Monday, November 07, 2005

Filming Original Works

I watched the first X-Men film a few days ago, inspired by my marathon journey through Claremont's X-Men run, and watching the film furthered a lot of what I've been thinking about recently in terms of filmmaking, most notably, the question of why someone would want to adapt another work into a film.

So, let's say it's 1987, the era of X-Men comics I reviewed in my last post. Chris Claremont has been writing the book for 120 issues, and you're given the task of making this into a film. Well the obvious place to start would be to look at what makes Claremont's work successful, what would make people want to follow this book for so long, and this is the long form character development. Claremont's writing is brilliant because of the way he gradually changes characters, and makes you feel like they're real people, living real lives, no matter what extraordinary events they come across, everything makes an impact on them and causes changes. However, Claremont's strength, the longform character development, just can't be done in a feature film, where story guides things instead of character. That's why an X-Men film can never be as strong as the comics, because it can't go into anywhere near the depth that the comics work does.

The X-Men film isn't bad, however it suffers from the same thing that mars numerous films based on other properties, namely a divide between telling the film's story and at the same needing to please the film's fans. In this case, that means that characters who have complex, developed arcs in the comics are reduced to caricature here. If you were doing an X-Men film in 1988, it would be impossible to make a satisfying Storm because she's a character constantly in flux. Post Claremont, she settled into a safe personality, and that's what's represented in the film. There's no sense of the conflicted, layered character from the comics, and Halle Berry's apalling accent doesn't help. Nor do lines like "Do you know what happens to a toad when it's struck by lightning?" Similarly, Scott is reduced to a couple of character traits and Jean is just an object for Logan to be attracted to. They don't really serve the story, they're just there because you need to have some X-Men in the movie, however Storm, Jean and Cyclops add very little to the plot. If you were to write this film from scratch, there's no way you'd include these three deadweight characters, instead Wolverine would go after Rogue himself and confront Magneto one on one, backed by Xavier.

Similar problems occur in Serenity, where complex characters from the series are reduced to a few specific traits and shoehorned into easy goal-based arcs. For example, Kaylie wants to get together with Simon, she has some problems, and then she does. There's no complexity there, it's just a setup and knock 'em down, clean and simple. Compare that to the more complex courtship they had in the series.

Now, you may say that these films are based on long form works and are the exception rather than the rule. However, in adapting novels you run into the same problems. A book usually has too much material for a film, so you have to streamline things, cut out parts and give the characters simple, easy arcs, and still, people will say that the book was better than the movie.

Take something like From Hell, it's a decent film, but it's a completely different thing than the book. The book reveals who the killer is in the second chatper, and then is about exploring what drives someone to kill, and what the consequences of his actions are on his mental state. The film is a whodunit, for which the climax is the revelation of the killer. It's a completely different story, but with just enough of the book to make you annoyed about the copious amounts of brilliant material that got left out. From Hell the book is so well structured to fit into the comics medium, a deep, challenging, intellectual work that is perfect in and of itself.

So, the question arises, if adapting a work is so problematic, why is almost every film coming out based on a pre-existing property? The obvious answer is money. Studios want something that audiences will already be familiar with, because that means all they have to tell people is when it comes out. The audience will already know whether they want to go or not.

However, what reallly bothers me is why, as a filmmaker, you would want to adapt another work? This question gets to a core issue about film that bothers me to no end and that's the fact that even people working in it see it as somehow an inferior medium to the written word, which is so wrong I can't even say. Film is the ultimate medium, combining the best elements of prose, theater, music and painting, and when applied properly, the medium can touch you emotionally in a way that no others can.

Now, when I approach a film, I don't see writing, directing and editing as three seperate processes. They're all intertwined in creating the film. When I'm writing a movie, I'm transcribing the film that's already in my head, and when I'm shooting I'm trying to match that. So, I see the writing as an essential part of the filmmaking process, I wouldn't write a film and not direct it, or direct a film I didn't write, because the two are so intertwined.

Similarly, I would be very hesitant to do a story I didn't come up with. I don't understand why it's acceptable to adapt a work from another medium into a film. For one, it's constricting and rarely produces a truly great film. But it's also this implication that so called 'literary' work is better than 'the movies.' If someone was to write a novel version of Magnolia, do you think the literary community would be calling it the best novel of the year? And yet every year at the Academy Awards, you see films based on novels being acclaimed as the best of the year. It's ridiculous, I want films that bring something new to the world, something unique to the director's vision, you should be in film because you have ideas and a desire to say something, not just because you're able to read a book.

Am I saying that films based on other works shouldn't be honored? The vast majority of films I love are original works, but some like Ghost World or Batman Returns are based on existing properties. In his latter days, Kubrick worked from pre-existing properties as well. But, what Ghost World did was function more as an additional story in the universe, rather than just an adaptation. And with Batman Returns and The Shining, they are both films that are clearly the product of an auteur, who chose the material specifically to put his stamp on it.

However, I still would prefer to see original material, specifically created for the screen. When you watch a Wong Kar-Wai film it's incredible the energy that it exudes, because he's actually a filmmaker rather than someone who writes and directs. What's the difference? WKW works out his films by shooting footage and then seeing what works. So, rather than essentially making the film with the script and then hoping that it works when acted, he makes the film in the filming. Similar methods are used on Irreversible and Elephant, films that are created in the process of their filming, with heavy improvisation, both from the actors and in the style of shooting. And all of these films feel unique and vital, they're stories that could only be told in the medium of cinema.

I guess that's what I'm getting at. The best works aren't just good stories, they're specifically tailored to their medium. That's why adaptations of Alan Moore's works inevitably fail, because he's so good at using that which is specific to the medium of comics, so the story is good, but it's really in the telling that the brilliance emerges. Someone else writes Watchmen, it's a solid revisionist superhero story, like Rising Stars, but Alan uses the medium itself so thoroughly that the work becomes something more.

And when you make a film off a book it's very tough to do that. Books are written based on internal narratives, and usually involve the characters' thoughts in some way. Films can't do that, so you can either end up with a voiceover, which seems forced and stagy, or copious exposition to get points across. Similarly, books usually aren't designed to be that visual, because you can't see what happens in them.

Film has so many unique capabilities, it's foolish to harness yourself to a medium that doesn't allow for these. I consider Magnolia a brilliant film because it uses the medium so well. The use of cutting to connect the characters is something uniquely filmic. He lets the images and music speak in a way that no other medium could do well. Magnolia is a great story, but because of how it's made, it transcends to one of the greatest works of fiction ever made.

So, in light of this, it always bothers me when I hear that someone's adapting a book for the screen. Did you become a director to tell someone else's stories? Is Ron Howard so passionate about the Da Vinci Code that he needed to film it, or is he someone who doesn't really have any stories left to tell and decided to look for something that would likely be popular? Similarly, why is Peter Jackson making a King Kong film? I know it's the movie that inspired him to become a director, but I'm not going to go out and do a comic book remake of The Invisibles, or film another Star Wars. What could doing that remake possibly acheive, the story has been told, and the ideas it has are already out there.

Remakes are the most creatively bankrupt exercise possible. Could you imagine someone saying I've decided to do a rewrite of Catcher in the Rye? "The first one was good, but it's been a while and we could use another version." That sounds ridiculous, and a film remake should sound just as ridiculous. Film is art, and you're not contributing anything by doing something that's already been said. Just because there's a precedent doesn't mean we should accept this behavior.

That's not to say that every story has to be completely original. Tarantino loved old Kung-Fu movies, but he didn't decide to remake 'Lady Snowblood,' instead he took what he loved from them, the feeling they gave him as a viewer, and distilled it into one film. It's the same thing that Morrison did with Flex Mentallo, rather than remaking silver age comics, he distilled the sense of wonder he felt reading them into the book. That's what gives us Star Wars and Indiana Jones, whereas the remake gives us Flash Gordon.

And it's only getting worse. Very few people can get away with writing an original screenplay, and most of the successful films are based on something else. I guess what we need is a revolution wherein the people who make films aren't ones who just know how to use a camera, they're people with stories to tell, who write, direct, shoot and edit their films, true filmmakers rather than an assembly line. Story is the most powerful tool and the fact that our most culturally important medium is getting hand me downs from books and comics is unacceptable. If you're a director who's adapting something else, maybe it's time you got out of the game and let people with stories to tell make their films.

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