It seems relatively fair to posit that Taylor Swift has made some of her career based on the image that she’s America’s Sweetheart, the Girl Next Door, and any number of very gendered archetypes which put her into a box of Innocence and Purity. In David Fincher’s Gone Girl (written by Gillian Flynn and based upon her best-selling novel), Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) similarly has that kind of porcelain face, and, even more so, has had to live up to the same standards that society has set for her. Hiding behind those masks, though, is something else. All you have to do is watch the video for “Blank Space” and Gone Girl. Read the rest of this entry »
Whether or not I was always such an acerbic, sardonic little twerp is up to my friends to determine, but I know that I discovered the work of David Sedaris the year before I entered high school. It was kind of timely, in a way, as it would certainly inform my worldview during high school. iTunes was having an audiobook sale and his collection of essays Me Talk Pretty One Day caught my eye, so I bought it and never looked back. For a while, I wrote my own essays, shamelessly aping his style of humor, but like many imitators of Sedaris, they usually lacked the grasp on humanity he inexplicably had. Some call it smarm, but I think it’s merely fascinating introspection. I think it would be slightly disingenuous to call Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s adaptation of Sedaris’s short story C.O.G. (collected in Naked) “hackneyed”, but, as I mentioned before, the critical thing it lacks is that humanity.
In my last review, for Baz Lurhmann’s The Great Gatsby, I mentioned that I am occasionally guilty of having such loathing for a director, or someone of that ilk, that I will go into their film with a closed mind. Mind you, that doesn’t happen often, but it does happen once in a while. Surprisingly, I went into Man of Steel, the new Superman reboot, with a fairly open mind. Or rather, an apathetic and ambivalent one. Despite being directed by another one of my least favorite people, Zack Snyder, responsible for such putrid work as Sucker Punch and 300, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Or I didn’t really care one way or the other. Granted, by the one trailer I had watched months ago, the one touting Christopher Nolan’s involvement, I expected something thoughtful. Not necessarily because of Nolan’s part in the making of the film, but more because it has been the latest trend of rebooting superheroes to be more grim, contemplative, existential, etc. Therefore, it shocked me that my fairly neutral expectations were thrashed and destroyed, as if Superman himself had torn them apart. And not in a good way.
As with all reboots of the last decade or so, Man of Steel frames itself as an origin story, attempting to delve into Krypton, the origin of both Superman and Clark Kent, and Superman’s father situation. Thus, the plot results in Kent’s quiet, yet noticeable presence on earth, saving people left, right and center, and General Zod’s desire to capture the ever present Superman. General Zod was at one point the head of Krypton’s army, for the record. Meanwhile, Lois Lane is saved by a mysterious someone and is determined to track down the origin of her savior.
Man of Steel, perhaps at its core, feels like a poorly written lead in to what could be something far better. Like the bad TV movie that works as a prequel to the “fair to serviceable to maybe even good” TV series. Think Star Wars: The Clone Wars, that terrible 3D animated movie that ended up giving way to a pretty great animated television series. Well, at least we can hope. So much of the film feels like setup and so little of it feels like plot or anything worth really caring about. This, I feel, is screenwriter David S. Goyer’s fault, as well as co-story writer (but not screenwriter) Christopher Nolan’s fault. While watching the film, I could not believe that Nolan had anything to do with the story of Man of Steel, so I assumed that Goyer, who worked on Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, had written the screenplay alone (which he did, and it really shows). That Nolan was certainly a part of the story process causes me internal tension; I really like his Dark Knight Trilogy and I think it is, for the most part, a well told, well executed contemporary appropriation of the character. For some reason, that translation was not as smooth for Superman. In terms of Goyer’s screenwriting, the stakes, though they are allegedly high, never feel it. I had a very hard time caring about what was going on, not because I am not a Superman enthusiast, but because there seemed to be very little actual plot. Although one should be able to sum up a plot in a few sentences, it’s actually quite hard to do with Man of Steel. Not because a lot is going on, but because you have to wrack your brain to remember if anything important happened anyways. Uh, was there a McGuffin? I don’t remember. And why was Zod doing this again? Huh?
Again, it was disheartening to see Nolan having a story credit, because it meant that he had to share some of the blame for how poor the story was. Goyer alone can take credit for the lousy dialogue, the bad exposition, and the fact that even simple ideas to the characters within context either don’t make sense or are not applied or appropriated in a logical way. (Remember that “terraforming” line? That dumb mistake could have easily been remedied by just having another character ask that question.)
As much as I admire ambition, ambition in and of itself does not a good movie make, and Man of Steel is no exception. Again, like Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, Man of Steel takes a slightly “throw ideas at the wall and see what sticks” way of attempting thematic exploration. It comes off even worse than The Dark Knight Rises, not only in the way that too many things are thrown at the wall, creating a lack of thematic cohesiveness, but that none of them stick. You have ideas about Superman’s deep loyalty to his parents, but then it’s never explored. Superman’s’ loyalty to mankind? Not explored. The freedom of choice in an individual’s future? Not explored. Adoption and what that does to one’s childhood/personal life? Not explored, only briefly, insensitively hinted at. (Speaking as an adopted child, I was kind of offended at this.) Carnage in the real world and its real world repercussions? Not explored at all.
This last one puzzled me. It does not surprise me at all that the film should employ 9/11 imagery; that’s what these new, brooding superhero movies do in order to make them contextually relevant. But the film doesn’t actually make the environment within the film anymore contemporary than Richard Donner’s 1978 film with Christopher Reeve. Yes, both Smallville and Metropolis are clearly in the modern world. There’s modern technology. And there’s even product placement. (I’m currently waiting for an ad telling me to buy the Nikon D3S, the camera that Lois Lane uses! And then gets smashed!) But none of the surroundings do so much as to make that texture of the setting like a real, modern place. The closest it comes to ever achieving that is an ominous message from General Zod that is sent via television: it’s static-y, the tracking is off, and a couple people whip out their smart phones. But what does that say about the people of this universe? Pretty much nothing. What Nolan was able to do with his Dark Knight Trilogy was to make Gotham City an “anywhere metropolitan area” that doubled as one that was distinctly set in a pretty specific time bracket, with its politics, technology, villainy, and, yes, its hero. But the Dark Knight was also able to transcend time and, while taking on the role of a rather Right Wing iconography, make his hero relevant regardless of setting. Man of Steel fails to do that. He is stuck in a limbo. Looking at just the setting, you wouldn’t really be able to distinguish it from any other time. This seems to be less of a comment of the “Good Ol’ American Way” (which would be kind of Superman-like), the jingoistic notion that the United States is some sort of rural area that remains nameless, and more just lack of texture and substance. Its 9/11 imagery, through the loudness of its sonic qualities and its blatant compositions, is the only thing that is “contextually relevant” in the film, but none of the rest of the film actually justifies this or backs it up. Instead, we’re left with a gross, unsettling image of destruction, and a whole lot of irresolution and lack of closure. The question is: is that the fault of Goyer or is it Snyder?
I don’t care for Zack Snyder. I don’t care for his cinematography. I don’t care for his pseudo-feminist ideas. I don’t care for the fact that he needs to use slow motion in everything. I don’t particularly care for the fact that he had to drain his best film of political subtext. I think he’s serviceable, but he is certainly not someone I would watch for pleasure. Sort of like Tarsem Singh in a way, he’s a visualist, enchanted by the image so much that he sometimes (or kind of often) forgets that the image must contain context and meaning that adds to the whole. His compositions are sometimes very nice, very entrancing, but they’re good in small, maybe music video sized portions. A two and a half hour film? Not so much. That said, Snyder’s direction for the film wasn’t inherently horrific, but neither was it particularly good. The trailer (which, I know, is an arbitrary bar to compare to) presented Man of Steel with the cinematography and “tone poem-ness” of Terrence Malick, and, to be quite honest, I wouldn’t have been surprised if that was the direction he would have gone in: everyone loves copying Malick. But, Snyder didn’t go the Malick route; he went the “I don’t own a SteadiCam, so I’m going to walk around and occasionally compose somewhat nice screen grabs, but never create a fulfilling or terribly consistent aesthetic” route. Even the action sequences, which are deliriously edited, lack the necessary cohesion that it takes to make a great action film. Snyder’s work here is neither breathtaking nor abhorrent and instead settles into the forgettable, which is a disappointment. Even the grotesque videogame aesthetic of Sucker Punch was at least memorable, even if it wasn’t very “good”.
The purpose of a reboot is ostensibly to garner a wider audience while retaining the built in fan base. That may mean that you have to build from the ground up, but with the brooding, thoughtful superhero films of late, from Iron Man 3 to The Dark Knight, character construction and illustration are at the top of importance. It is such a disappointment, therefore, that the characters seem so flat throughout the film. Henry Cavill may be distractingly handsome, a man so masculine that not even his new super suit can contain his chest hair, but he lacks the real charisma and pathos that this kind of reboot calls for. That may be asking a lot, but Cavill, at times, plays Clark Kent like a hotter, but more wooden Christopher Reeve. What made Reeve’s performance interesting, regardless of the camp tone of the film, was that his was able to very easily transition from the affability of Kent, the vulnerability of Kal-El, and the decisive power of Superman. When Cavill is able to do any of these things or ever bring his own to the character, it isn’t with the same assurance or confidence. It seems almost self-conscious. It feels like he knows he’s playing Superman, making him question his instincts. (Cavill is also distractingly handsome, but I think I already mentioned that.)
Russell Crowe and Kevin Costner play Superman’s fathers; the former is Jor-El, Superman’s biological father, and the latter is Jonathan Kent, his adopted father. Despite their presence in the film, the paternal relationships of Superman are actually poorly executed. There’s less of a give and take between Clark and his dad and more of a series of flashbacks (very poorly integrated into the narrative, making the structure rather confusing and, again, inconsistent) of Mr. Kent lecturing his son about how he has to hide his powers and whatnot. It doesn’t get much deeper, which makes the relationship feel much shallower than it should. Meanwhile, Russell Crowe is fine, if not memorable, as Mr. Exposition Man. It is from him that we get the most backstory, which kind of makes his place beyond the first half hour of the film rather unnecessary. Instead, they build his “consciousness” into the story. Sort of like Old Ben Kenobi.
Which brings us to the villain, General Zod. A week later and I still don’t remember what exactly his deal was. (Just kidding.) In actuality, there just wasn’t enough plot for me to care what his deal was. Zod was neither sympathetic enough to grant the audience an emotion turnaround, not villainous enough to make his truly despicable. Instead, Michael Shannon, who shines in Take Shelter and HBO’s Boardwalk Empire gives us an over the top performance that seems better fit to the 1970s film than the attempted grittiness of this new one. It isn’t funny, exactly, but you can see the crumbs on the side of Shannon’s face from the scene he just chewed.
The real problem here is the women in the film, in that they do nothing and/or are reduced to bimbos. Even sweet Amy Adams is given nothing to work with for Lois Lane. I may not know a lot about the Superman universe, but what I do know is that Lois Lane is a tough character. She has a masculine vibe about her which she “needs” as a journalist. She’s driven and determined and not really subservient. She’s even won a Pulitzer, as Adams proudly proclaims. But Adams is given so little to do in the film, besides playing the beleaguered journalist looking for the man who saved her. She doesn’t seem like the hardcore, motivated character that Lois Lane is supposed to be. She receives a lot of help from men, and her character ends up lacking depth. The rest of the females are either helped by men, ask questions that people in their position should know, or make funny, but very vapid comments. The rest of the cast, from Christopher Meloni to Laurence Fishburne, also suffer from this lack of depth, if not from the casual sexism of the script.
So, while the film might be well animated, it is also very loud, maybe unnecessarily so. Such forced loudness caused me fatigue and boredom. I’m not sure which is worse. But sound for sound’s sake does not, again, add sonic texture to the setting or the story. It’s just loudness.
Its ostensible goal is somewhat achieved: there’s a new Superman movie and it will bring in new audiences. But its loftier goals of something thoughtful, interesting, and full of depth are never attained. Snyder, Nolan, and Goyer even fail to make Superman contextually relevant, instead making the film kind of faceless, save for the gross use of post-9/11 imagery. What we have here is something loud and brassy, and if that’s what people want, that’s fine. But the attempts something higher than that, the only thing that comes of it is complete carnage.
I have a confession to make: Sometimes, I don’t go into a film with an open mind. I know, I know, it’s like I’m breaking a code of ethics for film buffs or film critics. This happens for a couple of reasons: a) I don’t get out that often, so I have to be deliberately selective of what I see (I only seen 12-20 theatrical releases a year), and I often choose what I think I’m going to enjoy the most, or at least what I’m going to get the most out of; or b) I have had strong reactions from the director’s previous work (or screenwriter or actor, but usually director). Case in point, I went in to The Great Gatsby with as closed of a mind as you could probably get. I was going to “hate watch” it, essentially. I was more than ready to detest whatever Lurhmann had done to bastardize F. Scott Fitzgerald’s text. Again, this sound completely horrible, but, so be it. I was, however, in for a couple surprises. But, I guess the most surprising thing about Gatsby is… I didn’t hate it.
I hate the director. I have a personal vendetta against Baz Lurhmann after William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge! I have a physical aversion to his “bigger is bigger is better”, “style is absolutely everything” mentality. I have tried to watch the two aforementioned films numerous times and I have only gotten through them twice each (total viewing counts: RJ: 4; MR: 6). With the exception of his fabulous debut, Strictly Ballroom (which had all the right kinds of theatricality); I have found Lurhmann to be the “Michael Bay of pseudo-postmodern mainstream filmmaking”. His ideas look good on paper, sometimes even swell; the re-appropriation of a tragic love story set in Miami gangland while retaining the original text? Cool! The retelling of La Boehme as a musical utilizing contemporary pop music to weave the story? Superb! But, for me, it all crumbles away in execution, most notably in editing and cinematography. Lurhmann’s flare for theatricality manifests itself through his editing and camerawork, where he is more reliant on a hyperkinetic, MTV borne method of rapid cuts, oversaturated colors, and swirling camera movements. I probably would not have as much of an issue of these things actually looked visually palatable, but Lurhmann often goes so overboard that I become physically nauseous watching it. Not only does this style of filmmaking get in the way of storytelling and distract from what is occurring with the characters, it is ostentatious and I cannot tolerate it. In essence, Lurhmann does not know when to say stop. It, thus, makes it seem as if he does not actually understand visual language or the language of film. It seems random and aberrant. But, finally, in several moments of his newest film, his take on Fitzgerald’s high school consecrated novel, he steps back and takes a breath to look at some of the grandeur of what he can produce.
As I am sure that everyone reading this has read The Great Gatsby as some point in their lives, I shall not bother giving any type of summary beyond this: Fitzgerald’s book, through its ambrosial prose and decedent setting, desired to critique the deliciously sinful lifestyle so many people lived and/or chased during the 1920s and did so by creating two of the most fascinating characters in American literature: Nick Caraway and Jay Gatsby.
Now, it did not surprise me much at all that the first third of the film was wildly visual and self-satisfied in its anachronistic use of music. So, during that first third, I kind of just rolled my eyes during some moments, but I realized, halfway through, that what I was seeing was not making me ill. This, I think, is growth! Nevertheless, Lurhmann’s attempts at duding up his film with CGI art deco, augmented building and settings, rapid editing, dizzying camera work, and his usual trademarks did everything I expected them to: look flashy and distract from what was going on in the film. When Gatsby takes Nick out for the first time in his car, so many cuts were made that one has to continually mentally re-orientate themselves as to where the car is, thus almost ignoring what Gatsby was saying in his rather expository monologue. Isn’t the point, though, to be as entranced by what Gatsby is saying as Nick is?
Speaking of whom, Lurhmann employs a totally unnecessary framing device for the film’s narrative. We find Nick, morose and austere and a resident at an asylum due to severe anxiety and alcoholism, this after the events of the book/film. His psychiatrist tells him to write about his experiences, since he can’t “talk” about them. And so he does. I cannot recall who said it, but a friend of mine on Twitter said that voice over narration should not merely describe what a character does or has done; good narration gives insight into what just happened. On paper, Nick’s first person narration makes sense; on film, it does not. Even separating one’s self from the book, the narration suffers from textbook “telling, not showing”. Much of the nuance of the story and characters is reduced to Tobey Maguire’s half-baked voice over (he really does sound stoned and/or falling asleep). In this way, it feels, occasionally, like a visual audiobook and not a film. Many things are described in such detail that it robs the opportunity for the actors to embody an element of their character, or for the camera to subtly hint at something visually and dramatically. You here Nick describe everything that is going on, constantly interrupting the story, causing several scenes to become long, drawn out affairs, almost going against what Lurhmann usually does. As workable and exceptional as Gatsby’s third act is, it becomes almost excruciatingly “accurate” with the novel because so much of it has this narration. At least the cast is “good”.
I put that in quotation marks for a reason. I commend the entire cast, with the exception of Tobey Maguire, for some spectacular performances. While not as deeply vapid as I expected, Carey Mulligan’s turn as Daisy Buchanan was lovely, her voice emulating money just as Fitzgerald had written. Tom Edgarton epitomizes the hulking, aggressive nature of Daisy’s husband, Tom, in an almost frightening way. Relative newcomer Elizabeth Debicki is absolutely divine as Jordan Baker, asserting her presence on the screen with a dose of gossip and a trace of “masculine” strength. Tobey Maguire is, on the other hand, pretty boring and banal, despite his role as Nick Caraway being crucial to the story. Only in a few moments of the film do you get to see the wide-eyed wonderment, naiveté, and childishness of Nick. Too often, though, Maguire sounds bored and kind of ghostly. You could make the argument, though, that because everyone basically overacts their way through the film that they are epitomizing the façade of wealth and class Fitzgerald so strongly tackles and criticizes in the book, but that is one of the primary issues. Because every actor seems to fit the descriptions given by Fitzgerald in the book to a T at times, it feels much like a one note performance through much of it. It seems that they are playing more of an outline of the character than actually making the character their own, bringing it to life, and truly making it memorable. Mulligan can capture that subtle quality about Daisy seemingly with ease, but only momentarily does her heartbreak, vapidity, and vulnerability seem more like the words on the page just transliterated onto the screen. Edgarton may look, talk, and walk like Tom, but rarely does he transcend that character. Nearly everyone seems trapped in a mentality dictated by a high school class where everyone lists out what qualities the characters have, as opposed to glancing at those qualities and then going with their gut feeling to make it something to be remembered.
Nearly everyone except Leonardo DiCaprio. His performance as Jay Gatsby may not be perfect, but only in him do you get both an achingly real quality to what Fitzgerald was writing about as well as a performance that goes past that and dives into Gatsby’s emotions as DiCaprio may see it. His desperate, play acted persona seems believable enough to accept him in the role, but fake enough to know there is something else lurking underneath the tailored suits and polished shoes. The nervousness, anxiety, desperation, ostentation, and corruption (emotion and moral) all ooze from DiCaprio’s pores performance effortlessly. This might be, dare I say it, one of DiCaprio’s most memorable roles. *runs and hides*
With DiCaprio’s success as Gatsby, the film’s second strongest aspect is its second a third act. Perhaps exhausted from the “whirlwind” he took us on so early in the film, Lurhmann actually takes a step back, giving both he and his audience a rest and allowing the film to become almost traditional and by the book. The ostentation of the director never fully disappears, but not only does it become more tolerable, it becomes somewhat pleasant. The distraction of the film’s visual aesthetic takes a back seat to characters doing things that could be filled with meaning; to settings that, while entirely artificial looking, at least make sense; and to a story being told. Not necessarily well, as Lurhmann continues to have very little idea about cinematic language, but “okay”. He does an okay job, when the day is done. There are a couple of truly spectacular scenes in the film, notably when Jordon, Nick, Gatsby, Daisy, and Tom are in the city in a hotel room. In this scene, you can see that Lurhmann may have finally matured in his ability to frame things as a benefit to the story, not just to look good or impressive. The tensions steadily rise, and the room is given dual jobs: claustrophobic prison for Tom and Gatsby, and the rest of the group, and large, kind of expansive arena for the former pair. Close ups detail the rage and the duel like nature of the scene; long shots show it as an ornate cell, reminiscent of Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel. Edgarton and DiCaprio bring their A-game to the scene, and in a moment of pure ferocity out of Gatsby, one is reminded of the pained, pathetic creature lurking somewhere in Gatsby’s soul. If this is what Lurhmann can do, a scene where what the actors are doing is more important than how quickly it can change from shot to shot, then I might have to rescind my vendetta.
The music, though, that is something else. I get why Jay Z is produced the soundtrack. Because he can be called “Jay Gat-Z”! Get it? Okay, I’m sorry. However, Jay Z’s personal life only reflects the most surface value of the text and of Gatsby’s aspirations and chase for the American Dream. He’s a success story, and someone whose big name and often good sonic choices might be eye catching for people interested in the film. It comes as absolutely no surprise that the most anachronistic thing in the film is the music. There are other things, sure, like the digitally rendered locale of the entire film (Film critic David Ehrlich commented that the film is less of “a period piece. more like a semi-colon… piece.”), but the music is the most buzzed about, I would surmise. Because, in what world does one marry Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and a track by will.i.am in the same scene? Apparently, in Lurhmann’s world. That said, a good portion of the music used in the film makes sense within its context. Party scenes feature tracks like “Bang Bang” by the aforementioned Black Eyed Peas alumnus, which samples the Charleston and “A Little Party Never Killed Nobody” by Fergie, which alludes to a line in the book, and these scenes work. They make sense, and they are occasionally even fun and worthy of a foot tap. Emeli Sande’s take on Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love” is rearranged as a big band, cabaret track and used just prior to Gatsby’s first meeting with Daisy, and it’s the haunting sound of Sande’s voice coupled with the whining, futile brass that gives that brief scene its power. Even Lana del Ray’s “young and Beautiful”, which becomes a musical motif throughout the film, echoes hauntingly through Gatsby’s vast mansion and smartly describes the hollowness of Gatsby’s lust for Daisy. But it’s when other tracks are used, like Jay Z’s own “100$ Bill” and even the revamped “Back to Black” performed by Andre 3000 and Beyoncé, that the anachronism doesn’t actually make sense in the film and feels more like a big name throw in. These tracks that don’t quite fit in the movie sound like they belong on a disc of music “inspired by the film”, instead of being used in it. It creates unevenness in the film’s tone, which is ironic considering the director. The biggest disappointment, in my personal opinion, is the use of Gershwin’s opus “Rhapsody in Blue”. While it is always nice to hear it used at all, its use becomes somewhat redundant in the film’s two scenes where you hear it: first, when we finally meet Gatsby, and second, when the gang, so to speak, travel across the Queensboro Bridge. One use of the song would make sense; two makes it redundant, especially because the sections that are used as so close together in regards to the chronology of the track itself. That said, the music as a whole did not bother me. Its attempt to make the issues discussed in the film relevant to a contemporary audience in a very “it’s what’s happening today” is not exactly successful, but at least it doesn’t sound bad.
One of the most surprising disappointments to me, though, was the 3D. For all the justification and defending Lurhmann did for his choice to make the film in 3D, it was not particularly spectacular. Although the film’s titles begin to create a sense of depth by gradually becoming a long, narrow hallway of art deco-like graphic design, much of the 3D was, I suppose, underutilized. There wasn’t so much as “sense of depth and place” as there was the understanding that an actor was either standing in front of another actor or a piece of furniture, or that an actor was standing in front of a blue screen, and, in most cases, both. Besides darkening the hues of Simon Duggan’s cinematography, never does one get the feel of just how excessive this piece of the Roaring Twenties was, or how enormous Gatsby’s mansion is. The wide open spaces don’t make you feel like you’re there, just like you feel like you should be feeling like you’re there. While their intentions are “noble”, Werner Herzog and his Cave of Forgotten Dreams or Wim Wenders and his Pina, Lurhmann might not know how to fine tune the technology enough to make it feel worth sitting through. Cave of Forgotten Dreams shows the extensive space of cave paintings, while Wim Wenders shows both the far-reaching depth into a stage as well as the illusive details of the dancers’ bodies and how they move. Gatsby sometimes uses “fun” effects (ashes, writing on the screen, the Green Light, etc.), but none of it justifies the premium ticket price.
The parties look good. But where the film fails in the biggest sense is there. Lurhmann may show just how excessive and decadent that period may have been, but little attempt is made to make as incisive a criticism of such an era as was made in the book. It all looks nice, but it’s all vapid. The justification for “what did expect other than ‘style over substance’?” is no excuse for the film to actually be that way. It attempts to show that falseness of class and sophistication, but does little to go beyond just showing it. It doesn’t peel away at those layers to reveal the true corruption of the ‘20s.
So, I didn’t hate The Great Gatsby. I didn’t even revile it. I did not feel the sense to cry at how awful it was. It wasn’t a hot mess or a train wreck, but it was still mediocre. Despite being very faithful to the book it’s based upon, The Great Gatsby may represent, as some have said, the film that fails to capture the true essence of the book. I probably would have preferred a less accurate version of the film had it been able to convey the nastiness of the novel better. One wonders to what extent Lurhmann grasped the book’s themes enough to adapt them into a satisfying film. The film’s anachronism didn’t bother me, and even the later parts of the film had me genuinely enthralled, but too much of the film was uneven. What worked, worked well, and what didn’t work really didn’t work. The most captivating aspect was DiCaprio’s performance, but beyond that, we may have to continue beat on against the current, hoping for someone to get Gatsby definitely right for once.
As much as I watched movies growing up, I spent more time reading in my youth than watching film. As a result, I was very much the typical “Read the book before the movie” kind of person and often staunchly the “book was better than the movie” person as well. This included things from Dracula, the Harry Potter book series, the cases of Sherlock Holmes, the works of Agatha Christie, the James Bond books, and even the somewhat frivolous choice of Jane Austen (I had a thing for English writers, I guess). However, as I grew to be a better writer, as I grew to love film more passionately, and as I grew to be a better film watcher I slowly drifted from that state of mind to one of “treat the two as almost separate entities”. I’ve become the kind of person who will pipe up defending a film’s interpretation of a book, even if drastic changes are made and even if I didn’t like the film. A film should be able to stand on its own and be as broadly accessible as possible, right? That may be so, but I noticed very recently that, despite my mild evolution in thought, I still relapse into the same state of mind when watching certain television adaptations of works. From HBO’s Todd Haynes directed adaptation of James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce to the British television series that adapted Poirot and Miss Marple to the incredible I, Claudius, I’ve inadvertently made a strange exception. And I don’t quite understand why, but I will try to discuss it further here.
One of my most vivid memories as a child is one that takes me back to second grade. I was lying on the bed in the upstairs bedroom of my grandmother’s house listening to the audio book of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, narrated by the great Jim Dale. (Full disclosure: A lot of my “reading” was actually done by audio book. I have no shame.) Sure, the Harry Potter books make not be the literary masterpieces a lot of people my age would purport them to be, but I really do enjoy them and, at that age, I found them to be quite magical. There was so much depth and detail, the characters seemed so fully realized, and I wanted to be a part of that world. I assumed, as do probably most people at that age when reading a book, that the film adaptation would take me to that world exactly as I had imagined. But it didn’t.
Much to my dismay, I was unable to really make much out of the first three movies, which to me, were a fiasco (they still aren’t great, really). But I was so in tune to my own interpretation of the book that it never occurred to me a) the director has his own ideas b) the author has their own intentions and c) the adaptations should be able to stand on their own, in order to make the world more open. Also, there was an issue with running time, so there was that as well. (I still find it kind of strange that director David Yates decided to make the longest book into the shortest film. Clever, but strange.) My own ego was at work here, and fully manifested itself in a very angry letter written to the film’s producers (this is again, in second grade) begging them to adapt as completely as possible Book Five to the screen. All the tiny, minute details, all of the characters, story arcs, dialogue, etc. I was 9, and I thought I was entitled to a complete version of the film. A transliteration. (The letter remained unsent, for the record.)
I had the same issues with several other films, but I think the majesty of something I saw as so fantastical and enjoyable really struck me. Seeing those changes in the film versions of my favorite books literally offended me. I scoffed at the screen. I probably deemed whatever film it was poor due to the numerous changes. The 1931 Todd Browning version of Dracula always annoyed me because they omitted several characters, “destroying” an intriguing plot. For, at that age, I could not be satiated unless it was as accurate as possible.
However, as I grew older and I began to understood film more and more as medium, as an entertainment device, etc. I realized that these departures should be fine, so long as they cohere with the rest of the film. It’s the reason I had such an issue with the screen version of Les Miserables: you approach a film almost blindly usually, with very little context. That’s supposed to be made up in exposition, extra scenes, etc. Les Miz didn’t have that, but neither did the musical. The reason being is that the approach is different. The point being, with no context, you should be able to go into a film adaptation of a book and get a majority of it. Sure, there will be some nuances missed or not understood, some in jokes to please the readers, etc., but generally speaking, it should be a simple, fun, engaging ride.
Now that I’ve understood that literature and cinema, despite their connections and roots, should be able to operate alone, there are a few exceptions I’ve noticed, in terms of how I treat and come back from a film. One of the first is The Perks of Being a Wallflower. I count this as a notable exception because the film was directed by its original author, Stephen Chbosky, who also wrote the film’s screenplay. Rarely, as far as I know, does the original author direct and write the screenplay of the film version (the focus being “and”). In that film, you’re supposed to get the full vision, the full realization of the characters that the author created. And, all said and done, it’s pretty good. There are some notable differences in how the subject matter is treated, and with that ambiguity comes a couple problems: Chbosky spent so much time tiptoeing around certain aspects of his original novel that he mentions a couple things and then drops them without resolution. A couple characters jump the gun and don’t make a “complete circle” in terms of evolution. But, all things considered, these are pretty minor issues. The most important stuff is in there. And yet it’s not a transliteration. It still remains a film that can be treated separately from its source material.
I talked about transliterations a while back in my review for Mildred Pierce and I would like to bring it up again. I haven’t read the entirety of the original novel, but, rewatching the series, I’m struck not only how faithful the series is, but how good it is. Part of the issue of transliterations conceptually is that it doesn’t bring much originality to the table. It suffocates the work (see: Zack Snyder’s Watchmen). But even though Mildred Pierce was exhaustively adapted, using a majority of the dialogue and nearly every scene from the book, it still breathes life into the novel. It is not merely because it’s a film of the novel, but because it still remains an interpretation, primarily that of director Todd Haynes. In interviews, Haynes stated that although there book was essentially the text, he wanted to have every screen from Mildred’s perspective, giving the film a slightly subjective lens. That alone frees it from being exhaustingly dull and commonplace. What may be as important as the source material in an adaptation is the passion the maker brings to it, which includes their interpretation.
That said, had this not occurred, had the film not so lovingly been adapted from the book, with the words practically lifted off the page, I don’t think I would have given the film a pass. It’s a curious thing I’ve noticed over the last few days, actually. For some reason, I’m less inclined to give television adaptations any kind of leniency than I am film.
With film, you’re allotted a narrow amount of time, usually, which means that a lot has to be cut out and a lot has to change in order to meet those constraints (though, I still don’t understand why the dialogue can’t be retained). With television, you’re given an incredible amount of freedom, especially in terms of time, if not necessarily with budget. So, I believe the preconception I approach television adatations with (and others do the same, I think) is: “They have all that time, which means they should be able to get in a majority of the details in there.”
I’ve been rewatching some of the more recent ITV adaptations of Agatha Christie’s books, particularly those starring the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot and the spinster Miss Marple. I’m a bit rusty on the novels, but I still remember a fairly good deal about them, at least the main arcs and characterizations. But I noticed some rather drastic deviations. The Nicolas Winding Refn directed episode of Marple called “Nemesis” retains one conceit from the novel and throws the rest away, even changing the murder, the victim, the perpetrator, and the motive. SparkNotes, in comparison, would be far more accurate. I resented this change. Why bother changing all of that? Why bother adapting that book in the first place? For the episode “By the Pricking of My Thumbs”, one of the protagonists is characterized as a resentful alcoholic. Um, why? Was it an attempt to add depth to that character? Was it an attempt to fix a plot hole? (The novel was originally intended for Christie’s Nick and Nora-esque detectives, Tommy and Tuppence, who are relegated to supporting roles in the TV adaptation.) 2010 brought a new adaptation of Christie’s most famous novel Murder on the Orient Express, but even then, I found the changes to be extraordinarily inessential. The darker tone, the focus on Poirot being a Catholic, the change of characters, the drop of an important piece of evidence, etc. No, that episode did not “pass my test”. The book had earlier been adapted by Sidney Lumet in 1974 (garnering Ingrid Bergman with her third Academy Award), and that one was rather accurate, but also contained seemingly bizarre, “unnoticeable” changes. Many of the changes in both television series’ earlier incarnations would probably only be noticeable to avid readers, so why bother changing them at all if they’re so minute?
The approach is the same: more time, more reason to add or retain details. I, Claudius (based on the books I, Claudius and Claudius the God by Robert Graves) gets it right (including chunks of dialogue too), so why can’t everyone else? It may not have to be a transliteration, but the faithfulness was lacking in the Christie series.
To completely generalize, I believe that we hold film adaptations of books under such scrutiny because it is usually a book that we care deeply about. As much as I adore and love cinema, books are something very special and unique. They can be just as, if not more, transportive than film. But, I believe it’s good to let go, to allow the two to be, for the sake of an analogy, cousins, if not brothers and sisters. And I believe that I hold television accountable, not only because of the spacious room they seem to be given in how they’re able to tell their story, but because I want to be enveloped in what I fell in love with for a longer period of time than a movie adaptation can do. It’s not right, but it’s my flaw.
That said, I love film and books both completely and passionately.