But it was cool when… – times adaptations got it right

Earlier, I wrote a blog called ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if’ … – the modern curse of Sci-fi and fantasy where I argued against taking liberties in adaptations for the sake of a cool (but unjustified) moment and one reader asked me if I ever thought adaptations could be better.

I feel I need to respond to this for a number of reasons. First of all, adaptations per se are not the problem. My problem is with WIBCI moments that wreck the story around them/the characterisation of those involved. As I wrote in that article, they are by no means limited to adaptations they just have worse consequences when they are.

Still, it’s fair to ask if I think there are times when TV/film can do better than my beloved medium of text. There are many writers who are dismissive of visual media and as a result are often far less outraged by bad adaptation than their readers. To them the definitive version (theirs) will always exist no matter what goes on elsewhere.

There are others who think TV/film is always better or at least the only form people care about and while I can’t agree with them on that, there is a  tiny nugget of annoying truth in that. Adaptations can’t and shouldn’t be dismissed, as for many people this will be their first introduction to the story. A poor adaptation may stand in the way of the author getting their true vision across.

There are others still who say there are two versions and you can’t really compare them. As reasonable as this position is, I can’t agree with that either. One begat the other and for the reasons mentioned before, the other often stands as the former’s representative in the world of mainstream awareness. Note George RR Martin being called on to justify Sansa-gate when he didn’t even write that. The two are and always will be linked.

This matters to me because I don’t dismiss TV/film. I always hope for good adaptations because when I read a book I can see the potential. As a novelist, there are tools available to TV/film which I envy; most notably the performance of actors and a soundtrack and I think these are two ways in which the original story can actually be enhanced for the readers.

So after that long pre-amble here follows some examples of when TV/film really added something. Since this site is primarily focussed on fantasy I’ll stick to famous examples from that but it’s only fair that I shout out Fight Club as an example of a film that deviated to good effect. There are a number of times when minor characters are replaced with Tyler and the ending is totally different. In both cases I think this is an improvement on what is a very good original story. Ok, back to fantasy…

Robert & Cersei, Game of Thrones Season 1, episode 5 ‘The Wolf & the Lion’.

All of season 1 of Game of Thrones is pretty much a definitive guide on how to adapt a book faithfully. Most of the changes are editing for content (which is perfectly acceptable especially when there are budget limits) and where they are not they are fleshing out characters who we didn’t see so much of in the books.

This works because all the books in A Song of Ice and Fire use the POV structure meaning there is much that happens that we (as the readers) just don’t ‘see’. The Robert and Cersei scene in episode 5 is an example of something that ‘could have’ happened off-camera from the POV characters in question.

The two of them talk and in doing so answer some questions that we wouldn’t have known the answer to otherwise and flesh out our understanding of them .In the scene both remain ‘in character’ even when they show a side to their character you might not have expected. Some purists might take umbrage that Cersei is depicted as having loved Robert initially but I think it shows them both to be more human (albeit horrifically flawed humans).

Lighting the beacons, Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Ok, the set up is a bit laboured and unnecessary. Denethor in the film is a bit less ambiguous than in the book so he actively tries to stop this sensible measure leading Pippin to have to show some initiative. But once that is out of the way we are treated to one of the stand out sequences of the film. The soaring soundtrack of the Gondor theme playing over the glorious New Zealand scenery passing hope from mile to mile with every burst of firelight. In the books it is mentioned but, much as we try as writers, this is the kind of thing where film has us beat.

The battle of summer and winter, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe

Now it’s been a fair few years since I’ve read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe but as I recall the battle is not described in a huge amount of detail. The film-makers really used the opportunity to give a scene that embraced the otherworldliness of the creatures involved; the griffins (superbly, character-fully animated incidentally) swoop in and throw rocks, the phoenix creates a fiery barrier and best of all is the moment when the big cats can’t restrain themselves any more and outstrip the rest of the cavalry while on the other side polar bears and loping werewolves run to meet them. For once, really running with an action set-piece really pays off here.

Of course there are many other examples than this (mentioning all the times an actor made a character more sympathetic is a blog in of itself) but I think in all of these cases the TV/film-makers have managed to add something without taking anything away. There is no car-crash or unravelling, simply they have taken what was there and added their own artistic flourish in in a way that remains true to the original story.

 

 

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Superheroes are fine – just don’t make them invincible

I’ll start this blog with a couple of disclaimers. First, this isn’t about good adaptations as promised. That article will still come but this one has come into focus now. Second, all my references to superheroes on this blog are based on what I’ve seen on TV/film and not their comic book representations.

Right, with that covered I’ll start wrecking my nerd credentials.

The Invincibles

Invincibility has been in my mind recently, prompted by two events. The first was seeing trailers for the Batman vs Superman movie and the second was after watching Daredevil Season 2 where I was shown a trailer for the new series about Luke Cage. Now, I liked both the Christian Bale Batman films and Jessica Jones but neither of these trailers really appeal to me and I think I know the reason why – it’s invincibility.

I can’t be bothered with Superman. I don’t find anything remotely interesting about him. Sure, a large part of that is he is generally quite a dull character but I’m not sure that can really be separated from the nature of his powers; namely that he is invincible.

Superman wins not by any great courage or ingenuity or triumph of character; Superman wins because he is Superman. By virtue of the gifts he is born with no enemy can match him. In the same vein, it’s hard to take any rival to him seriously because you know he’s going to win because he’s Superman.

Other have argued to me before that the real story is about how he has to struggle with his identity and the burden that his powers have more than the jeopardy as such. That might have some traction if his human identity was remotely interesting but it’s not. He’s straight-down-the-line, successful, honest and handsome. If his daytime persona were someone who is reviled,that might be an interesting conflict.

In any case, however successfully or unsuccessfully this side to his story plays out, for me, it doesn’t counterbalance the fact he is never in any real danger himself. It’s a problem and I think the writers of Superman agree with me on this – why else did they invent kryptonite?

You’re entitled to disagree but it got me thinking about my aversion to invincibility and why I hate it as a power for Superheroes. There’s a bit in the new advert for Luke Cage when a bunch of baddies pull guns on him and proceed to open fire. You know full well he’s going to fine (he duly is) and so I start thinking ‘why should I care?’ Again, the absence of any real jeopardy nullifies any stakes that may have been involved.

This got me thinking back to the TV series Heroes. The point where I lost all interest, even after the failings of Season 2, was when Sylar finally got to Claire and (drumroll) he does his thing and she’s completely fine afterwards. What? Not only is this massively anti-climatic at the time once you think about it you realise the whole tagline (and story) of the first series ‘Save the cheerleader and save the world’ becomes totally redundant. She never needed to be saved. In fact, it was impossible to save her because she can’t die.

(Further disclaimer: I’ve no idea how Heroes explained this afterwards as I was done after that).

What about regeneration?

Ok, so invincibility is bad, what about regeneration? Isn’t that a form of invincibility? I would say it depends but largely, no. I’ll take the two examples that come into my head for this. I’ll start with Wolverine. Yes, he can regenerate after almost anything but I don’t think you ever have the sense that he is impossible to kill: just difficult. So far I’ve not seen a Claire-like reveal that he cannot die. Moreover, Wolverine palpably suffers, which provides a measure of jeopardy with which we can still identify. Cut him, does he not bleed?

Next up, Dr Who. The time lord cannot die in one sense (although there is a limit on regenerations) but the fact it means a change of actor and personality means in another sense he dies indeed. It’s a death of a personality, which is something to mourn. Also, knowing as we do that each personality has a time limit, that vital element of jeopardy is always present. Is this week the week we are going to lose this incarnation?

What about invincible Super Villains

I certainly prefer the idea of near-invincible super villains to superheroes, the ‘near’ part being crucial. A villain that is exceedingly hard to kill gives a challenge to our heroes and a villain that is more powerful than any one individual hero gives cause to unite diverse groups and individuals in a common cause.

Even so, overpowering your enemy can cause problems. There should always be a way to overcome them; some feat of courage or cleverness that can bring about that miracle beyond hope. When all efforts prove fruitless, hope is shown to be futile and everything you’ve come to believe in mounts to nothing , you might reasonably question what the hell you’ve been investing in this story for (yes I am looking at you Mass Effect 3 ending – it is still not forgiven!)

One against many

Ultimately, probably the guiding principle of the invincible superhero is the chance for the one to succeed against the many. You know full well that Luke Cage is going to kick the arse or ass, if you prefer (and particularly hate donkeys) of every guy that just took a shot at him. You know that superman will come through whatever Lex Luthor throws at him. In this we have the spectre of the inevitable triumph of good over evil. We all know God will defeat Satan in the end, so we must trust in the fight.

Well, from a writing perspective I think that sucks (thanks for the spoiler Bible). The end fight should always be in the balance until the final moment.

One against many can be brilliant. [Minor spoiler] I doubt I’ll see many things on TV/film this year that compare to Daredevil vs the Dogs of Hell. But here there is jeopardy. Daredevil has limits on his powers and he can be hurt. It takes force of will and strategic use of choke points and the environment for him to get through that alive.

Sure the heroes should win in the end most of the time, but barely and with blood on their teeth and knuckles against a foe who almost had them. That is why jeopardy is so important. If your victory is inevitable (or even easy), you’re basically just backing the winning side. Any coward can do that. True courage would be to fight on in the belief you will probably lose but it’s worth the fight anyway.

 

Wouldn’t it be cool if… – the modern curse of sci-fi & fantasy

I have a theory (by which I mean an idea based on anecdotal evidence), that much of what ruins a good film/TV series episode in the sci-fi/fantasy genres starts with the thought ‘wouldn’t it be cool if…’.

I can understand the temptation. Who wouldn’t want to see Superman fighting Godzilla, while the X-Men fight hold off a horde of zombies with help from Gandalf? That sounds awesome! Oh, wait. No it doesn’t: it sound abysmal. Why? Because it makes no sense. Storytelling thrown out the window for the sake of a spectacular money-shot (almost certain to be the film poster and will definitely feature prominently in every trailer). My bet is on Superman mid-air poised to punch Godzilla on the jaw.

It’s something that appeals to the inner-kid, which is fine sometimes and if you want to ruin your own film doing that then, OK, that’s your right. As a writer, where I take exception to it most particularly, is when it is used in the field of adaptations. I feel that when you adapt something there is at least some responsibility to remain true to the source material. If you really want to make something that is different, write you’re own damn story.

At this point some will say, ‘ah, here comes the whine of the purist. Not everything can translate exactly and if people enjoy it -why not’. There’s some truth in this; I am something of a book purist but I like to think I am a pragmatic purist. The reason I think films/TV shows should stick to the book is that time and time again it is better when they do so. Off the top of your head, think about the worst scene in an adaptation, any adaptation. I’d say there’s a fair chance the scene you’re thinking of is one where the screenwriters have wildly deviated from the book.

That’s not just prejudice; there’s a reason why it goes that way. Generally, writers write what they’ve written for a reason. I’ve had any number of my own ‘wouldn’t it be cool if…’ moments and I usually think better of them because they don’t make storytelling sense. The moment of glory is like doing a wheel spin on the middle of a motorway (freeway to American readers). Sure, it looks spectacular at the time but it’s going to cause a pile up and you’ll be pulling apart the wreckage afterwards. Somewhere along the line that ‘wouldn’t it be cool’ moment is likely to cause narrative incoherence either before or after the event.

Let’s take some specific examples. The image on this blog is not the one I want you to picture; it’s this one . For those of you who don’t want to search, it’s that famous image of the Nazgul rising over the ruins of Osgiliath with Frodo underneath offering it the ring. This was almost certainly a ‘wouldn’t it be cool’ moment. From a cinematographic point of view it is. From a storytelling point of view, it’s a total pile-up that causes problems before, at the time, and afterwards.

The preceding traffic jam to this incident is that Frodo has no business being in Osgiliath in the first place. Not a problem – we’ll just move him there. But how do you move characters in a book? Unless they can teleport they have to be led there by events and prior decisions. In this case, the decision has to be taken for Faramir to take Frodo to Osgiliath thereby completely trashing his character along the way.

In the book there is a wonderful tension when Frodo discovers Faramir is Boromir’s brother. The assumption is he will behave exactly as Boromir would have done. Then he reveals his character, which is quite different to his brother there is a twist in for once things going well. Given that before and after Frodo goes through some pretty appalling things, it represents a ray of hope amongst the overriding bleakness. All that is lost in the film version. Faramir’s eventual turnaround seems more a reaction to seeing a Nazgul and being lectured by Sam than it is a result of his goodness and wisdom.

Which brings us to the other problem; strength of character and resisting the charm of the Ring. While in the books Frodo struggles with the Ring’s terrible allure, sometimes defeating it and sometimes being defeated by it, in the film he doesn’t resist it once. The film Frodo is weak. From the first appearance of the Nazgul, all his moments of courage are excised. He is shown trying to put the Ring on until Sam stops him. His moments of defiance at Weathertop and the Fords of Bruinen are removed and here, in Osgiliath, he actively tries to give the Ring to the Nazgul. Again, it is only physical intervention by Sam that stops him.

So not only has our ‘wouldn’t it be cool’ moment weakened both Frodo and Faramir it also affects the whole plot of the story henceforth. In ‘Return of the King’, Pippin takes the Palantir and Sauron believes he is the Ringbearer. Thereafter, the whole hurried attack on Minas Tirith is premised on the belief that getting to Pippin gets him the Ring. But in the film there’s no need for this as one of his Nazgul (possibly the Witch-King himself) has already seen the Ring up close in Osgiliath. Did someone just fail to mention this in the weekly Nazgul meeting? ‘Anyone got anything to report? We could really do with getting that ring back. No? No-one? Ok, so as we know the Palantir we looked at was in the tower of Orthanc…’

Now you might wish to employ some hand-waiving to explain these discrepancies, but my rule on this is simple. If a film gives you a plot-point you have use outside knowledge or speculation to make sense of, it has failed in its storytelling. All of this is easily avoided if in response to that ‘wouldn’t it be cool’ urge the writers had responded with ‘does it make storytelling sense?’.

So my plea to writers of all kind is simple. Start with this, ‘wouldn’t it be a great story if…’.