Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Barbarian and phoenix

A quick thought on cinema, and adaptation of books. Reading one or two reviews of the latest Conan, I was struck by the way so many of us hope movies will be true to the source material.

I'd guess a factor in the degree to which a movie is faithful is the readership of the book and the audience expected for the movie. A movie for general release is a product, maybe primarily a product, maybe even only a product for some.

If it has to sell, it can't upset too many people; minorities call the shots less often of course. So maybe we should read more? But then books are also products - maybe privacy gives a sense of ownership, obscures faults?

Gaming could well belong to us already too. So how long until we own the movies?


Andy said...

I think that, as with gaming, the single activity that consumes us the most with our favourite books is not reading them, but *thinking* about them (ie occupying the imaginative space they create).

That creates such a mass of expectation that we've already devised our perfect iteration before we (in this case) have seen the movie adaptation, and frankly, no one has a chance of living up to that!

Jedediah said...

I found that I had a lot more fun with movies when I didn't think about the book at all. It's quite hard sometimes, but if the movie is unfaithful to the book, but still entertains me or maybe thinks further than the book or has new points to make (V for Vendetta, I'm looking at you) - then it's awesome.

I refused to watch LotR for a long time because, like Andy said, I already had seen my perfect adaptation many times in my head. When I did see it, I bitched about a lot of stuff (and sometimes I still do...it's fun), but the second time around I realized that I was watching a really awesome fantasy movie and why not enjoy it all.

It's brilliant when a movie is faithful to the book. But if it's not, it doesn't make it a bad movie automatically.

I often wish that filmmakers didn't have to make their work sellable. Money gets in the way of creativity.

Porky said...

Lots to think about there.

With gaming the mind is definitely running between games and sessions, at the very least for planning. With books though I'm a little different I think. I'm intensely involved when reading, but that imaginative space then quickly fades into the background, even in the case of books I really enjoy. I'm sure those spaces inform my thinking, probably more than I'm aware, but they're rarely revisited directly, only when motifs or moods show up in other places, or could.

I don't imagine books as movies either. In fact I rarely think about movies these days at all. They seem to me to be on the whole far more external things, closed and finished, whereas books seem more fluid, full of space. These are huge generalisations of course, rather vague too; there is a lot of overlap between the two. I think I need to explain that.

That reason for the difference could be an issue of choice, choice understood as our active engagement. When we pick up a book and read we move the story forward by force of will, and the content as we perceive it is a blend of us and the information in the text. It's a very imaginative process, very stimulating, and maybe more stimulating the more we personally give.

Movies require less active participation, less of that blending, in the sense that far more of the work has been done for us, outside of us. It may even be that movies overdo things at times in an attempt to provide that level of stimulation. Books feel to me more consensual, movies more imposed.

Again, these are huge generalisations, and my own experiences, and cinema and literature are very broad things. There are movies with more of that fluidity, space and demand, and books with less.

As for movies based on books, I can't think of too many I've seen after reading. I probably avoid them semi-consciously, which may well be a bad idea given they could bring something new, an aspect I missed, as Jedediah suggests. Some movies did have me go read the book later and in every case that springs to mind now I enjoyed the book as much or more.

I think the separation mentioned is important too, that we take each thing on its own merits. I read The Lord of the Rings first as a child and saw the movies quite a while after release, and maybe for the deep roots the book had and the separation from the buzz it was quite easy to split them, to see the aspects they shared, but accept the trilogy as a work well done, better than it might have been, and choose not to notice the deviations.

It comes back to that idea of ownership too, that we can be naturally possessive of things close to us, or things we feel contain a part of us, and that could well make us defensive or critical of other approaches.

Von said...

I find it interesting that Jebediah refers to V for Vendetta: for all that I rag on the film for presenting a much simpler moral/political equation and choice than the comic did, it does present a different equation and choice for different times, and that's a good thing. I like that.

I like that The Lord of the Rings films include slightly fewer endings, slightly less Middle-English stodgy conservatism and significantly less Bombadil (even Tolkien didn't know what the point of that yellow-booted rapist was, but put him in 'because he seemed to fit') even if I dislike the omission of the few bits that actually confront and characterise Sauron's minions properly.

That said, I disliked Van Helsing - not because it takes liberties with classic works of Gothic literature, but because it is an ill-conceived mess of a film that could have been so much stronger had it fitted itself into its source material instead of tearing way from it.

Porky said...

V for Vendetta and Van Helsing I haven't seen, but a reflection of the time, or rather a response to it, seems to me too a fair use of a work when adapting. A spectrum of interpretations is a natural thing, and it keeps us on our toes.

I'm not surprised Tom Bombadil gets left out, but that might not happen next time round. Shooting the scenes, leaving them out and then using them to lure us into buying supplementary material could be a major moneyspinner.

In the case of the source work though, the more time goes by, the more I'm glad Tom Bombadil is in there, a knot in the wood.

Rek said...

My simple brain thinks that's because we build a fantasy world of our own through the author's words....we are distant, often silent but fellow travellers parallel to the story in our minds...it becomes difficult to leave that umbilical cord with the written matter behind when the words turn into actual images...
I have seen a lot of games who are equally fanatical about their favourite ones and berate the developers for what they call "unnecessary, unimpressive newer versions".

Jedediah said...

Von, I agree that the V for Vendetta comic has the better and more complex story, but it's very much a product of its time and I don't think it would have worked as well if they stayed true to the story in the movie. I'm also glad that Watchmen didn't have giant squid.

And oh Goth, Van Helsing. I love it, but only because it's so unintentionally hilarious. They put so much work and effort into that movie (seriously, watch the DVD extras to see the awesome models...and the brilliant blooper reel), but I always get the feeling that they couldn't decide on what they wanted to do. Horror, comedy, action? The mix doesn't work out.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen or Anno Dracula show how you really steal from the classics. The League comic, not the movie. That was a whole lotta meh and for once I understand Alan Moore's anger.
Except for the car. I want that car.

Von said...

@Jebediah - that's pretty much what I said. I like the film even if it's not as clever as the comic, even if it's about a different political divide, precisely because it illustrates how we've moved on. As for the squid, that's an adaptation improving on the original as far as I'm concerned; what actually occurs in the film is on much more solid emotional continuity and logic grounds.

Porky said...

@ Rek - I see all of that the same way, except your having a simple brain!

Reader and writer do seem to travel parallel paths, parallel in the sense the routes they take and the destinations they reach are potentially different.

I also see that complaining in gaming a lot. If we're talking tabletop or online gaming, there's also the issue of changes being more practically problematic than for books or movies, in that we generally need at least one other, and ideally a number of others, to be playing the same thing.

'Umbilical' is a good choice of word. I think it has something of that.

James S said...

Sorry to come so late to the discussion! I think maybe people expect faithfulness to the source material across media because so many of us still have an unexamined 20th century assumption that creative works have original forms.

There's so much information and media today that anything that resonates with people to even a small extent is going to be re-branded and converted into different media, inevitably.

So it seems to me as if works of creativity are no longer really "books" or "movies" or "games" or what-have-you, they are ideas, ready to be forced into any form for leisurely consumption depending on preference. What form a work happened to take originally is I think ultimately unimportant, just an accident of history.

Yet people who seek group ownership of works (cult communities like geeks or goths or comic or music fans or whatever) don't like this state of affairs. Translation of ideas across media makes the ideas available to everyone no matter what sort of media they enjoy. That's the point.

But if part of your identity is that you read fantasy novels a lot and suddenly Lord of the Rings (for example) is a movie and everyone knows about it and likes it as much as you, your gut reaction to reclaim what you see as your identity being diluted is to bitch about the new media and proclaim the purity of the original.

I think it's a losing battle though. I long ago became resigned to the fact that anything I discover and like is going to appeal to other people too (unless it's crap), and be splattered across media.

You just have to love the idea. I love Conan (the myth/idea), so I'm keen for the movie, and I don't see REH's stories as being any more essentially or originally Conan than the 1982 movie, the various comics or whatever. They're all expressions of the one myth, that's how our culture works. The author is unimportant. I may like some versions more than others, but none of them are more authentic than the others.

I wonder if Australian Aboriginals felt their identity vanishing when their oral stories were written down in books and made into cartoons?

Andy said...

Totally agree - there's a very 'left brain' quality to the consumption of modern creative endeavour that feels there's some objective truth behind what an author is describing. It even extends to outrage when writers deliberately change their own background, as if they have no right to do so!

Porky said...

Stimulating points. I see what you describe. It bears more thinking about too; how free-floating can an idea be, and how much does its potential for propagation, reception, but also understanding, acceptance and effect depend on particular format? In terms of depth as well as breadth.

For example, in the case of an oral tradition, could the idea be less important - or relatively less important - than the form it has? That is, could the personal, social and cultural structures that build up around a particular way of doing things be more essential than the message those things carry?

This seems to me a vital question for the time. What's the right balance of the personal and the universal? How should we approach that need for ownership, even group ownership? How able are we to affect it? Looking very parochially even at our particular point in history, with falling economic growth, does higher GDP bring a good life, and who gets that goodness? And more generally how far is change correlated with improvement? Could the unbending, specific and intrinsic, like an idea more limited to a given single format, have greater value because its measurable value can't so easily be increased?

Too many questions maybe..!

James S said...

That is a lot of questions! I like the one about the social and cultural value and group ownership.

There is definitely a sense in which an oral story becomes something less when it is written down. I imagine when the classical writers first recorded the Greek myths there would have been some outrage from the inheritors of the oral tradition.

And now we have this. An iteration of the Perseus myth built upon wave after wave of interpretation and reference and re-hashing, owing more to Harryhausen's film and modern pop culture than any classical mythology.

I think for the Australian aborigines it doesn't make sense to distinguish between the medium and the message in terms of importance. The two are an inseperable whole. For sub-cultural purists maybe something similar holds?

Porky said...

I think so. A particular experience strongly linked to a given medium could well feed into sense of identity. Of course, how we deal with this - parts of our and others' identity having a reference to a specific thing - is the issue. It likely depends on many factors, presumably in large part the person's identity as a whole, but it's worth us bearing in mind there are also likely to be different degrees of feeling.

It's interesting too the point about tradition re Clash of the Titans, that media of all kinds can and do refer to the past, evolving something very complex which might depend on a strong association with that past. This association, the investment of time, energy and mental space, is also something which could become a part of personal identity.