Archive for the ‘Books & Comics’ Category

Trusting the Source Material

OK, after that game-centric intro, I feel compelled to start right out by writing about a problem I’ve had with some movies.  Cause, frankly, it’s on my mind.  What, you expected me to write about games right off the bat?

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” – Walt Whitman

In the spirit of these two great men, or at least in the spirit of purloining two fine quotes by these great men, I’m going to write about trusting one’s source material, rather than about games.  So there!

So, context is good. My wife and I watched “Fantastic Four” (2005) last night back-to-back with the sequel, “4: Rise of the Silver Surfer” (2007).  Both movies featured some substantial changes from their source material, and some of the changes worked while others troubled me.  I consider such changes to by and large fall into three categories: 1) media-inspired changes, 2) trivial changes, and 3) rewrites.

The first category includes all changes that are mandated by the shift from one medium to another.  Sometimes what works very well in a book might not come across with the same success in film, and so on.  Alan Moore rather famously has claimed, for instance, that ‘Watchmen’ was designed as a graphic novel, and he does not believe that any film can capture the essence of that opus.  Fair enough; we’ll see.

Let’s look though at an easy example: when filming The Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson et alia chose to omit the Scourging of the Shire; the events that transpired when the hobbits returned home only to discover that the war had preceded them home, and the Shire was occupied by hostile forces.  Many viewers felt that ‘Return of the King’ was already laden with too many false endings, and the audience would presumably be displeased with an additional half-hour of action after everything else was done.  I love that part of the series but understand and agree; for cinematic purposes the story is stronger without the Scouring.  The One Ring is destroyed, the King is crowned, the hobbits return home, and then the Fellowship ends at the Grey Havens.  That works.

The second category, trivial changes, is an easy one to identify and to spot.  Little changes are made to stories all the time when adapting them to new media.  To pick an example from “Fantastic Four”, the eponymous foursome gained their powers in the comics when a spaceship they were piloting hit a storm of cosmic rays.  In the movie, they were on a space station.  Meh, tom-ay-to, tom-ah-to.  This is a meaningless change and doesn’t trouble me; indeed the new version works as well as the old one.

The third category is the difficult one; sometimes it works quite well and sometimes it’s insultingly stupid.  Rewrites, in this context, are simply the scriptwriters’ way of saying they don’t trust the source material – and, to be fair, sometimes they’re right not to do so.  Sadly, more often they’re dead wrong. This is especially true in film adaptations of comic books.  Examples from the two movies we watched last night are all too easy to find.

Dr. Doom is one of the greatest and most iconic comic villains of all time; he’s a mastermind who threatens the entire world time and again.  What purpose is served by making him into a physical powerhouse who brawls with the Thing, instead of sticking with his original style (henchmen and robot duplicates and complicated multistep plans)?  I see no advantage, and it detracted from my enjoyment of the film.  Yes, it’s geeky, but it’s true.  I don’t mind changes for their own sake if they work at least as well, and if they’re trivial.  If you really want/need to make drastic changes to the source material though, I question the imperative to use that source material in the first place.  Going from a mastermind who thinks his way through problems (which justifies his position as the archenemy of Reed Richards) to a lightning-powered thug just stripped the character of all his gravitas and purpose.  He’s not interested in ruling the world anymore, just in hitting things with his newly-metallic fists and zapping them with energy bolts.  Yawn.

Another example from last night: the Silver Surfer.  In the film and unlike the comics, the surfboard is the source of his power; this fundamental alteration to the nature of the character was made for rather pointless plot reasons and frankly bothered me.  To wit: Doom’s natural reaction when seeing the Surfer was to make a plan to steal the Surfer’s power (because as we all know, ultimate power has always been Doom’s self-proclaimed destiny).  So, ok, he needs a way to steal the Surfer’s power.  The clumsy method in which this was done was to have Reed separate the Surfer from his board, while Doom laid plans to steal the board for himself later.  The board was a beacon and summoned Galactus – which raises several questions, e.g. ‘When does Galactus know the Surfer has found a suitable planet?’  If the Surfer has to manually send notification, presumably coordinates could be sent at the same time, so the beacon isn’t needed.

A much more elegant and respectful treatment would have been to leave the Surfer as-is from the comics.  The surfboard is a tool used to travel in space, nothing more.  Reed devises a device to steal the Surfer’s powers, and Doom hacks the plan and inserts his own machinery into Reed’s device.  When Reed steals the power, it is fed directly to Doom.  Since the Surfer has already summoned Galactus, the clock is ticking… forcing Reed to devise a way to steal the powers back from Doom.  Johnny still gets to do the Super-Skrull impersonation (perhaps to get the power-stealing device close enough, and for long enough).  The rest of the story proceeds as written.

I acknowledge that it’s a trivial change, but it’s just grating.  The story doesn’t NEED to make the board the source of power; it took me maybe 10 seconds to come up with the workaround above.  The story moreover doesn’t benefit from the change; it doesn’t make the character more interesting or easier to relate to, doesn’t make his plight (as herald of a universal evil working against his will) more poignant, doesn’t illuminate anything or add complexity.  It’s just a change in the basic nature of the character for no purpose I can see except that the writers didn’t really have respect for the source material.

I see these movies and I think to myself, “What were they thinking?”  There’s a property that’s deemed valuable enough to make a film out of it.  It’s valuable… why exactly?  Presumably because a) it was well-created in the first place and b) it has fans who like the material as is.  Nolan’s Batman isn’t precisely the same as the comics version, but it’s clearly a respectful rendition that’s firmly based in the spirit of the comics; and look how that’s paid off.  Consistent?  Yes, but not foolishly so; productively so.  No hobgoblins here, Mr. Emerson.