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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.”
So interweaved are elements as science, philosophy, cyberpunk, police procedural narratives, conspiracy, comedy, and action, the work blends conventions to invisibility just like the technological binding holding each characters’ spirits in a bodies. No saying that any of these elements is up to the par set by succeeding entries in the series, but Shirow’s original was the first, and the first to do it right. This in itself is compelling; from what I understand of the man’s earlier works, The Ghost in the Shell came out of nowhere in terms of pure Shirowesque creativity. The first volume of the manga is a stand alone work, where a story arc is uncovered across a series of smaller stories. We follow Major Motoko Kusanagi and her team of elite Japanese police known as Section 9, a cyborg special-ops squad dealing in anti-terrorism. Like 24‘s CTU, but more high-tech and with less betrayals. As they tackle troubles of the day, they explore some pretty lofty ideas that often coincide with the artist’s more cartoonish tendencies in the illustration.
Going into the manga, I had a fairly good idea of what to expect. Shirow has often attracted criticism (at least, from the three anime-related podcasts I subscribe to) for being the idea-man, and nothing else. He’s given the world Ghost in the Shell, but really he gave Mamoru Oshii Ghost in the Shell, and he made something great with the material. Having finally read the thing for myself, I can say that this is not entirely true, but not unfounded either.
The chief issue one familiar with the anime might find paging through the comic is its tone. Whereas the two movies are deadpan serious, and the series feels very western in its handling of light-heartedness (in moderation), the comic is relentless in its plain goofiness. The humor itself isn’t necessarily terrible, but its presence is felt, and it feels inappropriate. Every issue ends similar to how some of the Stand Alone episodes of Stand Alone Complex do — the Major and Batou solemnly discuss the philosophical or psychological undercurrents of what just happened. Sometimes this will include a panel of the guy who’s been hacked to believe he’s got a wife and kids, and this moment is pretty sombre, but also a satisfying conclusion. Classic Ghost in the Shell. But then we get one more panel at the bottom with superdeformed Aramaki barking some order and the Tachikomas, or Fuchikomas, squawking about a farcical robot rebellion.
It’s not fair to say that this is simply what to expect when one reads Japanese comics, because the last time I reviewed a manga it was Phoenix, and that was consistent in art style and tone throughout. At the very least, it was balanced, confident in its tone. Yet, I can’t help but imagine that indeed this is simply what to expect when one reads Japanese comics. Why else would Shirow include it? He’s got to be playing to a culture, a rich history of titles with these types of jokes and breaking the seriousness every once in a while.
That would be perfectly fine were it not for what the humor sidelines often distract from. The Ghost in the Shell by Masamune Shirow to me was like the bible for the rest of the series — from this point stories were drawn for elements in Innocence, episodes in Stand Alone Complex, and the arc for Ghost in the Shell (1995) and Ghost in the Shell SAC: Solid State Society. Because of this, the stories are a delight to behold. It also takes the approach closer to the series than the movies in terms of the characters; Saito and Pazu and Boma aren’t seen a whole lot (I’m pretty sure “Paz,” as he’s called, never makes an appearance), but they’re there, where they never show up in the films (except for Saito for a frame or two in the first movie, without his eyepatch).
The artwork, when it isn’t superdeformed, is in my opinion pretty superb. I qualify with “in my opinion,” because my experience with the medium is limited, so it’s difficult for me to judge what truly great comic art should be like. The cityscapes and robot designs are particularly striking; Shirow undoubtedly has an eye for design, which I suppose is why Shinji Aramaki gets hired to bring his stuff to the silver screen. Guns are another big thing for me, and they get their due, as do the vehicles.
Most impressive would have to be the cyborg stuff. When somebody gets shot up real bad, the metal gets all jagged and wires stick out. Sometimes — as in the making of a cyborg — we see heads split open and mechanical brains inside. The detail in these drawings is inspiring, and we couple that with footnotes provided by the author that discuss the ludicrous science behind it all.
It’s certainly a unique experience, and though it’s been recognized time and again that The Ghost in the Shell exists mostly to create a formula for other things, its own merits should not be undervalued. There is a great deal of entertainment and provoking thought to be had in the volume, and if you’re as big a Major fan as I am, it’s always nice to see her in more adventures. I suppose that if you’re a real Major fan though the series would constitute as the “more adventures,” but whatever. To each his own Ghost in the Shell.
We’ve talked about the movie’s thematic structure, how Rick Deckard becomes a robot over the course of the movie, having started out not far removed, and how Roy Batty is humanized as he accelerates toward his engineered death. The only weak link in the narrative extends from this point – the tears in rain monologue was of course very telling of Roy Batty’s character as human, but it was meant to reflect on Rick Deckard as a replicant. One of the endings of Blade Runner (never filmed) was Deckard taking Rachel up north and shooting her in the back, which would have worked perfectly after the monologue scene, where our hero must embrace the robot he’s become.
Of course, what we have in the Director’s Cut, which in my opinion is the most best Cut (I hate that I even have to make the distinction) is the taste that lingers – ambiguity, as some see it. I see it as a clever bookend and a confirmation on what we’ve observed earlier, that Deckard is in some sense a replicant, and the preface to a truncated denoument.
Of course, had Blade Runner shown Deckard shooting Rachel, which we may or may not infer happens after the credits, it may have suffered Boyz N the Hood syndrome: we didn’t have to be shown (or told, rather blandly) that Doughboy dies young, it’s been implied internally in the narrative. Not only that, but it seems to be pounding the sadness of the South Central situation on to near excess. So maybe we don’t need to see the guy shoot the girl, because it is in some way implied – as an extension of Deckard as dehumanized robot – but I see too many pros over cons to the scene.
Running with this thematic thing, the hypothetical shooting of Rachel serves only the plot, a payoff to the various discussions of “No [I wouldn't come after you]. But somebody would,” but an actual displayed shooting of Rachel would have a grave tragedy to it because of the visceral nature of the act itself – its power lies in its existence, which sounds stupid, so in other words we need to see it in order for it to work. This is film, after all.
Rachel walks out into a clearing and Deckard is there behind her (I believe while snow is falling) mulling it over with that stoic and shadowed face, and then shoots her and walks off. He doesn’t like it, but he’s not human anymore, and this is the demonstration of that fact. That would solidify the themes whereas now what we’re sort of stuck with is endless ambiguity. Will Deckard and Rachel live a happy life together? (I guess that’s explored in the sequel novels – Blade Runner 2: The Edge of Human through Blade Runner 4: Eye and Talon) Is Deckard a replicant? Will Gaff ever find true love?
So basically Blade Runner‘s ending should be like what Jin-Roh has. Kill the girl, embrace the wolf.
It’s too bad she won’t live. But then again – who does?
For more on Blade Runner, check out the Blade Runner Directory