It’s certainly the thing that introduced me to the reality of the Great Depression.  Though my grandparents were as heavily effected, they nevertheless remembered how hard it was, and they didn’t want us to forget too.  That’s why John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer winning The Grapes of Wrath is not only an important story to remember, but an essential one as well.  It shows the depths that humanity can fall to when pushed to it’s limits, and that all that we have left after we’ve lost everything else is our own compassion to each other and the willingness to do good in spite of such bad odds.  John Ford managed to bring the essence of Steinbeck’s to the big screen, albeit to the extent he could given the censorship limitations at the time.  With his down to earth sense of humanity, remarkably naturalistic photography courtesy of the legendary cinematographer Gregg Toland (who also won an Oscar), and incredible lived in performances from his cast, Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath is every much just as masterful as the book that inspired it.  Today, both the book and the movie’s messages feel more relevant than ever as we are seeing yet another reckoning between capital and labor erupt in America, and the same old Red Scare tactics being revived to push back against it.  It’s a time like this that a movie like The Grapes of Wrath becomes essential viewing, to remind us that this kind of story happened in America, and not that long ago, and it could very well happen again if we are not careful.  The pandemic certainly made that a possibility.  The Grapes of Wrath, both as a work of literature and a cinematic masterpiece, are undisputedly among the great American fables, and whether their outlooks are hopeful or pessimistic, it is crucial that all of us pay attention to it for our own good as a nation.

“Rich fellas come up an’ they die, an’ their kids ain’t no good an’ they die out.  But we keep a’comin’.  We’re the people that live.  They can’t wipe us out; they can’t lick us.  We’ll go on forever, Pa, ’cause we’re the people.”

Off the Page – To Kill a Mockingbird

Social justice has long been a theme found throughout literature, with authors giving voice to the concerns of the day and finding the medium of storytelling as an effective way to argue a point directly to the reader.  Oftentimes when a writer tackles a particularly pressing issue in their work, it is a reflection of their state of mind with regards to the issue at the time of writing.  And though some works that tackle a social justice point head on can have the positive effect of stirring the conversation in it’s moment, their stories must also be able to stand on their own outside of that conversation.  Some books that were considered progressive in their time have over the years been reexamined and critiqued as being relics of a era where those same values have either fallen out of favor or chaned completely.  The novels of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Adventures of Huck Finn  by Harriet Beecher Stowe and Mark Twain respectively were heralded as passionate arguments against slavery in their time, but their less enlightened depictions of black characters in the novels have led them to be heavily criticized based on the values of today.  But if one novel manages to breakthrough the values of it’s day and can still resonate many years later with readers young and old with it’s message of racial equality, it’s that special piece of writing that stands as a true perennial masterpiece.  Such is the case with Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, a book whose legacy may be one of the most profound in all of American literature.  First published in 1960, Mockingbird made it’s debut right at the height of the Civil Rights Movement in America.  Though Civil Rights battles were ongoing throughout the history of America, it hit it’s apex immediately after the slaying of Emmett Till in 1955 and was brought to the mainstream with public figures like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. leading the charge.  And with Mockingbird’s direct and frank depiction of racial tensions in a small Southern town through the eyes of a young, impressionable girl named Scout, Harper Lee was able to connect readers of all races and backgrounds with the the call for Civil Rights in a way that still has the power to call for social justice over 60 years later.

Harper Lee is a unique icon in the world of American literature.  She only ever published two novels in her entire lifetime, the second of which was a first draft of her most famous work that her estate chose to release publicly despite Lee’s own wishes (2015’s Go Set a Watchman).  That’s not to say she wasn’t an active writer.  She wrote hundreds of columns, essays and non-fiction pieces throughout her life, but To Kill a Mockingbird was her one and only fictional novel that she intended to publish.  Most of her writing involved the life she knew growing up in Monroeville, Alabama, particularly with regards to the growing racial tensions she experienced there.  Writing always seemed to be in her blood, and it worked out that her childhood friend in Monroeville also shared her interests.  Living next door to her was a boy named Truman Parsons, who would later become known as Truman Capote, a prolific and influential literary icon in his own right.  Capote made a splash in the literary world first with his successful run of columns in Harper’s Bazaar and the runaway bestseller Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958).  It was believed that in Capote’s first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948) that he based a character named Idabel on Harper Lee.  Harper would return the gesture by basing a character named Dill on Capote in Mockingbird.  Though she said that Mockingbird was not a direct autobiographical work, it is pretty clear that a lot of the canvas on which she draws her narrative is taken from her own childhood.  At the center of the story is a young tomboy girl named Scout Finch who witnesses the trial of a black man falsely accused of rape where her father, Atticus Finch, argues for his defense in court.  Though personal in nature, the story touches upon so many issues that resonated with readers that were themselves coming to terms with racial injustice in America.  As a result, Harper Lee found herself becoming a perhaps unexpected but nevertheless essential contributor to the Civil Rights Movement that helped to end Jim Crow and Segregation laws in America.

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view.”

Naturally, Hollywood took notice of the power of Lee’s novel, and immediately went to work on crafting a big screen adaptation.  The rights to the novel were picked up immediately after publication by Universal Studios, though getting the movie on the screen wouldn’t be easy.  For one thing, most other studios were reluctant to tackle issues regarding race at the time, given that they were afraid of losing the southern audience.  That’s not to say that most of Hollywood was opposed to the Civil Rights Movement; it’s just that they viewed making a movie about racial injustice to be a financial risk that was better thought to be left untapped.  So, many films that tackled racial injustice on the big screen tended to be smaller and low risk ventures, but that was about to change with Mockingbird.  The novel was enormously popular with Hollywood elites, and many of them were campaigning hard to be a part of this upcoming film.  Though Universal had a strong stable of acclaimed directors, the responsibility for adapting Lee’s novel would fall to Robert Mulligan, who up until that time was mostly a TV director.  With his producing partner Alan J. Pakula, Mulligan sought to create a very down to earth adaptation of Lee’s writing, free from the typical melodrama of most socially conscious Hollywood films.  The casting of the roles was also a particularly important part of the development of the film.  The characters of Scout and her brother Jem would go to newcomers Mary Badham and Philip Alford, both authentically from Alabama.  The crucial role Atticus would pass through the hands of many Hollywood leading men at the time, including Universal’s top box office star at the time, Rock Hudson, who campaigned hard for the role.  Ultimately, the role was given to Gregory Peck, who said yes after having read the novel in a single sitting the night before.  In both it’s approach and it’s execution, Universal Pictures’ adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird was intent on bringing to the screen the essence of Harper Lee’s pivotal novel, and for the most part, it was a successful execution.

“Courage is not a man with a gun in his hand.  It’s knowing you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.”

Upon both reading the novel and watching the movie, it is pretty astounding how well it translated.  Though some of the flavor of the setting in Harper’s writing gets lost in the translation, the overall narrative is there in tact.  We are told the story, like in the novel, through the eyes of Scout, though the movie adds the factor of it being a recollection several years after the fact by an adult Scout (voiced in narration by an uncredited Kim Stanley).  And with this perspective, the movie is able to tap into a sense of nostalgia that informs the tone of the movie.  Though the novel and the movie indeed are about racial injustice in the South, it is also a story about innocence lost and the effect that moments of distress and trauma have on children.  For much of the story, Scout learns more and more about the struggle of racial justice, and how truly critical it is for justice to be upheld.  She watches as her father puts his own reputation and even safety on the line in their quiet little town for the sole purpose of showing that everyone, regardless of race, should be treated fairly under the law.  A particularly potent moment from the book that made it into the movie involves Atticus holding back a lynch mob from taking his client out of prison and enacting their own warped sense of “Southern Justice.”  Only when Scout and Jem unexpectedly show up to meet Atticus in the middle of this tense situation does the mob disperse.  Knowing the history of lynchings in the South, this scene carries some very ominous overtones, and it becomes a pivotal teaching moment for Scout as well.  Having faced harassments at school because of her father’s case, and how her father remains undeterred in the face of a mob, she learns that social justice is a struggle that requires a strong sense of moral fortitude, and it emboldens her to take the issue more seriously.  Scout’s journey, from being ambivalent towards social issues towards becoming more compassionate and serious with regards to racial injustice is at the core of why Harper Lee’s novel is such a crucial benchmark in the Civil Rights movement.  It’s a call for readers to wake up and see more clearly the struggles that exist within their own neighborhood and not be deterred by the power structures that allow for those barriers to endure.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the film’s production is how well it brings the audience into the world of Harper Lee’s writing.  The fictional town of Mycomb, modeled obviously by Lee’s own hometown of Monroeville, feels so authentic within the movie, that anyone might swear that it was a real place in rural Alabama.  But in fact, the entire movie was shot right on the Universal Studios lot in the heart of Hollywood, California.  Everything from the town square to Finch’s quaint little neighborhood was fabricated from scratch.  To fit the Southern Gothic nature of Lee’s novel, every element of the setting had to feel lived in, and the production design team, led by the legendary Henry Bumstead, put so much effort to recreate a Southern setting right in the middle of Universal Studios.  Most of the sets are gone today, but the town square remains a fixture on the backlot to this day.  It may be familiar to Back to the Future (1985) fans, as the courthouse façade was repurposed many years later to become the iconic Clock Tower from that movie.  The interiors were also intricately detailed to reflect the kind of town that Harper Lee was familiar with.  The pivotal courtroom set, where a big chunk of the movie takes place, was modeled after a real one in Monroeville, which is used to this day as a staging venue for theatrical adaptations of the novel and many other plays as well.  Much of the reason why Universal went so far out of it’s way to build the town within the novel instead of shooting on location mostly had to do with the fact that much of Lee’s childhood home had been modernized over the years, and no longer retained that Depression Era aesthetic that she described in the book.  It’s probably the main reason, but it might have also shielded Universal from any local resistance from the Southerners who objected to the message from the novel.  In any sense, the best aspect of the movie is that it stays true to the novel’s sense of time and place, and it drives home for the audience a sense of authenticity that often was rarely found in most movie depictions of the South.

“Our courts have our faults, as does any human institution, but in this country our courts are the great levelers, and in our courts all men are created equal.”

But apart from the setting, what most people remember from the movie is the character of Atticus Finch himself.  Harper modeled the character mostly on her own father Amasa Coleman Lee, an attorney who also was in the business of taking on black clients who were being persecuted by the Jim Crow system of justice in the South.  Though the elder Lee was not quite as progressive as the Atticus depicted in the novel and film, he did become an advocate for racial equality in his later life, and was proud of Harper’s effective advocacy for such issues.  No doubt the stoic, unbending strength of the character appealed greatly to a long time supporter of civil rights like Gregory Peck.  Though Peck had been around for years in Hollywood, the actor had struggled to define his place as a leading man.  Stuck in mostly war films and westerns, with an occasional romantic comedy thrown in (Roman Holiday), Gregory wanted desperately to have that role that really showed off his strengths as a dramatic actor and also embody the progressive politics that he held up so seriously.  In Atticus, he found that role that would indeed define his career and turn him into an icon.  It’s hard to imagine anyone but Peck in the role.  With his towering frame and booming voice, Peck’s Atticus is the very definition of stoic strength.  But Peck uses his acting talents beautifully in the role, especially during those courtroom scenes.  His delivery of the defense for the accused, Tom Robinson (a fantastic Brock Peters), is dignified and with conviction, and is one of the most inspirational arguments for the definition of true justice ever put on screen.  Peck’s incredible performance is also matched by the authenticity of Mary Badham’s Scout, who is honestly the living embodiment of her literary counterpart.  If Atticus is the movie’s moral backbone, than Scout is it’s beating heart, and both are brought to perfect life by the actors portraying them.  The supporting players also feel authentic too, especially considering that some of them are acting outside of their comfort zone portraying some pretty vile racist characters.  But considering the importance of the story’s message, it’s a testament that everyone aimed to be as authentic as possible.

Since it’s debut, both on the page and on the screen, To Kill a Mockingbird has become pretty much an essential piece of media for generations.  It was especially an effective tool in classrooms to teach students about racial history in America.  I myself remember having to read the novel in school and I was introduced to the movie for the first time in the same way.  But, like many other pieces of literature that has been examined and re-examined over the years, the novel and movie have faced criticisms for it’s portrayal with regards to racial issues.  One of the most common criticisms is that it speaks about racial justice from a very white perspective, which some have claimed is patronizing to Black Americans.  In addition, it has been said that Atticus Finch is one of the clearest examples of the “White Savior” trope ever used in literature; where the focus of the story becomes less about the people who are victims of racial bigotry and more about the white people who come to their aid with far less resistance in their way.  It is a problem that Hollywood has had over the years, with well intentioned social justice films being made that unfortunately turn into self-serving vanity projects in the long run.  There are elements in To Kill a Mockingbird that do unfortunately fall into this trope, particularly surrounding the character of Atticus.  Atticus is very much lionized in the novel and the film, and that is reflected in moments that we see with the black citizens in the community showing reverence for the man.  A memorable scene from the movie, where all the black audience members in the courtroom stand up for Atticus when he leaves the floor after the trial has ended could easily fall into that kind of trope.  However, given the context of the scene in the movie, and the inspiration from which Lee drew upon, the moment feels less exploitive and more genuinely loving.  Atticus stood up for one of their own, so they will stand up for him (symbolically at least).  It’s about finding the common ground on which all races can strive to fight for, and that’s where I think To Kill a Mockingbird rises above those tropes.  I honestly am glad that I was exposed to a movie and novel like Mockingbird at such a young age, because it informed me why issues like this matter and why that moment of shared reverence for one another in that courtroom is such an ideal to strive for in our society.

“Miss Jean Louise, stand up.  You’re father’s passing.”

Like the novel it was based on, the movie To Kill a Mockingbird was a sensational success both critically and with audiences.  It was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, but didn’t win (which is hard for me to argue against since the movie that won is my all time favorite film, Lawrence of Arabia).  Still, Gregory Peck walked away with the Best Actor award, which is probably one of the most well deserved in the history of the honor.  Atticus Finch, to this day is still celebrated as an idealized crusader for social justice that many activists today aspire to be like.  And like Scout, upon experiencing this story and witnessing it unfold, we have our own eyes upon to what role we must play in making the world a more just place.  It is reflected in Scout ultimately opening her heart out to another outsider in the story, the recluse Boo Radley (Robert Duvall in his screen debut), after he had saved her and her brother Jem from an attack by a vengeful racist thug.  Like Scout, the events of the story make us open our heart to those who fall unfairly outside the justice system today, and it calls upon us to reconsider our own place in the world and what we must do to seek justice for those that don’t usually get it.  That is in essence what Harper Lee wanted us to learn in her novel, and probably more than any other American novel of the 20th century, it shaped the conversation on racial issues across the whole mainstream, and helped push the Civil Rights movement further than ever before.  Harper won a well deserved Pulitzer for her work and in the years since the novel has only grown more in esteem.  Even most Southerners hold it up as a work of literary genius.  Still, the reason why both the book and the movie endure to this day is that it gives a strong human connection to a universal theme of social justice.  Even 60 years after it’s original publication, the themes of the novel still resonate, as racial injustice is a reoccurring problem that we still grapple with; the recent killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police officers last year, among far too many others, being a perfect example.  Despite some legit criticisms of it’s handling of racial justice in it’s narrative, To Kill a Mockingbird is a story just as potent today as it was when it was first published.  With Harper Lee’s graceful writing, and easily identifiable characters, it’s a story that appeals to our better angels and reminds us that racial justice and equality need help in the world and that we must recognize it and fight for it.

“He turned out the light and went into Jem’s room.  He would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning.”

Off the Page – Jurassic Park

There really are very few action adventure films that hold up as well as Jurassic Park (1993).  Steven Spielberg’s groundbreaking blockbuster ushered in a new era in Hollywood when it came to visual effects, utilizing CGI at a level previously unseen before in the movies.  It also restarted a renewed interest in paleontological studies, as fans young and old finally got to see dinosaurs on screen that looked more real than ever before.  The movie’s plot certainly was tailor made for the cinema, but you have to go pretty far back to remember that before Jurassic Park was a hit movie it started out as a hit novel.  Jurassic Park was the original brainchild of one of the most celebrated Science Fiction authors of his time; Michael Crichton.  Crichton had already built up a long-standing relationship with Hollywood before.  His earlier work like The Andromeda Strain and The Terminal Man were runaway best sellers that in turn were adapted into hit movies.  Crichton even dabbled into filmmaking himself, both writing and directing the original film Westworld (1973), which of course would later go on to influence the hit HBO series of the same name.  So, when he began writing what would end up being Jurassic Park, he probably had a good feeling that it would likely be made into a film right away.  In fact, Universal Pictures optioned the novel even before it was published in 1990.  It passed around to a number of filmmakers, but once it landed in the hands of Spielberg, it was just a natural fit.  Who better to trust with Crichton’s high concept vision than the guy who’s been at the forefront of so many groundbreaking effects films like Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and Back to the Future (1985).  However, Jurassic Park would be different from those movies before and that is largely due to the themes that Crichton often worked with.

Michael Crichton was a Harvard educated medicinal scholar, earning an M.D. in 1969.  However, he never actually practiced medicine in his life, opting to pursue his writing career instead, especially after getting his first novel published while still attending school.  Despite this divergent path, Crichton still put his scientific knowledge at the forefront of his work, writing through the lens of speculative Science Fiction.  Though many of his novels feature science that either doesn’t actually exist or hadn’t been invented yet, his scientific background allowed for him to provide enough informed detail to actually convince the reader that the fictionalized science in his novels could be plausible.  And many of his predictions have remarkably proven to be close to reality since he first wrote them down.  The Andromeda Strain showed a believable scenario of how society might respond to a deadly viral outbreak that seems eerily close to today.  The Terminal Man provided a dire warning of the dangers of how computers could be used for mind control purposes.  Westworld predicted the advances in robotics, and Jurassic Park speculated on the potential consequences of genetic engineering; all things that we are seeing continually explored in science today.  Despite the usual bleakness of Crichton’s narratives, he was not a science skeptic.  He believed very much in expanding the scientific advancements that he wrote about, but he also argued that every scientific experiment must come with a fail-safe protection, just in case things go horribly wrong.  More than anything, he hated the abuses of science, and this became an over-arching theme of his work.  In particular, he used his writing to critique the science for profit motive that he often saw being abused in his time, particularly by pharmaceutical companies, entrepreneur engineers, and politicians who exploited science for their own agendas.  This in particular is what frames the narrative of Jurassic Park; a money-making venture gone horribly wrong.

“Welcome to Jurassic Park.”

It’s interesting to note that Jurassic Park began not as a novel, but as a screenplay.  Crichton wrote his first draft back in 1983, with the focus of the story centered on a young grad student who creates the first living dinosaur through genetic engineering.  The breakthrough leads to investors, who devise the idea of creating a wildlife park of dinosaurs.  It’s part of Crichton’s critical eye that something as monumental as the creation of a living dinosaur would inevitably lead to the desire of exploitation for the sake of entertainment in the end.  In many ways, this early draft of what would end up being the story echoes Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, with the one who made the scientific breakthrough being forced to confront the harsh reality of what it means to play god, and how a perversion of nature inevitably ends up destroying those who break it’s rules.  Over time, Crichton revised his story, deciding to expand upon his themes in a novel form.  In the book, the breakthrough and exploitation period has already passed, and what we find instead is a scenario of what corporatized science run amok would look like.  The Jurassic Park in question comes across as this sanitized, Disneyland like paradise, but as the novel progresses, that veneer of safety is stripped away to reveal the harsh reality that man should never have messed around with natural order.  Though the themes never changed over the time of writing the book, Crichton certainly wrote his story with a eye for adventure as well.  His book is filled with spectacular set-pieces that do lend themselves well to cinema.  There are detailed encounters with each dinosaur found on the fictional Isla Nublar, including the memorable raptor chase and the frightening encounter with the Tyrannosaurus Rex.  For the most part, these set-pieces made the translation to the big screen pretty much in tact, but what is interesting is how the move from page to screen shifted the themes of Crichton’s novel.

“Dinosaurs eat man.  Women inherit the Earth.”

One big difference between Michael Crichton’s novel of Jurassic Park  and Steven Spielberg’s film adaptation is the way that the characters are used.  For one thing, Spielberg streamlines the number of characters to just a select few.  A lot of the novel focuses on the scientists working behind the scenes in the bio-engineering labs where the dinosaurs are created.  In the film, much of their roles are distilled down to one character in one scene of the movie.  The character of Dr. Wu (played by B.D. Wong) is given more of a role in the novel, but in the movie he appears just to given scientific exposition for the audience, explaining exactly all we need to know about how the park was able to create dinosaurs.  In this case, it actually helps the film to streamline Crichton’s scientific details.  Spielberg knows that what the audience is waiting for is real life dinosaurs, and by giving us one scene to establish what we need to know, it helps to free up the rest of the movie’s plot just for that.  Spielberg also gave more character dimensions to different characters and even altered their fate from what was in the book.  This is particularly the case with Dr. Ian Malcolm, played memorably by Jeff Goldblum.  In a case where I think the character was altered to better reflect the actor who’s playing him, Dr. Malcolm is very different from his literary origins, where he is depicted as a rigid, intellectual scientist who actually dies early on in the book.  Perhaps when Spielberg cast the suave, eccentric Goldblum in the role, he tailored the character to be more like him.  A lot of the character’s arc in the story is actually taken from another character named Donald Gennero, who is depicted in the movie as a cowardly lawyer who gets quickly eaten by the T-Rex at the halfway point.  Gennero’s skepticism of the park is also reversed in the film, with the “blood-sucking” lawyer being all in on the plan for the park, while Malcolm is given the more cynical view.

But perhaps the most dramatic change from book to screen is the depiction of the character John Hammond.  In the book, Hammond is the epitome of Crichton’s view of corporatized science taken to it’s most extreme.  Hammond in the novel is a callous, profit driven business tycoon who created the park as nothing more than a way to earn more money.  He cares little for the dinosaurs that are grown out of his laboratories, and even less for the poor humans who are put at risk of getting eaten by the dinosaurs when they get loose.  He’s basically more P.T. Barnham than Walt Disney in this regard, seeing the park less a bold vision and more as a means to increase his own stature in the world of business.  Spielberg on the other hand leans more in the Walt Disney direction with his portrayal of John Hammond.  With his version, John Hammond is more idealistic and is not concerned about the financial viability of the park.  In his own words, he “spares no expense” in seeing his park becoming a reality.  For him the park is a source of pride, but it’s in that rosy outlook that he naively misses the flaws in his plan.  It’s a far more sympathetic version of the character, departing very far from Crichton’s version.  It also helps when the charming and jovial Sir Richard Attenborough is playing him.  And Spielberg definitely seemed to want to emphasize Hammond’s noble intentions, because cinematically it reinforces the wonder of the park’s potential.  Inevitably, Hammond’s arc in the movie is proof of Murphy’s Law imagined through this scenario, where everything that could go wrong, does go wrong, and it better illustrates the Frankenstein parallels even more.  In the book, Hammond is unredeemable, and inevitably is killed by his own creation; eaten alive by a pack of dinosaurs.  But in the movie, Hammond lives, and Spielberg leaves us with a poignant moment as Hammond looks back on a park he must now leave behind, seeing it descend into disaster.  Though Spielberg’s version of the character of John Hammond is sympathetic, the themes of Crichton’s novel still resonate, as his naivete is emblematic of the lack of foreseeing the need for a fail-safe plan to be in place.  As Ian Malcolm astutely points out to John Hammond in the film, “You spent so much time thinking about whether or not you could, you never stopped to think whether or not you should.”

“If Pirates of the Caribbean breaks down, the pirates don’t eat the tourists.”

From that we see the biggest departure that Spielberg makes from Crichton’s novel, and more than anything it speaks to Spielberg’s sense of how such a story should play on the silver screen.  We as the audience need to be given the sense of wonder, looking in awe at a world where dinosaurs walk the earth again.  That’s why the opening part of the movie takes a far more optimistic tone.  The movie does begin with an intense opening scene, where we do see the lethal threat that keeping dinosaurs captive can pose; in this case with one employee becoming a victim of a velociraptor.  But, after that, the movie doesn’t have it’s next moment of danger until almost the halfway mark.  Instead, we follow the characters of Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill) and Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern), who are pretty much as they are from the book, as they see the park for the first time.  And their sense of wonder translates to our sense of wonder.  With help from John Williams iconic score, we are given an amazing introduction to the dinosaurs, roaming the park peacefully in the way that I’m sure John Hammond had envisioned.  But once the movie moves into the second half, the wonder gives way to terror, as we learn the real cost of toying with nature.  By giving that contrast between the idealized vision and the risks that lie underneath, Spielberg gives the themes of Crichton’s novel more resonance.  We need to be given that exciting sense of the potential of the park, before we see the terror that can come when it all falls apart.  And that’s when the terrifying set pieces of Crichton’s novel become all the more cinematic.  The Tyrannosaurus Rex encounter in particular is a masterclass in cinematic tension building, as Spielberg builds up the reveal of the creature in an incredible way.  Utilizing the groundbreaking CGI animation from Industrial Light and Magic and full sized animatronics from the Stan Winston workshop, the T Rex is an incredibly realized creation that still holds up to this day.  And perhaps drawing from his “slow reveal” lessons from the making of Jaws (1975) Spielberg brilliantly establishes the T Rex’s arrival through something as simple as water ripples in a cup.  Though Crichton’s writing lends itself very well to the cinematic form, it’s Spielberg who made it work in such a brilliant fashion with his sense of how to make it all work on the screen.

One thing that I do think Spielberg translated perfectly in tact from Crichton’s novel is the corporatization of science within the park.  After that inspiring moment where we first see the dinosaurs, John Hammond then takes his guests to the main hub facility of the park.  There we see the sanitization of what Hammond has accomplished, presented through branding, merchandising , and state of the art presentation.  The film even has the characters watch what is essentially a propaganda piece in the form of a cartoon, which both spells out the science behind the film for the audience but also illustrates the naïve way that John Hammond is trying to market his park to a less informed public.  Spielberg definitely drew inspiration here from some attractions found in Disneyland and other parks, like the Carousel of Progress and Adventures Thru Inner Space, which also provided sanitized, propaganda messaging from their corporate sponsors like GE and Monsanto.  And though there initially is no malice behind what Hammond is trying to push through what he sees as entertainment, it nevertheless shows the way that science can often be manipulated in order to create the rosiest of outlooks to the wider public.  It’s in this part of the movie that we do see the movie reach the more cynical view of Crichton’s novel.  Though the realization and the vision behind the park is impressive, it’s once the scientists dig deeper into what’s actually going on inside the labs that they begin to see behind the corporate veneer of it all, and see it’s inherit danger.  The little details in Spielberg’s portrayal of Hammond’s compound really drive home this point, as there is a great contrast between the sweet wholesome confines of the facility and the ultimate wild reality of the park itself.  It’s especially poignant when Spielberg cuts to a stuffed animal version of a dinosaur in the gift shop right after the characters have been attacked by the real thing.  Ironically, an identical gift shop can be found today at Universal Studios right outside the Jurassic Park ride exit.  At least there the dinosaurs are not real.

“They never attack the same place twice.  They are testing the fences for weaknesses, systematically.  They remember.”

In both cases, the novel and the movie are both brilliant bodies of work, but they do take different angles on achieving the same message.  For Crichton, the perversion of science is inevitable and the consequences bear out on the people who unwisely play god without caution.  In Spielberg’s film, there is an added level of poignancy where the failure of the park becomes more of a tragedy than anything.  I think the most fascinating angle that Spielberg takes in his film is the way he portrays John Hammond.  For Crichton, he was the epitome of capitalism’s exploiting of science for all the wrong reasons.  Spielberg, on the other hand, almost in a way identifies with John Hammond, viewing him as a man wanting to create something positive for the world in an entertaining way, only to see his vision unrealized and shattered by the end.  I think that it’s why he cast a fellow film director like Attenborough in the role.  Like a lot of directors, Spielberg has had his share of disappointing failures go wrong even after embarking on them with the best intentions.  I don’t think it’s any coincidence that he added this element into the movie that was his follow-up to the disappointing Hook (1991).  At the same time, I hardly think that Spielberg was disrespecting the vision of Michael Crichton with his revisions.  After all, Crichton had a hand in the screenplay for this as well, taking cues from his original draft and also giving Spielberg the go ahead to make the changes that he needed, with David Keopp providing the extra material.  Whether you read the book or watch the movie, the message in the end remains the same.  We all must be wary of how we use science in near and distant future.  Science is a powerful tool that can help uplift society if used correctly, but it can also be a force for destruction if used improperly.  Basically, both Crichton and Spielberg’s ultimate intentions is for everyone to educate themselves and have a better understanding of Science in general.  Jurassic Park is a cautionary tale of unchecked Science run amok by people who should never have utilized it in the first place.  And on top of that, it is an incredibly vivid adventure that still stands the test of time, even as Science has caught us up to where it’s visions may even become a reality some day.

“Before you even knew what you had, you patented it, and packaged it, and slapped it on a plastic lunchbox, and now you’re selling it, you wanna sell it.  Well…”

Off the Page – Gone With the Wind

There are few films that hold as lofty a position in the annals of movie history as Gone With the Wind (1939).  Considered the greatest movie in what many say is the greatest year ever in cinema, Gone With the Wind is every much the movie that defined Old Hollywood.  A grand sweeping epic with an all-star cast, Wind broke new ground in everything from it’s extensive use of technicolor to the introduction of a roadshow format in it’s presentation.  To this day, it is still the highest grossing movie ever adjusted for inflation, a title it has held for over 80 years.  And in many circles, it is still held up as the Gold Standard of epic film-making, with sweeping historical dramas all in one way or another taking cue from it.  But, in also being held up as the pinnacle of Old Hollywood, it also faces the scrutiny of contemporary interpretation as well.  It’s setting within the Antebellum South and it’s depiction of the Civil War and it’s aftermath continues to be a hotly debated aspect of the film, especially with regards to the criticisms it faces with the perceived glorification it gives to the South under slavery and it’s treatment of the black characters within the story.  One cannot say that the movie endorses the institution of slavery, but it also doesn’t deal with slavery as seriously as it should either.  It’s unfortunately a product of it’s time, when black performers were not as valued as their white co-stars, though remarkably Gone With the Wind managed to make some progress in that despite the conventions of the period.  The movie continues to spark strong feelings across the board for cinephiles of all kinds, and it’s place within the legacy of the industry as a whole is undeniable.  But it is also interesting looking at how it came to hold such a crucial place in the history of Hollywood, especially when you look at it’s literary origins.

The book on which the movie was based on had in fact only just hit the bookshelves a few years prior to the making of the movie.  In fact, producer David O. Selznick optioned the novel before it’s publication.  The book was written by Margaret Mitchell, a first time novelist who had been writing columns extensively for the Atlanta Journal for many years.  A pioneer journalist in her time, she refined her strong feminist voice in a time and place where her point of view still wasn’t accepted as the norm.  Being a strong woman in a man’s world would be a theme that would define much of her writing from that point on.  In 1926, she left her job at the Atlanta Journal and an ankle injury soon after left her home bound for an extensive period of time.  Her husband convinced her that she should be spending her downtime writing, and she would do just that, working on what would be her magnum opus over the next three years.  Drawing upon the stories that she was told by her elders who lived through the Civil War and from interviews that she had with still living veterans of the conflict, Mitchell constructed the narrative of Gone With the Wind, centered around a strong willed southern debutante by the name of Pansy O’Hara; her publisher of course would convince her to change the name to the more provocative Scarlett.  Once completed, Margaret Mitchell had amassed a biblical sized manuscript that topped over 1,000 pages.  But, even despite that enormous size, the publishers fell immediately for her epic romance and upon publication, readers did as well.  After it’s debut in 1936, Gone With the Wind would earn Mitchell both a Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.  And of course, Hollywood came a calling and would forever cement Mitchell’s novel into it’s iconic place in American culture.  And despite the immense length of the novel, it is frankly rather surprising how little changed on it’s way to the big screen.

“With enough courage, you can do without a reputation.”

David O. Selznick knew very well that when he optioned the rights to the novel even before it’s publication that he had in his hands something that was going to take the world by storm.  When the novel became a nationwide sensation, it became apparent that not only did Selznick need to make the movie a reality, he had to be especially faithful to the source material as well.  And given the enormous length of the novel, he was also going to have to put a lot of trust in his audience as well.  The movie clocks in at a staggering 235 minutes, just shy of 4 hours, making it the longest movie ever made in Hollywood at that time, and would continue to be for many years after.  To help theaters deal with such a long movie, Selznick Productions broke the film up into two separate acts with an intermission at the halfway point.  In addition to the epic length, Selznick also spared no expense on the movie’s lavish production and costume design, all of which sparkle in the technicolor photography, which itself was a novelty in the late 1930’s.  Through it all, Selznick was determined to make the grandest spectacle ever put on the silver screen, no matter the cost, and it’s a gamble that paid off.  The movie was a financial and critical success, becoming just as much of a blockbuster as Mitchell’s book.  It would end up winning a then record 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture.  It still remains a touchstone in the history of Hollywood, and is still widely seen as a classic.  And with it’s faithful adherence to the novel it’s based on, it also gives us a magnificent translation of Mitchell’s vision to the big screen.  But even so, there are some things that stand out when you compare the novel with the movie, and some of it shows an interesting disconnect that belies the divisions that still exist within America after the Civil War.

“Take a good look my dear.  It’s a historic moment you can tell your grandchildren about – how you watched the Old South fall one night.”

One big difference that you’ll notice between the novel and the movie is that the novel is much darker in it’s tone.  Margaret Mitchell was not one to shy away from the harsh realities of post-War America.  In the novel, she details the brutal atrocities that occurred during the conflict, in particular, the Sherman March that left a deep scar across the setting of Northern Georgia.  Mitchell points out hardships and acts of violence that the movies could only hint at under the Hays Code restrictions.  Margaret Mitchell’s writing also is far more a product of her point of view.  Though Mitchell was quite liberal in her politics, particularly when it came to her feminist points of view, she was also a Southerner, with a rose colored view of the South’s position before and after the war.  Though she doesn’t endorse the institution of slavery, her novel unfortunately portrays a far too idealized vision of Antebellum society in the days before the war, when slavery was an institution.  As described in the narration, as well as the movie’s introduction, the South portrayed in this story is a “dream remembered.  A Civilization gone with the wind.”  That may have been how white southerners may have looked at the South, but black southerners absolutely would feel different.  Though Mitchell is detailed in her depiction of historical events, her blind-spot with regards to race is an unfortunate mark on her writing that has not aged well over time.  The movie likewise carries some of that baggage too, though in changing some aspects of the story, it managed to escape some of the harsher criticisms as well.  The exclusion of Scarlett’s assault in a shanty town by a black man and her then husband’s rallying of fellow Ku Klux Klan members in retaliation spares the movie of having more controversial connotation within it’s narrative.  Had they stuck more closely to Mitchell’s novel in these instances, the movie would have slipped further into Birth of a Nation (1915) territory.

If there is one interesting aspect of the movie where it makes the most interesting deviations from the novel, it’s in the characterizations.  Gone With the Wind is defined first and foremost by it’s iconic characters.  So much so that when it came time to cast the movie, there was unprecedented hype surrounding who would end up getting the highly coveted roles.  The demand for Clark Gable to play the role of roguish Rhett Butler was almost unanimous, and it’s easy to see why; it’s almost as if Margaret Mitchell wrote the character with him in mind, and he does not disappoint.  The casting of Scarlett however became the most sought after part in Hollywood, and every leading lady seemed to be fighting for their chance at the role.  Bette Davis even made an entire similarly themed film named Jezebel (1938) as a possible demo reel for her chance at the part.  However, Selznick made the then controversial decision to give the part to a then unknown British actress by the name of Vivien Leigh.  Leigh may have been an odd choice at the time, but from the moment you see her on screen for the first time in all her Scarlett glory, it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role.  Her chemistry with Gable in particular is unmatched and is probably what won her the role.  And in many ways, Leigh’s performance is the thing that deviates in the best way from the novel.  Mitchell’s Scarlett is far more of an un-redeemable schemer, who while is admirable in her resilience in the face of hardship is also a cold manipulative individual who ends up pushing people away.  In the movie, Leigh manages to find a deep rooted sadness in the character that helps to flesh her out even more.  It’s also an interesting, subtle commentary that the writers of the movie make on the South; turning Scarlett into a metaphorical character who stubbornly resists change in a futile pursuit of an idealized, comforting past that she can never return to.

“Never, at any crisis in your life, have I known you to have a handkerchief.”

Hollywood, while having it’s own issues with race in it’s early history, nevertheless did not want to overlook it either.  Thus, we get into the touchy subject of how the movie deals with the realities of slavery.  The movie could only go so far under the Code rules of the day, and it unfortunately had to remain cautious when it came to adapting the novel, as to not antagonize it’s Southern fan-base.  Margaret Mitchell’s novel does feature well-rounded black characters within it’s narrative, but they are in the role of slaves, who despite being emancipated still remain in service of the O’Hara family long after the war is over.  It’s another aspect of Mitchell’s blind-spot on race in America, where she didn’t view characters such as Mammy, Pork or Prissy as problematic.  The movie likewise draws backlash for it’s inclusion of these characters, but by making them a part of this colossal cinematic benchmark, it at the same time inadvertently broke new ground for black actors in the business.  Many of the black actors involved in the movie were not pleased with the fact that they had no other choice than to play domestics in a big Hollywood film, but at the same time, they were not going to waste their opportunity to show their qualities either.  Chief among them was Hattie McDaniel who played the role of Mammy, Scarlett’s blunt and strong-willed house maid.  McDaniel is a force on screen and she elevates this stereotypical character and makes it her own, putting a spotlight on a black face in cinema unlike any ever before.  And in doing so, she broke down barriers, including winning the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, a first ever for an African American in Oscar history, which wouldn’t happen again for another 20 years when Sidney Poitier won his Best Actor award.  You could certainly consider McDaniel’s contribution groundbreaking, but at the same time it propagated the same stereotypes that would continue to keep black actors sidelined for many years after.  So, it makes you wonder if the movie did more damage than good in race relations in America, by romanticizing this era where the only place a black person could exist was in servitude.

It’s in sanitizing the story the movie for mass audience consumption that Hollywood almost robs the importance of it’s subject matter as a result.  The horrors of slavery are pretty much glossed over and the focus is more on the suffering of the white characters instead.  But, those faults are more or less the faults of the book as well.  Margaret Mitchell was first and foremost concerned with the theme of destruction and rebirth, and most importantly, survival.  Through Scarlett O’Hara she imagines what it means to be a survivor, and how that sense of character makes someone standout and at the same time feel isolated.  Through this, the movie does capture it’s poignancy, as Scarlett is admirable in her resiliency, but at the same time hated for her selfishness.  The movie manages to keep it’s focus by giving Scarlett it’s full attention.  It’s pretty incredible how nuanced Vivien Leigh’s performance is, given that Scarlett is on screen for almost the entire four hours of the movie.  Even still, the movie today feels a little too simplistic with regards to it’s portrayal of the historical events in it’s background, and even with some of the other darker elements found in Mitchell’s writing.  Some changes are for the better, like the condensing of Scarlett’s many children into a single daughter as well as a streamlining of events.  But others, like the exclusion of details of a horrible marital rape committed on Scarlett by Rhett Butler, creates an unfortunate minimizing of crucial character developments that would have changed many perspectives on the characters.  Even still, it’s surprising how much David O. Selznick stuck his neck out for to bring the novel fully to life, including paying the hefty fine for braking the Code rules by including the then scandalous word “damn” in the now iconic line completely in tact within the movie.

“As God as my witness, I shall never go hungry again!”

Any criticism of the movie on the basis of race is more than justified, as with the original novel too, but there is no mistaking that the movie still holds a hallowed place in the history of Hollywood.  Even among critics of different racial backgrounds it is still an admired piece of cinematic art.  Not only that, but it set the bar high for epic film-making, and we have it to thank for all the grand spectacles that have followed in it’s wake, such as Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Gandhi (1982), Out of Africa (1985) and Titanic (1997) just to name a few.  A novel with the complexities of Margaret Mitchell’s original text was certainly going to be a challenge for any cinematic interpretation, and David O. Selznick’s production is certainly about as good as anyone could have done.  In many ways, the movies improves on many of the characters, certainly in the ways that the actors interpreted them including Vivien Leigh’s forceful portrayal of Scarlett and Hattie McDaniel’s historic depiction of Mammy.  There’s also the absolutely genuine charm of Clark Cable’s Rhett Butler and the undaunted sweetness of Olivia DeHaviland’s Melanie Hamilton.  As far as adaptations from page to screen go, you can’t ask for a better example than Gone With the Wind.  I’m sure that most people today are more familiar with the movie than the book itself, as it has become an almost universally known part of the culture.  The book itself is an interesting read, albeit with some old-fashioned views on the South that have not aged well.  It still stands as a groundbreaking work from one of the most important women writers of the 20th century.  Margaret Mitchell would never write another novel, as she returned to journalism soon after during the Second World War and had her life tragically cut short in a vehicular accident in 1949.  The legacy of her work still lives on, both in the positives and negatives, and Gone With the Wind is still one of the most widely discussed works of fiction from it’s time.  The movie itself is stunning in it’s adherence to it’s source material, but also it what it added to the work itself.  It’s also just a movie that defines the art of film-making in a way that few others do.  With it’s grandiose scope, it’s iconic characters, and it’s unapologetic sense of operatic splendor, it very much is the quintessential Hollywood movie, and without a doubt one of the most important translations of book to film that has ever been attempted.

“Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

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.”