Tag Archives: film

Popular Adaptation – relax, it’s ok

While I can see big problems with films like Troy, 300 and Gladiator, I can’t honestly say that historical or mythological accuracy is one of them. Those who scorn such films usually have exactly the same argument: Troy is nothing like the Iliad, and 300 and Gladiator are full of historical inaccuracies – everything from the exact events to the military techniques used and the ordering of Maximus’ three names. I’ve met people who studied classics at university and have to make all kinds of excuses to themselves before going to see such films. I honestly don’t think these inaccuracies are a problem.

Troy is a film in its own right. There are a lot of problems with it, many of them in the form of Orlando Bloom, but its vast differences from the Iliad are unimportant. The Iliad has a lot of stylistic features that make an accurate film adaptation a near impossibility. Practically nothing happens during books 2-15 and much of what they are there for – giving a gruesome impression of the slaughter of the Trojan Wars – is achieved by several short battle sequences in the film. The Iliad is a two-layered story in which the events of the Trojan Wars are merely the playground setting for the puppeteering of the gods – all the major events of the Iliad are fated to happen and the main characters are aware of this before they occur. This quite simply wouldn’t work in a modern film. We live with the legacy of centuries of humanism that completely contradicts such a deterministic, entirely god-focussed viewpoint. Modern narratives often depend on the viewer/reader not knowing what happens at the end, and modern writers take huge interest in playing out and demonstrating the vast consequences of small decisions made (with free will) by their characters. Fate-based narratives would not please modern cinema-goers. It’s difficult enough to read the Iliad even with a fair understanding of pre-humanistic thought and the conventions of ancient writing – to a modern mind, the fact that the whole plot is predetermined removes half the appeal, and, to be brutally honest, makes it difficult to care. Modern film cannot be expected to accurately recreate this, absolutely central, aspect of the Iliad. Being “true to the original” would in the Iliad’s case be artistically and commercially suicidal.

Being true to the original not only is impractical in some cases but has little history of overwhelming artistic success. What those who sneer at popular adaptation of old stories seem to forget is that arguably the two most important writers of western history, Ovid and Shakespeare, were masters of exactly the same craft. Ovid’s Metamorphoses is the source of huge numbers of the Greek myths and legends we know today. He did not invent them, he adapted them and put them together in weird and wonderful ways: he was the first to join the stories of Echo and Narcissus together for example. The result was a fifteen-book work of unidentifiable genre and style that became a handbook of mythology and the source of almost every retelling since. It is in the nature of these stories that they change over time. Look at a copy of Robert Graves’ complete Greek Myths and you’ll find that each story has several different versions, and the footnotes to each story are enormously complex due to the maze of different sources for each one. The great writers of history were not creators, they were adapters.

The same holds true of Shakespeare. The vast majority of Shakespeare’s plays, including all his best known works – Othello, King Lear, Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream etc. – are based on earlier versions of the same stories. They differ hugely from their originals, for example Hamlet is a tale about a man struggling to commit murder because of the lack of proof and the enormous philosophical questions involved in such an act, rather than because he’s too young to do it (the point of the original Danish story). Shakespeare changed stories so that he could make them about what ideas he wanted to explore. This was a large part of his genius. Like Ovid’s, Shakespeare’s versions of the stories are the ones we remember, because they are the best and most influential retellings. Shakespeare was an innovator not of stories, but of style – he wrote plays in a way that had never been done before, and he told old stories in a way they had never been told before.

The question of “popular” writing also comes up here. Critics of such films as Troy point to the popular focus of the films, identifying literary classics as the real deal, but scorning such films as unintellectual and made for the common people, not the intelligent viewer. Again, it must be pointed out that Ovid and Shakespeare were popular writers. The common man read and enjoyed Ovid’s tales because they were fun, entertaining, and subversive. The upright, intellectual, proper people read Virgil, who’s Aeneid, while famous, has never had the same cultural impact as Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Shakespeare was the most popular playwright of his day (in a time when theatre was enormously popular in London, the equivalent of film) and his success is down to him writing to please, rather than writing to satisfy the intellectual needs of the elite.

I am not saying that Troy is the new Shakespeare. There are a lot of stylistic issues with it as I have said, ones that would make Shakespeare spin in his grave. What I am saying is that where films like these need to improve is in their writing, in their acting, and in other stylistic areas, and to criticise them for their lack of truth to the original legend or their lack of historical accuracy is not constructive and goes against the truth of literary history. My problem with the sudden arrival of biologically impossible fantasy creatures in 300 is the sudden and awkward change of genre it caused in what had up till then been a simple historical epic with no fantasy element, not the fact that there is no record of such creatures in Xerxes’ army. My problem with the vast changes to the character of Agamemnon in Troy is that I personally think it makes the relationship between him and Achilles less interesting, not the fact that it is different to the original myth. We call them adaptations for a reason. I have no problem with criticising an adaptation for stylistic reasons, but it does not matter if Hollywood has a different take on a very old story that has in any case changed beyond recognition since it’s original telling.

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Limitless – a masterpiece of hypothetical realism

Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper), hideously behind on a book contract, is offered a drug that opens up the unused 80% of his brain. It turns him into a limitless genius, with all the wealth, fame, fortune and danger that such a transformation entails.

I rarely see movies whose trailers do so little justice to them. I watched this movie in spite of its trailer, on a recommendation and out of interest with its subject, though I didn’t like the plot summary the trailer implied. The implication was a moral and ethical tale about identity and being yourself, teaching us yet again that you should never rely on anything but yourself. I despise idealism of this kind, but idealism was not what I was given. This is not a case of cliché dramatic irony, cries to the heavens and deep realisation of a still deeper philosophical truth that neatly ties in with some outdated traditional value. This is a genuinely thought-provoking and interesting exploration of its hypothesis, and above all it is realistic: there is neither a predictable curve to an idealistic moral end, nor a glorious wave of impossible good fortune culminating in a sickly, happy-go-lucky conclusion. This film is all that it should be, enough said.

Love Is All You Need? – a moving introduction to a new form

At the recommendation of a friend I recently sampled the YouTube LGBTQ short film scene. I watched several, but it was the one my friend introduced me to that really caught my attention. Love Is All You Need? is set in a hypothetical world, in which gay is the norm, and straight people, variously known as ‘heteros’, ‘queers’ and ‘breeders’, are outcasts of society, regarded as sinful and against nature. The film chronicles the growing up to adolescence of Ashley, a girl who dares to take an interest in the opposite sex.

It has been said of dystopian novels that they reflect not the society they describe, but the society they are written in, and this same theory applies forcefully to this hypothetical universe. The parallels are well enforced: comments by various characters, a religious sermon, graffiti and several shots of protestors carrying signs directly parodying those of the Westboro Baptist Church, to the effect of ‘GOD HATES BREEDERS’ etc., all help to create a horrifyingly familiar situation. The staggering baselessness and irrationality of real-life homophobia is beautifully captured by copying and pasting the same ideas into an antithetical situation. I shudder to think that it is perhaps only once they hear one of Ashley’s mothers comment on the ‘breeders’ moving in up the street (‘it’s a sin, it makes me sick just thinking about it’), and her instruction to Ashley to take a different route to school in the mornings to avoid their influence, that some viewers may realise the true nature of homophobia: here can be seen its total absence of logic or rational basis; it is an entirely emotional gut reaction, thought out to a minimal extent.

Continuing throughout the film is the idea that the whole situation is Ashley’s fault. Twice, when unspeakable acts of bullying are carried out on her, she is just scathingly told to clean herself up, and neither her parents nor her teacher give her any help or do much to comfort her. This is one of the most shocking details, besides the less subtle scenes of violence and condemnation, in the film, and gives a truly profound message about the way homosexuals are labelled, named and shamed in the real world.

The acting in this film is incredible, the writing powerful, the screenplay terrible and beautiful. Its message is an effective one on as important a social issue as exists in the Western world. As a concise, satirical fable, it is close to flawless. However, viewer discretion is advised: the film is extremely graphic in parts, and extremely upsetting.

See the film: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XCoFoKvfc6Y

The Hunger Games – everything Brazil was trying so hard to be

In The Hunger Games I see not only an exciting plotline, but a genuine statement about humanity. Suzanne Collins’ basic idea may not have been new, but her books have yielded a film that connects to its audience and explains its point, unlike a certain film I think it necessary to mention.

To be honest, I don’t think Brazil is even worth an entire review. It’s a strong candidate for the worst movie I have ever seen. It had an idea, taking the authoritarianism of 1984 and putting it in a counterfactually mechanical dystopia resembling a bizarre duality of modern Las Vegas and 1920s Berlin. It could never make up its mind what kind of film it was trying to be, juxtaposing a couple of cheap gags with supposedly grim and gritty scenes, followed by fantastical dream sequences. The gags were dull, the grit unnecessarily discomforting, the most memorable dream sequence only slightly shorter than the extended edition of Return of the King, and completely failing to get across whatever message it was trying to convey. Yet somewhere in there was a message, and I think it was most forcefully and revoltingly brought out in the use of colour. Against the general grey background, the rich of society were draped in lurid colours that would have had Picasso spinning like a blender in his grave. This stuck with me, I remembered it, and I knew what it meant. It was a prediction of an apocalyptically heightened future fashion culture. However, I’m unlikely to pay much attention to a piece of visual so sickening I spend half my time trying to blank it out.

This is where The Hunger Games comes in. That same hedonistic, extreme fashion culture is there, present and unmissable, yet it isn’t so in my face as to make me shudder. It isn’t even all bad, some of it is almost aesthetically pleasing. But the message is still there, in a subtle way, that sticks in the mind without superglueing itself to the discomfort centre of the brain. Authoritarianism is also explored in a less lurid way, though not without its drama. The main character, Katniss, has to go through sufferings and dilemmas that move and shock, all on account of a thoroughly authoritarian system. But each tragedy is presented in the tragic style, rather than the revoltingly gritty style that focuses on the unpleasant details rather than the bigger picture (cross reference James McAvoy vomiting into a filthy toilet in the recent post-apocalyptic modernisation of Macbeth). I defy the viewer’s heart to remain intact.

There are things wrong with The Hunger Games, there’s no denying, and you could argue its moral is an old one: it’s not a progressive piece of political thought. But it’s not just another dystopian movie either, and it isn’t just for kids. And as for the practicalities, the actors are brilliant, the visuals strong, the plotline elegant. Spick and span, and awesome.

Sweeney Todd – the best movie musical I have ever seen

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street was a film I expected to hate. While Gerard Butler’s acting makes the last twenty minutes of Phantom of the Opera an incredible emotional journey, it depresses me enormously that only the odd singer such as Samantha Barks or Catherine Zeta-Jones manages to get a good role in a movie musical. The priority is on fine-tuned acting ability, and directors tend to completely ignore slight complications like Hugh Jackman’s incredibly nasal vibrato and Russell Crowe’s complete inability to sing. Nevertheless, I gave Sweeney a try, and was pleasantly surprised.

Don’t get me wrong, Helena Bonham Carter’s portrayal of Mrs Lovett is dreadful, lacking any emotion in her singing voice, and completely devoid of comic timing. Nevertheless, persevering through the bizarre CGI opening credit sequence is well worth the wait. Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Sweeney is bang on what it should be. He can switch instantaneously from light-hearted and comical to the dark and self-destructive soul that Sweeney is. This is a role that requires an actor to portray killing another human being with a whole spectrum of emotions, from casual carelessness through desperate swiftness to apocalyptic anger. Depp executes each with ease or gusto as required. In his portrayal Sweeney’s paradoxical and deeply tragic combination of defeatism and grim determination comes across beautifully and heart-wrenchingly: the consummate murderer, his soul so crushed by the events of his past that he lacks the willpower to save his daughter from his nemesis’ clutches, yet gripped by an insatiable bloodlust.

It is true that Michael Ball sang the part better, but Depp does a good job for a man who doesn’t normally sing, and had the camera focussed on him and his expressions throughout the entire film, it would hardly have been less engaging. A shame that the same cannot be said for Bonham Carter, but this film is worth her inadequacy to see Depp at his best.