Text-to-Screen Retrospective: The Bourne Identity

October 6, 2010

In my younger years, during one of the many chats that my dad and I have had about books – even today we can quote Robert B. Parker plots back and forth without fail – he told me that there were three books he tried to read every year: Frank Herbert’s “Dune,” Alexandre Dumas’ “The Count of Monte Cristo” and Robert Ludlum’s “The Bourne Identity.” I’ve read all three of these since he first told me that, but “The Bourne Identity” has always been the one that we’ve bonded the most over. I received a battered paperback from him freshman year of high school, and as I read through it over a month we’d have many discussions on the progression of the amnesiac assassin and the varied forces pursuing him.

It was for that reason that both of us were so excited when a film version of “The Bourne Identity” was released when I was a junior, and why we went to see it together the first weekend it came out – and it was for that reason that once the film was over, both of us looked at each other, shook our heads and said “Nah.” It wasn’t that the film was bad – quite the opposite in fact – but there was barely a single thing in it we recognized from the story we’d followed so closely. Even now, eight years later, I’m still unable to watch the film without a slight cringe, though now it’s less a purist’s rant and more a mourning for what could have been.

It’s interesting, because from the outset of the film it seems the differences will be negligible. Both open on a man floating in the ocean outside of France, riddled with bullet holes, a bank account number sewn under his skin and absolutely no memory of who he is. Following the number to Zurich, he learns four very important facts in rapid succession: his name is Jason Bourne, he has millions of dollars in the account, several unidentified men are trying to kill him and he is far better than anyone should be at fighting them off. Dodging both their bullets and the rapidly unfolding memories, he desperately tries to put together who he was, aided only by a woman who stars as hostage but becomes his lover.

While the exposition and loose skeleton of the plot is taken from the book, everything else has been stripped away in favor of more generic spy movie elements. In the novel, Bourne is pursued not simply by a government tying up loose ends but by “Carlos,” the most legendary hired killer in the world. His background does not lie in simply being a standard CIA assassin, but an ex-Vietnam black ops agent with an even darker past and motivations. And his search for the truth doesn’t just lead Bourne and his partner/lover Marie to past locations where Bourne was, but to connect the messages and implications of each action taken against him in often heated debates.

The film obviously simplifies the plot elements of the novel, but that’s not in and of itself a bad thing – screenplay writer Tony Gilroy was right in many ways when he called the 1980 novel “a very complicated, dated book.” The plot is driven by an interwoven conspiracy that would put “Rubicon” to shame, with agents playing multiple sides layered with different names and settings and sideplots as Bourne tries desperately to piece the secrets surrounding Carlos and himself. Even the most devoted fans can’t deny that a perfect adaptation would drag out for hours, and even if it was adapted to a miniseries it still would only work half the time.

That “half of the time” caveat however is the main issue I have with the film: it doesn’t matter that it failed to adapt the book perfectly, but it missed a lot of what made the book so good. The revelation that not only is Bourne a government agent, but was set up as a professional assassin to bait and snare the legendary Carlos, was a concept that should have survived first editing as it would have added a lot to the film. Not only does it create a more cat-and-mouse sense, but the personal dilemmas Bourne goes through over the course of the book as he realizes what his role means opens up the room for a strong psychological thriller, rather than a comparatively straightforward action film. There are many very good, very tense scenes in the “Identity” film, but not one of its revelations holds a candle to the novel’s scene where he learns he is the notorious assassin Cain – and the ensuing explosion of memories inside his head the revelation sets off.

Indeed, several of the book’s elements could have worked well in a cinematic framework. The first few chapters alone provide excellent scenes, none of which make it into the film – an alcoholic doctor talks him through all the physical signs that he is more capable than he appears, he beats an entire fishing vessel’s crew into submission uttering only monosyllabic martial arts phrases, and he parlays an overheard rumor about an unfaithful rich man into a cash supply. The book could have also supplied the film with some stylistic elements: the doctor’s advice would be well-served as voiceover narration when Bourne realizes his old abilities are coming back to him, and his supposed background as a ruthless any-dirty-job mercenary in Vietnam could be a lead-in to some very dynamic flashbacks.

It’s also disappointing because while the film did fail to explain the majority of what drove and made Bourne who he was, the character of Bourne was perfectly cast with Matt Damon. Not only does he look the part with features that lend themselves to Bourne’s trademark chameleonic appearance, he nails the wound-up tension that the situation has driven him into – while at the same time he remains a professional, his training so deeply ingrained that the tension never breaks him. The fact that he does his own stunts is also to the character’s credit, as he can snap off a flawless succession of martial arts moves and then gasp disbelievingly at what he was capable of without any need to conceal the use of a stuntman.

Damon manages to bring enough of his source’s conflict, but his partner Marie shows no signs of the spark that made her such a compelling love interest, regardless of how competently Franka Potente plays the role. Part of it is the character’s background – an economics professor in the book, an aimless European drifter in the film – but a bigger change is that she’s no longer smarter than he is. What made the relationship between Bourne and Marie so compelling in the novel was that she was frequently able to put the pieces of the conspiracy together before he could, and consequently set him on the right path. In the film however, she just feels like she’s along for the ride, without the loyalty or the fervent belief that the man she knew couldn’t be a professional killer.

The rest of the film’s cast similarly feels like they’re along for the ride. CIA chiefs Ward Abbott and Alexander Conklin have actors with the gravitas to carry their written counterparts (Brian Cox and Chris Cooper respectively), but the characters they play resemble the initial versions in name only – no history, no personality traits, no allegiances. Clive Owen, though his role as the top agent hunting Bourne does not come from the book, earns an honorable mention as his cold professionalism occasionally has some inklings of the gold-spectacled assassin who is Bourne’s adversary in the early chapters.

I haven’t yet mentioned either of the sequels to “The Bourne Identity” in this review in either of their incarnations, and there’s a reason for that. When I later went to see the “The Bourne Supremacy” and “The Bourne Ultimatum” I went in expecting no parallels to the books – no traces of Bourne hunting an imposter in China or final confrontation with Carlos – and as a consequence I feel I enjoyed those films more than the original. They are adaptations in title only, continuing the story of the Bourne character that the films created rather than the book’s version, and are much easier to appreciate when that consideration is taken.

And taking that consideration with the original film, I am not going to dispute that “The Bourne Identity” is also a good movie. As a straightforward action film it’s well-constructed and well-cast, and the elements it does take from the book allow it to be a cut above much of the genre. It had the right idea in not copying the original scene by scene, but it simply went too far in what it cut out, and in doing so kept a satisfying film from being a deep and effective story. In both stories, Bourne gradually fights his way back to his memories – but it’s the book that makes for a more memorable experience.


Text-to-Screen Ratio: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

September 3, 2010

The literary world always loves it when an author’s story is as interesting as their books, and there have been few more compelling cases in recent years than that of Stieg Larsson. An influential activist and journalist in Sweden known for his leftist views, Larsson died of a heart attack at the age of 50, and since his death he has inspired a “journalistic subindustry” debating a range of topics from whether or not his death was part of a fascist conspiracy to the brutal divisions that have formed between his romantic partner and his father and brother.

The center of that debate falls on three novels that have come to be known as the Millennium Trilogy, which he wrote in his spare hours and which were published posthumously. Following a journalist and hacker as they dig into government corruption and individual depravity, the titles shot to the top of the charts in Sweden and gradually spread to the rest of the world, making Larsson the first author to sell more than one million books on Amazon – he’s been more successful dead than 99 percent of writers are while alive.

All three of these books have made it over to Western shores in recent years (the third installment released in May of this year) and have been followed by a series of film adaptations filmed in the author’s home of Sweden. The first of those films, “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” (“Män som hatar kvinnor” or “Men who Hate Women” in Larsson’s native tongue) premiered in March to acclaim that matched its source material – which is fitting, since it does a very respectable job converting that source material to film. It’s a film that loses a few too many of the of the intricacies Larsson put into the book, but when it comes to atmosphere and characters it’s every bit as compelling and unnerving.

The film’s narrative is essentially unchanged from the book’s setup. Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), a journalist disgraced by an investigation gone wrong, is enticed by an offer from former captain of industry Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube) to investigate the “cold case” of his niece Harriet, missing 40 years and presumed dead. Digging through boxes of evidence and skeletons in the Vanger family closet, he enlists the aid of Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), an antisocial yet frighteningly brilliant hacker whose previous job was digging into his life for Vanger.

As a mystery story, the two biggest strengths of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” were its sprawling yet closed-off setting and its meticulous attention to detail. When it comes to the first, the film has done an excellent job of depicting the cold expanses of the island of Hedeby, which was sealed off on the day of the alleged murder and which still houses many of the suspects. Wealthier members have sprawling older estates, while Blomkvist spends his time in cabins heated by stoves and with pipes freezing on a regular basis, and Salander mostly moves through enclosed streets and filthy hackers’ dens. The locations and camerawork keep the story feeling both vast and yet claustrophobic, like a place concealing a secret and with a lot of places to hide said secret.

While the setting neatly approximates ones mental picture from the book, the plot is not translated as well. The fact-finding that leads Blomkvist and Salander to the truth is intact, and presented in a series of compelling research montages that help reinforce the Vangers’ depravity, but the storytelling feels in some places like it’s been simplified rather than neatly distilled. The Vanger family tree – decades of infighting, fascism and abuse – has been pruned down considerably, and only Henrik and his nephew Martin get measurable screen time. Some annoying stylistic changes are also made to simplify the story and undercut the efficacy of the montages, including repeated cuts to Harriet’s picture and Blomkvist’s flashbacks of her babysitting him as a child (whereas in the book he didn’t remember it).

The flashbacks are an annoying addition to Blomkvist, but more annoying are the subtractions. He is simply not as compelling of a character in the film as he is in the book – not the fault of Michael Nyqvist’s performance, but rather that the adaptation has shaved his character traits to nothing. His involvement with the magazine Millennium consists only of scenes in the beginning and end of the film, he’s not researching a Vanger biography as his cover for digging into the past, and most of his personal relationships are unspoken or excised. In the narrowed cast there’s no ex-wife and daughter, no friends-with-benefits relationship with his editor Erika and no affair with Vanger’s niece Cecilia. The only points where the character genuinely clicks come when he is at work, as he pours over documents and negatives and simply stares at them as if willing the pieces to come together.

Nyqvist is an enjoyable actor to watch think, but his partner is even more so. Per my Capturing the Voice piece, I consider it the highest form of praise to say that an actor/actress “is” the character they’re portraying – superseding whatever mental image you have while reading – and in that regard, Noomi Rapace is Lisbeth Salander. Aesthetically she’s a match with an anorexic frame and constant punk/goth outfit, but the selling point is in her face. Her features are narrow, closed off and completely neutral, but her eyes betray the eidetic brilliance she is ashamed of (a detail the film portrays well in her working relationship and subsequent coupling with Blomkvist). When she scans over innumerable screens on her Macbook through cigarette smoke and dyed bangs, her appearance seems almost like a blind – someone who has found it easier to let the world think what it wants so it lets her work. She comes across as a bit more callous than the book’s version, but since the film borrows elements of the sequel “The Girl Who Played with Fire” these additions might be appropriate.

The only cracks in Salander’s armor come out in times of real distress – and the film doesn’t shy away from bringing those times to life. “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” book has some incredibly hard to read scenes depicting torture, rape and revenge – which I won’t describe as it would dilute their intensity – and to the film’s considerable credit all are kept in hauntingly graphic detail. They aren’t presented as shock value or for their own sake, but with a stark clarity that reflects Larsson’s straightforward prose. When characters talk about the horrible things they are going to do, they don’t scream or make elaborate analogies – they simply state the facts and let the conviction in their words and eyes cow their victims into submission. It’s a drama as cold and stark as the island’s winter, treated with a respect that earned particular praise from Roger Ebert:

This is not a deep psychological study. But it’s a sober, grown-up film. It has action, but not the hyperkinetic activity that passes for action in too many American movies. It has sex, but not eroticism. Its male lead is brave and capable, but not macho. Its female lead is sexy in the abstract, perhaps, but not seductive or alluring. This is a movie about characters who have more important things to do than be characters in an action thriller.

And it’s this maturity that makes “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” work as a translation of its source material, despite its stripping away the journalistic/romantic sideplots and details that made the original so compelling. This film understands its titular character and its atmosphere, and by playing these two angles it’s able to overcome a lot of its weaknesses – even an ending that does come straight from the book but is edited in a way that feels like the ending to a caper movie. It’s a dark, compelling film that will interest even casual readers of the Millennium Trilogy, and with two other films on the horizon it appears that the series is worth following to the end in both formats.


Text-to-Screen Ratio: Justified (Part 2)

August 10, 2010

(Editor’s Note: We now bring you to the second part of this analysis, up earlier than expected thanks to the completely addictive nature of “Justified’s” first season and the brisk pace at which Elmore Leonard novels can be read. Once again, spoilers abound for both the season and the related books, so if either bothers you accept a transfer to Harlan County and get caught up first.)

Unless you’re a referee at a limbo convention who’s been paid off to make sure all the contestants win, it’s probably advisable to avoid setting the bar too high. As I mentioned in the first half of this series, the pilot episode of “Justified,” centered around the exploits of Elmore Leonard’s Stetson-wearing U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, did just that thanks to its incredibly strong source material of “Fire in the Hole.” Adapting the original’s plot and dialogue almost verbatim, show creator Graham Yost and lead actor Timothy Olyphant created one of the best pilots I’d seen in recent memory – my gauge for that being an episode of a show where, if we had nothing else, I’d still be satisfied.

But since the pilot saw that short story through to the end, it raised the question of whether or not the show would be able to keep that momentum going, despite having two other Raylan novels (1993’s “Pronto” and 1995’s “Riding the Rap”) to draw from. It’s always a tightrope effort for a film/TV writer to move away from source material and make the characters their own, and the video stores are littered with adaptations that failed as a result of this. After having seen the full first season however, I can safely mark “Justified” in the victor’s category, with a season that picked the best parts from Leonard’s remaining novels and manages to tell its story in a way that feels like a natural extension – and funnily enough, gets better the more its plot becomes independent from Leonard.

As we get started, I must admit that my plans for this piece were derailed early on: my original intention was to read both novels at the same time I watched new episodes, comparing how they matched in terms of voice and story. I could do the former but not the latter however, as the novels predate the events of “Fire in the Hole” by following Raylan as a U.S. Marshal in Miami, rather than post-Kentucky reassignment (“Pronto” actually ends with the shooting that forms the pilot’s opening scene). If the show wanted to adapt either verbatim, they would have to take the form of flashbacks, and spending that much time on past events can be a death knell for a show just starting out.

But while neither novel can be used chronologically as the structure for a season (and are both admittedly weak when compared to “Fire in the Hole”) each novel contains multiple interesting moments in Raylan’s life, and Yost and company decided to use their framework in the show’s early episodes. The third episode “Fixer” heavily adapts the plot of “Riding the Rap,” where a pair of mismatched convicts kidnap a loan shark for ransom and Givens finds himself unwillingly responsible for the man’s safety. Next week’s episode “Long in the Tooth” adopts “Pronto’s” plot of a fugitive criminal – and former prisoner of Raylan’s who gave him the slip – in the crosshairs of his dangerous employers and once again trying to duck Raylan in pursuit of his duties.

Both these episodes and the second episode “Riverbrook” have more of an episodic feel rather than a serialized one, and consequently do come across as much weaker than the pilot. Most of the supporting cast is largely off to the side in favor of sending Raylan on some adventure, and after the thrilling climax of “Fire in the Hole” they almost feel like decompression. Additionally, while the pilot filmed in Philadelphia the rest of the season was filmed in Los Angeles, and early episodes don’t even seem to be trying to simulate Kentucky. The show would later find dependable wooded areas and battered offices to set its action in, but “Justified” sacrifices the opportunity for the setting to be a character as New Jersey was in “The Sopranos” and Albuquerque is in “Breaking Bad.”

But while the episodes feel a little rocky to start off, they are redeemed by the fact that they raid the best scenes from the novels. “Riverbrook” opens with a vignette from “Riding the Rap” where Raylan escorts one of the skinheads arrested in the pilot to jail by himself, and the conflict and conversation that result go a long way to showing how in control of a situation Raylan is. Juicy gunfights come from each book with “Pronto’s” shootout with Italian mafiosi applied to two cartel hitmen looking to collect a contract on Raylan, and “Fixer” taking “Riding the Rap’s” practice face-off between two gangsters that quickly turns bloody. Both scenes are not only thrilling, but also betray how seriously these gangsters take their images, a recurring theme in Leonard books.

After these three episodes burn through the Raylan source material, Yost’s writing team moves back to the central plot of Raylan dealing with old ghosts in Kentucky. His old coal-mining partner Boyd Crowder has survived Raylan’s shot to the chest and supposedly found religion, a conversion even Raylan can’t determine the sincerity of. His old crush Ava isn’t too young for him anymore, and his ex-wife Winona has a new husband making some very bad decisions. And the shooting of Miami cartel enforcer Tommy Bucks, while justified in his moral code, has also earned him the ire of some very powerful and connected people.

And the more these stories take hold – using these threads as the impetus for both A-stories as well as a few sideplots – the better the show gets. The stories it tells are not only tied in with the development of its main characters (Raylan, Ava and Boyd) but also contain a solid balance of action scenes and banter to ensure boredom rarely if ever occurs. Not enough credit can be given to the show’s writers for this – all of them apparently wear bracelets inscribed with the letters “WWED” (for “What Would Elmore Do?”) to guide them through writer’s block, and it shows. One review of the episode “The Hammer” went so far as to say they have “the Leonard voice down cold.” It challenged readers to make a difference between Leonard’s books and the work of show writers like Fred Golan and Chris Provenzano, and I’d have a hard time making that decision myself.

And as with the pilot, the lines of Raylan remain strong because they have Timothy Olyphant to deliver them. I cited in my review of the pilot his “undeterred focus, an understated intensity to his words and the ability to look superb in a cowboy hat,” and the longer the show goes on the more it feels no one else could or should play this character. In both “Pronto” and “Riding the Rap” there was a sense that Raylan was underestimated by others but always in control of the situation, and Olyphant holds both sides of the character – able to chat disarmingly with a suspect in one scene, and then slam their head against the table a minute later. (I’m even able to forgive his not using a revolver as he’s so good in his gunfights – plus a semiautomatic was his weapon of choice in both original novels.)

Recognizing how well Olyphant does with Raylan as a character, Yost and the other show writers made the smart choice to play to Olyphant’s strengths and give the character a Seth Bullock-esque tightly focused anger. His anger has many targets, but the most obvious is his father Arlo (a fantastic Raymond J. Barry), a weathered amoral crook who raised Raylan with the back of his hand. My original hypothesis that Raylan would be a man more in conflict with his code was proven incorrect, as he remains committed to his “Old West lawman” image but seems to use it more as guidelines to keep his anger in check – unless he needs to blow off some steam in a bar fight, in which case he takes his hat off.

And in another debt the show owes to Leonard, the show remains consistently voiced when the camera moves off of Olyphant. In my Text-to-Screen Ratio on “Dexter” I postulated that one of the reasons its sideplots and supporting characters are so weak in comparison to Michael C. Hall is because its source material is written in first-person, and it’s rather difficult to extrapolate new characters from that. Leonard’s novels on the other hand are written in third-person, and regularly switch between the protagonists and antagonists in a move that enhances both the character traits and the flow of the story.

As such, “Justified” is able to bring in a strong stable of guest stars actors from week to week, ranging from M.C. Gainey as a boisterous local crime lord to Stephen Root as an eccentric judge to Jere Burns as a sadistic hitman. It’s also drawn heavily on Olyphant’s fellow “Deadwood” veterans, with W. Earl Brown as a dangerous convict in a stand-off with Raylan and Sean Bridges as an ex-con with a desperate plan to provide for his family. With few exceptions, these character actors play their roles with a Leonard-esque zeal, armed with clever lines and an almost theatrical flair to their actions.

When it comes to the original characters from the story, no character has been given such an expanded life as Raylan’s old coal mining buddy Boyd Crowder. I completely rescind my comment that Walton Goggins’ perfomance brought Boyd “somewhat less compellingly” to life, because the conviction Goggins applies to Boyd more than makes up for the differences in background and appearance. Boyd’s born-again arc takes the book version’s modified Christianity into fierce moralism that neither the viewer nor Raylan can be sure if it’s real, and he and Raylan continue to hold an adversarial respect that leads to some wonderful dialogue, particularly as Raylan circles Boyd trying to put him in prison.

And other than Goggins, the recurring cast continues to deliver performances that blend seamlessly with their original versions. Nick Searcy as Raylan’s boss and old Academy training partner Art Mullen has the air of “a big, comfortable man with a quiet way of speaking” that “Fire in the Hole” described, but also shows the frayed patience that anyone would have after more than a few escapades with Raylan. Carter continues the fine work she established in the pilot as Ava Crowder, still a strong and stubborn woman who’s attracted to Raylan for a variety of reasons, and not afraid to defend herself with a sawed-off shotgun.

In the world of characters who Leonard didn’t take as much time with, Natalie Zea is quite capable as Raylan’s ex-wife Winona, an unseen character in all the books but who keeps Leonard’s description of talking “always a little smart-alecky.” While the show leaves out the two sons he had with her in the book, it does keep the plot thread that she left him for the realtor selling their house – a plot point that builds to an excellent mid-season episode “Hatless.” Other minor characters are less well-served, as despite regular credits Erica Tazel and Jacob Pitts as fellow Marshals Rachel Brooks and Tim Gutterson are nonentities after the first four episodes, yielding their screen time to the various guest stars.

“Justified” has already been renewed for a second season on FX, and while I don’t plan to write a new installment for that season I will certainly be tuning in. Yost and Olyphant and company have pulled off the rare feat of taking an author’s character and giving them an even better world to play in, raiding all the right pieces of the source material and taking the story in a new and interesting direction. Leonard has mentioned that at some point he might come back to the character of Raylan Givens in a new story or novel, and if he does it’s almost certain he’ll be hearing Olyphant’s voice as he writes.

Extra Credit: Want to know how Elmore Leonard feels about “Justified?” Check out these interviews and also an essay on where Raylan Givens came from.


Text-to-Screen Ratio: Justified (Part 1)

June 24, 2010

(Editor’s note: Welcome to the first installment of a two-part series, focusing on FX’s “Justified” and its origins in the works of Elmore Leonard. In part one, our humble correspondent takes a look at the show’s pilot episode and the short story “Fire in the Hole” that inspired it. Part two, coming later this summer, will look at the entire first season and how it compares with the novels “Pronto” and “Riding the Rap.” For the sake of analysis many spoilers are present for the first episode, so if that bothers you here’s a warning: 24 letters to get out of town.)

A few weeks ago, in the intro to my Text-to-Screen Ratio on “Dexter,” I made the observation that you don’t usually see television networks taking a cue from books to develop their new shows. My argument went that given the range of demands on a television show – dealing with multiple cast members and sideplots, the demands of network executives and fickle audiences – show runners don’t always have the time and freedom to worry about getting every slightest nuance correct. As such, a show can’t promise to be faithful to its source material unless it has a very centralized presentation (i.e. a miniseries) or has enough source material that it can pick and choose.

I actually wrote that introduction a few months before the piece was published, and in the intervening time FX took the opportunity to introduce a supplement to my argument with their contemporary Western drama “Justified.” Based in the works of Elmore Leonard – specifically the character of Raylan Givens, star of the novels “Pronto” and “Riding the Rap” – “Justified” adds a third tactic in that takes one piece of original material, and jumps off from it to take the story in a new direction. It’s an interesting approach, and one that’s definitely setting the bar high for future episodes given how well its pilot masters the source material.

“Justified” uses Leonard’s short story “Fire in the Hole” (readily available in the 2002 collection “When the Women Come Out to Dance”) as the template for its pilot episode, centered on the clash between two men who grew up together in Kentucky’s Harlan County and now find themselves on opposite sides of the law. On the law’s side is Raylan Givens, a U.S. Marshal with an old-fashioned interpretation of the law that leads him to shoot a man after he ignores Raylan’s order to get out of town in 24 hours. Against him is Boyd Crowder, Vietnam veteran turned white supremacist who’s built his own miltia and turned his mining experience to building homemade bombs for domestic terrorism.

“Fire in the Hole” is an exemplary short story and a showcase of Leonard’s narrative talents, and show creator Graham Yost wisely decided not to mess with success because the pilot episode barely deviates from its source material. While it does add a few additional scenes, such as portraying Givens’ drawing on the gangster that gets him sent back to Kentucky as the cold open, scenes ranging from standoffs at a widow’s household to a shootout at a hotel are copied straight from the text. While it was shot in Philadelphia as opposed to Kentucky, the atmosphere still retains the small town and vacant country feel, accentuated by distinctive camera work and a nouveau-Western score.

Leonard’s selling point has always been his ear for dialogue, a sharp and wry tone that goes a long way to setting each of his characters apart. Given his writing style, it’s not surprising that most of the dialogue is maintained verbatim in the story, and the best of the scenes – Raylan facing down a neo-Nazi gator poacher, Boyd interrogating a potential undercover agent – are as exciting on screen as they are in print. A few lines are dropped here and there, and given the shortness of the story they’re a bit more noticeable than other translations – in particular, the omission “bunch of serious morons sieg-heilin’ each other” irks me.

Translating Leonard’s dialogue to script is a simple enough task, but the success of that translation depends heavily on who’s speaking it. In my “Dexter” piece I pointed out that one course of action for successful TV shows based on books is to center on the established main character, and “Justified” is also following that course with the selection of Timothy Olyphant as Raylan. Olyphant has already worn a lawman’s star on TV with his turn as Seth Bullock on the celebrated “Deadwood,” and he carries over all the right tools to this role: a sense of undeterred focus, an understated intensity to his words and the ability to look superb in a cowboy hat. (It isn’t the businessman’s Stetson Leonard associates with the character, but Olyphant wears it so well the omission is forgiven – though I can’t forgive him for swapping out the .45-caliber revolver for a SIG P220.)

The performance isn’t just a regurgitation of his “Deadwood” efforts as the two men do have some key differences, and Olyphant has the acting chops necessary to differentiate. While Bullock was a man fighting against his responsibilities and keeping his temper tightly leashed, Raylan’s character is equally focused but much more laconic air, a man comfortable with the code he has chosen and who doesn’t see much need to defend it to others. Olyphant masters that poise, particularly in one scene when confronted with an intruding white supremacist – as in the book, he simply stands up, picks up his hat and “set it on his head the way he wore it.”

On the other side of the law is Boyd, who is brought to life somewhat less convincingly by Walton Goggins. This is nothing against Goggins as an actor – even though I haven’t seen his critically acclaimed performance on “The Shield” – but his unkempt and wiry character seems to have much less physical presence than the story’s Vietnam vet with a “regulation grunt cut… steel bristles crowning his lean, leathery face.” Thankfully, the performance doesn’t go to stereotypical hillbilly, and Goggins does manage to convey a great deal of focus and charisma, particularly in his interactions with Olyphant. The two pace slowly around each other as men who understand the other, “born a hundred years too late” with an unchanging way of doing things.

Olyphant and Goggins dominate the episode’s action, but given that a new series is being established it also needs to lay the groundwork for future story arcs – an equally strong responsibility for “Justified,” given that it’s essentially taking Raylan’s story over from Leonard. There’s a variety of supporting federal agents and white supremacists who have potential to do much more, and there’s a likely love interest in Raylan’s old flame Ava (Joelle Carter, who nails the book’s monologue on why she shot her husband). Yost also makes the decision to have Raylan shoot Boyd to wound rather than kill, a decision that not only complicates Raylan further as a character but makes the smart decision of keeping Goggins around for future episodes.

And complicating Raylan as a character appears to be the biggest move the show is taking. Repeated references to his criminal father which were not present in the book clearly make him uncomfortable, and also hint at a deeper wound in his life. His ex-wife Winona, given a throwaway mention in the story, is here as a supporting cast member who illuminates Raylan’s doubts on the opening shooting by calling him “the angriest man I have ever known.” It’s a departure from the more convicted Raylan of “Fire in the Hole,” although in the story an old girlfriend of Raylan’s does touch on some potential doubts:

“She told him he had an image of himself as a lawman, meaning an Old West lawman without the big mustache, and he believed it might be true in some deep part of his mind. Another time Joyce said ‘The way you put it, you said you called him out. What did you think, you were in a movie?’ Her saying that caught him by surprise, because at times he did see it that way, as something he had borrowed from a western movie. He liked westerns a lot.”

It might be because Olyphant actually has experience playing an Old West lawman with a big mustache, but the way he plays Raylan shows he understands the image that goes along with his code. The hesitations and slight flinches every time his father is mentioned, the slight uncertainty on his face as the ambulance takes Boyd away – these little moments show while he carries himself tall there is a layer of concern for the life he has chosen.

While “Justified” has clearly taken some steps to establish its own universe outside of Leonard’s world, its pilot episode proves it understands just what made “Fire in the Hole” so gripping. The selection of little details and lines dropped aren’t enough to break the immersion of Olyphant’s performance, and the atmosphere and dialogue give the same feeling of flipping through pages to find out what happens next. Future episodes may not have as much to fall back on, but what “Justified” does in its first outing is more than enough to bring Leonard fans along for the ride.

Extra Credit:


Text-to-Screen Ratio: Dexter

May 12, 2010

(Editor’s note: there will be spoilers here, but the only things I intend to spoil are plot threads that deserve it. Don’t worry, I’ll keep the good stuff hidden in a rosewood box inside the air conditioner)

Due to the difference in each medium’s scope, it isn’t often you see books adapted for television. Novels – and films to some extent – are self-contained works with a set beginning and end, while a television series that airs multiple episodes a season is a living entity that often evolves weekly with changes in cast or writers. Additionally, books aren’t usually facing up against yearly battles for renewal, and shows rarely have the luxury of limiting themselves to one source of material unless they’re committing themselves to a limited run or miniseries.

Consequently, mainstream television shows that do use books as their inspiration have a few options if they want to stay alive. They can either leap away from their origin story and create a new world to operate in, such as FOX’s “Bones” (based on Kathy Reichs’ series of novels); they can rely on an extensive library of source material to keep a story rolling, such as the “Jeeves and Wooster” series; or they can bank on a really interesting main character to push it through, as is the case with Showtime’s “Dexter.” Likely the most successful contemporary show based on a book (specifically, Jeff Lindsay’s series of thriller novels), “Dexter” is interesting because it manages to show not only how an adaptation can be hampered by its source material but also how it can rise above it.

Both versions of the story maintain the core plot structure. Dexter Morgan, a forensic scientist with the Miami Metro Police Department, is a completely normal citizen except for one rather glaring difference: he kills people. Traumatized in his youth by an unknown horror, Dexter is a sociopath devoid of emotion who only feels alive when taking someone’s life. Nurtured closely by his cop father Harry, Dexter has channeled these urges into a form of community service, only killing those who are themselves killers, and arranging the events so precisely that he is never even considered a suspect.

Only the first season and the first book “Darkly Dreaming Dexter” have major similarities and plot threads, focusing on an uprooting of Dexter’s status quo when a new serial killer enters the picture who seems to have very detailed knowledge of his bloody activities. Dexter’s chameleon-like life and bloody extracurriculars are adapted faithfully, though (understandably) with a bit less emphasis on torture – kills are handled swiftly and mostly out of sight, with a more orderly cleanup rather than the improvisation of the book. All main characters are also present, including his foul-mouthed ambitious sister Deborah, his loyal and damaged girlfriend Rita, the suspicious Sergeant Doakes, man-eating Lieutenant LaGuerta, dutiful homicide detective Angel Batista and smarmy lab assistant Vince Masuka.

But fittingly for a show and novel with a titular character, it’s that character that makes or breaks the story – and it’s hard to think of how “Dexter” could do better than Michael C. Hall. I’ve preached on his merits in my Capturing the Voice column, but suffice to say he continues to prove his worthiness to stand alongside the strongest central male leads. Slightly goofy when interacting with the rest of the world, coldly brutal when hunting and detached in inner monologues, Hall delivers on each side of Dexter’s persona in a very convincing manner. The monologues in particular exhibit the flow of words that make Lindsay’s novels devourable, particularly the first book and its sequel “Dearly Devoted Dexter.” In fact, Lindsay has gone on record as saying that seeing Hall’s performance was “a jaw-dropping experience… he really nailed it” and that he consults the actor while writing new books.

Of course, Hall’s position as the show’s center has also been accentuated by a frequently limp supporting cast – an issue that highlights the core problem with making a TV show (or even a movie) out of a first-person book. The novel focuses solely on one character’s views and actions, with other characters defined only in their interaction to the narrator, while the B story and C story subplots that form the structure of conventional television have to develop those characters independently. As a consequence, characters have to branch out in ways their creator never intended them to, and in “Dexter’s” case they never quite seem to escape their one-dimensional nature.

The show makes an effort to expand these characters beyond the templates Lindsay created, but the results tend to be hit-or-miss. Dexter’s sister Debra, portrayed as a more soured individual in the books, is carried competently by Jennifer Carpenter as “dearly damaged Debra,” her constant swearing betraying the damage of an absentee father. However, when they try to push her too heavily out of her comfort zone, such as her dalliance with a much older FBI agent in season 2 that has some seriously cringe-worthy scenes (I don’t need to see Keith Carradine smacking the ass of a woman half his age).

Again, the characters that work do so because of their defined reaction to Dexter and how much that relationship diverges from the book. Erik King as Doakes makes an excellent “panther” stalking Dexter (if only because I feel he needs his own blacksplotation film on the strength of how he says “motherfucker”), and Dexter’s fellow lab tech Masuka (C.S. Lee) is smarmy enough that he matches Dexter’s book observation that he also seems to be pretending to be normal. Conversely, David Zayas and Lauren Velez never seem to have enough to do as Batista and Masuka respectively, and their subplots feel scattered like bags of body parts thrown into the Atlantic. Julie Benz as Rita probably gets closer to him than others, but when her ex-husband or mother come in there’s a lot of angst that seems to detract from the way the character works.

But while “Dexter” as a show has its share of storytelling cracks, in many ways it’s still stronger than its source material, chiefly because that source material has been on a downward slope. The “Dexter” novels, after two very entertaining outings, fell victim to what video game journalist Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw dubbed Indigo Prophecy Syndrome in his video review of “Condemned 2: Bloodshot”:

“The main and most obvious symptom of Indigo Prophecy Syndrome is a plot that in the second half goes what is medically known as ‘snooker-loopy,’ with lesser symptoms including total abandonment of subtlety, the introduction of ancient mystical cults, and the main character pulling hitherto unknown superpowers out of their ass.”

This description could almost verbatim be defining the critical failures of “Dexter in the Dark,” the third book in the series, which decides on a new twist for the “Dark Passenger” metaphor Dexter gives his murderous urges. In this book, it turns out that his Dark Passenger is in fact a shard of the dark god Moloch, and a cult that worships the god is tracking him in an effort to recapture this entity, and they do so by bringing him to their temple on an island to be sacrificed in a flaming pit – okay, I’m going to break character and stop here because now that I’ve typed it it sounds even stupider than it did upon first reading. Anyways.

The fourth book “Dexter by Design” tried to remedy this by treating the earlier book as if it didn’t happen, but Dexter felt like he’d lost something as a character, stumbling when he came to difficult circumstances and without the cool patience and resourcefulness that had been one of his strengths in the earlier books. Plus, with a fifth upcoming volume that will be using cannibalism as a main plot point (titled “Dexter is Delicious”), the books are quite clearly trying to push the envelope a bit too far in an effort to keep the character interesting.

“Dexter” on TV, meanwhile, never took that tact with the character’s homicidal leanings but rather took on aspects of a psychological study. Season 2 dealt with several jars to Dexter’s previously unflappable perception of himself and his code, while Season 3 saw him dealing with his impending fatherhood and the fact that another man had discovered his secret. Thanks largely to Hall’s performance, the show takes on elements of a character study that deals with questions of addiction and parental obligation, never divorcing itself from reality or going to the pulp extremes of the book. Dexter feels more like a character that can be rooted for despite his horrific acts, someone you want to come out on top and keep doing what he does – a depth his novel incarnation always felt divorced from.

At the close of “Dexter’s” second season finale, Dexter makes the observation that his experiences have changed him from the template killer he always saw himself as, “an idea transformed into life” – and that descriptor applies neatly to what the show has done for the character and storyline. Despite the burdens of poor plotting, Hall and the writers have carried Dexter to a new dimension past the alliterative killer the books introduced him as. Several critics have complained that the show feels somewhat strained the longer it goes on and the more situations Dexter gets out of, but it’s a world worth immersing oneself in – as long as they can avoid the Babylonian gods.

Extra Credit:

  • For exceptionally solid writing on “Dexter” the show (including examples of that critical complaint I mentioned in the last paragraph), check out Alan Sepinwall’s blog and the A.V. Club’s reviews. Spoilers abound, so be cautious.

Text-to-Screen News: HST Returns to Cinema

May 6, 2010

Hunter S. Thompson at a "Free Lisl" rally in Denver, 2001.

As anyone who has even a passing familiarity with me knows, I love Hunter S. Thompson. I’ve read the great majority of his books, I’ve dressed as him on three Halloweens, I can quote him at will, have a font of trivia at my disposal and do more than a passing impression. The reasons why I love the Good Doctor are long and detailed and far more impassioned than that I simply like yelling about golf shoes in hotel bars, but will have to wait for another time. I mention this now because an interesting bit of Thompson-related news came out on Sunday, and I feel it’s important to cast light on potential bias before discussion.

As the Hollywood Reporter noted on Sunday and which I heard about through The A.V. Club, the Motion Picture Corporation of America has optioned “Prisoner of Denver,” an article Thompson wrote for Vanity Fair in 2004 in collaboration with contributing editor Mark Seal. The article concerns the imprisonment of Lisl Auman, a 21-year-old who was charged with murder despite already being in police custody when the crime occurred – an accomplice who committed suicide did the actual shooting. Thompson became pen pals with Auman and took up the fight for her freedom, rallying several of his celebrity friends to the cause to help earn her release in 2005.

“It is not in my nature to be polite to people who want to hurt me, or to turn my back on a woman who is being brutally raped right in front of my eyes, especially when the rapists are wearing big guns and Denver Police Department badges. And that is why I am telling you this disgusting story about how notoriously vicious cops buried a provably innocent young woman in a tiny cell in the concrete bowels of a Colorado state prison for the rest of her life with no possibility of parole. That is a death sentence, pure and simple, and those rotten, murdering bastards are still proud of it. Proud. Remember that word, because it is going to come back and haunt every one of those swine. The Lisl Auman scandal will whack the Denver law-enforcement establishment like Watergate whacked Richard Nixon.”
– “Prisoner of Denver,” Hunter S. Thompson and Mark Seal, Vanity Fair, 2004

I have not read “Prisoner of Denver” myself as it has yet to make it into a Thompson compilation, and a cursory search couldn’t yield a link on Vanity Fair‘s website or any other site (though the first few paragraphs can be read here), so I can’t comment on whether or not it’s an article that deserves filming. What I will say though is that it opens up room to portray an aspect of Thompson many people overlook. Despite making a career chronicling “the death of the American Dream,” Thompson loved America fiercely, and in his later years perceived violations of her principles sent his fighting spirit into overdrive. “Songs of the Doomed” depicts an excellent example of this, chronicling Thompson’s arrest for sexual assault and drug possession which he soon turned into an assault on his Fourth Amendment rights.

As Ralph Steadman put it, “he felt this deep outrage, because someone was fucking with his beloved Constitution,” and that’s an attitude I think would be good to see on screen to clear up the image of drugs and hyperbole that too often colors Thompson’s public image. Plus, the Doctor as aged patriot might make a great excuse for Bill Murray to step back into the role.

That said, I’m not approaching the release with wide eyes. I think The A.V. Club makes a legitimate point about how it has the potential to be somewhat mawkish, considering Thompson has been dead for five years now and not around to make sure the swine keep him in the right light. Plus, according to the Hollywood Reporter, MPCA are looking for screenwriters “with a focus on Thompson and Seal acting as a couple of gonzo Woodward and Bernsteins,” and that phrase just makes the bile rise in my stomach. Few things do more damage to the Doctor’s reputation than shoddy imitators.

Of course, given that the film adaptation of “The Rum Diary” languished in development hell for a decade and Thompson’s third collection of letters “The Mutineer” delays its release date more than its author did turning in articles, I don’t expect to hear too much out of this project for at least a year or two. A close eye will of course be maintained on proceedings, to see if the eventual ride is worth the ticket price.

(As an aside, the article also states that the long-delayed “Rum Diary” film will be seeing release in September, a fact confirmed by IMDB and Wikipedia. I’m an eternal cynic on this film making it to the big screen, given that two incarnations were killed in development, but it’s more concrete than anything I’ve heard in years. Show me a trailer, then we’ll talk more.)


Text-to-Screen Versus: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

February 10, 2010
Image by Marobot, reprinted courtesy of That Guy With The Glasses

Image by Marobot, reprinted courtesy of That Guy With The Glasses.

(Editor’s note: Welcome to an alternate version of Text-to-Screen Ratio, the Text-to-Screen Versus. These articles will be longer studies, where I take two filmed adaptations of one book and compare them one after the other to see which one gets closest to the book. Again, this will not serve as a comparison to find which is the better or personal favorite film, but a reasoned assessment of which one captures its source material best, based on my interpretations. Expect spoilers though.)

As the Onion A.V. Club pointed out and I reprinted last year, the reactions of authors when their books are made into movies frequently fall into the negative spectrum. With the range of decisions that can be made for filming – rewritten stories, dropped plot lines, characters out of character – it’s certainly easier to offend an author than it is to please them. And if the right contracts aren’t signed and the author feels particularly insulted, they can make a lot of trouble for directors.

A somewhat surprising example of this is Roald Dahl’s reaction to the 1971 film “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” an adaptation of his beloved children’s book. Despite the fact that Dahl wrote the original screenplay he disliked the film intensely, so much so in fact that he withheld the rights to make any sequels. What makes it surprising is that the film was well-received at release and has since reached cult classic status, particularly due to Gene Wilder’s performance as the titular character.

Dahl’s estate continued to hold onto the story’s rights for decades, only releasing in 2005 to Tim Burton to remake it as “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” With the inimitable visual style of Burton and his long-time partner Johnny Depp in the role of Wonka, the film had the promise of doing so much with the concept and what seemed like a genuine commitment to getting the story right. Dahl’s widow Felicity actually declared prior to the film’s release: “Roald Dahl, Johnny Depp and Tim Burton, absolutely unbeatable and completely in sync.”

But does it come out that way? Let’s take a look at each film in chronological order and see just what they do correctly, and see which one earns the Golden Ticket of Source Faithfulness.

1971: “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”

Had I never seen “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” and only knew about its history, it would be surprisingly simple to be cynical about it, since it’s really a film that came to life as a promotional tool. According to “Pure Imagination,” a companion book detailing the film’s completion, the film was financed chiefly because producer David L. Wolper was in talks with the Quaker Oats Company to help market their Breaker Confections candy company, and they were persuaded to buy the book and change the name to The Willy Wonka Candy Company (which still exists today, keeping kids and sleep-deprived writers on a sugar rush of Nerds and Sweetarts).

So it seems in theory like a fairly easy project to botch: neglect plot in favor of product placement, turn the main characters into commercial puppets and throw in a few lousy one-liners designed to be printed on the candy labels. Which makes it all the more surprising that it has turned into the classic itself, and even more surprising that it it is also one of the more faithful adaptations produced.

For the uninitiated, a brief synopsis of the story: a genius candy manufacturer named Willy Wonka opens up his long-sealed factory to five lucky children, offering them a tour of how he makes his most famous creations. After a series of events removes four cartoonishly dislikable members, only a kind boy named Charlie Bucket is left. At this point, Wonka reveals the tour was a test, to find the right person to succeed him in the factory – and Charlie has passed with flying colors. “Willy Wonka” keeps to this structure, moving in order through the whole factory and not cutting out any of the major scenes – unveiling of the contest winners, the finding of the ticket, the Chocolate Room, the Inventing Room, the Television Room and the Great Glass Elevator are all there.

There are several side details that do get in the way of the story, the most noticeable being the expansion of the character Slugworth, a rival candy manufacturer the book mentions in passing. He is portrayed as conspiring against Wonka, trying to hire the children to steal Wonka’s latest invention. It’s a plot thread that mostly exists to set up a twist ending, but the twist it sets up doesn’t pull the film away from its narrative structure, and serves to accentuate Charlie’s own goodness and the selfishness of the other children. Minor details, like the death of Charlie’s father and the fact that Charlie works as a paperboy, are neutral ones that neither add nor detract to the way the story plays out.

But even more than the plot, true faithfulness to the film depends on one thing: the candy man. There’s a reason why the title was changed to “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” beyond marketing reasons – because everyone realized that the driving force of the story isn’t Charlie’s rise from poverty but the eccentric genius who made it possible, the mad energy that pushed everyone along. Dahl gets right to it at his first appearance in the book:

“And his eyes – his eyes were most marvelously bright. They seemed to be sparkling and twinkling at you all the time. The whole face, in fact, was alight with fun and laughter. And oh, how clever he looked! How quick and sharp and full of life!”

And if you’re looking for marvelously bright eyes and energy, it’s hard to go wrong with Gene Wilder, whose performances seem subdued (see “Blazing Saddles”) but never conceal the energy in his bright blue eyes. Wilder insisted on his character’s very first moment, limping down a red carpet and ending in a somersault flourish “because from that time on, no one will know if I’m lying or telling the truth” – and that edge defines the Wonka character perfectly. Yes, he was eccentric from being holed up in a factory for years, but he was also bubbling with excitement at the chance to show his world off to visitors, and liked playing with people who didn’t have the patience to go along with it.

Wilder doesn’t have the pixielike sugar high that Wonka carried in the book, but the essence of the character is fused to his performance. You have the feeling that he is laughing up his sleeve at his visitors but is always in control of events, cloaking it in cryptic morals and quotes ranging from Oscar Wilde to William Shakespeare. He’s convinced that everything will work out in the end and nothing truly horrible can happen in his wonderland, and can easily dismiss anyone who thinks otherwise.

Other cast members continue this trend, their performances chiefly faithful to the book but with some minor deviations that can be easily forgiven. Peter Ostrum plays a more independent Charlie Bucket than the original, but still conveys the fact that he is the only one of the children who really appreciates the world Wonka has created. Jack Albertson’s Grandpa Joe is a little less convincing, more gruff and opinionated than the book’s version, which felt more like a storyteller with a child’s heart. The other children and parents fit the unlikeable nature, greedy and spoiled and shrill at all the right places – especially Roy Kinnear as Veruca Salt’s father.

Visually the film is more hit and miss, doing as much as it can with the special effects available in 1971. Mostly shot in Munich, the village the film is set in was chosen for ambiguity, but it lacks any character and fails to make the desperate condition of the Bucket family believable – and its “Sound of Music” appearance always made me suspect the Nazis would be storming through at any minute. About the only convincing element was the factory, based on the Munich Gaswerks, which had the look of a long-shuttered factory where nobody ever comes out or in.

Though, once they do get inside the factory, the technical limitations of 1970s special effects catches up to them. Many of the key scenes have to be scaled back or completely reinvented – Glass Elevator replaced with Wonkamobile, grand pipe-like tunnels replaced with hallucinatory images, visual tricks rather than great hallways to make the factory larger. Overall it feels far more constrained than it did in the book, which had rooms the size of football fields hollowed out under the ground and needed a flying elevator plastered with buttons to get anywhere. Even the Chocolate Room feels more like a decorated park, without the scale it needs to produce the endless confections the factory churns out.

The film tries to add some extra fantasy elements with the Oompa-Loompa songs, though those clash with the original for two reasons: orange-skinned green-haired Munchkins look nothing like the tropical natives Wonka recruited, and the songs are original creations rather than the book’s verse. Yes, some like “Pure Imagination” are undeniable classics (and some like “Cheer Up Charlie” are not), but they’re not original content and sadly cannot be counted as such.

For all its differences though, “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” turns out to be a rather surprisingly faithful take on its source material. Partially it’s Wilder’s performance, partially its the avoidance of major narrative deviations, but mostly it’s the heart the film presents. It creates the factory as a place of whimsy, a place where “a little nonsense now and then is relished by the wisest men,” where accidents can happen but also a slice of something magical.

2005: “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”

When Tim Burton chose to adapt “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” for modern audiences, he was working less against the limitations of the book and more the reputation of the film that had come before it. The directors and writers publicly stated that they were going to go straight from the book and pretend that “Willy Wonka” didn’t exist, even getting a scriptwriter who had never seen the original. This is certainly a wise move for any team working on an adaptation that has already been adapted – if the original is used as inspiration, it only gets further away from the source material, fading like a copy of a copy.

Despite my purism on adaptations I’m always leery of a film that sells itself heavily on being faithful to its source material, as it always reads to me like the filmmakers are compensating for something. However, in the case of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” at first glance it seems like they were living up to their word. Once again the majority of the book’s plot survives intact, and all major characters and plot points are presented in order.

A great part of this effect is because the film looks so much like the world it is trying to capture. Burton’s vision has always been saturated in fantasy, full of Gothic angled images and very stark colors, and it goes very well with the dark, often grotesque humor Dahl mastered in stories like “George’s Marvelous Medicine” and “Matilda.” Wonka’s factory is a tall monochromatic edifice, all smokestacks and slanted roofs, looming over a snow-covered city of identical buildings and the Bucket’s shack. He builds the excitement around the the finding of the tickets with beautifully rendered scenes, showing markets in Japan and Morocco selling candy bars like hot Christmas toys.

But it’s once they get inside the factory that things really come to life, casting set pieces in a way that not only shows the vastness of Wonka’s world but also clearly bear the influence of Joseph Schindelman’s classic illustrations. From the vast cathedral-like pipes in the Chocolate Room to the Inventing Room’s endless chemistry sets to the great pink candy Viking boat, this is Dahl’s world where around every corner something truly magical could happen. That magic could be either light or dark, and Burton presents both – there might be lights and swirls around, but it doesn’t take long to see the garbage chutes and Fudge Room pipes you can disappear into.

The film certainly resembles Dahl’s original visions for it, but while the film presents itself with a shiny wrapper it can’t disguise the fact that it made the bizarre choice to fill its chocolate treat with sour cream. That filling is Johnny Depp’s interpretation of Willy Wonka, a performance that’s the inverse of his masterful adaptation role in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” Gone is Wonka’s sense of being in control of the situation, his grand speeches and excited explanations; instead there is choking on the word “parents,” painfully awkward tangents on beatniks and ugly forced laughter.

The chief indictment of his performance however is his interaction with the other characters. Depp’s Wonka seemed to treat the visit as an obligation rather than an opportunity, and his efforts to connect with them came across as stilted and uncomfortable. Everything he was doing in the film seemed geared to his self-interest first, less excited about their reactions and more like a spoiled child asking to be told how great he was – and saying it in the prissiest of tones to boot.

It also leads the film to commit one of the deadliest adaptation sins, creating a new back story for an existing character. The film tries to explore Wonka’s childhood, portraying him as the headgear-imprisoned son of an anti-candy dentist (Christopher Lee, in a role even more superfluous than his tragically abbreviated ending in “Return of the King”). The new story is designed to explain the changes in his character, but because the changes are so offensive all it does is make things worse, further divorcing Wonka from his original spirit. Wonka is supposed to be a figure of mystery, less the center of the story and more a catalyst to trigger the right reactions – it’s like seeing Gandalf’s high school years before visiting Bilbo at the Shire.

The other characters try to help, but wind up dragging the film down further. Freddie Highmore (whom Depp personally recommended for the film after collaborating with him on “Finding Neverland”) doesn’t have to do much with Charlie beyond making him a generally good person, but he takes it too far into the realm of self-sacrificing. Charlie’s willingness to throw the factory away for the good of his family is clearly met as a contrast to Wonka’s anti-parent attitude, but his beatific attitude is as out of character as Wonka’s social disconnect. His family remains appropriately in the background, save David Kelly’s Grandpa Joe, who does capture the puckishness his frail form couldn’t hold back.

The four competing children keep to this format, presented in very visually arresting ways but worse the longer you dwell on them. Two in particular go heavily against the book’s nature by committing another adaptation sin, modernizing pieces of the content: Mike Teavee is turned into a surly video game addict, and Violet Beauregarde is an overly competitive poster child for mothers living vicariously through their offspring. By definition they were supposed to be unlikable, but this crosses the line from stereotype to ugly high-gloss caricature.

Another aspect that modernization chisels away at from the original is what it does to the Oompa-Loompas. While the film does present their jungle home of Loompa-Land, it makes the bizarre choice to cast Deep Roy as every single Oompa-Loompa, giving the feeling of an army of clones in jumpsuits rather than the pygmies of the book. The film does earn points for using the original songs from the book and presenting them in the context of different muscial genres (psychedelia and disco for example), but the final choice of hair metal couldn’t be farther from Dahl’s world.

When it comes down to it, that is the sum total of the film: a project that obeyed its source material but tried to do something new with it, and in the process got farther and farther away from what it was supposed to do. If they’d slashed Wonka’s childhood, toned down the musical numbers and left the other children as is it could have been great, but as it stands only the candy shell is worth viewing. Burton and Depp have collaborated on some truly wonderful adaptations, but this is not one of them – save your enthusiasm for “Alice in Wonderland.”

Winner: “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” 1971

When it comes down to the two, each one has its pros and cons. The 1971 film certainly seems to get to the core of the story with stronger characters and storyline, while the 2005 version has far more compelling visuals, really capturing the scope of what Wonka was able to build free of social restraint. Each film also comes to the book’s conclusion but takes a few fairly major turns to get there – Charlie can’t simply be given the factory, he has to either pass Wonka’s test or convince him of the merits of family, a move that takes the story longer to conclude but adds the tension film audiences demand.

But when all is said and done, the 2005 film cannot survive the overall sense of wrongness that both Depp’s performance and the changes in storyline create. “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” is a childhood fable, a story dependent on its atmosphere and the sense of wonder that Wonka’s world creates. Yes, it has its moments of darkness (the winding dark tunnel of the chocolate river, the cautionary tales of the Oompa-Loompas) but it’s always a thrill to be a part of them. You’re appreciating a world beyond the normal, one that can twist you but also one that can reward you beyond your wildest dreams.

I do feel strange in passing a judgment against the way an author viewed an adaptation, but the 1971 film is truly the one that gets closest to its source material. All the actors manage to make their characters feel both like their source material and like real people – particularly Wilder, who has the heart to balance the mad genius – and the overall mood created as the story flows is enough to balance out its technical limitations. “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” has both the up and down sides of the factory’s genius, and it creates a world of pure imagination – a phrase Dahl may have never used but one that deserves to be forever fused to his classic story.

Extra Credit:

  • For a comparison of the films based on their cinematic merits rather than a straight literary analysis, check out Willy Wonka vs Charlie, part of the “Old vs. New” portion of the Nostalgia Critic on That Guy with the Glasses. A special thanks to TGWTG and the artist Marobot for allowing me to reprint their custom opening image.
  • And follow this link for a curious essay that takes the literary value of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” to a whole new level.

Text-to-Screen Ratio: Sherlock Holmes

January 13, 2010

While as a critic of literature I try to treat most books with a neutral eye, even I am not immune to stubborn passions. There are things in literature I love unconditionally, and at the top of that list is the Sherlock Holmes canon. The reasons are varied and would take more time than I have, but suffice to say I consider the Holmes short stories the finest things ever written in the English language. They are masterfully crafted mysteries that manage to be regularly funny and quotable, they present a perfect frozen-in-amber view of Victorian England, and have two main characters that share a legitimately moving friendship. It’s something I keep on a pedestal, and will defend with all resources.

This of course regularly draws me out to battle. Arguably the most famous fictional character ever created, Holmes has essentially become public domain, leading to almost 200 films and countless books based off the character. The films give me headaches – taking him into the future or introducing him to Batman is just the tip of the iceberg – but even worse are the glorified crossover fan fiction novels, pairing him with everyone from Sigmund Freud to Oscar Wilde to Teddy Roosevelt. It destroys the perfect world that Doyle created, and in all comparisons the writing is unequivocally atrocious.

Being as defensive of the character as I am, I naturally had mixed feelings about the announcement that Warner Brothers would be releasing a new film based on the character. There were positive factors – Guy Ritchie as the director, Robert Downey Jr. as the titular character and Jude Law as Watson – but the imagery seemed worlds away from the traditional interpretation. There were several articles espousing the fact that they were going for a version more akin to Doyle’s original interpretation, but trailers that looked more like “Van Helsing” than Baker Street kept my cynicism levels peaked.

So when the film came out I tried to put my passion and prejudice off to the side, and study the film in the analytical Holmes fashion. And like Holmes at the end of a chemical endeavor, I found myself pleasantly surprised. While the film takes more than a few liberties with the subject matter and is clearly focused on flash over literature, there’s a clear loyalty to the source material and many of the changes made do bring forward elements of the character that are usually buried.

Viewing the short stories and novels as too limited for a contemporary action-adventure film (correctly I would say) the film focuses on the case of Lord Blackwood, a devil-worshipping nobleman who apparently rises from the dead after Holmes uncovers the evidence leading to his execution. With mass hysteria threatening to break out, Holmes must solve the case – while also dealing with his partner’s impending marriage, the reappearance of his rival/lover Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) and a regularly poisoned bulldog. It’s a bit of an outlandish story for the great detective, but it’s of course not the first time that the detective approached the supposedly supernatural or Watson’s romantic life.

The setting also doesn’t feel too divorced from the source. Despite the obvious steampunk additions, Ritchie and the producers have created a London that meshes with the original semi-regularly. Horse-drawn carts are the mode of transportation, London’s streets and sewers are appropriately dark and weathered, and and Holmes’ personal quarters are littered with chemical research, case papers and pipe tobacco in a slipper. It certainly doesn’t feel like the canonical setting – there’s no fog unless you count the film’s bluish-gray tint, and it’s a lot busier than the quiet of Baker Street would lead you to believe – but Holmes is clearly at home there, able to disguise himself perfectly after one stroll through a market.

And certainly when it comes to an adaptation of Sherlock Holmes, its legendary titular character makes or breaks the adaptation. Robert Downey Jr. was a surprising choice, without the excessive height and leanness the books describe and Basil Rathbone popularized, and his Holmes is at first glance worlds away. He is haphazardly dressed in a fedora, corduroy coat and tinted glasses, given to biting witticisms towards the local police force, and even enters the boxing ring for a few “Fight Club”-esque brawls. His mannerisms edge on bipolar, lounging in a dressing gown and firing off his revolver when bored and riveted on the little details when not.

It’s a different take on the character, but surprisingly Ritchie and producer Lionel Wigram have grounded it heavily in the original mythos. Holmes did take a variety of drugs for scientific and recreational purposes, took pleasure in fistfights (though that always happened off-screen), did idly pick at his violin when no challenge presented himself, and did keep his personal quarters in shambles with a patriotic V.R. shot into the wall “in one of his queer humors.” Downey revels in these eccentricities, but never presents them as out of character – they are all part of the strange genius that Holmes brings to his cases and relationships. Additionally, his speeches explaining his deductions are the ideal “Sherlock Holmes English-speaking vernacular,” quick and precise in the nature of Doyle’s famous summaries.

But while Downey has many of the Holmes mannerisms down pat, there’s an unshakeable feeling that something is off in his portrayal. Holmes did have his oddities and addictions but he was always depicted as perfectly in control, “a delicate and finely adjusted temperament,” and this new version doesn’t have the air of untouched infallibility the books conveyed. It really feels more like a hybrid of Jack Sparrow, Tony Stark and Gregory House, a massive intelligence with ego to match, a cunning wit used to deflect serious attention at him. The calabash pipe and deerstalker have been stripped away, and although this does let us see more of Holmes’ character traits the personality is out with the clothes.

This new portrayal also seriously changes the dynamic between Holmes and Watson, undoubtedly the most legendary partnership in literature. The two were certainly close friends, but their devotion to each other came out in subtle ways, Watson backing Holmes in his riskiest affairs and Holmes only dropping his shield to reveal praise and concern for the Doctor. Here though, it’s more like House and Wilson than Holmes and Watson as they snipe back and forth at each other like an old married couple, Watson even going so far as to express his distaste for Holmes borrowing his clothes. That tone belongs in stories inspired by their dynamic, not the real thing.

This is nothing against Jude Law however – he gives an admirable performance, and it’s a relief to see Watson portrayed as a tough competent partner rather than a bumbling foil. I am certain however that he could never beat Holmes to the punch on a chemical deduction, or use his hat in Oddjob-style in fistfights. And these fights are many, but thankfully not overwhelmed by Ritchie’s dizzying editing style – and quickly enlivened as Holmes breaks down a series of disabling moves as if he was listing off one of his deductions. (Indeed, Ritchie’s style works quite well with Holmes’ thought process, peppering in flashbacks and close-ups to illustrate the little details that only he could connect).

Other characters have the same depictions – different from the originals but still there in spirit. Irene Adler, “the woman” to Holmes and the only one to outfox him, is well cast in Rachel McAdams, more conniving and sultry than “A Scandal in Bohemia” suggested but still convincing as the only woman to throw Holmes’ legendary focus off track. Mark Strong is mainly there to look imposing as Lord Blackwood, running his machinations in the shadows, but the portrayal is on par with Holmes’ canonical adversaries Jack Stapleton or John Clay – both of whom clearly influenced his creation. And like Watson, Inspector Lestrade (Eddie Marsan) is finally treated with some respect, shown as not being the sharpest of detectives but certainly one of the most tenacious.

The movie does have the typical Hollywood ham-handedness in setting up a sequel, but – and this was the most surprising part of “Sherlock Holmes” – I find myself embracing the idea. The devious Professor Moriarty and Sherlock’s brother Mycroft, along with the loose threads of a few dozen more short stories, are all there to be adapted into this new rendition of literature’s most famous investigator. It’s not perfect – indeed, it would take Holmes itself barely a glance to point out the flaws – but it’s far more faithful (and entertaining) than you’d expect from putting the great detective through the blockbuster wringer.

Extra Credit:

To better understand my appreciation of Sherlock Holmes, please enjoy my favorite Holmes short stories, all available through the miracle of public domain and the good folks at Wikisource.


Text-to-Screen Ratio: The Road

December 31, 2009

I’ve never claimed to be prescient when it comes to the world of literature – more content to use my energies on what’s in front of me rather than what’s coming up – but I do have to admit I feel rather smug whenever I think about my take on “No Country for Old Men.” When I first reviewed the title back in 2005 I predicted that the Coen brothers (who had just acquired the rights) would make a powerhouse film, their directing techniques perfectly matched with Cormac McCarthy’s brilliant gift for minmalist dialogue. And I was completely right, as the film would go on to not only take four Academy Awards but also turn out to be one of the most faithful adaptations I’ve ever seen.

As a result of this success, I kept a close eye on the approaching release of “The Road.” Expectations were high – the 2006 novel received the greatest critical acclaim of McCarthy’s career and even earned him a Pulitzer Prize – but there was some uncertainty as “The Road” is a completely different animal to “No Country for Old Men.” It is not McCarthy’s typical Western with soft-spoken protagonists and open plains, showing one event and the consequences it brings, but the end of the world with no uncertainty. It had to hit despair and hope with equal measure, and while it doesn’t quite match the book’s connection it is a technical and emotional success nonetheless.

At first glance, the story of “The Road” seems like it will be simpler to adapt. After an unspecified disaster, the world has been reduced to a desolate wasteland of ash and snow, where nothing will grow and the few remaining humans travel in cannibalistic packs. In this world a father and his son continually walk south to the coast with no supplies save the contents of a shopping cart, no weapons save a pistol with two bullets and no company but each others’. The theme is once again survival, but money doesn’t matter here – all that matters is the indomitable will of one person to keep another alive.

However, while the story is easily summarized and the cast can be counted on two hands, filming “The Road” has one hurdle to climb beyond any technical aspect: atmosphere. Winner of my Silent Hill Award for Bleakest Setting, “The Road” may well be the most grippingly immersive book I have ever read. This isn’t the tension of pursuit but the cold certainty that everything around you is dead, with skeletal trees and ashen air and corpses dried to leather as if there was “some cold glaucoma dimming away the world.” Compounding the loneliness, the reason for the apocalypse is never even touched on – the only thing that matters from the world that was is whatever it left behind for you to survive on.

The atmosphere of “The Road” is such that, even in the hands of a director like John Hillcoat (no stranger to broken lonely worlds himself with 2005’s “The Proposition”) it can’t be transferred completely. While a film can project the scope of what has happened to the world with long scenes of death and the worse-than-homeless condition of its survivors, the pure despair always feels just out of reach. It’s especially noticeable due to the quality of McCarthy’s words, brief dark sentences that all add up to show how little there is to be said in the face of nothing.

But while the film cannot match the level of despair the book has, that doesn’t mean it fails at drawing you in – quite the opposite in fact. Hillcoat has expertly crafted “a world in severe trauma” as he described it to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, filmed in the bleakest ares of Pittsburgh’s coal country and the sides of Mount St. Helens. The cinematography is beautiful in a sad way, with spilled matchboxes of dead trees and ashen decay on every farmhouse, and rare glimpses of color in canned food or bullets coming across to the father and son as artifacts to bond over.

And perhaps more the atmosphere, it was mastering this relationship that would make or break “The Road” – and set it apart from “No Country for Old Men.” While the first one was heavily reliant on longer dialogues between three complex main characters and a cast of officers and civilians, “The Road” distills McCarthy’s gift down to only the father and the son, two people bound by an eternal pact and whose few words hold more meaning than any longer speech.

Thankfully, this relationship is treated with all the reverence it deserves. Viggo Mortensen cannot help but inhabit a role with every fiber of his being, and he brings the father to life with tenderness to his son and tightly wound caution toward the rest of the world. His interactions with his son (the excellent Kodi Smit-McPhee) are all transferred from the book, and there is an undeniable connection in each scene: sharing a scavenged Coca-Cola, bathing in an ice-cold waterfall, explaining the right way to shoot yourself in the head.

The film’s supporting cast, though defined only in their relationship to the father-son dynamic, also captures the book’s feel admirably. Charlize Theron as the wife is appropriately angelic in the Man’s fantasies and fatally broken in his memories, although her role has been expanded from the book and in several places the stretching shows. Robert Duvall steals the film as the Old Man on the road, half-blind but still able to see the world’s end, and HBO alums such as Garrett Dillahunt (“Deadwood”) and Michael Kenneth Williams (“The Wire”) capably carry the roles of the future’s predatory wanderers.

In an advance review Tom Chiarilla of Esquire said there was “not a single stupid choice made in turning this book into this movie,” and it’s hard to argue with that statement. From a technical perspective, it captures all the right notes from its source material – characters, conversations and storyline – and from an emotional standpoint its only fault is that it’s trying to reach the impossibly high standards of McCarthy’s eloquence. “The Road” is frightening, captivating and makes you need to hug your parent or child afterward – and I apply that statement to both versions.

Extra Credit:

For more on McCarthy’s relationship with his writing, his son and the films, check out these absolutely phenomenal interviews with the master himself.


Text-to-Screen Ratio: Naked Lunch Retrospective

June 12, 2009

(Editor’s note: As always, spoilers may abound for both versions here. Also, I have decided to stop scoring the adaptations as some versions do not seem to lend themselves to a numerical score. Instead, I shall simply discuss how each can be taken and related, mixing it with some film review commentary.)

Naked_Lunch_poster

While adapting books to film is usually a mutually beneficial process for both parties – studios for cashing in on a preexisting audience, publishers for being able to sell thousands of mass market copies with posters as covers – there are several instances where the subject matter doesn’t seem to lend itself to the film. One of the most high-profile titles was Alan Moore’s “Watchmen,” a project which lingered in development hell for years and swapped through a score of directors before Zack Synder’s better-than-expected version earlier this year.

But if “Watchmen’s” story was seen as too intricate to be adapted to film, William S. Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch” was on the other end of the spectrum as too chaotic. While a seminal work that helped shatter literary censorship laws in America and inspired hundreds of writers and musicians, the book is a fragmented work purposely designed to be read in any order “like an innaresting sex arrangement.” There might be a narrative in there, but what the narrative is is open for debate, buried in metaphors and purposely provocative routines.

Naked-Lunch-Book-CoverFittingly, the director who eventually brought the project to the screen was one whose mindset came the closest to Burroughs’ reality: David Cronenberg. In films such as “Shivers” and “The Fly” Cronenberg demonstrates a proven interest in the concepts of infection and transformation, using science fiction as a tool to get deeper into the human psyche – all concepts that Burroughs used liberally in his writing. Perhaps as a result of this common wavelength, he does not even try to capture the original ‘story,’ but creates something that feels both different and exactly what it needs to be.

At first glance, the plot seems bizarre but essentially straightforward compared to the original text. William Lee, a New York exterminator with a history of drug abuse, falls back on bad habits when he becomes addicted to his job’s yellow roach powder. After accidentally shooting his wife in the head while under the influence, he flees to the North African port of Interzone at the behest of a mysterious organization. Assigned to write a report on his wife’s death, he is caught up in a swath of circumstances including black centipede meat, a homicidal doctor, a coven of witches and entopomorphic typewriters.

While this disjointed construction includes little of the original book, this choice is actually doing something wonderfully different in adapations: being faithful to the author before the text. Burroughs was a pioneer in the “cut-up” technique, chopping written text, speeches and recordings up and splicing them back together. His theory was that in doing so, the true meaning of the text would expose itself to the reader, even suggesting it could serve as a form of divination: “When you cut into the past, the future leaks out.”

And in essence, what Cronenberg has done is played cut-up with the Burroughs canon. “Naked Lunch” uses parts of the original book, with the main character William Lee (Burroughs’ doppelganger and pen name) speaking the “Talking Asshole” routine verbatim and confronting the narcotics dicks Hauser and O’Brien. Opening scenes of the book are copied straight from Burroughs’ short story “Exterminator!,” right down to a discussion of roach poisons and elderly Jewish owner (“You vant I should spit right in your face?! You vant?”), theories on telepathy come from “Junky” and a discussion on an old queen named Bobo from “Queer.” And of course, the climactic shooting is based on the most famous story of Burroughs’ life, where he shot his wife Joan Vollmer in Mexico playing William Tell.

But simply presenting the stories would not be enough to capture the spirit of Burroughs’ work, and Cronenberg achieves this with truly ideal casting. Peter Weller nails the Lee character with perfect accuracy, evoking Burroughs’ appearance and drawling speech patterns in an author-actor translation matched only by Johnny Depp in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” Judy Davis and Ian Holm are uncanny surrogates for their real-life counterparts (Joan Vollmer and Peter Bowles respectively), Joseph Scorsiani has the fresh-faced exotic look of the Interzone boys Lee lusts for and Roy Scheider has the quiet sociopathy one would expect from the legendary Dr. Benway.

And like in “Naked Lunch” the book, it’s never quite clear who or where these characters are. Davis plays a dual role as Lee’s wife and later Interzone lover, Scheider literally lives inside the skin of a woman and typewriters speak in the voices of exterminators. Both works leave the Lee character unsure what is real or simply the hallucinations of drug withdrawal, which in turn leaves the audience trying to interpret it for some deeper meaning. While the images frequently turn obscene or nauseating, they never come across as gratuitous – a minefield Burroughs expertly navigated for years.

As an adaptation of the book, “Naked Lunch” could never be mistaken for an exact translation, but after reading the book few people would want it to be. The themes are what matter, themes of addiction, control, conspiracy and excess – seeing, as Burroughs would put it, what is “on the end of every fork.” What is on the end of Cronenberg’s fork is a wholly different recipe than what Burroughs put together, but it uses the same ingredients and leaves the same sharp uneasy taste in your mouth.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.