Thursday, 15 July 2010

Movie Adaptation...

One of those fraught subjects! Adaptations seem to be one of the trickiest things to get right in the whole entertainment business. For every perfectly-judged “Let the Right One In” or “Gone with the Wind” there are a dozen Horse Whisperers and Cats in Hats who should never, ever have been allowed to see the light of day, and the odd “Cold Mountain” that veers sickeningly between brilliant and utterly dire...

I've got this on my mind because I was watching the film of “V for Vendetta” on tele last night. I should explain straight away that I have not read the original graphic novel. I don’t read graphic novels. I don’t even think of them as graphic novels, to tell the truth; to me they’re comic books. If that confirms my intellectual snobbery, so be it. But because I haven’t read the paper version, I can’t make comparisons, though I gather the original author didn’t like the film at all.

I did. It has stayed in my mind all day. It’s an exciting and intelligent dystopia, and a lot more subtle than the reviews I remember had implied. The heroine is strong and brave, and she grows, instead of quailing, as events overtake her. There are a few massive explosions, but they serve the plot rather than being the reason for it – they are also decorated with fireworks, and fireworks are always A Good Thing in my book. The “superhero”esque hero is not really a superhero (though he is marvellously weird, which is almost as good). When he gets shot up at the end, he actually dies. Think about it; heroes who die aren’t that common in blockbuster SF movies.

The top-notch acting is another thing to enjoy. This is one of those casts that bat right down the order. I bet Roger Allam had fun playing that hideous fusion of Rush Limbaugh and Jonathan Ross. Stephen Fry creates a beautifully rounded and moving character out of what is in essence barely more than a cameo rôle. Tim Piggott-Smith is great – he’s been giving good villain ever since “The Jewel in the Crown” (but tucking in a few nice guys round the edges, like the heroine’s kind but silly father in the BBC adaptation of “North and South” and a lovely turn as Pliny the Elder in a drama-doc about Pompeii a few years ago). I won’t list everyone but, believe me, it’s worth seeing this for the acting alone. And it stars Hugo Weaving, who would be watchable if all he did was sit on the end of the bed and eat an apple (>sigh< I should be so lucky…). I remember noticing him years ago in a tele series about the bodyline controversy (I like my cricket) and thinking he had terrific dramatic presence and a nice quirkily handsome face. The moment, near the beginning of the first “Lord of the Rings” film, when he appears as Elrond was the moment when I felt able to settle back into my seat with confidence that this was not going to be a disaster.

Now there’s an adaptation that could have gone badly belly-up. Hugely long, hugely ambitious, huge need for special effects of every kind known to man, cast of thousands, original text that to many of its fans is bordering on holy writ… Peter Jackson could so easily have c*cked the whole thing up roundly. I remember my horror when I saw a picture of Viggo Mortensen in the months before the opening. A blond man was playing Aragorn? Aargh! Sorry, but No Way is Aragorn blond. My relief when Mortensen first appeared, with his fair hair appropriately darkened, was considerable.

Overall, I think Jackson’s film versions are terrific, and an enormous achievement both in their own right as films and as adaptations. Almost all of the casting and almost all of the design is so spot-on as to be quite uncanny. But there are bits in each of the three films that irritated me when I first saw them – and these same bits still irritate me now. And they are all changes to the original. I know that adaptation necessitates making some changes; these are the changes that don't work.

Making Arwen an elven warrior woman at her first entry is fun, and politically correct, but it detracts from the courage and determination of Eowyn. It also makes the further changes to Arwen’s rôle nonsensical, as well as unnecessary, since the tough-but-tender cookie we meet in “The Fellowship of the Ring” subsequently becomes wet and submissive. At least Tolkien’s original Arwen is consistently wet.

The temporary rupture between Frodo and Sam is terribly contrived. The complete omission of the Scouring of the Shire is infuriating (for my money it is one of the most crucial episodes of the whole story).
Faramir nearly turning to the bad because of his proximity to the Ring is a direct contradiction of the whole way the character is drawn. Faramir is not like Boromir; he is wiser and more self-aware, and it’s mean to undermine this for the sake of a little extra tension.

Then there is the bizarre transformation of Denethor from a flawed and tragic figure into a slavering despot who sneeringly sends his only surviving son to certain death. This is pointless and frankly rather nasty. In the books Denethor is worse precisely because he is not so obviously bad. If this change is partly intended as a way to give Faramir a bit more to do, I would have preferred to see his courtship of Eowyn filmed instead – it’s a lovely little scene in the book, and it would have been nice to see David Wenham and Miranda Otto share an onscreen kiss.

And the Shire looks all wrong. It does; it looks as if it was colonised a generation or two ago. The Shire should be a complex agricultural landscape with all the visual markers of somewhere that has been farmed for centuries.

And there are no hop fields and no oast houses. But hobbits drink beer – hobbits love beer! Beer without hops – does such a thing exist?

On which ranting note I may go home and drink a little beer of my own, and wish I had Hugo Weaving sitting on my bed and eating the contents of my fruit bowl…

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