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Battleship falls (I couldn’t say ‘sinks’) and the half-billion dollar toy movie’s future is on the rocks. The Hunger Games and Twilight are the biggest franchises of the day, with the dedicated, built-in audiences that allow risky projects to process through the strict, Puritannical Hollywood system — books are, and always have been, the new hotness. I would prefer that over board game movies, but it’s still not the best case scenario. In the best case scenario, The Hunger Games and Twilight would still be among the biggest franchises of the day, but I could willfully ignore them, and go gladly to Foward the Planet Space, another huge franchise movie and part of the Planet Space planned trilogy.
What is Planet Space? It was a movie that came out of nowhere two years ago, a spec script pitched by a passionate writer and to a studio that actually likes movies, probably Lionsgate (though they still pedal commercial on the side). It blew up and now we have a trilogy. The second one looks even better than the first — except that it doesn’t exist. I’m not saying that there aren’t these types of movies (obviously with better titles) like District 9 and Moon, and to some extent, Avatar. What I’m saying is that there’s been a swelling in popularity in the adaptation, particularly that of YA fiction (more on that later) which has caused a bloating in the market that’s recently spilled over into television.
Not only is the book market now flooded with stories about teenage love (wait a minute — gross?) blooming amidst dystopic, oppressed society, but TV is now being infected by what is most popular and money-making. In the most recently released episode of the podcast On the Page: Screenwriting, an alarming statistic was brought to light, that 60% of the television pilots picked up this year are based on books. I have to imagine that at least 90% of that other 40% were sitcoms.
When I saw the pilot for Awake I knew I had to write ‘dedicated’ reviews for every episode to show some type of support, because these things are so rare. Terra Nova got cancelled and Falling Skies is looking no better despite heading into a second season, and I can’t help but feel guilty for not watching them. In a perfect world, I wouldn’t feel guilt. Terra Nova, despite combining the two things that equal my favorite movie ever, Spielberg and dinosaurs, didn’t really interest me. I didn’t want to watch it, but didn’t want to see it go. Just like Stargate Universe, which was kind of a slog to get through. It’s a shame that there’s slim pickin’s for original storytelling, and a worse shame that they get cancelled faster than you can say the — admittedly long — title, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.
There shouldn’t really be anything wrong with adaptations. Some of the best scifi movies are adaptations of books and short stories, like Blade Runner, 2001, Jurassic Park, The Thing, The Fly, A Scanner Darkly – the list runs long. But the adaptation in my opinion, is a flawed practice in storytelling. The key is that so many writers plainly do not understand how to do it properly. It changes with every title. A Scanner Darkly was faithful, Blade Runner was not. They’re both good. This is confusing.
When you think about it, the adaptation is perfect as an idea. The author of novels is more qualified than the average screenwriter, because the average screenwriter has sold or published zero screenplays. The author of novels is vindicated as a commercial artist with book sales, and in the case of Stephanie Meyer or J.K. Rowling, with election to god-status. We know that Harry Potter is a good story because we’ve read it as a book, making it much easier for the executives to get behind. On the other hand, nobody has ever seen this unproduced screenplay over here, so it’s up to the in-house script reader to sign off on it and pass it along to other gates for further inspection — and note that nobody working in this industry has ever been fired for saying “No.”
For movies, book publishing is like a filtration system, insurance that only the best gets through to the silver screen. Even when John Carter can’t quite jump to the moon, The Hunger Games will tear wallets while Fifty Shades of Grey peeks over a nauseating horizon.
But if most screenwriters don’t know how to adapt properly, we end up with stories that weren’t designed for the silver screen, and haven’t been reformatted. The Avengers opened to wide financial success and huge critical acclaim because the last half hour is one huge action scene — it may technically be an adaptation, but Joss Whedon’s no fool, and this isn’t his big screen debut (or adaptation). He knows how to maximize the method, and he knows how to be cinematic.
I’ve seen precisely one clip from The Twilight Saga, and it was the quintessential moment — Edward and Bella are standing in the woods, talking. I know there’s some action, and I know we like to actually see the guys with their shirts off, rather than simply imagine it, but this isn’t cinematic. I’ve forgotten what cinematic meant, which is why The Avengers was qualified nirvana (it was a great over-the-top action spectacle, but it’s still kinda dumb and about superheroes, so I’ll gladly take The Matrix or John Woo) because Hollywood has sat stagnant.
Let’s look then at a non-Hollywood movie (I think), Never Let Me Go, based on a book by a Japanese fellow. I reviewed this movie and I really liked it, but it wasn’t a movie. It was a good story projected onto a screen. Some would argue similarly against the Watchmen movie.
As an on and off fan of video-games I tend to follow that industry and note how it struggles for legitimacy, in the face of reviewers in the pockets of those they discuss, and journalistic output aligning with companies’ marketing agendas, and I never felt like movies need to feel that struggle, because after a hundred years, they’ve made it. But nowadays, we’ve been hollowed out. In retrospect, the 2000s weren’t as artistically bankrupt as I’d always complained about at the time — we picked up classics like Eternal Sunshine, Gladiator, Memento, No Country, Children of Men, etc. — but these movies have all felt like revelations.
Ultimately the problem with adaptations is that they’re gateways to laziness. We fall into trends because these trailblazers are such hot commodities, and then the market becomes oversaturated with Twilight lookalikes and wannabes. Meanwhile original storytelling, screenwriter’s storytelling, gets the shaft because there’s no money in that. There’s no money in the industry unless it’s tethered to properties from other industries. That’s… nonsense. Movies are just the bastard children of books and toys — just one step away from what I must assume is an unholy mess in the mold of Battleship: The Video Game, a video-game based on a movie based on a board game. Next we’ll be adapting the Twilight Monopoly game…
Also troubling is the young adult fiction trend. Now this is something of a personal bias, because I never read Harry Potter or The Hunger Games. I never had interest in reading YA because when I was that age, I didn’t have an interest in reading. So I basically went from Magic Treehouse to Philip K. Dick, bypassing what I quickly grew to see as ‘fantasy bullshit for children.” The Hunger Games does seem interesting, as it depicts a genuinely strong female character in a scifi setting, but from what people tell me, these books aren’t exactly mind-benders. They are indeed aimed at young girls in the 12-14 age range, and so themes of female empowerment will be touched upon, but we can’t fool ourselves. The Hunger Games isn’t a pathway into more mature fiction, it’s a pathway to more The Hunger Games. It’s a brand, and it’s the brand that sells, not the themes, and not the message.
Our priorities need to shift, ultimately. There is that constant struggle in the moviemaking business between artistic integrity and commercial viability. Right now I feel filmmakers, whether they be screenwriters or executives, are lost in a deep maze. They look at a good spec script and say, “Talent. Have her do the Sandler rewrite.” Meanwhile they shop the safe, intellectually sedentary aisles of the bookstore and look at the latest release and say, “Story. This will be the next big cash cow.”
When I was a kid there were three things that scared me: Ghosts, demons, and aliens. I didn’t really know what exactly a demon was, so I got over that one quickly. Ghosts are still scary to me. Please, refrain from asking why. I reversed on aliens almost instantly, and I cherish the opportunity to watch alternatively green and grey-headed aliens doing their green and grey day-to-days.
There remain, however, a few aliens. A few aliens indeed, that continue to scare the piss out of me. Let’s count down (eight, really), and just in time for Halloween…
10. Tralfamadorians (Slaughterhouse-Five)
Kurt Vonnegut’s aliens have a neat perception of life and death. And yet, they still die…
9. Na’vi (Avatar)
The idea of somebody putting their dingle into a giant blue cat makes me shiver in the night.
8. Martians (Mars Attacks!)
The fear I felt over the comedic aliens from the comedy Mars Attacks! ran so deep, I still have yet to see the film. That’s definitely the prime reason, though my general dislike of Tim Burton (outside of Ed Wood) doesn’t help. These aliens, which probably shook me the most out of any on the list, rank lower for a number of reasons, but the chief among them is, simply, I haven’t even seen Mars Attacks!. And I won’t let them control me.
7. Grant Grant (Slither)
Yes, mouth mutation will get you pretty far. It’s a little freaky; the cherry on top of this fleshy, pink blob from outer space–or your local podunk town. It’s Grant Grant, who’s been recently transformed by a tiny alien needle into a zombie hivemind.
Kill me Pardy.
6. God’s Very Own Aliens (M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs)
I’m a painful Shamhammer apologist. Granted, I haven’t seen too much of The Happening, skipped The Village, and will never touch The Last Airbender, but… well, that deflates my argument. Lady in the Water was good, that’s all I wanted to say. It’s not a horror movie, it’s a fairy tale–oh, I don’t care.
Signs on the other hand is very much a horror movie. It’s also a great scifi movie, and a solid story about faith and God. Here to help Mel find the word of the Lord are aliens, and they like to hide in scary places, like the TV. Look out…
5. Tripods (The War of the Worlds)
Spielberg’s The War of the Worlds is a highly effective movie. The aliens, high and mighty in their damn tentacle-tanks, destroy everything. If they see you, and they emit that horrible fog-horn, you’re as dead as fried chicken. Chase scenes see buildings shattering like fried chicken, and boats topple over like they was made a paper. The scope of these creatures is immense, and I was held in high suspense of the reveal of the actual aliens. They weren’t as scary as I had imagined, but whatever.
The thing about The War of the Worlds is that when I first saw it in the theatres, I was very ignorant. In this case, ignorance paid off, based on some perspectives. I believed that The War of the Worlds, probably written by Jules Verne, found everybody killed by aliens at the end. Obviously this was before I Am Legend came out in 2007, where the idea that screenwriters might adapt a book’s story–or ending–faithfully was fully out the window.
So I was sitting there the whole time expecting aliens to win. When they didn’t, it actually felt pretty triumphant of them humans. Maybe that’s why I have such a favorable opinion of this movie. It’d be like seeing The Sixth Sense in the year 2000 and not knowing the end. You’d be watching from under your rock, but it’d work.
4. The Xenomorph (Alien)
While personally not frightened by the classic Drone/Warrior/Alien/Xenomorph, I was. Back when I was five and thought maybe aliens were real, I went to a Planet Hollywood, and on display they had a massive Alien Queen display. For some reason (perhaps I was ten) I could identify it as an alien, and was horrified: this is an alien that’s tangible, I thought. But since, I’ve made peace with the Aliens, and have seen every Alien movie, even the last one, AVPR: Aliens versus Predator Rated-R.
Spoiler olert… I liked it…
3. Killer Klowns (Killer Klowns from Outer Space)
It’s not necessarily their design, because they’re essentially just trolls in clown costumes/makeup. It’s what they do, all the twisted perversions of classic carnival imagery–which itself is benign but strangely dark. Klowns use their silly ray guns to encase people in flesh-melting cotton candy, throw flesh-melting pies, and eat flesh. A pattern.
The rescue mission at the end of the movie is shockingly suspenseful, because there’s been an established balance: how much we know about the Klowns, and how unpredictable they are. The team of intrepid heroes enters an incredibly hostile environment, and we simply do not know what to expect, but we do know that it’ll be horrific.
Killer Klowns is a horror/comedy. While it is very funny, I wouldn’t necessarily rank it up there with Shaun or Return of the Living Dead (or Tremors 2, if I ever get around to revisiting that one). It’s just a little too… eerie.
2. The Thing (The Thing 1982)
I’ve already spoken at length about The Thing, so I’ll say this in addition: the two Thing movies offer a whole to me as a fan of science-fiction film. In terms of the monster, The Thing ’82 satisfies the film fan half, while The Thing ’11 satisfies the sci-fi fan half. Because the movie guy appreciates spidery-heads and twisty dogs that make people go crazy, but the sci-fi fan loves a good monster.
Also, the blood test scene, the defribulator scene, and the dog scene are all extremely intense. The Thing is such a good freaking movie.
1. The Friends of E.T. (E.T.: The Ride)
If you’re wondering why there’s no picture of aliens for this one, I couldn’t bear to enter “ET the Ride,” into Google Images. This is an interesting one, because it’s very rare that images in a movie will legitimately frighten me (most recently this happened in Naked Lunch, with the parrot cage ‘sex’ that looked like a cruel mixture of Dante’s Inferno and Videodrome), but when you’re strapped into a ride, it’s a different dynamic.
First of all, you go into a building called “ET the Ride.” The scariest ride you’ve been on so far is T2 3D: Battle Across Time, because you’re now convinced that that twelve minutes you just spent were better than the 677 minutes of Terminator 3. You’re in Spielberg territory now, and you know what that means. ET is his most lovable creation, the candy-eating little bugger who just wants to get on home.
Whatever you do, don’t follow him there.
On ET the Ride, you and your group takes a bike ride through the forest to evade the government, who pops through the trees every once in awhile in their cars. A neat little diversion, and what I imagined to be the bulk of the journey. Then you fly over the moon, look at how high you are over the city, like Peter Pan.
And then you go to ET’s homeworld, and I think my father said it best: “I didn’t realize ET lived in Hell.”
There are aliens that have wrinkly holes for eyes, aliens that look like rotted pumpkins that got just so rotten they started spontaneously growing half-formed near-human faces, as if pumpkins, in some horrible far-flung Lovecraft universe, did that. It would be scary enough if there were two of these things, but they line the walls–for a long time. Orange steam is blowing and you’re touring slowly as they chant in unison how happy they are you’ve brought their friend home.
How happy they are he’s brought dinner.
Seriously intense stuff. I didn’t know if I was gonna make it, and if you think I’m joking–or a pussy–I shall pay for your roundtrip tickets to Orlando.
Feel like you’re getting the better end of that deal….
I was gonna do something more thoughtful for my 100th post, but I don’t have a job right now and can’t buy the entire David Cronenberg library from Amazon, or the Dollars Trilogy on Blu-Ray. Those posts will have to wait.
Science-fiction in particular is heartily impacted by the scourge of the film adaptation. I guess that’s just one of the reasons why I didn’t hate Battle: Los Angeles as much as I should have: it was an original story, albeit a poorly told one, and essentially the Marine version of Independence Day. Sounds good, right? Save your money. But anyways, film adaptations really piss me off because it makes the medium of film just a vessel for stories we’ve already experienced. It’s a storytelling recycler, and that’s not cool. With science-fiction in the modern times, we have the superhero comic adaptations. This year will see the release of Thor and Captain America. I prefer a movie like Battle: LA because both types of movies use ridiculous amounts of money, but Battle: LA shows me something cooler and bigger. Instead of a superhero and a supervillain fighting in New York (Toronto), we get soldiers fighting aliens in the mid-apocalypse. Chaos – we see very clearly where the money went.
But I don’t want to generalize with adaptations. Indeed Blade Runner, the greatest science-fiction film of all time, is an adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, though rather loosely. So today I’m not gonna go on an anti-adaptation rant – that’ll come later – rather, I’m going to celebrate the approach to storytelling with some of the better ones, and the various methods filmmakers undertook.
Case 1. Star Trek (2009)
Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, the screenwriters behind J.J. Abrams’ reboot of the second biggest franchise in science-fiction, wrote basically a better version of an earlier script: Transformers from 2007. Transformers has a great script with awful dialogue. It accomplishes so much: pleased old fans while introducing the world to new ones, combining old mythos with new story elements, introducing a new, human, character, and set up solid set pieces, letting the infamous director run wild with spectacle. It didn’t accomplish the most basic aspect of the screenplay in my opinion, but that’s just where Star Trek one-ups it. The script for Star Trek was funny, dramatic, and even poigniant, while also doing most of what Transformers did.
As a movie, Star Trek is great for its visuals, its story, and the casting: Karl Urban is totally the man and gets overused as the stereotypical macho man. Simon Pegg was great as usual, and Zoe Saldana never once said “You will never be one of the People.” I also really dug the villain, even if his motivations were the only true weak part of the movie. I think he worked not because he was sympathetic or hardcore, but because he set the events in motion and perfectly brought together the characters, which was the point of the origin story.
Relative to the series and movies, Star Trek is an excellent adaptation, easily the best Trek flick I’ve thus far seen (Wrath of Khan and Star Trek 2009). It’s classic pulp adventure but strikingly modern without taking the Battlestar Galactica approach and making everybody sulk around. Science-fiction and space here offers us some interesting ideas, and no, Roger Ebert, this movie wasn’t about Roddenbery science, but it had just enough genre tropes to keep the hardcore fans satisfied without boring the mainstream. Pleasing everybody was clearly Star Trek‘s goal, because Star Trek is damn good at doing what it does.
Case 2. A Scanner Darkly (2006) [Spoiler Alert]
There are portions in the book that are lifted scene for scene on the silver screen in Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly, himself already a decicated fan of Philip K. Dick as demonstrated in his earlier A Waking Life. My favorite would have to be the conversation in the truck where Barris reveals he’s set up a surprise for any intruders, which is hugely paranoid in the book and sends our hero Arctor reeling mentally, playing over scenarios and hypotheses, but in the movie, it’s just a funny scene. The adaptation here was both incredibly faithful, and completely smart.
Scenes were translated, but more importantly the main ideas were. The narrative in A Scanner Darkly the book is diluted by side stories and reminiscings – the movie is more direct and the story comes across clearly over an arc that’s more consice. The end is paced rather quickly, where Arctor is finally broken down by the revelation that yes, he is Arctor, and the preceding movie, which is more spread out and slow, builds up the pyschological decline.
The exploration into the deadly world of drugs is enhanced by a dreary vision of the future, and both stories underscore darkness and literary genius with humor. Both the novel and the movie are very funny, and this makes the tragedy of the various characters’ ends that much greater. The visuals of course have to be mentioned – take a look at a single frame of the movie. Indeed that is how the entire movie looks all the way through; it’s a labor of extended effort from a film crew, under the supervision of a passionate filmmaker in love with great material.
Case 3. Ghost in the Shell (1995)
This is the story of a great film coming from an okay source material. Masamune Shirow is big on cool ideas, but also big on making things ‘funny.’ Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell is the most humorless movie I could think of, well, except for Innocence: Ghost in the Shell 2. So it drops the comedic elements and goofy characters but retains the story and the philosophical elements. Themes of technological invasion reaching even into our bodies and minds are heightened by the film, brought to new levels of horror. The visuals in Ghost in the Shell the movie are also beautiful and helped out by motion and sound. Spider tanks, exploding women, market shootouts, rainy subtext ladled montages are all vibrant and contribute to the movie’s status as groundbreaking in the medium of anime.
Case 4. Blade Runner (1982) [Spoiler Alert]
Another Philip K. Dick movie, which is strange for an author of such hallucinatory and wacked out material. Blade Runner is a great adaptation because all the positives of the original novel are intact, but more good stuff is piled on in addition to an already solid base, thanks to a final script by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is about nazis. At least, that’s what it was inspired by, thanks Wikipedia.org. Philip K. Dick was interested by how inhuman nazies were in their various historical activities, and wrote a story about dehumanization and paranoia starring a world populated by androids and those who hunt androids.
Those who hunt androids, who I believe are just policemen, have a character named Rick Deckard in their number. He’s got a new job that he took to pay for a real animal, not an artificial one. The job gets complicated when he tangles with romance and then questions of humanity and reality. It’s a good story, but from what I recall, it was the filmed version that introduced the theme of life and death that I fell in love with.
Roy Batty, the leader of the Replicants in Blade Runner, seeks out Tyrell on Earth (where he is in danger) in order to live longer. There’s nothing more sympathetic than that, and yet he’s the villain. His character arc offers a tragedy that highlights the end of the film, where his eventual acceptance of death sees the rescue of our dehumanizing hero. It’s now up to Rick Deckard to turn his life around, and in the Director’s Cut and the Final Cut, might just do that with a future romance with Rachel.
Case 5. Apocalypse Now (1979) [Spoiler Alert]
And finally we reach the only non-science-fiction film on the list, though if you weren’t too up on your history, you might mistake it as fantasy. Apocalypse Now is, from what I’ve seen, the best film adaptation ever made, and certainly one of the best movies ever made. Pure, powerful filmmaking at its finest, a magnum opus to be reckoned with. But it’s a great adaptation because the story, Heart of Darkness, was perfectly translated onto film and was enhanced by the Vietnam War.
This movie edges out Blade Runner because of its brilliance in conception. Blade Runner became brilliant over time, a long ass time to be sure. Francis Ford Coppolla’s pairing of the Vietnam War to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness was a stroke of genius, indicting the conflict while positing ideas on the human condition. I have not read the Conrad novella, but I am familiar with the story – it’s a classic, one of those that you hear about before reading the book, like The Count of Monte Cristo and Romeo and Juliet. Basically what you have is an exploration in madness, and what better way to do this than through the Vietnam War, a conflict of confusion and chaos, a war fought about the biggest nothing in history, as one character remarks.
The end of the movie sees Col. Kurtz talking about how the horrors of war drove him to do terrible things in the name of victory, which is so important to the American mentality, as previously established by Kilgore. It’s the actual factual American politics that back the idea that war is fucked up, and this is embodies wholly by the Conradian elements of insanity and the darkness in the hearts of men.
A book is not very visual, no matter what images it evokes in your brain. Apocalypse Now embraces the visual medium of film with passion – the beauty and horror of the beach invasion set to the Valkyries music makes for an intense experience that both shocks you into blankmindedness, but leaves you with so much to think about. The faces moving in and out of shadow recreate the themes of the movie in a cleverly visual way, and the war scenes are staggering without being documentary-styled, which has defined how one shoots war in a post-Saving Private Ryan world.
Honorable Mentions: The Thing (1982), They Live, Serenity, The Dead Zone
The Bad Adaptations: Memoirs of a Geisha, Dune