Friday, March 06, 2009

In Which I Inveigh On The Single Most Boring Topic Of The Moment.

Hello friends. Here is the deal. I have a few things which I would love to invite you to join me in thinking about, but unfortunately they are hard to get to without first touching on the single most stultifying of the Zeitgeist's talking-points du jour.

This is to say, I have opinions on matters of film and culture, but they are opinions which stem from the release of the movie Watchmen. I'm so sorry. Please just sit through this.

In the time since the Watchmen comic book debuted, the demand and attempts to translate the work to a movie have been near-constant. Since the picture finally made it past pre-production last year, the amount of speculation has grown near-deafening as to whether the picture would be "good", whether it would be "faithful" to the source material, whether the comic's author, Alan Moore, would finally be "proven wrong" in his assertion that people should really stop trying to make movies of his work.

Mr. Moore always looks like a caricature of the sort of person who would write Lost Girls.

All of these speculations have entirely missed the point. The question isn't "will the movie capture the spirit of the comic?" or "will the picture be of a high quality?" The question nobody - except Mr Moore, it seems - is asking is, why is this necessary in the first place?

Moore apologists1 tend to take the line that, "of course the author has been disheartened by the idea of his stories being turned into movies; without fail, movies based on his work have been terrible". That's not untrue, but I think it's projecting an unwarranted measure of self-interest onto the author as well. In which spirit, let's remove this discussion as far as reasonably possible from Alan Moore and Watchmen2 and all of that carry-on and just ask: why are we compelled to make things into movies?

If a story is so perfectly realised in the form of the novel, or the comic book, or even the song or video game (it could happen), what is it that makes us feel it will be better if only it can be turned into a movie? Why, since reading The Most Influential Comic Book Ever 25-odd years ago, have so many people been asking, "so when can I see the movie?"

The obvious reason is that movies are the dominant art form of our time. The moving image has become the default form in which we ingest information. And perhaps less irritatingly obvious but just as plain to see is that this is because everything else is movies' bitch.

You're just enforcing a restrictive cultural hegemony, you lazy little bastard.

When novels meet with mass success they're hailed for their "cinematic" pace. Videogames, champing at the bit with Oedipal ambition, have become more and more self-consciously filmic at as relentless a clip as their evolution will allow. Musical artists like Unkle and Sigur Rós blur the line between popular songwriting and soundtrack composition. (The line, "a soundtrack to a film that hasn't been made yet", has been used by artists from KISS to Trent Reznor to describe their work, though it provides no guarantee of popularity nor quality). Even the best-attended theater tends to be that of a clear cinematic pedigree or influence.

On the one hand this is somewhat pathetic and insecure, asking of the cinema a legitimisation, an approval of one's passions: "if only this story which I love would be turned into a film so everyone could enjoy it, my enthusiasm would be vindicated!"

But it's also somewhat ugly: belying a rapacious, Procrustean intolerance for variety in modes of thought or expression. There's sometimes the implication that the "best" stories are those that get made into successful movies: that a story that refuses to be bashed into cinematic shape isn't quite c21st cultural canon.

In this rather pained metaphor, Hollywood is being wacked with an axe.

It would seem that the question of, "should this story be translated to one of our films?" would be no different whether the story in question had originated in another medium or in the film of another country. After all, they're both translations which demand a substantial shift in language, obviously, but also in cultural tone and shape. It would seem that those insisting that Ringu or Låt den rätte komma in or Sporloos had no need for an English remake should be similarly put out by the redundance of a Hollywood movie of Blindness or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or, yes, Watchmen.

Much of the most impressive narrative adventuring of recent years - Foucault's Pendulum, From Hell, Twin Peaks - is material which demands the audience rethink how it experiences the art and rewards their lateral thinking accordingly. The cinema can do this, and has, many times. But it's not the norm. Many films are very, very good. And many films are terrible. Just like anything.

But if we wanted to up film's hitrate, one of the best things we could do would be to stop asking it to do everything for us, and celebrate narrative prowess wherever it may occur, be it the novel, the movie or even the spontaneous happenstance of real life. Allow movies to be movies and enjoy things that aren't movies for what they are, without wanting to feed them into the machine that turns out things shaped like movies.

Then maybe everyone would leave poor old Alan Moore alone and he could write some more comics.

1 There I go, using language like this was a matter of vital international import; this debate will do that to you.

2 Before doing so, it's worth mentioning that Watchmen itself is, of course, intensely cinematic in pace and framing techniques. But to interpret this as the narrative's desire to be realised onscreen is to miss the point: the flashy cross-cuts and ponderous dolly-moves of Watchmen's panel layout aren't intended as audition pieces, so much as appropriations of technique, in the same way as Moore would go on to dot his work with musical cues and nods to classic novels.


ontic5 said...

You have some good points there.
The question is, why you would translate something at all. If you set aside the obvious point that they could just do it for the money (but who would think so lowly of them ;-)) you could actually gain something by the different limitations of the new medium. TBH, I don´t see that happening with Watchmen, though. At least you can bring a story to a wider audience. The number of film viewers is much larger than that of comic-book readers. Besides, Hollywood just might think that turning an already successful story into a movie is much more likely to succeed than using a new or largely unknown one.

I personally think that the opposite is true. With a successful and widely known story the chance of falling short on the expectations is high. They don´t have much opportunity to make anything better but a high risk of making it worse. The opposite would be true for a mediocre book.

Homage said...

Golly Mister Ontic, I'm sorry that I didn't see this comment until now. I shall reply to your excellent points.

"Bringing the story to a wider audience" is one of the standard justifications for translating a story to film. I'm sure many who use this justification have the best of intentions; but the fact is, you can never do that, because the story exists as much in what we take from it as it does on the page. [Narrative-theory shitstorm goes here.]

I can never bring my experience of (say) Foucault's Pendulum to you; the best I can do is suggest that you read the book and hope that your experience of it is as chellenging and thrilling and thought-provoking as my own. Films are not an effort to bring a story to a new audience so much as they are an attempt to bring the director/screenwriter/studio executives' experience of that story to a wider audience.

I agree with you in that a more widely-known story is less likely to succeed as a movie: this is because there are more people wanting the film to conform with their experience of the story, and more people ready to declare the film a failure when it ably articulates someone else's experience at the expense of their own. (If we take this to its logical conclusion we are forced to consider that people somehow hold their own imagination in lower regard than that of Hollywood, which is disappointing).

Adaptations such as Brokeback Mountain or Ringu can be regarded as more creatively interesting because they draw on a lesser-known or more adaptation-demanding text: anyone who has read Brokeback Mountain knows it's short enough that a 2.5 hour movie is bound to indulge in quite a bit of fancification, and is prepared for this from the get. Or, as you point out, a mediocre text can make for a fine picture: First Blood works better as film than it does as book because there's not a legion of fans demanding that the third-act spirit-bond between Rambo and Teasle be depicted in full onscreen, for example.

I'm not sure how we decide what qualifies as a "mediocre" text, so maybe we should just say that ALL texts, when being adapted, ought to be treated as massively flawed works in dire need of overhaul. The only interesting adaptations (Starship Troopers, for instance, is basically an excoriating indictment of the source novel's politics) are the ones that say from the get, "I don't care what you think of this, here's what I want to say about it, and if that doesn't interest you, well, the book's not going anywhere".