From the archives: Adaptations

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Based on a true swindle

Monday, 6 October 2008 — 4:05am | Adaptations, Film, Full reviews, Literature

So I’ve succumbed to curiosity and watched The Da Vinci Code. This may surprise those of you who mention Dan Brown in my presence at parties for the sole purpose of provoking me into entertaining you with an explosion of cleverly phrased invective against what is surely one of the worst novels I have read. All the same, I tried my best to see it with an open mind; good films have sprung out of bad books before, and I respect Ron Howard as a reasonable director of mainstream Hollywood pictures. This is, after all, the same Ron Howard who gave us the excellent Apollo 13 (a study in how to do a straightforward “based on a true story” dramatization well) and the admirable, if conventional A Beautiful Mind.

The Da Vinci Code is inherently an interesting case study in film adaptation, since the “novel” on which it is based is so incompetently written that the most charitable thing a reader can do is think of it as the first draft of a screenplay proposal by a ninth-grade kid who once got molested by a priest. And then there is the further gamble of handing it to the most erratic screenwriter in Hollywood—Akiva Goldsman, who wrote two of Ron Howard’s better films (A Beautiful Mind and Cinderella Man) but also has his name on the likes of Batman & Robin and I(saac Asimov is rolling in his grave), Robot.

Ron Howard, at least, has a track record that assures us he is literate in the art of cinema, which is not something we can say for Dan Brown’s grasp of written English (grammatical enough to be published, but only that). To film The Da Vinci Code in a manner that reflects the quality of its prose would require a handheld camcorder and a monk costume from the corner shop. That the adaptation is in the hands of professionals at all is enough to assure us that the delivery is an improvement—and it is.

Less expected is how the film manages to expose some of the serious defects in The Da Vinci Code‘s story structure that the book’s breakneck pace sweeps under the rug. Dan Brown’s novel is many execrable things, but one thing it is not is boring. (It’s like Sarah Palin that way—fitting, because Dan Brown’s America is Sarah Palin’s America in so many respects.) Ron Howard’s film is boring, and it is Dan Brown’s fault.

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Wednesday Book Club: Breakfast at Tiffany’s

Wednesday, 3 September 2008 — 12:16pm | Adaptations, Book Club, Film, Literature

This week’s selection: Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958) by Truman Capote.

In brief: Short, simple, and sweet, Capote’s novella is one of those stories that packs every postwar anxiety about the American Dream into one very enigmatic character. There is something mature about fiction that reflects on the idealism of the individual spirit, and asks us to do the same, through immersing us in a deep sense of wistfulness rather than outright disillusionment.

(The Wednesday Book Club is an ongoing initiative of mine to write a book review every week. I invite you to peruse the index. For more on Breakfast at Tiffany’s, keep reading below.)

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License to Slum, pt. 2

Sunday, 31 August 2008 — 11:40pm | Adaptations, Film, Literature, Tie-ins and fanfic

This is the second part of “License to Slum: The Novel of the Movie of the Game”, a pentapartite polemic about media tie-in fiction in which I investigate whether my prejudice against them is just a prejudice. I recommend that you start at the beginning.

In this instalment, I continue to assess some of the arguments that are often raised in defence of the tie-in novel, with a particular focus on movie novelizations and the behaviour of the property licensors.

Continued »

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Where no Grand Inquisitor has gone before

Monday, 21 January 2008 — 11:37pm | Adaptations, Film, Literature

Just shy of three weeks ago, I stayed at the decidedly unhygienic Ambassador City Jomtien, which was by all appearances Thailand’s number one tourist destination for indulgent Russian oligarchs. It was timely, then, that when I endeavoured to head to the beach for a spot of reading under the palms, the next book in my endless queue was none other than The Brothers Karamazov.

This was my first time through Dostoevsky’s magisterial opus, and at more than one juncture I observed that with its high moral intrigue, impassioned cast of players and unreserved Biblical ambition—not to mention the best courtroom speeches in prose fiction (themselves capable satires of psychoanalytic narrative analysis decades before the study formally existed)—surely somebody has had the bravado to attempt a film.

As it turns out, Richard Brooks wrote and directed an English-language film adaptation back in 1958 (read the contemporaneous New York Times review) starring—get this—Yul Brynner and William Shatner. For those of you with access to Turner Classic Movies, it plays 7 February.

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Alas, poor Iorek

Saturday, 8 December 2007 — 2:58am | Adaptations, Film, Full reviews, Literature

Pay attention, because I’m about to coin a new word: amberpunk. It refers specifically to the aesthetic of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, much of which carries on in the steampunk spirit, but in the absence of steam.

Thanks to the promotional stills and trailers for the film of Northern Lights/The Golden Compass, the visualization of amberpunk was the least of my concerns going into the film. The moment I saw that New Line had commissioned a cinematic adaptation, a list of Reasons to Worry flickered into being, and the visual design was the first item I crossed off the list.

Among the other, more pressing items: 1) In the novels, shapeshifting daemons like Pantalaimon retain a coherent identity before the reader because they are identified by name. How might one adapt that visually? 2) Lyra Belacqua is a role so ludicrously challenging that casting her appropriately could make or break the movie. Could Dakota Blue Richards convincingly fill her shoes? 3) Pullman’s writing consistently appeals to non-visual senses—touch, for example, as in the highly tactile experience of using the Subtle Knife. How might this work on film? 4) Will Pullman’s stridently anti-dogmatic message (which is finally poking the church in the eye with as sharp a stick as he intended, albeit twelve years late) survive commercial pressures for the filmmakers to self-censor? 5) Who is Chris Weitz, and should I be as worried as I am about his very limited directorial experience (About a Boy, Down to Earth and a co-credit on American Pie), or will he surprise me like Mike Newell did with Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire? 6) Are the angels in The Amber Spyglass still going to be naked?

Now, I regret to say I’ve only read Pullman’s marvelous trilogy once and therefore don’t know it backwards, forwards and upside down the way I (used to) know The Lord of the Rings, but my initial impression after seeing the film tonight is a very positive one. The adaptation adhered to its source with the utmost respect, but not slavishly or religiously (how ironic would that be?) to a fault. Devoted readers need not worry. In fact, I had myself a jolly old time right up until the credits rolled.

Unfortunately, the end credits are precisely where a very serious problem with the film appears. (Spoilers follow for both the book and the film.)

Continued »

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Watchmaker, watchmaker, make me a watch

Tuesday, 20 February 2007 — 12:40am | Adaptations, Comics, Film

Riddle me this: It’s December 1941 in Casablanca. What time is it in New York?

In the famous opening passage of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams describes the human species as “so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.” In this way, I am only human. I have worn digital watches all my life. I cannot live without one. It’s easy to tell when I’m fidgeting, because I check the time compulsively. As far as I am able to remember, on only two or three occasions have I been without a digital watch for more than a day, and on every one of those occasions, I panicked like an abandoned child lost on a San Francisco pier (which, come to think of it, is something I’ve also been at least twice). I have probably been without my watch more often than that, but those memories lie safely repressed.

Over the past year or so, my wristwatch dependency has loosened its grip. It still follows me everywhere, and I am still disoriented without it, but I replaced the strap a year ago and never got used to it. It wasn’t because the strap was uncomfortable; it was because I took my watch off with increasing frequency, either to time my own speeches or to permit the unobstructed handling of keyboards (both QWERTY and black-and-white), and never got so accustomed to the strap that I would be at a loss without it. But in any and all circumstances, my watch was never far.

I find that it is just as vital to know when you are as it is to know where you are, if not more so. If you are lost in space, you can find your way out, or you can stay in that spot, and develop a plan from the inferred state of your observed environment. Not so with time – certainly not here, where the winter days are but a few days in length, and the moon and stars lay hidden.

My model of choice has traditionally been the Casio Databank DB35H, mostly because I got very accustomed to its interface, feature set and display after years of use in elementary school; the segment layout is easy to read and familiar to me. It has evolved over several incarnations, and the one I purchased in what must have been 1999 or thereabouts had electroluminescent backlighting, which my first one did not, though it too has had its features extended in the latest revision. That said, given that I don’t really use the databank features, I’m open to superior alternatives like this Waveceptor model. At the same time, my current model suits my needs just fine, and I see no reason to leave it for another. Maybe an obsession with time is born of a desire for stasis and a fifty-metre resistance to change.

After roughly eight years of long service – perhaps longer, as I do not recall with the utmost precision – my battery died last week. For some reason, I don’t remember this happening before. The technical specifications for the latest incarnation of this model estimate a battery life of two years, which simply can’t be right. Perhaps my extensive use of the stopwatch features accelerated its demise. Or perhaps it was nothing more than any old battery expiring of natural causes.

I was at the university when time abruptly decided to stop, so at first opportunity, I went to the Bookstore to buy a replacement cell. Then I realized I was uncertain what battery I required, so I borrowed a screwdriver from the staff and opened up my watch on a counter. As it was already open, I decided to purchase a battery and perform the replacement myself then and there. I’d never been in the guts of one of my own watches before, so this was an autodidactic experience from the get-go. The battery housing was a veritable fortress, and tinkering about in its innards was a dextrous exercise ripe for eliciting a calm eddy of introspection, even if the device was only a digital timing implement and nothing that required me to meddle with mechanics and grapple with gears.

But irrespective of the absence of moving parts, disassembling and reassembling an electronic device and voiding its associated warranties is something I recommend everybody do at least once in their lives. Changing a lousy 3-volt lithium disc may be no big deal to those of my peers who spent their childhoods overclocking their CPUs, coiling solenoids for electric motors, or downloading instructions for building cherry-bombs from a nascent, textual Internet (and actually following them, to the chagrin of the junior-high caretakers); to them, it must seem no greater a task than the humdrum routine of replacing a lightbulb. However, I happen to be a Software Guy, a hands-off theoretician comfortable in his bubble of machine-independent algorithms afloat in the soapy bathwater of Platonic, Turing-computable ideal forms. For me, playing with little springs and unscrewing little screws and jumpstarting circuits with unfolded staples delivers a welcome pretence of handymanliness. Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.

In a timely coincidence, on that very same day I read about Zack Snyder’s plans for the Watchmen film.

Anyone who has been following my blog for reasonably long knows that of all the movies presently in development, this is probably the one I care about the most. More than the last three Harry Potters. More than His Dark Materials, which actually seems to be coming along very well from a design standpoint, though the jury’s obviously out on the script and will remain that way until the opening day of The Golden Compass (or Northern Lights, if they’re releasing it under that title elsewhere). Maybe even more than Indiana Jones and the Spanish Inquisition or whatever Lucasian premise it is we’re not expecting. I do not exaggerate when I say that Watchmen is the Lord of the Rings of comic books, and it’s imperative that it’s done right. I’ve seen it pass from Aronofsky to Greengrass to Snyder, and 300 will hopefully give us a good indication of whether or not Snyder knows how to strike the right balance between aesthetic special effects and storytelling mojo.

All signs are good so far. Everything he says about the direction in which he’ll take the film is exactly as it should be; it’s just a matter of whether it can be done. For one thing, setting it in 1985 as a period piece is absolutely the right choice, if not a necessary one. Everything in the story revolves around the binaristic politics of the Cold War era, and the quest for a third way, a way to undo the Gordian knot. The organizing symbol of Doomsday Clock ticking down to midnight, and all of its consequent thematic material – Dr. Manhattan’s totalizing and reductivist perception of time, relativity’s coming of age with the ushering in of atomic physics, or the temporal suspension of the apocalypse – only resonate the way they do because of a very specific milieu that we now consider historical.

If you look at the James Bond franchise, observe what a paucity of truly consequential political storytelling there was in the Pierce Brosnan era, in spite of the fact that they had possibly the very best actor in the “debonair gentleman Bond” mould at their disposal. Goldeneye is by far the best, and it’s fundamentally a Cold War film; in the other three, Bond was a fish out of water, though things started getting interesting again in the deliberately comical Die Another Day. What was compelling about Casino Royale, from an adaptation standpoint, was how the writers managed to graft a Cold War story into the immediate “post-9/11″ (post-baccarat?) present, to give a media cliché another whack on the head. I’ve always thought that the Bond franchise should be grounded in Fleming’s day instead of evolving with our present technology and geopolitical climate, but Casino Royale somehow achieved precisely that effect without moving an inch away from 2006.

It worked for Bond, and I ate my words, but it would never work for Watchmen. Too much of its backdrop depends on the relative parity that exists between two well-defined state superpowers at the zenith of an arms race, and how the iconography of the American superhero grew out of a very specific ideological landscape particular to an era where the theoretical band-aid solution to all matters of military prowess was more atomic power. While I haven’t paid much attention to how the comic-book superhero has fared against terrorists and urban guerrilla warfare in the twenty-first century, I imagine our situation is somewhat different.

But for now, let’s hope that 300 is a good film and a glorious financial success. It will keep the suits off Snyder’s back. Hopefully this time, Watchmen will motor through the production pipeline and come to the silver screen without too many complications; last time around, they only got as far as putting up a teaser website. I’d hate the job to be rushed, but I’m an impatient fellow, and the clock is ticking.

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Of affairs and hockey clubs infernal

Sunday, 8 October 2006 — 12:50am | Adaptations, Film, Full reviews

So while I was watching Calgary’s victorious home opener tonight, a few conveniently placed intermissions and commercial breaks permitted me to regale the resident kid brother with storied knickknacks of the franchise’s history.

The exercise demonstrated, once again, that one of the best ways to notice new things about a story is to tell it. Here’s tonight’s curiosity: isn’t it odd that at the team’s inception, they christened it the Atlanta Flames? Were they proud of Union soldiers burning their city to the ground – or did they, frankly, not give a damn?

[Edit: According to these guys, that was a very good guess.]

Insert clever transition here.

It’s a strange experience to watch a cinematic remake immediately after the original film. It is not unlike reading a book right before you see its adaptation. When it comes to books, I know that for some people, it’s hardly ever a pleasant experience: they get all worked up about adaptation issues and never manage to get over them. For me, there is usually something unsettling that results from how the absences and changes are just as visible as what actually ends up on the screen, but this is typically outweighed by my attention to the use of film language in negotiating the inevitable gulfs. See my piece on The Phantom of the Opera for details.

Remakes, however, are a different matter. I think we often have a tendency to think of them as “new versions” of a story rather than “adaptations” in the same sense as books and stage plays. Gus Van Sant’s Psycho aside, our expectations typically extend as far as a reimagining of the holistic story and characters, and not shot-for-shot, plot-for-plot replication.

So it’s delightful when Naomi Watts steals an apple and Adrien Brody carries her down a vine in Peter Jackson’s King Kong, and it’s especially entertaining to us film nerds when the original film is hypodiegetically embedded in Jack Black’s film shoot on the ship; and then there’s the spider sequence, which is (oddly enough) a homage to a scene explicitly not in the original; but we see these as luxuries, and we could have done without them just the same.

That brings us to this weekend’s big release, The Departed.

A brief primer for those of you who don’t keep up with such things, and expect me to do it for you: Scorsese’s latest film is a remake of a 2002 Hong Kong cop thriller, Infernal Affairs, which quickly became Hong Kong cinema’s biggest phenomenon this decade not involving the farcical antics of Stephen Chow. The premise is deceptively simple: a police spy embedded in a triad (Tony Leung or, if you prefer, Leonardo DiCaprio) and a triad spy embedded in the police department (Andy Lau or, if you prefer, Matt Damon) attempt to fish each other out in a meticulous demonstration of what game theorists refer to as a simultaneous game of incomplete information.

If you haven’t seen Infernal Affairs, I highly recommend that you do. I revisited it last night, heeding a warning from a fellow film buff that it doesn’t hold up as well on a second viewing, only to discover that – while the shock value is gone, and there are two or three leaps of logic that arguably qualify as plot holes – the film is every bit as intricate as I remembered on the levels of direction, editing, performance and general craftsmanship.

A wise choice, then, for Scorsese and screenwriter William Monahan to adhere very, very closely to the sequence of actions in the original. Sure, the locales and actors are different, a few supporting characters are split and merged, and I’m told there are elements from the two sequels that emerged within a year of the original’s release. (Mark Wahlberg’s character is allegedly grafted from Infernal Affairs III.) I don’t want to spoil anything, but stack one film atop the other, and they mesh in an alignment I’d even call homomorphic.

But because the two films are so similar, and differ primarily in execution, I do feel compelled to compare them. I think my renewed familiarity with Infernal Affairs tempered my enjoyment of The Departed somewhat, and I suspect the latter deserves a second chance on a clean slate. I highly recommend them both, but neither one is free of imperfections. In that sense, I almost find that one complements the other.

Here’s what The Departed does better: onscreen violence, cinematography, verbal humour, the exchange of contraband, Jack Nicholson, clever visual motifs (I’m thinking of the final shot in particular), the budget, Catholicism, spoonfeeding the audience every step of the way to flesh out the motivations so nobody is left questioning why X knows/trusts/kills Y.

Here’s what Infernal Affairs does better: offscreen violence, editing, pacing of the opening act, sting operations, Morse Code, Buddhism, not spoonfeeding the audience every step of the way to beat it over the head with clues and motivations until it resonates with the guest appearance of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb”.

Draw: stellar lead performances, use of cellular telephones, plot holes.

On balance, I prefer the original. I’ll concede that it is sometimes too subtle for its own good, just as The Departed is a bit heavy-handed when it comes to trying to explain everything (and still falling short in completely new ways). It doesn’t wave clues in your face like its American sibling, but it does indulge in the occasional redundant flashback to slap you twice with a revelation after it has been made. The two films tell the story from opposite directions, and different problems surface.

What The Departed doesn’t preserve about Infernal Affairs is its acute sense of perspective.

One of the core principles of film language is that while the audience is receiving visual data in a blinking rectangle, that does not mean films inherently work in a third-person objective point of view. Framing, blocking, the sequential ordering and timing of reaction shots – all of these elements contribute to a sense of omniscience and empathy, leading us inside a character’s point of view even as we see her face. Hitchcock played with this to no end. Hell, Scorsese plays with this to no end… just not up to his usual standard here.

It’s almost certainly an editing issue. There’s a big moment in both films that I won’t spoil, but it involves, er, gravity. In Infernal Affairs, it happens behind Tony Leung as he walks towards the camera, and it’s as much a punch in the gut for us as it is for him. (It says something that it still worked the second time through the film, even though I saw it coming.) In The Departed, the audience sees what happens long before Leonardo DiCaprio’s character; the eye level contributes to this, too. Something about it just doesn’t work: the timing and cutting feel off.

The Departed consistently opts for the visceral over what makes the most sense, perspectivally speaking. Mind you, Scorsese is still a master of the visceral; but that doesn’t always fit, especially in a film built on a concept that is all about the limited perspectives of the main characters progressing in blind, meandering baby steps.

Watch them both, though. I can’t think of a better exercise to teach yourself about the differing conventions and values of Hong Kong and American cinema, even if you presume that you’re already familiar with one or the other.

(The likely scenario is that you’ll only manage to see The Departed, which is playing in “theatres everywhere”, while Infernal Affairs is not. In that case, enjoy the element of surprise. I think that may have been missing in my experience, as there is very little in the Gotcha Department that Infernal Affairs doesn’t already do.)

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