Sunday, 8 April 2012

Respect the text - a good old rant

It's been a while, so today it's time for a good old rant. And I'm risking finding a bunch of people who are likely to disagree with me on this. So be it...

I saw the Tim Burton version of Alice in Wonderland a couple of weeks ago. And it left me kind of annoyed.

As anyone who knows the tiniest thing about me knows, I'm a massive fan of the Alice stories (ie Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass). I love the way Lewis Carroll creates a unique and wildly fanciful world, then uses the various characters to play all sorts of tricks and games with logic and language. The books are essentially plotless, as Alice wonders from one encounter to the next. That's their charm. And each character is beautifully rendered, both as a character in their own right, but also as a way to express a different idea or puzzle.

But the Tim Burton movie was nothing like this at all. It was as if the wonderful characters had been commandeered and placed in a completely different story. A quest, or an adventure story, that owed more to The Lion, the With and the Wardrobe (to be honest, I thought that the plot was a blatant rip-off), rather than anything by Lewis Carroll. To me, it stank of robbery. These characters did not belong there. They did not suit that kind of narrative. And the various character features (apparent from a few token lines of dialogue) were barely anywhere to be seen as the characters were put into the service of the plot.

Tim Burton, to me, is a serial offender in this regard. Honestly, fancy giving Willy Wonka a backstory. He's a classic trickster character - he's not quite of this earth and that's the whole point of him.

Which gets me back to the main point of this post. We writers put a lot of time and thought and love and care to create our characters and make them just right. I know, in any adaptation, there are changes that need to be made - you don't just directly translate a book onto the screen. But you don't misuse characters either. You don't divert them from their original source, and their original characteristics in order to stuff them into a different kind of story. In short, you respect the original text.

And if you want to tell a different story, tell a different story. Use your imagination - create a whole new world and a whole new batch of characters. Using other people's characters smacks of laziness. And it also feels a bit like exploitation - taking advantage of the ubiquitousness of some characters in popular culture in order to make it easier to market.

There. I've said my peace now and I feel much better. I'm sure there are lots of people who loved the Tim Burton film and utterly disagree with me. That's fine. I don't mind.

Have a great (and original and imaginative) week.

7 comments:

  1. I have mixed feelings about this. I’ve read Philip K Dick’s Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep and, as I’ve come to expect from Dick, it’s a good book full of great ideas but Blade Runner is a better film. I’ve just read Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight, the ‘official’ follow on to the TV series and the writers (overseen by Wheedon himself who wrote or co-wrote three of the series arcs and several of the one-shot stories) were able to do things on the page that they simply could never have afforded to do on the small screen. Or possibly on the big screen if they’d got the funding. The original Alice books written by Lewis Carroll still exist and are set in stone. No film of TV adaptation or sequel can do them any harm and let’s face it there have been plenty. I have a fondness for Dennis Potter’s Dreamchild if you can get your hands on it. (It dates back to 1985 but it was released on DVD.)

    I think Tim Burton is a fine filmmaker. He’s not a perfect one though and he has a limited palette. I knew before I went into it that his film would be flawed; I hoped, however, that it would be a flawed masterpiece because, let’s face it, apart from Terry Gilliam who is there better equipped to interpret Alice on the big screen? And the film might have been that, his crowning achievement even, if, IF he had stuck to the story. It really didn’t need tutting up for a modern, CGI-loving audience. I felt the same about the miniseries Tin Man where Dorothy Gale has suddenly morphed into ‘DG’ and Oz is now the Outer Zone. I only watched the first episode of that. Variety called it a "semi-surreal adaptation of The Wizard of Oz stitched together from bits of The Matrix, Blade Runner, and Snow White to create a brooding fantasy that—understandably given the variety of influences—proves a bit of a mess" and whose "look and action sequences don't fully deliver the goods" to the "target audience of fanboys and their imaginary girlfriends.” You could say much the same as regards Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland.

    To get to the crux of your post though: books and films are two very different things and adaptations of novels invariably have to make some concessions. Even a faithful (so-faithful-it’s-not-true) adaptation like Watchmen wasn’t perfect and the reason it wasn’t perfect is that it went too far the other way in its religious devotion to the source material. The example I usually cite of an excellent adaptation is One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest which, if you’ve read Kesey’s novel, is nothing like the book but it is a masterpiece in its own right, a separate entity distinct from the original and yet complementary.

    It’s unlikely that you’ll ever get the chance to watch the 1984 adaptation of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four back to back with the 1954 BBC adaptation but it was a fascinating exercise because both films are faithful to the book and yet emphasis different aspects and so produce very different results. You might have thought that John Hurt was born to play Winston Smith until you’ve seen Peter Cushing in the part.

    Lots to think about here. Sorry to go on so much.

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  2. Hi Jim,

    As always, astute observations.

    I take your comments. I think fantastic things can be done with adaptations, and Blade Runner and Cuckoo's Next are great examples. To me though, these still show some element of respect for the text and the original characters, and that's one of the reasons for their success.

    Cheers.

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  3. I didn't see Tim's Alice, but have read Steven King's comment that his books were never properly rendered into movies.
    Movies are a different medium, and a different artist reworking the original material. An entirely new opportunity to hit or miss.
    I would expect Tim Burton to put his unique stamp on the work.
    There will be another attempt eventually by someone else. Perhaps they will stay truer to the original.

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  4. I didn't see Tim's Alice, but have read Steven King's comment that his books were never properly rendered into movies.
    Movies are a different medium, and a different artist reworking the original material. An entirely new opportunity to hit or miss.
    I would expect Tim Burton to put his unique stamp on the work.
    There will be another attempt eventually by someone else. Perhaps they will stay truer to the original.

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    1. Hi Louise,

      I hear you. I've posted before on here about how I have mixed feelings about seeing my books made into movies. But given were I am as a writer at the moment, it's not something I'll likely be needing to worry about for a good while, if ever.

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  5. I could tell you were a Lewis Carroll fan! :-)
    I DIDN'T watch the Tim Burton movie - I tend to avoid movie adaptations of any kind. They're two different media, and if some books might be sort of adapted, others, like Carroll's, can't.
    As for myself - I'm also a screenwriter, so any producer who wants to make movies out of MY books, will have to accept MY screenplay of them! ;-) I know what I can leave in or take out, another writer wouldn't!
    Best wishes (and don't sell your movie rights to Tim Burton and you'll be fine!)
    Barb

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    1. Hi Barb,

      I feel the same way re adapting my books. Which, given my gift for control freakery, would likely be the death of any attempt.

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