A Phoney by Another Name

An interesting article at Salon about the debate over whether or not to adapt Catcher in the Rye into a movie touches on something I’ve been thinking on for a while, namely, movie adaptations of books. For the record, I’m, indifferent to the debate about Catcher in the Rye. I’m one of maybe two people on the planet who thinks that book is highly overrated.[1]

Whether or not Salinger ever wanted it adapted, he’s dead and its pretty much just a debate of not if but when. And since Hollywood doesn’t make original movies anymore,[2] When will very likely be soon and repeatedly. But why? When did having a book or comic or song or board game made into a movie become the cultural standard on which a work’s merit must be judged? Whcih isn’t to say that some adaptations aren’t great but not every story works as a movie.

I’m just finishing up reading The Three Musketeers and the second most striking thing about the book[3] is how it highlights just how all pale imitations of the source material all the film adaptations are. More than that, they never could be anything but second rate retellings of the story. It’s too big, too wide and to much to put in a single movie. A Television miniseries might do it justice, if it were on HBO or showtime. No timid Network would ever touch a story where the main characters were a bunch of wine-drunk sword fighters, manipulating mistresses for their living and picking fights with the guard of the Cardinal of France just for fun. The values-dissonance alone would drive the dimwitted TV audience of today into fits.

Catcher in the Rye would never work as a movie for a whole host of other reasons, mainly having to do with the fact that most of the book is just a running monologue of the main character’s rambling self loathing and whining. Yeah, I’m sure that will do well. Maybe they can run it against Avatar 2.

The point is, Catcher and Musketeers and a hundred other novels don’t need to be movies.[4] They work just fine as written. And if Hollywood started making real movies again and not just 3 hour long commercials for T-shirts and pop tarts, with nothing but gimmicks to prop up their lousy craftsmanship, maybe Salinger and other writers skeptical of what sort of a mockery would be made of their work wouldn’t be so fearful and reluctant to provide their talent to the dream factory.

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1. And besides, its influence on writing and film making is, for better or worse, already apparent, so the only reason to adapt it now is to cash in on Baby Boomer/Gen X nostalgia.

2. They’re making a movie out of Battleship. The board game. With the little pegs and plastic ships, where you bore each other for an hour calling out grid coordinates. Yes, that one. It’s bad enough that Hollywood has grown so risk adverse that they’re rebooting and remaking films that aren’t even old, but that they’d rather make a movie out of a board game than greenlight something original, just so they can have something familiar to tie into.

3. The most striking thing about the book is just how great it is. Here’s a sprawling adventure story full of swearing, fighting, lust, intrigue, sex, scandal, and gallantry. what’s not to love? Half the book is made up of the various ways D’artangion and the Musketeers get money from their mistresses and then piss it away on wine, gambling and doctor’s bills, all while swearing that they aspire to greater things. Athos keeps saying how he’s going to quit the Musketeers and join an abbey. He’s like all those Americans who keep threatening to move to Canada, only he’s also a bad ass poet and sword fighter.

4. Mine aren’t among them. Never let it be said I was too proud not to cash in. Call me Hollywood. The film rights can be yours.

A Scenic View of Tannhäuser Gate

My book club will be discussing Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? on Saturday so I thought I’d write out my discussion topics beforehand. Which is why this may read like a rambling and unfocussed sort of thing than a proper essay.

If you had not told me that Blade Runner was based on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? I would have been hard pressed to guess that as the source material. “Loosely” based is an understatement. Riddley Scott may have glanced at the book sitting on a shelf. Once. Someone related to the film, possibly the second Grip or Best Boy’s third assistant, may have read the book and told someone a half-remembered plot synopsis. The book and movie overlap in that some characters share names and there are human-like androids hunted by bounty hunters. and that’s it.

Normally, this would be a sticking point for me but Blade Runner is such a good movie and Androids such a weird book that I don’t mind that they are essentilaly two different things. I’m glad Riddley Scott changed the title,[1] because it would have been confusing otherwise. Anyone sitting down to watch Blade Runner and expecting to see anything about Mercerism and Empathy boxes and Deckard’s preoccupation with owning a live animal would have been massively disappointed.

I could talk about the film all day long. It’s a classic that has held up remarkably well for a movie that is almost 30 years old. Few sci-fi films from the 80s can say that.

So. The book has a whole subplot about how fallout from the nuclear war[2] has made whole species and phyla already extinct, while the remaining real animals are highly sought after status symbols. Deckard, being just a poor cop who shoots androids for a living can only afford an electric sheep. Ersatz robot animals fill the need for the less fortunate and poor to own an animal, to have something to devote themselves to, as caring for a living creature is a sign of compassion and one of the dominant precepts of Mercerism, a new religion that Deckards wife, Iran is heavily into.[3]

Mercerism is such an obviously fake religion, even more so than Scientology, if you can imagine it. Over the course of the story, it’s even proven to be false, the empathic scenerio poeple experience when they use the empathy box to commune directly with mercer turns out to be just a series of short films made years before. It’s like a cult that watches clips of Charlie Chaplin films and builds a religion out of being kind to tramps. Very odd.

The whole Mercerism scam is uncovered by a popular radio/TV show host named Buster Friendly who is very clearly an android and runs a show that most poeple watch religiously. So it’s sort of a low grade religious war between Pop culture cults, The Little Tramp Vs. Coco. And, keep in mind, this is all just the subplot material.

The Andies[4] are depicted as grim, nihilistic sociopaths. You aren’t rooting for them in any way. Roy is barely there at all, certainly not the leering somber poetic replicant from the movie, who just wants more life. He and the rest of the Andies are pretty much resigned to the fact that they’re going to be hunted down and shot by Deckard and are just trying to prolong this from happening as much as they reasonably can, whicvh is not long at all. Pris shows up early and hangs out, manipulating a chicken head named Isadore.[5] Isadore really just wants to be liked and since he can’t even afford fake animals, he adopts the Andies and tries to take care of them.

As with many of Dick’s later novels, androids has a weird, anticlimactic mind fuck of an ending, in which the ghost of Mercer, the debunked ersatz prophet helps him shoot the Andies, then make shim drive to the deserted foreboding land of Oregon where Deckard finds a toad that he at first thinks is real, until he take sit home and his wife shows him that it’s electric. The End.

The movie bares so little resemblance to the book it was based on that it’s almost impossible to say that you prefer the book over the movie. That Blade Runner came from Androids, even in some weird distorted way, is one of those weird achievements of cinematic history that we’ll just have to marvel at. If pressed, i’d say I like the movie better, if only because it’s ambiguity and narrative structure is a lot more thought out and elgantly conveyed. Philip K. dick was not exactly a prose stylist and some of his sentences are clunkier than they aught to be, some of his ideas even more so.

Not that the book is without merit. Androids has some really great examples of those oddly charming anachronisms you find in mid-20th century sci-fi. The cops use laser guns but carry around blurry printouts of duty sheets. Videophones are in every home and flying car. There are weird, borderline telepathic mood enhancing machines, ubiquitous celebrity driven programming but no internet, and of course it’s 2019, and the Soviet Union is still alive and kicking. A strange and halucinatory mixture of the profound and the kitsch, all duking it out to save your soul, so long as you’re human and can prove it.

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1. There’s an interesting story in itself: there apparently is another book titled Blade Runner, about futuristic black market organ trading, (which sounds an awful lot like Repo Men, quite honestly). Scott apparently bought the film rights to that now-obscure book solely because he liked the title. I wonder how the author of this now obscure book feels about that? Searching any bookstore oronline will land you hip-deep in a nest of the movie’s fandom.

2. That, in good old Phildickean fashion, no one really remember. The details are all a bit fuzzy for the characters, even the ones who aren’t chicken heads, but it’s generally regarded as this unavoidable natural disaster that happened int he past and is just one of those things. The slow death of a planet caused by humanity’s uncontrollably need to destroy things.

3. Oh right, Deckard has a wife. She’s not in the movie, as it would be too complicated. He still sleeps with Rachel though, but the dynamics of that relationship are completely reversed. Rachel in the book is an emotionally manipulative sociopath who pretty much seduces Deckard (who in tern lets her for reasons that are only slightly creepy) because she cana nd then kills the goat he baught with the bounty money he earned offing a few other androids. Deckard and Rachel don’t run off together but neither does Deckard rape Rachel, as he doe sin the movie.

4. They’re only called Replicants in the movie, and referred to as Andies or Androids in the book.

5. Isadore fills the role of JF Sebastianin the movie. Chicken heads are basically people who are too damaged genetically to be allowed to immigrate to the off-world colonies. Isadore is a retarded manchild who realizes a little too late that he’s being jerked around by Pris and Roy. He’s not a super smart geneticist with a disorder like Sebastian but just a not too bright guy who works for a fake animal hospital, pickign up and repairing malfunctioning electric pets. He has one of the saddest scenes in the book, where he picks up a sick real cat and doesn’t realize it’s owner thought they were a real vet until the animal dies.

Next On Sci-Fi Theater…

Over at io9, Charlie Jane asks a very good question:

Is science fiction uniquely suited to blockbuster movies, because it’s a genre that lends itself to explosions and rampant breasts? And conversely, is the Hollywood version of science fiction too action-oriented ever to spawn more quirky, arty shows like Mad Men or Glee?

The question arose because of Entertainment Weekly’s Mark Harris, who pointed out the inescapable conclusion that TV shows are generally of higher quality than movies. He reached this conclusion by comparing the abysmal movie selection in the theaters with the stellar selection of dramatic television programming starting up their summer seasons. But this isn’t a recent problem. Going back years, maybe even decades, there’s certain expectations that arise when it comes to science fiction.

In the minds of most people, Sci-fi is just a shallow mess of cliches that lead to boobs and explosions. Literate people know differently but we’re not exactly Hollywood’s target audience.This isn’t entirely the fault of Hollywood execs, as movie goers still pay money to see movies like Transformers. As long as we’re letting the trash be the only example on the Big Screen, no one will give a rats ass about good sci-fi movies.

And until there’s a sci-fi show that doesn’t blow it’s wad of goodwill and potential on an ending that isn’t A)quasi-mystical, B) incoherent, or C) Both then no one will take it seriously on TV.

What we need to prove Sci-fi in a visual medium isn’t shallow is a science fictional equivalent of Mad Men or The Wire. Something that can get people talking and not be silly.

(I’d settle for the sci-fi equivalent of True Blood, a soap opera with T&A that has tight storytelling and good acting, but only as a stepping stone.)

As for what to do about good sci-fi movies, I’m out of ideas. Until the franchises and remakes die off, there’s really no hope for original sci-fi movie making. The inglorious demise of Moon proved that. What should have been the biggest Science Fiction film since Star Wars or Blade Runner was swallowed whole and shat out by the likes of Transformers and Avatar.

As Charlie Jane suggests, this may be the result of the cognitive demands of a mythos-heavy genre show:

[…] maybe the thing that’s making television more ambitious, and a denser experience for audiences, is harder to do with genre shows because it’s asking too much of viewers. We can handle genre elements within the predictable formula of the self-contained story — but if you’re going to tell us a long, twisty story where every installment just takes you further into the world of the characters, then that’s asking enough, right there. You can’t expect the average viewer to deal with long-running narrative complexity and grapple with aliens or time travel. Or maybe the model of the long-running serialized drama doesn’t work with genre elements, because the mythos becomes too confusing for the average person.

This sounds like a compelling argument and there may be a microgram of truth to it but I think there’s something more fundamental goign on here.

There’s nothing original anymore. This isn’t just a cynical complaint, it’s an operating principal for being a successful creative person.  Understand this principal and move on to creating an interesting well developed story that uses the tropes and hooks we’re familiar with to do something with a satisfying dramatic arc. Dollhouse wasn’t too original for it’s own good. It was dicked around with by the usual suspects at Fox. Had it been on Showtime or HBO it’d be starting it’s 3rd season now. But that’s neither here nor there.

Let’s use True Blood as an example: this is a story that uses familiar tropes (vampires and werewolves exist). But what sets it apart from Twilight is the characters and how the writers develop that concept into a compelling story. You could do a Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon style retrofuturist sci-fi series, complete with ray guns and rockets with a contemporary spin on it and not only would people love it, they’d demand more. The catch is, the writing and characters. There’s no intrinsic difference between vampires and aliens or werewolves and robots. They’re just different flavored metaphors.

But to do a successful show with either, they have to be up to the standards of good TV writing we’ve come to expect. That was not the case with the recent Flash Gordon series but it very well could have been, if someone had been put in charge who had vision. Syfy cut corners though, and that’s the first step towards doom, regardless of medium.