Books vs Movies

Books Vs. Movies: Taking Out the Heart of “A Wrinkle in Time”

I’ve devoted long units of this blog to praising the work of Jennifer Lee (Frozen) and Ava DuVernay (Selma), so when I heard they were teaming up to adapt a great but hard-to-adapt book, I was excited. And the result was …not terrible, at least on first viewing. I spent the whole movie saying to myself, “This is fine, they’re doing nothing wrong, I don’t see why the reaction has been so blah,” but then at the end, I just felt …blah.

In many ways, the movie reconceives the book, which is fine, and there’s no reason that a reconceived movie couldn’t have worked, but for today, let’s just focus on the ways it does not capture the appeal of the book, either because it fails to or chooses not to.

One big difference is what we’ve talked about so far. In the book, Meg has an external problem (her father is missing) and many internal problems: She’s scared all the time, she’s got terrible self esteem, she’s violent (“a delinquent”), she misperceives her world, and she lacks the wisdom of her mother or even her younger brother. The fourth paragraph makes it clear: Meg’s problem is Meg.

  • She wasn’t usually afraid of weather.—It’s not just the weather, she thought.—It’s the weather on top of everything else. On top of me. On top of Meg Murry doing everything wrong.

In the movie, Meg still has the external problem, but not so much of the internal problems. Her problem is not Meg. Instead of fighting with everybody at school because of an internal flaw, she’s got one smirking, sadistic bully picking on her for no reason, who goads her into violence so egregiously that it’s impossible not to root for Meg when she throws a basketball in the girl’s face. (As I’ve said before, I think bullies should never have no reason at all) I think L’Engle would have been horrified to find that Meg’s violence is a stand-up-and-cheer moment in the movie. In the book, Meg says about the boy she hits, “I’m sorry I tried to fight him” but Meg in the movie justifies her violence by saying, “Dad always told me to stand up for what I believe in.”

Could this new Meg have worked? Of course: It’s common in movie adaptations to make problems more external and less internal (and more personified). But this is an example of losing the appeal of the book and not replacing it with new joys.

Charles Wallace, by contrast, has not changed enough. L’Engle can just tell us that Charles Wallace doesn’t speak like a five year old for good reasons, but the movie can’t make that clear, so we’re just left with a character that doesn’t seem to be believably written. I think they would need to change him from the book to be more believably five.

But I don’t think the movie gets into serious trouble until Mrs. Whatsit is introduced. In the book, we find out that Charles Wallace has been hanging out with a “tramp”, aka homeless person, who has taken residence in an unused shed on the edge of their property and stolen some sheets to sleep under. She then shows up in the middle of a storm, dressed in rags, dripping wet, needing shelter from the storm. She’s a ragged old woman and her “grayish hair was tied in a small but tidy knot on top of her head”. The mom then makes the crucial decision to let her into the house and take care of her, helping her get her boots off and get her socks dry, while Meg offers her food and makes it. It is seemingly in return for the kindness that Mrs. Whatsit imparts some key information, that the tesseract is real.

They earn this plot progress by being kind to someone who seems like a non-magical homeless woman. Importantly, there’s a big Christian element in this scene: I came to you homeless, you took me in, you bathed my feet, you fed me, etc. Then it turns out that the woman is a literal angel-in-disguise who is there to do a miracle for them in return for their kindness.

In the movie this all goes out the window. Mrs. Whatsit is now beautiful young Reese Witherspoon, wearing a spectacular gown she made from the stolen sheets, just because she’s a fun-loving kook. She’s not at all wet and not at all in need of shelter. She knocks on their door for unclear reasons, Charles Wallace lets her in, but Meg wants to call 911 on her and the mom orders her to leave. Mrs. Whatsit agrees to leave, but pauses to tell them about the tesseract on her way out, in return for nothing but hostility. Lee and DuVernay have excised the Christianity and they haven’t replaced it with anything, except inanity. Mrs. Whatsit helps them despite their hostility, instead of in reward for their actions.

I noticed none of this while I watched the movie the first time. It just seemed a little …off. Only in retrospect do I see why it didn’t work. Meg is remorseless about her violence and heartless towards Mrs. Whatsit, which rips out the heart of the story. The story happens to Meg instead of her making it happen, and she is proven right (“Dad always told me to stand up for what I believe in”) instead of being forced to change. It’s far weaker on second viewing than it was on the first, especially now that I’ve reread the book.

Books vs. Movies: The Archive

Given our recent discussions of prose, it seems like a good time to archive this old series…

Best of 2015, #1: The Big Short (and the Courage Not to Adapt)

You might recall that, a few years ago, I quoted the book “The Big Short”, so I’m on record as liking that, too, but I will be the first to admit that I thought there was no way in hell it would make a good movie, much less a great one.

Like all Hollywood types, I dismiss such material out of hand: Too obscure, too hard to explain, too many characters, too unsympathetic, no strong central action, etc. I fear that if I had gotten the adaptation job, I would have resorted to the usual tricks: focus on just one story, graft a traditional arc onto that story, gloss over all the financial details, give them a reason they need the money, etc.

But it’s absolutely astounding the degree to which this movie did none of that.

Usually, in a non-fiction adaptation, you keep the character’s names and then give them made-up movie personalities. This movie actually did the opposite: they changed the names of all but one character, out of respect for privacy, but relied exclusively on personality details from the book, even for the re-named characters. Of course, it helps to have a writer as good as Michael Lewis, who habitually goes through and explicates the metaphor family and default argument tactic (“Explain that again. Explain that again.”) for each of his characters. Why make something up if you have that kind of never-seen-before gold?

McKay and co-writer Charles Randolph do none of the things I would have done: they keep almost all the characters, even though they’re on separate tracks and don’t meet. They mimic Lewis’s tactic of alternating illuminating character moments with straight-up direct-address descriptions of financial instruments. They don’t attempt to justify the character’s greed or pretty it up.

They do resort to some tricks, but each time they do, they actually stop the movie dead to point out that they’re tricking us! They blatantly bring in attractive celebrities to explain some financial details. They add connecting tissue and then stop to tell us that they just made that scene up. (They do that often enough that they then have to stop the movie even more to stress that the most outrageous scenes aren’t made up)

In short, this movie did the one thing that conventional wisdom says you shouldn’t do: they trusted the book, and delivered its abundant appeal intact.

But wait, it’s even more extreme, because I would argue that the movie actually jettisons one of the most movie-friendly emotional throughlines from the book, and I’m genuinely baffled by that.

In both the book and movie, investor Michael Burry has a glass eye and blames his social awkwardness on that. However, in the book, just at the point where everybody thinks he’s crazy for making this big trade, his son gets diagnosed with asperger’s, and Bury belatedly realizes that he has it, too, quite acutely. Suddenly, he realizes that, uh oh, maybe there is something wrong with my self-perception, maybe I can’t trust myself on this trade. Ultimately, however, he accepts his diagnosis and himself and sticks to his guns on the trade, with a big pay-off.

Why oh why was this cut? I can’t rightly say. The best I can come up with is that they got Christian Bale to play the part, and so they couldn’t have this be a big reveal, because when Christian Bale plays an aspie, you know right away, and indeed it is immediately obvious in the movie. So that’s why they cut it? I don’t know. Any thoughts?

Next: A look at the character intros

Rulebook Casefile: Foreshadowing Too Much in The Martian

Now let’s look at one aspect of The Martian that was stronger in the book than the movie, and figure out why. I saw the movie first, and one problem I had was with the scene where they decide to skip the safety procedures on the launch of Mark’s food re-supply. Even if you haven’t seen the movie, you probably know what’s going to happen just from reading that: it blows up on the launch pad. And indeed, in the movie, it’s too obvious what will happen, ensuring that the explosion gets more of an eye-roll than a gasp.

Nevertheless, when I read the novel, even though I really knew what was going to happen, that scene didn’t spell its own doom, and the explosion is genuinely heartbreaking. What did novelist Andy Weir accomplish on the page that adapter Drew Goddard couldn’t accomplish on the screen? First let’s look at the book scene:
Then let’s look at the movie scene:
Most obviously, the book scene is much longer, with much more detail, so we get to focus more on the little dramas, without having to step back and consider the larger impact (and inevitable result) of the scene …but it’s more than that. In the book, Teddy feels like the hero of the scene: he’s willing to do anything to save Mark, even get creative with the timeline, and we admire him for it. In the movie, he just seems like a dick who’s heedless of the science.

One problem in the movie is that we don’t really feel Mark’s potential hunger (and therefore the urgency to resupply quickly) as much as we do in the book scene, but an even bigger problem is what Teddy says instead of talking about the hunger. I had to re-read the two scenes a few times to spot the key word: In the script, Teddy begins the scene by asking:
  • Let’s ask the very, very expensive question: Is this probe going to be ready on time?
It’s the word “expensive”, which wasn’t in the book scene, that gives the game away. In the book, he’s going to extremes to save a life, which usually pays off in fiction, so it’s shocking when it fails. In the movie, it sounds like he’s risking all to save money, which never works in fiction. The result is a series of scenes that are drastically inert, ending in an anticlimactic accident that generates no sadness.

I think one reason the movie did this was to try to turn Teddy into a little bit of a villain, but it was a bad decision: Adding a villain usually sharpens our emotional connection to the events, but in this case it dulled it. Weir knew what he was doing: Nature (and its close cousin chaos) is the only villain here, and the emotion comes from the pain of trying and failing to overcome it, despite everyone’s best intentions.

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Never Let Anyone Compliment Your Hero

One of the many charges that was leveled against The Force Awakens was that of Mary Sue-ism. Wikipedia defines a “Mary Sue” as “an idealized and seemingly perfect fictional character, a young or low-rank person who saves the day through unrealistic abilities.” The term comes from fan-fiction, where many writer insert versions of themselves into their stories, so as to receive praise from their heroes.

To many people, that seemed like a good description of Rey, the movie’s plucky young heroine, and I agree, to a certain extent.

The movie simply tried too hard to sell the character to us. Not only was she instantly great at everything she tried, from flying the Millennium Falcon to wielding a lightsaber, but, just in case we didn’t notice, each of the other characters gushed about how great she was: Han, Maz, Finn, and Kylo Ren all expressed amazement. Even Chewbacca seemed to instantly switch his allegiance as soon as Han was dead. (Shouldn’t she be his co-pilot?)

Now compare that to The Martian. One thing that’s there in the movie but is even more clear in the book is just how smart the character of Mark Watney is. I would go so far to say that he is, quite possibly, the smartest character in the history of fiction. In order to survive, especially in those periods without contact with Earth, he needs to be not just a genius-level botanist but also show genius in mechanical engineering, astrophysics, physiognomy, and about a dozen other specialities.
In both versions, we follow along with Mark on Mars, but we also cut away to Earth, where NASA is trying to help him and the media is speculating on his odds of survival. In both of those discussions, they never mention the elephant in the room: that everything Mark has done so far shows him to be a 99th-level genius who can pretty much figure anything out.

At a certain point, this gets weird. Isn’t anybody impressed?? What does this guy have to do to make people, “Wow, what the hell, Why are you so smart?”

But the novelist and screenwriter knew what they were doing. We do not want to hear our heroes complimented. We want to find our own place in the story. We want to choose whom to like and dislike based on our evaluation of the actions of the characters. We want characters to earn our trust and admiration, without the writer’s thumb on the scales. We are always highly reluctant to care about heroes because they usually let us down. When a writer praises his or her own character, that sounds like self-praise, that always sounds bad.

This is especially problematic in stories like The Force Awakens, where the character garners praise that seems unearned, but even in stories like The Martian, where it’s downright weird that people aren’t awed by the hero, we appreciate the ability to make our own judgment.

Best of 2015, #2: The Martian

I have so much to say about this movie that I’ll spend the week on it, but, as with the other movies, let’s start with a rule it exemplified: This rule was originally called “Say No Way to Melee”, but more broadly stated, it could be “Human Scale is Better.” I actually cited another Mars movie as the problem here:
  • In the book, John Carter defeats a normal-sized white ape bare-handed, which makes for a thrilling action scene. In the movie, he defeats two 50-foot high white apes, which is just boring. In order to root for a hero, we have to be right in there with him, helping him figure out his next move.
This is the heart of the appeal of The Martian, and a stark contrast to a superficially similar movie from this year, The Revenant. Leo will almost certainly win the Oscar, while Damon will remain prize-less, but Damon deserves it. As an actor, it’s always tempting to go to the register of “inhuman suffering” rather than “human suffering”. After all, you can’t conceive of how someone could live with this calamity, so why try? Just do a wild-eyed hyperventilating freak-out the whole time. And why not? The Academy loves that.

But Damon makes the braver and more difficult choice. Rather than play up the unbelievability of his situation, Damon somehow makes us believe this is actually happening. This movie, after all, is not shot in real time. We’re watching more than a year on Mars. Damon gets a few freak-outs, but you can’t freak out all day long. The rest of the time, he’s doing something remarkable: showing us that a guy is making it work on Mars, complete with what, how, when, where, and why.

And not just any guy: a guy’s guy. A canny, jokey, ornery, and super, super smart guy. So much of Damon’s solo performance just consists of thinking, which is one of the hardest things to do onscreen. This brings up another direction he could have gone: the Cumberbatch direction, in which geniuses are all intense, twitchy and anti-social. But Damon, taking his lead from the wonderful novel, reintroduces a lost icon: the genius as grease-monkey. I can’t wait until my kids are old enough for this movie, because I finally get to show them a science hero who’s not a jerk!

As always, Damon makes what he does look easy, which is why he may never get a statue, but humbly thinking and doing things onscreen is actually tremendously hard, so much so that few actors even attempt it. I think no one else could have pulled off this remarkable performance.

Next: What The Martian does right that The Force Awakens does wrong

Best of 2015 #3: Carol

This time let’s talk about some of the things we covered in the Books vs. Movies series. 

In some ways, novelists have it much easier than screenwriters, and in some ways they have it much harder. It’s easier because they don’t have to pack everything into the dialogue, they can just tell us what the characters are thinking and feeling. It’s harder, of course, because they don’t get to hand that job over to the director and actors: they have to do all the character work, exterior and interior, themselves. Patricia Highsmith was a very interior-focused writer. Her primary influence was Dostoyevsky, and her characters too, are filled with raging torrents of self-hate and self-doubt under comparatively calm surfaces. Let’s look at how she writes the first scene between Carol and Therese: 

 For every word of (intentionally banal) dialogue, there are three words describing the thoughts and feelings that underlie those words. So what does screenwriter Phyllis Nagy do when she has to adapt that dialogue for the screen? Let’s look:
She doesn’t try to put all that subcutaneous emotion onscreen (and she doesn’t try to slip it in using parentheses, thankfully), but she does make the dialogue more compact and a little more sprightly. Most intriguingly, she changes the two purchases, (a doll suitcase and then a doll) into one (a train set). Why change it to a train? Most obviously, because this adds an “I understand you” moment, or at least an “I want to understand you” moment: Carol and Therese can’t express as much through looks, so Carol is forced to actually ask Therese about her life and discover that Therese was the sort of girl who preferred trains to dolls. The novel scene is purely subconscious gay-dar at work, but the train set dialogue brings that slightly out into the open.

Ultimately, Todd Haynes was the perfect choice to adapt this, because he knows how to pack power into meaningful looks better than almost any director out there, but Nagy subtly gives him a little more to work with.

 Next: Another great adaptation of an interior novel

Best of 2015 Runners-Up: The Revenant

This year was nowhere near as strong as last year. (At least for the movies I saw. As usually, I’ll start with a list of some of the many I didn’t see: Brooklyn, Room, Amy, Creed, Straight Outta Compton, and Sicario.) As a result, we’re back down to five movies this year, but I thought I’d jump in first with some runners-up, and why they didn’t make the big list:   

The Revenant (BIG SPOILERS)

It should start out by saying that this is one of the most beautifully-made films I’ve ever seen, and well-acted by all concerned, so I wish I liked it more, but alas…

When I first read about the true story of Hugh Glass a few years ago, my first thought was, “That would make a great movie”: He gets mauled by a bear, gets abandoned, crawls for days, finds the people who abandoned him, and decides to just demand his gun back. But then I had doubts: Why would we care about this anti-social guy? And wouldn’t the ending be anti-climatic?

The movie’s solution to this was invent a half-Indian son/companion for Glass and then have one of the abandoners kill the son in front of Glass before abandoning him. The son makes Glass more likable, and turns the rest of the movie into an epic revenge quest with an ultra-violent ending.

But this change makes no sense: Okay, the son catches you trying to smother Glass, so you gut his son in front of him. But why on Earth would you not then finish the job on Glass? Your partner would easily believe that Glass finally died of his injuries, and you can then justify the disappearance of the son easily: His dad was dead so he had no reason to stick around.

For that matter, in this version, why didn’t they just kill Glass earlier? He was suffering! He couldn’t speak! He was sure to die! It literally would have been a mercy killing. And later, when they realized they had to move on and couldn’t take Glass with them, why not at least do it then?? The only reason not to kill Glass either time is because you think that any killing of a non-enemy is wrong.

Like so many other recent stories, this is supposedly set in “a time when life was cheap”, but the facts of the story prove otherwise: These men stayed behind for days in hostile territory just to give this guy a decent burial after his natural death, then reluctantly abandoned him to nature rather than kill him, even for mercy’s sake.

In retrospect, seeing how ethereally beautiful the movie is, and how powerful the long close-ups of DiCaprio’s face can be, I think my original assessment was wrong: Glass’s true story could have made for a great movie after all. In the first half, he faces the ultimate physical challenge while the men who abandon him deal with a heart-rending dilemma, then in the second half he deals with a huge dilemma (revenge or not) while they deal with the horrible consequences of their decision, both internal and internal. The final forgiveness then, would be anything but anti-climactic, but rather the momentous pay-off of a spiritual and physical ordeal for all three men.

The movie is in such a rush to get to its roid-rage revenge story that it ignores the very human dilemmas at its core: If it had combined its beauty with a serious consideration of the painfully human decisions each of the three men had to make, this power of the story would have matched the power of the visuals.

(Of course, the other problem with this movie is that it starts with a “too wild to be made up” fact [a man crawls back to civilization after a bear attack] and then adds a bunch of “too wild not to be made up” stuff to it [the cliff/horse scene, and many others] which loses the movie’s credibility, and makes it all seem ridiculous, even the true stuff. By the end, it just feels like Superman vs. Zod + beards.)

The Meddler: Gone Girl (Book and Movie), Part 3: The Three Big Pregnancy Problems

So let’s talk about three more big things that make no sense about “Gone Girl”, on either the page and the screen:
  1. Stealing a pregnant woman’s pee is fine if you want to fake a home-pregnancy test and fool your husband, but it would never fool an actual doctor. This is the 21st century and they no longer kill a rabbit. Your doctor instantly gives you a full physical, including a blood test that tell them a lot more than pee ever could.
  2. Likewise, you can’t secretly impregnate yourself with one specimen of frozen sperm. You’d have two options: Either do IVF, which is a long complicated surgical procedure with a high fail rate (but at least you get several shots off one sample) or you can attempt to self-thaw and then use the turkey baster method, which would have an astronomically high fail rate, and you’d only get one chance. Getting pregnant even with a fully-participating man is already quite unlikely on one try.
  3. Why does Nick stay with her for five weeks (it was longer in the book, iirc) after she comes home and before he finds out she’s pregnant? In the movie, she says that otherwise the press will turn on him, so he has to stay, but so what? Before, he was trying to win the press over to avoid being arrested, but why would he care now? It makes no sense. Of course, the real reason that he has to stay so long without a good motivation is to allow time for the impregnation storyline.
The most annoying thing about these three story-killers is that they could so easily be fixed with one solution: Have her actually get pregnant.

If she’s so dedicated to her long-term revenge plan, then secretly going off the pill for a few months would not be so much of a stretch. This would give her enough chances to actually get pregnant, and allow her to actually prove her pregnancy to a doctor.

In this version, she would enact her revenge long before her pregnancy showed, planning to abort the baby sometime later (or not, if we’re going with the kill herself version, which would also require an actual pregnancy). She could leave a clue for Nick in the woodshed that implies she aborted the baby, then reveal to Nick at the end that she never got around to it, which still allows you to have the shock-ending. This would also help explain Amy’s sudden change-of-heart and desire to return to Nick: Pregnancy is a hormonal roller-coaster, after all, and it tends to reset your priorities.

And, most importantly, in this version, she could confront him the night of her return, or at least that week, rather than forcing him to stay in the house with a psychopath for no reason whatsoever.

Why didn’t they do this simple fix? Because murder and rape are sexy and fun, but pregnancy is a turn-off and abortion is beyond the pale? Ugh. If Flynn was going to go there, she should have went there, and solved three huge problems with one quick fix.

The Meddler: Gone Girl (Book and Movie), Part 2: Amy’s Nonsensical Plan

Here’s something that makes no sense on page or screen: Amy’s plan. Amy’s frame-up is clever and fun, no doubt, but it falls apart when we find out about her plan for the future, or lack thereof.

Amy quickly mentions in passing, in both the book and movie, that she intends watch Nick suffer for a while, then drown herself in the river to ensure a conviction. Huh? If she really wants to frame the guy, and she’s already put so much insane detail in to everything, and she’s ready to kill herself, why not just do it now, supreme in the knowledge that this will seal the deal?

Besides, if Amy is really a psychopath, as subsequent events will strongly imply, then it’s very unlikely she would ever even consider suicide. Psychopaths are the world’s most self-serving people, and they’re happy to just move on to the next victim, confident that they can once again fulfill their needs and then avoid all consequences.

And even if she’s planning on killing herself, why would she choose to stay at a cabin in the Ozarks in order to watch the coverage?? A big plot point is that she’s accustomed to luxury and can’t stand the indignity of her middle-class existence in Missouri. She has that big money belt, so why not go someplace nice? Does she not know that the rich have more anonymity and privacy than the poor?

Killing herself should never have been part of her plan. Why not just withdraw a lot of cash from those secret credit cards and then move to a Gulf Coast island to enjoy a life of low-cost semi-luxury while watching the whole circus on TV and starting a new low-key life?

You could still have her trashy neighbors bust in and steal her money (the rich and the beach-bums live next to each other on those islands, after all.) She could still flee to Desi when things went bad. It wouldn’t change much, but it would have made a lot more sense. As it is, the suicide plan creates a big motivation hole in the center of the story.  (And an empathy hole as well, because it’s hard to care about a character if you’re just waiting for her to kill herself.)

But that still leave three huge plot holes, which we’ll get to (and easily fix) tomorrow...