I don’t go to see movies very often, but I am subjected to numerous trailers. So this entry is about movies that in theory I should be excited to see but can only muster a disinterested, “Meh,” at best.
First, some of you may note I changed my WordPress theme. I did this because the old theme was no longer supported and because I realized the “normal” font was really too small. So I hope you all like the new theme because I can’t go back to the old one. Okay, to the topic at hand…
This is actually the third musing sparked by the over-saturation of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice trailers. I’m posting this now because the movie isn’t out quite yet (although reviews are generally not promising).
Why the [expletive] hell is Batman carrying a gun in the second trailer? I didn’t even notice that at the time. Good grief does the film making team misunderstand Batman’s character as badly as it does Superman’s?
Hey, if Hollywood does it, I can too. So there. Last time I explained in some detail why a prequel was a harder movie to pull off than a sequel and why prequels so often fail. I used the “Star Wars” prequels to illustrate my point. I came up with four ways prequels fail. I’m modifying and generalizing them slightly for this new rant:
or, “Not muh Supes!”
Few things irritate me more than reading/watching criticism of an adapted story and then seeing people casually dismiss the criticism by saying, “You’re just mad it’s not your version of X.” It’s as though they do not think that criticism of the faithfulness of the adaptation is valid. I would argue that this is in fact the key metric of the success of an adaptation. To me, if the adaptation isn’t faithful to the original (although how one defines that may be variable), then what was the point of an adaptation in the first place? Why not just create original characters for the story to be told?
Or, my rambling thoughts on when movie adaptations of other media are good, bad, ugly, or even necessary.
First, I would like to mention my novel, Necromancy for the Greater Good. If you haven’t read it (and you should), the characters attend a comic book/gaming convention called AwesomeCon. When I wrote that story (in 2012), I thought I made up that name. I used my Google Fu skills and did not find any official convention with that name because I wanted to make up a convention. Soooo, one my friend’s comics he is not subscribed to (fourth since cancellation; no kidding) has an advertisement for AwesomeCon. After further Google Fu, I have determined I did make up the name, as the Facebook page for the Con wasn’t created until nearly July 2012, and I published my book Halloween 2012, which means there was not much advertising (and I probably didn’t look to see if the name had been taken between the time I actually wrote the story and the time I published). So, in short, it’s a small world after all.
Wait, wasn’t I writing about movie adaptations? Oh, right, here you go…
Generally speaking, I think a movie adaptation is only a good idea if the big-screen visuals will add another dimension or even improve the original media. This also applies to whether or not a movie should be shot in 3-D, but that’s a bit of a side argument. Note that improving the media may not be the goal of an adaptation. Many media have been adapted to movies and generally I don’t think that’s a great improvement, but I do think sometimes the visual spectacle is worth it. Obviously I can’t go into every adaptation ever, but I’ll present a few examples of what worked, what didn’t work, what could have worked, and why I hold these opinions.
1) Television – in general, I don’t think this works very well. TV shows are serial, and movies tend to be discrete plots. That means that a screenplay must either significantly condense the plot of the TV show, or leave out a lot of information. Also, TV shows are written for a small screen and short run-time, thus there tends to be emphasis on character interaction rather than visual spectacle.
a) Scooby Doo – this was a cheaply animated, formulaic cartoon show. Obviously, I hated the movie adaptation (although the sequel was marginally better) for reasons documented elsewhere. But was this even a good idea in the first place? That is, had the movie been better, would this have met my criteria of improving the media or at least qualifying as a visual spectacle? The answer is – no. Nothing in the show really cried out for a big-screen visual spectacle, and trying to expand a 22-minute plot (or 43-minute for the “movies”) to 90 minutes is a really difficult task. The show was so forumulaic there were no other plot points or dimensions to work with.
b) Transformers – this was a cheaply animated cartoon show designed to sell toys to children. My opinion of the first movie is documented, and I haven’t seen the other two (or is it three? I don’t care). Was this even a good idea in the first place? Actually, I would say yes, just for the visual spectacle of watching giant, transforming robots fighting. Was it going to be a good movie? No. It was only ever going to be disposable media. And this is why the movie really failed. I wanted to see giant robots fighting. What I saw was a whiny, stuttering, unlikeable kid somehow end up the hero (I liked the soldier much better) and such shaky camerawork that when the robots were on-screen I couldn’t tell who the hell was fighting. So this could have worked, but really didn’t.
c) G.I. Joe – also a cheaply animated cartoon show designed to sell toys to children (and a comic book [I don’t remember which came first]). I didn’t like the first one, and what I saw of second one doesn’t make me want to see it either (the Joes are the worst heroes ever). Was this a good idea? Well, this one isn’t as clear cut as the other two. The idea of super-secret soldiers fighting super-secret terrorists could be a great visual spectacle. On the other hand, this is the kind of movie that has been done over and over again. And the movie I saw was a pretty generic take on that kind of movie. The distinct looks from the cartoon weren’t even present in the movie. So, overall, this probably wasn’t worth adapting.
d) Avatar: The Last Airbender – a beautifully animated cartoon show that actually told a well-written story. Given the amount of story in the show, I’m not sure an adaptation could have improved the media. It’s pretty damn good. But as a visual spectacle it could have been very good. Alas, no, that didn’t happen. But it wasn’t a terrible idea to start with anyway.
e) Dark Shadows – a low-budget supernatural soap opera. Was this a good idea? I really don’t think so. Again, the nature of the show was serial so lots of characters came and went during its run. Condensing a plot was a difficult task. There wasn’t a lot of visual spectacle even though Barnabas was a vampire as he tended to keep that a secret. The result was a convoluted mess that crammed in a lot of characters (going so far as to make two distinct characters the same person) that varied so dramatically in tone from “fish-out-of-water comedy” to “dark, brooding tragedy” I almost got whiplash.
2) Comic books – I understand why comic books have often been adapted to movies, and why this is a difficult task to pull off. The potential for visual spectacle is pretty vast. There’s usually years and years of story to mine in order to write a screenplay for a 90-110 minute movie. The problem is there is so much story sometimes the screenplay gets overly convoluted, and sometimes there’s so much potential for visual spectacle the story gets lost in the CGI-action sequences. Does this improve the media? Well, to say one way or the other risks the wrath of rabid fans. I will say good adaptations of comic book movies manage to express the most accepted amalgam of a character in a tidy plot.
a) The good (as explained above) – Iron Man, Spider-man, Spider-man 2, Batman, The Dark Knight, Captain America 2: Winter Soldier, and Superman.
b) The bad (poor plot and/or too much spectacle) – Green Lantern (not as bad as Man of Steel, obviously, but it did no favors to Hal Jordan and was definitely lost in CGI), Superman 4, X-Men Origins: Wolverine
c) The ugly (completely missed the mark about the characters) – Batman and Robin, Man of Steel
d) The other – too many to list. Some are good, but not as good as the ones listed, some are bad, but not as bad as the ones listed, and many are just mediocre (such as the Fantastic Four). Were they worth adapting? I think so, but execution was lacking.
3) Books – books seem like they should be perfect candidates for adaptation. The plot is discrete (as opposed to the serial nature of comic books or television shows) and depending on the book there could be great potential for visual spectacle. Does this work? Well, part of this depends on how good the book is and part of it depends on how good the adapted screenplay is.
a) Twilight Saga – I hear the books were awful, and the movies certainly were. But was it a bad idea? From a money-making perspective, no. And although it sounds strange, the parts of the movies I most enjoyed (which isn’t saying much), was the panoramic views of Washington State. In other words, the visual spectacle (such as it was). The plot was easy to adapt and while not necessarily a improvement on the books (I’ve heard mixed reviews), the movies were successful. I personally think the adaptations were a bad idea because the books were so terrible to begin with.
b) The Lord of The Rings – a sprawling epic plot and the potential for visual spectacle. This one was inevitable; it was just a matter of special effects technology catching up to peoples’ imaginations. For what it’s worth, I think the crew did a good job of adapting a plot that is both epic and incredibly mundane (i.e., Frodo and Sam walking). The movies were epic in scope, the visual spectacle was appropriate, and the story compacted as well as could be expected. Did it improve on the books? In some ways, I would actually say yes. I was glad to be spared pages and pages of every rock and tree Frodo and Sam passed, and the visual of the Dead Marshes struck me with its creepiness in a way the description in the book did not.
c) The Hobbit – a compact plot of discrete incidents with a potential for visual spectacle. This book actually should have been a better candidate for a big-screen adaptation. I know the trilogy isn’t finished, but the 2/3 of it I have already seen make me feel confident in that while this was a good idea, the execution is lacking. This story was never meant to be sprawling and the unnecessary filler distracts from the story. Although the dragon is beautiful and I can’t argue with that. But waiting nearly 5 hours is too damn long!
d) Harry Potter – Yes, I’ve read all the books and seen all the movies. From a visual spectacle standpoint, how could this not get adapted? But does it improve on the books? Actually, in some instances, I would say yes. For example, in the first book, Harry wrongly attributes his bad feelings to Snape; the deliberate mention of the presence of Quirrell is either obvious enough an astute reader would realize Snape is a red herring, or easy enough for an average reader to dismiss out of hand, thus having the reveal of Quirrell as the bad guy seem a little out of left field. But in the movie, the presence of Quirrell was both more and less obvious because of the visual medium. But that said, there were certainly instances where the movies weren’t better, and part of that is the difficulty of adapting a 700-page book.
Summary – most media are adapted to movies for the visual spectacle, and frankly that doesn’t bother me. Usually the movie adaptation doesn’t improve on the original, but I expect that. I’m pleasantly surprised when there is some aspect of a movie that I think does improve on the original. But mostly I think movie adaptations are really only good for, say, seeing the Avengers fight an alien invasion force. Any improvement is just a bonus.
or, “Thoughts on the next ‘Hobbit’ movie.”
or, “This was going to be a scathing rant on the metamorphosis of Peter Jackson into George Lucas until an unfortunately reasonable friend of mine brought up several salient points that made me reconsider my anger so if this entry is not entertaining, blame him.”
I am not sure if I’m going to see the next entry into the “Hobbit” trilogy. Okay, I lie. I’m totally going to see it, but I’m also resigned to being disappointed. I am also going to try to see it in the theater that serves craft beer, so at least I get something worthwhile out of my experience. Obviously I didn’t care much for the first movie (which is probably evident from my fifteen-minute version of it), and seeing the trailers for the second one, I am pretty certain I won’t care much for the second one either.
I loved The Hobbit. It is a kid’s story, and as such is full of convenient timing and events, but it’s still a good story. Here is a list, in order, of the events that occurred in the book:
1) “Concerning hobbits…”
2) Dwarf house party!
3) Trolls and treasure. Level up!
4) Elrond reads a map.
5) Captured by goblins and riddles in the dark.
6) “Fifteen birds/in pine fir trees…”
8) Fear and loathing in Mirkwood Forest (or, “Spiders spiders spiders AAUUGGH!!!”)
9) Caught in the wood/by the wooden kings’ men…
10) Escape from Mirkwood, in barrels!
11) Freeloading in Dale.
12) Half the game is dungeons, but the other half is dragons… and it turns out taunting a dragon is a bad idea.
13) Shot in the dark over Dale.
14) The ransom of the Arkenstone.
15) The Battle of Five Armies.
16) Concerning being legally dead and practically robbed.
I realize that laying all of this out in a list makes it seems like a lot of events. I could probably condense that list a little as well. But in the book this all plays out pretty quickly. So, to recap the first movie – 1 through 6. For three hours!! Way back in the in ’70s (I think), an animation studio called Rankin & Bass produced a version of The Hobbit. I thought it was pretty good and covered just about the entire list above (except for 7 and 11). That movie was also just about two hours long. Also notice there is absolutely nothing about a fight with a necromancer. Gandalf tells them before he leaves them at Mirkwood he has business to attend to with the necromancer of Mirkwood. When Bilbo finds him waiting in the enemy camp and all the explanation he gets from Gandalf is one or two lines to the effect of, “The wizards drove out the necromancer of Mirkwood.” That wasn’t integral to the story of the hobbit at all; it was just a handwave to explain the lack of the much more powerful wizard for the most dangerous part of the journey.
I sat through three hours of Hobbit Part 1 and only got to the eagles, and they weren’t even done properly! Rankin & Bass at least gave the eagles enough time to explain that a) they were sentient b) monitoring goblin activity anyway and c) the king owed Gandalf a life-debt. That really makes the behavior of the eagles in the Battle of Five Armies and the battle at the Black Gate in Return of the King a lot more logical. If Gandalf just had giant birds at his beck and call, why the hell didn’t he have them take the whole dwarven party to the Lonely Mountain or Frodo and Sam to Mount Doom? The problem of course was that I sat through a whole bunch of movie that had little to nothing to do with the hobbit. Three hours of movie and a bunch of filler.
And then we get to the really irritating part of this which is how the other two movies are going to be split up. It looks like from the trailers the next movie will cover Items 7 through 14, while the third will cover 15 and 16. Um, excuse me? I spent three freakin’ hours sitting through dwarven history I don’t care about plus a pointless subplot with an orc and some rock-tossin’ giants and only get to the eagles, which weren’t even done right. And it also looks like there’s going to be some kind of romantic subplot with Legolas and a girl and of course somewhere in all that is the battle with the necromancer. So the second movie will have everything I just mentioned plus a rom-com and wizard duel. Three freakin’ hours of stupid dwarf history and they couldn’t have split this thing up better? And then three more hours just for the Battle of Five Armies and the fall-out?
But said friend mentioned above pointed a few things out to me:
1) It is not fair to compare the book to the movie. They are different things.
Counter – But Peter Jackson has already successfully adapted a long set of books into a long set of movies. While I could identify differences from the Lord of the Rings, I understood the reasons behind the deviations. The biggest problem with LotR is that the most important of the story, the part on which victory is contingent, on which everything else would be moot if it failed, the story of Frodo and Sam, is the least cinematic part of the books. Things do happen to them, but they do a lot of walking. There is so much walking I actually alternate chapters of books 1 and 2 in The Two Towers to get through that side of the story. Jackson managed to overcome this and other problems to my mind quite well (although I still don’t understand why the Ents had to be tricked into war).
Counter 2 – As shown by Rankin & Bass, it isn’t necessary to make three movies and add filler. The only parts that movie left out was Beorn and freeloading in Dale because that wasn’t central to the action. Beorn is cool, no doubt, but he doesn’t really do anything except give them ponies, which he takes away as soon as they reach Mirkwood. He is in the Battle of Five Armies, but that’s still a part that could easily be left out for cinematic brevity.
2) The movie languished in production hell and has several different versions and directors.
Yeah, this is the one that stopped my angry rant. The only movie I can think of that actually benefited from languishing in production hell was The Emperor’s New Groove. Guillermo del Toro was the original director, and I wonder how much was filmed with him at the helm (I’m not complaining; I like his style, but it is distinctly different from Jackson and perhaps not compatible). I wonder how much story was added during the multiple versions. For example, that whole subplot with Azog seemed shoehorned and now I wonder how much time had already been devoted to that, leaving Jackson with no choice but to keep it. I wonder who made the decision to add Radagast to the movie(s) even though he wasn’t in the book. I wonder who decided Legolas was going to be in some kind of romantic quandary (as seems in the trailer anyway). It makes sense for Legolas to be in this movie, actually, since he a prince of Mirkwood. I wouldn’t mind at all if he was present at the Battle of Five Armies, or even during the dwarves’ captivity. But a love story? This seems like a misguided effort to diversify the cast (i.e., there are no women in The Hobbit). Normally I support diversity, but it has to work within the story. Maybe I’ll be pleasantly surprised…
I’m not letting Peter Jackson off the hook entirely. Thorin’s “suicide run” off the burning pine trees to take out Azog was pretty lame. Also, for a movie that keeps reminding me it’s a prequel to LotR, I still don’t know which dwarf Gloin is. But I have gone from angry to resigned as far as this movie set goes. I’m not sure Peter Jackson is turning into George Lucas. Maybe he is, and that would be unfortunate, but maybe he’s trying to make the best of a mess he found himself in. Either way, I’m going to make sure I’m at a movie theater that serves good beer. At least that way I’ll get something out of the experience.
Edited to add – Yeah, at least the beer was good. As for the movie, well… clicky the link.
or, “A Brief Discussion about Adapting Literary Characters to a Different Media Looking at a Specific Example.”
I am a fan of Sherlock Holmes. I’ve read all the stories at one time or another. I’ve seen a lot of (but not all) television and movie adaptations (also, I think Benedict Cumberbatch is probably the most quintessentially British name in the history of British names). Some I have liked, and some I haven’t. I think because a character like Sherlock Holmes has such strong personality characteristics, the amalgam most people have is probably quite similar. Here are the defining characteristics as I see them:
3) Easily bored
Now, the details of those characteristics is where there are differences in the amalgam. Some adaptations I think have made too much of his cocaine habit. Some completely ignore that. Some don’t go into his love of music at all. I also think this should make him easy to adapt to film. I think there have been some quite good adaptations of Holmes, such as the television version played by Jeremy Brett. I don’t think the most recent movies with Robert Downey Jr. are very good adaptations. I understand what the film-makers were going for, but it didn’t work for me. There was the problem of Hollywood, which I’ll explain in a second.
There are really only a couple of ways to adapt a literary character with a long span of stories, and this problem actually comes up with comic book adaptations as well. Either the adaptation is of a specific story, it the adaptation is an amalgam of stories. Since most of the Holmes’ stories are quite short, most of the movie-length adaptations have been of the novels. However, some of the television adaptations I quite enjoyed were direct adaptations of the short stories. The most recent movies have been the latter example of adaptation – an amalgam of stories. Comic book movies usually take this route as well. Even for being an amalgam, I still don’t think the recent movies were good adaptations because I think the characters were off.
While I think it’s fairly easy to adapt Sherlock Holmes, I have seen very few good adaptations of Watson. Unfortunately, a lot of Watsons seemed to be too old or too stodgy or too stupid. Holmes was brilliant, true, but Watson was no slouch. He was a medical doctor who served in the military and was the same age as Holmes. The stories also make a point of stating that Watson kept himself in good shape. Holmes relied on Watson for back-up if he suspected he’d need some muscle or a good shot. Oddly, while I didn’t like the most recent movies’ portrayal of Holmes, I thought the movies had one of the best portrayals of Watson I’ve seen. Jude Law looked almost exactly like the Sidney Paget illustrations in The Strand. That Watson also was the man of action Conan Doyle described.
I like the adaptations that are most faithful to the stories, particularly in the case of this character. I don’t see much reason to try to add a twist to a character that’s already so strong. But adaptations don’t occur in a vacuum. Even strong characters are seen through the lens of culture. The small-screen adaptations were more true to the stories because many of those were aiming to be live-action versions of the stories. The recent movies were trying to bring characters to the big screen without telling a specific from the Holmes canon. Hollywood also came into these latest movies. In this, I mean that Hollywood wants to make money, and the easiest way to do this is give people pretty much the same thing they’ve already bought. And Hollywood doesn’t think too much of the movie-going audience, so in adaptations, characters tend to reduced to charactures. So, in the case of the latest movies, I think the film-makers saw an effective but troubled detective and a straight man (which is a horrible simplification of Holmes and Watson) and thought – hey, buddy cop! At least that’s the impression that I got. I got that I was watching a steampunk version of Riggs and Murtaugh. Seriously, to me I was watching “Lethal Weapon: Victorian England.”
The other reason I didn’t think it was a particularly good adaptation was Irene Adler. “A Scandel in Bohemia” is a title of a story published in The Strand magazine featuring Sherlock Holmes. In the Western culture, the hero still needs a love interest. Even though Watson says more than a few times that Holmes finds the idea of a relationship abhorrent because it would interfere with his ability to be a detective (I believe the phrase used is, “like grit in a finely tuned machine”), too many adaptations try to force Holmes into that romantic narrative. It is important to note that Irene does only appear once. It was also clear to me that Holmes’ feelings towards Irene were not romantic (anyway, he never properly met her and was only working the case for two days, I think). She figured out Holmes’ scheme and had the audacity to let him know, and he didn’t catch on to her audacity at the time. She was his intellectual equal. That, however, doesn’t fit into the narrative, so Adler morphs into a former lover.
Some of these criticisms apply to comic book movies as well, but I find it more grating with Holmes because I think the characterization is both strong and consistent, so the adaptations should also be strong and consistent. I don’t think this happened with the latest movies. There was too much Tony Stark in Sherlock Holmes, too much of a Riggs/Murtaugh vibe, and too much summer blockbuster for stories that would be better served by being more low-budget and authentic.