I’ve noted before in the pages of this blog that I’d be surprised if Warner Brothers didn’t succeed at screwing up Watchmen, the comic book miniseries widely regarded as the best ever created. For good reason, too — it’s heady stuff, layered and mindful of human frailty and foibles, even when the frame is covered by cowl and cape.
Well, today saw the first hint of proof from Cinematical that hack writers and movie execs have been hard at it castrating yet another work of literary renown. WARNING! Spoilers abound. If you haven’t read the book, do not click this link. In fact, don’t read this Wikipedia article either, since it has lots of spoilers too. Just go buy the book and enjoy it — you’ll need to read it a couple times to pick up on some of the subtler ingenuities, and that extra time will help you miss the agonizing screams of disappointed comic-book geeks and producers watching box-office grosses that look like last month’s stock market.
I’d like to think that the people who will bite it for ushering this latest fizzle into fruition are the same ones who require directors to title their opening scene with, say, “London 1608,” followed immediately by the supposedly more ominous pronouncement fading in, “400 years ago.” As if (1) the viewers can’t subtract that well in their heads, and (2) it really matters that we’re talking about 400 years ago, as opposed to 380, or 407 and an odd Wednesday or two. The same people who put annoying voice overs in otherwise great films to feed us information that we’d figure out for ourselves by simply paying attention, if only we could stop that yammering voice over from yanking us out of the movie experience.
Perhaps the reason movie execs do this is because secretly they believe everyone is as stupid as they are, or rather, they can’t believe anyone’s smarter than they are — much the same thing really, now that I think about it. On the other hand, Warner did bring us The Dark Knight this summer, and it boggles the mind to think how that spectacularly satisfying film slipped through the grinding gears of commerce relatively unscathed, or at least no worse for wear. One imagines a secret cadre of ninja execs moving stealthily by night, silently shuffling producers’ notes around so the clueless turn the low-beams of their stunted intellects instead onto fare such as Bevery Hills Chihuahua.
This tendency to destroy the edges, to simplify to the least common denominator, is why I much prefer movies with original screenplays — after all, with all those grasping hands in the way, looking to make their mark on a film, it’s very rare for cinematic departures to deliver on the spirit of books. Adaptations suffer the curse of having to distill a high volume of information not designed for the art form of cinema; original work has the freedom to play instead to film’s strengths. There are, of course, some notable exceptions.
Now, having said that, Eleya and I just watched Sydney Pollack’s masterful 1969 film They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, based on Horace McCoy’s Depression-era short novel (which I have read but, for some reason in the past couple of years, have been inexplicably attributing to Cormac McCarthy). If anything, the film version is more intensely disturbing than the novel, while fully delivering on its despondent tone. There’s a clear connection drawn between the story’s sense of hopelessness and inevitability and the widespread view at the time of the USA hurtling into apocalypse. That despair and the spectacle of the dance marathon contestants being prodded and run like cattle to the point of exhaustion and madness haven’t lost their punch in the intervening 40 years. Jane Fonda is a bit shrill as the brittle Gloria; in my estimation, Bonnie Bedelia stole the show as an pregnant, ignorant, and ultimately hopeful Everywife. Highly recommended.
We also saw the altogether underwhelming M. Night Shyamalan thriller The Happening. Shyamalan draws the viewer in with his customarily deliberate pacing, and even delivers on a few “oh ****!” moments hinted at in the trailers. But there aren’t many surprises to be had in this wannabe eco-thriller, and ultimately the film crumbles under the weight of too much bad writing (Outrun the wind? Seriously?) and a lead couple — Mark Wahlberg and indie fave Zooey Deschanel — with absolutely zero chemistry. If Lady in the Water was too close to the otherwise talented writer/director’s heart to succeed by building, one up-close stroke at a time, a painting that makes perfect sense when viewed from afar, then Happening fails by throwing away the brush and palette altogether, and simply going for outright shock value measured in on-screen deaths. The DVD documentary showing the crew smugly congratulating each other on their “hard R” status is particularly disaffecting given that the most effective moments in the film are often very much diminished by the literal rigor of gore. Not recommended.