Sunday, March 18, 2007

The Failings of 300 and the Dangers of Comic Adaptation

I saw 300 last week and really disliked it. So much has been written about the film, I don't want to go into a long review, but I have issues with the film on two levels. One is the ridiculous values the film is espousing, the Spartans were all barely developed characters with a nasty idea of right and wrong, and we're supposed to value them as heroes. I found the Persian society much more appealing and Xerxes odd appearance and behavior were a lot of fun next to the uniformity of Sparta. He was all about having fun while conquering the world, and you just didn't get that vibe from the Spartans.

But, I had more issues with the narrative and stylistic choices of director Zack Snyder. My major issue was with the constant stream of pointless dialogue and voiceover. The film had a lot of visual flair, but it didn't have any truly cool cinematic moments. The reason for that is primarily because the characters would never shut up. The Matrix's lobby fight sequence is one of the coolest scenes ever captured on film, but if you had a ponderous narrator saying "Neo and his band of fighters entered the lobby and mowed down a bunch of guards," it would be distracting. The visuals are telling the story, you don't need some guy nattering on endlessly. It distracted from the visuals and took me out of the story. Good narration, as in The New World or Wong Kar-Wai films, can work like music to put you in the mental place of the story, this one did the complete opposite.

The other major issue I had was with the awful cheesy line dialogue. How many times did we hear Leonidas say "And tonight we dine on blood!" Or perhaps "For breakfast today, blood!" Or even "Tonight we dine on hell!" Just shut up and let the visuals tell the story. You don't build drama by having someone say cheesy lines, you do it with moments of silence, tense closeups, the calm before the storm. Your really cool warriro doesn't even have to say anything, we just see his eyes, and we know that it's on.

This movie was sold to and supported by the 'fanboy' audience. I enjoy some fanboy targetted films, but this movie, like Sin City, feels like it should be a trailer, not a feature. It's all about creating cool images, but there's no emotion stringing those images together. Compressed into two minutes, it's awesome, at two hours, it's exhausting.

But, make these complaints and you'll always get the same response, "But that's how the comic was." Guess what, that's no excuse. Comics and film are two different mediums, comics that try to be films always wind up feeling like a pale imitation, and films that try to be comics have the same problem. What comics can do so wonderfully is allow you to dwell on images, and create interesting juxtaposition of text and image. Look at Watchmen for a class on what comics can do that no other medium can. Comics can be a lot denser than film because we have more time to absorb things. That's why works like Promethea and The Invisibles work better in comics than film, their complex cosmologies would either wind up being too dragged out and preachy in film, or just fly by the audience, with no comprehension.

The major difference between film and comics is time. In comics, you control the pace, you can stop to ponder a moment or you can read through really fast, just reading the text and skimming the images. You can also hop back and forth through time, by turning the pages. If you want to have a flash back, just do it, you have more control of the experience.

That's why it baffles me to see comics that read like storyboards. The medium's assets lie somewhere between books and film, and the total elimination of captions takes away one of the medium's most unique assets. Telling me a comic is like a movie on paper is the worst pitch. Why would I read a movie on paper when I could just watch a movie? And similarly, why would I want a movie that is slavishly faithful to a graphic novel when I could just read that graphic novel?

In translating 300 to the screen, Snyder brought all the elements of Miller's work, but he didn't add anything. If you just want a slavishly faithful rendering of the tale on screen, he did fine, but if you want to see a film of 300, he failed. For me, the major thing that film has over comics is music. It's astonishing that Snyder would pay so little attention to music in creating this film because that's where he can make his mark. A good score or song selection can make a movie so much better. For me, film is about the fusion of visuals and music to create an emotion. Through his incessant narration and awful lines, Synder makes it impossible for the score to create the kind of operatic treatment this story deserves. If I was making this film, it would be virtually dialogue free, just some terse, more realistic dialogue.

I guess I've been away from mainstream films for a while because with both this film and Ghost Rider, an even worse movie, I was baffled by the constant talking. These directors have no confidence in their visual storytelling abilities, particularly with these stories, the image has power, but that power is drained by the constant shitty dialogue. These characters talk like characters in a movie, saying one of three kind of lines. There is direct exposition, setting up the plot and future twists. There's character exposition, seemingly throwaway lines that give background on the characters, but are so transparently expository, they take you out of the film's reality. Then there's the cheesy line, bad jokes and faux cool callouts that basically kill the momentum whenever they're said.

The one liner can work occasionally. "Dodge this" in The Matrix is a great moment, and in a movie like Batman Returns, the over the top nature of the reality means characters can say absolutely ridiculous things and not take you out of the movie. Catwoman's cheesy lines only draw you further into the odd world of these characters.

Batman Returns is the best model of how to make a comic book film. Burton takes the essence of Batman, filters it through his own thematic concerns, and then pushes everything into an incredibly over the top visual universe. The film is the work of someone who's just unhinged his imagination and is letting it spill on the screen. Batman Returns is a film that is taken to 11 and pulls it off. 300 is a movie that wants to go to 11, wants to be this totally crazy world where weird shit happens, but it feels like a poseur. It's the difference between someone who's actually drunk and someone who's just pretending. On the surface, they may look the same, but when you can tell the person really isn't drunk, he just looks silly. That's how 300 feels to be, it's not authentically nuts, and that prevents it from reaching the sublime level of weirdness that Batman Returns or Domino hit.

And a large part of what makes Batman Returns and Domino so over the top is that they know how film works. Each film presents us with a succession of astonishing visuals, which are combined with perfectly chosen music to become cohesive film moments. You couldn't do Batman Returns in any other medium, it's about more than the story, you can see the love of cinema's possibilities in every moment.

That's why I'm really worried to see Zack Snyder adapting Watchmen. I get the feeling we'll get a recreation of the graphic novel, not a film. I want someone to come in who takes the narrative and images of the book, but concentrates on turning them into a filmic experience. Use a prominent score, and impressionistic editing to recreate our mental experience of the book, not the actual ink on paper. You don't need to change the plot, that transcends the medium, but the film must have a style that is as innovative as what Moore brought to comics. I don't know if that's possible, but unless you feel like you could do it, there's no reason to bother adapting the book into a film.


David Golding said...

Excellent post, and I completely agree about Batman Returns (I also think Burton's Keaton is the only actor to bring the necessary ambivalence to Bruce Wayne to stop him being a cardboard cutout).

You might find this funny: Miller has an introduction to one of the Spirit Archives, where he talks about how Eisner ripped him a new one for comparing comics to storyboards---Eisner pointing out how different and rich comics are---Miller citing this as being inspirational for him.

I'm always confused when people say the Sin City movie looks just like the comic... I mean, are these people blind? The "content" may be the same, whatever that means, but the art is decidedly different. The movie reduces all that lovely Miller line and fill work into mere storyboarding. Yuck.

I'm not interested in someone adapting Watchmen, but if someone made a good film out of Watchmen I'd be interested...

(I shouldn't comment, because I'm way behind on reading your Invisibles posts, but I couldn't help it!)

Patrick said...

Keaton was great in Returns, the stuff with and Selena/Catwoman is reallly layered and complex. The thing I love about the film is the way that it makes Batman out to be just as disturbed as all three villains he's facing. They each represent an aspect of his psychosis, and when he defeats them, he winds up even more alone. I don't think there's ever been a more somber, cold summer blockbuster ever released. And, it actually gets close to a lot of Watchmen themes, with the Batman and Catwoman relationship, both of them ineffectual and impotent outside the costumes.

And that Miller anecdote is great, he should have kept it in mind when he was directing Sin City. And, bring on the comments, those Invisibles posts are still there waiting for you when you're ready.