Guest Post: In Praise of Unoriginality

Nora Note: I’m experimenting with guest posts! Our first guinea pig is fellow Fluidian E. C. Myers, whose forthcoming YA novel I’ve had the pleasure of critiquing (and enjoying the hell out of). But enough about me. Let’s let the man talk:

 

When Baz Luhrmann’s film adaptation of The Great Gatsby was announced last year, fans of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel were at best skeptical and at worst angry. Though it’s been known for a while that Luhrmann is taking the book’s latest cinematic journey even farther, into the Third Dimension!, for some reason people have only started paying attention in the last week—and the blogosphere reeled in horror at the prospect of seeing a 3-D Gatsby.

To these incensed critics, I say: Don’t see it.

According to Luhrmann, the decision to film in 3-D came from his desire to add a more theatrical quality to the production, so it’s as if we’re there in the room with Jay and Daisy. (Whether anyone really wants to hang out with them is beside the point.) If I recently hadn’t seen Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, a 3-D adaptation of Brian Selznick’s middle grade novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, I would say Luhrmann’s full of crap. Despite my own disdain for the gimmick of 3-D cinema—I generally avoid 3-D screenings whenever possible, to save myself from the double curse of eyestrain and destitution—I made a point of seeing Hugo in theaters, both because Scorsese has earned my trust and admiration as a filmmaker, and because he intended Hugo to be seen in 3-D.

It was not at all what I was expecting. I kind of loved it. The general consensus among critics and audiences alike is that Scorsese has created a cinematic masterpiece. Hugo has some brief moments of spectacle that might justify the extravagance of 3-D, but nothing on the order of James Cameron’s clumsy action-flick Avatar. I think Hugo is probably a fine picture even in only a paltry two dimensions, but the experience was both more engaging and more distracting; I think a truly successful film makes the viewer forget she’s watching a movie, but I was constantly distracted by tiny, odd details captured on film: dust motes drifting in the air, an out-of-place hair.

My biggest issue with 3-D cinematography is that the human eye just doesn’t see that way, with the camera forcing our attention to whatever is jumping out of the screen, or choosing to focus on one character while everything and everyone else fades to a blur. Film can only approximate natural vision, and directors carefully construct the viewing experience—choosing what they want you to focus on, or slyly misdirecting your interest—to tell a story. Hugo does some of that, but it also gives you the freedom to pay more attention to the background characters than the action front and center, or admire the elaborate sets and ignore the actors. This is as close to seeing a live theatrical play as I’ve had in a movie theater, and it could very well suit Gatsby.

That’s if Luhrmann isn’t simply buckling to studio pressure to make a 3-D film and toeing the company line. He seems both to want to infuse Gatsby with a grand scope and to make it a more intimate experience, and those two impulses may not marry well. And Luhrmann’s CV is contentious among fans; people either seem to love or hate his Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge! As with every creative process, 3-D is just another tool, best used when the work truly calls for it, and we’ll have to wait to see if it brings anything to Gatsby. Or not see it, depending.

The charged response to Luhrmann’s adaptation doesn’t seem to be about 3-D at all. Rather, it’s a criticism of the fact that he’s doing it at all. This is The Great Gatsby! You can’t turn this literary classic into a mere movie, meant for a commercial audience. Except that it has been adapted into a film. Several times. And stage productions. And a freaking 8-bit video game. (Which is awesome by the way.) People seem actively offended that this is going to exist in the world.

Like many, I scratch my head whenever Hollywood announces a new film adaptation or a remake. Why make an English version of Let the Right One In, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, or The Ring? Weren’t the originals good enough? How can you presume to “update” a classic like King Kong or reboot Star Trek for new, younger audiences? What’s the point in redoing Pride and Prejudice with Keira Knightley when Colin Firth is Mr. Darcy in the excellent miniseries? (Okay, that’s a fair question.) Hey, I’ll never understand why Gus Van Sant needed to do a shot-by-shot remake of Hitchcock’s Psycho, but I got through it by simply not seeing it.

Readers are even less forgiving when novels or comics they love, or like, or maybe heard of once are turned into big Hollywood productions. They’re never faithful enough to the source material, or they don’t like picturing the actors when they read the book, and does anyone actually like those movie tie-in covers that come out around the film’s release? Most of the Harry Potter films are like abbreviated primers for the books, but some of them are absolutely beautiful and moving, and they haven’t detracted from my enjoyment of J.K. Rowling’s written words one bit. And yet almost everyone is excited—cautiously so—about the upcoming film version of Suzanne Collin’s dystopian series, The Hunger Games. This early on, director Gary Ross (who also made one of my favorite films ever, Pleasantville) seems to have gotten most things right. And that’s probably going to be good enough—for me, anyway. If the idea of the movie feels like a personal insult to you… Don’t see it.

I wonder if the strong reactions to adaptations isn’t about not wanting to ruin the “integrity” of the source material so much as it’s a desire to maintain our own relationship with it, without the influence of another person’s interpretation of its meaning. Like I said, I’m as annoyed at remakes as the next guy, and disappointed when an adaptation fails to be brilliant (The Golden Compass, anyone? Anyone?) But I’ve also seen films that surpassed the quality of the original. It’s just my opinion, but I like the movie versions of V for Vendetta and The Prestige much more than those on the page, and The Watchmen was perfectly satisfying and as faithful as it could be.

Perhaps it’s a failure of Hollywood to be “original,” but these films are original; they’re new works of art (maybe a strong word to describe something like Piranha 3-D, but you get my point) that didn’t exist before.

More importantly, I think that the thing that drives filmmakers (and fanfic writers and artists and musicians and basically anyone on the internet, at least if SOPA doesn’t pass) to create their own versions of other people’s work is a testament to the power of story, not just the promise of commercial success. Yes, even Michael Bay is a storyteller—he’s just a very bad one. There’s a story in Transformers under all that CGI, right? Something something Megan Fox something?

In the worst cases, I consider a film adaptation of a novel to be a two-hour long book trailer; if I like the story but not the execution, I’ll just go read the book. If I like the movie, as I did with Hugo, I’ll seek out the book. And if I like the book, but can’t bear to see the movie (as in The Adventures of Tintin), I’ll skip the film and read the book.

People have been stealing and riffing on other people’s stories for as long as we’ve been telling them. Shakespeare, the Brothers Grimm, Tim Burton and Peter Jackson have all kept stories alive by retelling them, reinterpreting them, and reaching new audiences who might never have discovered the work that inspired them at all—without attempting to destroy the original material (like George Lucas, for instance) or forcing people to only watch their vision of it. (Cough, George Lucas, cough.)

What do you think? Are there movie adaptations or even fanfic stories that you think are better than the source? Should I see Tintin? Does 3-D disgust you?

Meanwhile, I think it’s high time I reread The Great Gatsby.

 

E.C. Myers was assembled in the U.S. from Korean and German parts. He is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop and a member of the prolific NYC writing group Altered Fluid. In the rare moments when he isn’t writing, he blogs about Star Trek at theviewscreen.com, reads constantly, plays video games, watches films and television, sleeps as little as possible, and spends far too much time on the internet. His first young adult novel, Fair Coin>, will be published by Pyr in March 2012. And for the record, he would be delighted if it were adapted into a film.

4 Responses »

  1. I was pretty impressed with Tintin actually. But I didn’t have any skin in the game as it were. I also thought the 3D in Hugo was amazing.

  2. Hugo was actually the first 3D movie I ever saw, and while I really enjoyed it, and fully agree with all the praise it’s gotten, I blush to admit that in the little “Look! This movie is going to be in 3D!” bit before the actual movie started, where they had various objects appearing to fly out the screen at the audience, I instinctively reacted pretty much the way the viewers in the movie did to the that first film with the train in it – I sort of flinched and ducked down in my seat a bit, much to the amusement of my date. I couldn’t help it – it was pretty much pure reflex.

    I thought the 3D effects were used really well in that film, but I don’t know how well it would work in a film that was largely set in more intimate surroundings, with fewer heights, chase scenes through long hallways, etc. It wouldn’t necessarily detract from it, I suppose, but it seems like it would just sort of be wasted…

    On the remaking of movies in general, I tend to be a bit critical of it. Not because I think the originals are sacrosanct and should never be tampered with, but because I think the movie industry is currently so obsessed with remakes that it’s cutting into the amount of original work that’s being done. I agree with you that retelling and reimagining stories has a long tradition behind it – hell, at least half my own writing includes elements from myths and fairy tales. But right now it seems like the remake craze in Hollywood has gone so far that the idea of actually telling entirely new stories has sort of fallen by the wayside – like no one wants to be bothered with creating something new if there’s something old around they could milk for more money instead. And I do think a lot of it is more motivated by money than by having cool ideas for new versions of older stories – I suspect a lot of it is producers not wanting to take unnecessary risks in the current economic climate.

  3. I’m going to be a little less optimistic than you about remakes in general… I do think your point about originality is absolutely valid; after all, the idea that works of art must be original at all cost is a fairly recent one, during the Middle Ages, it was not only all right, but actually encouraged, to rip off other writers, and so on. The thing is, I think there’s a wider cultural problem with remakes made in Hollywood, and that’s the fact that they retell stories by smoothing out anything culture-specific that might surprise contemporary American audiences.

    Have you noticed how remakes of foreign films always transfer the story in the USA? How remakes of most old films take place in today’s world? Filmmakers seem to find that the stories in those old or foreign works are cool enough for a remake, but the setting and cultural particularities are not. It’s generally a bigger problem with remake than with adaptations of books, although I can see it in adaptations as well (turning Sherlock Holmes into an action flick to suit the taste of modern audiences? Really?…). And I think that’s a bit of a problem. In an ideal world, shouldn’t the film industry encourage audiences to broaden their interests, have a look at foreign, outdated, or genrally unexpected stuff, instead of encouraging them to see tailor-made films that take place in their own country and in their own time, and that will not surprise them in any way?

    I know that there’s a myth that Hollywood doesn’t make films for American audiences, but instead uses cookie-cutter scenarii and settings to appeal to an international audience. Coming from the international audience in question, I strongly, strongly question this. I think that, while there’s probably a real tendency in Hollywood blockbusters to leave out references that might be too specifically American for the international market, there’s a much stronger tendancy to plainly erase anything not American (or not contemporary, for that matter), unless they can make it fit into the stereotyped image American audiences may have (I don’t even remember when I last saw a Hollywood movie featuring a competent, no-nonsense and courageous French person, just to quote one of the stereotypes that personally enrage me…). And remakes just reinforce that tendancy. At this point, it doesn’t really matter to me that The Seven Mercenaries is a good film in its own right; it bothers me too much that someone though The Seven Samurai would be even better if they filtred out all that boring Japanese stuff. Because yes, unfortunately, I think that’s the point of many remakes, and it’s not something that can be ignored. It’s not just about bringing your own personaly touch to universal stories; it’s about making them even more “universal” by making them American.

    So that’s why I’m not enthusiastic at all about remakes. Even though I found the point you made about originality extremely interesting and welcome, I still wanted to mention the broader cultural issues that bother me.

    Cécile

  4. I think there’s a difference between adapting books (or plays) and remaking earlier films: The Great Gatsby is no more a remake than Colin Firth’s Pride and Prejudice was a remake of the Olivier version.