Sunday, December 7, 2008
On Hollywood, Narnia, and the Nature of Stories

So the other night, I rented Prince Caspian.

The Chronicles of Narnia were my first chapter books when I was a kid. I can actually remember when my mom bought them for me. I was outside the Waldenbooks at East Town Mall. She came out of the store and she handed them to me. It was a big deal. I seem to remember her saying, "I think you're ready for these." But I don't know if that is a true memory or not.

I do know that my mom was desperate to get me into reading chapter books. I just wasn't interested. I liked picture books. When we went to the library, I would check out as many as they would let me, then I would take them home and read them all inside a day. Then I would pester her to make another trip to the library....

My mom chose well. I loved the Narnia books. It's safe to say that they have a special place in my heart. It's also safe to say that I might be overly sensitive when it comes to changes made in the story in the process of turning it into a movie.

That said, I liked the movie version of The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. Sure, I had some quibbles, and a few things irritated me. But as a whole, I enjoyed it.

But Prince Caspian? Sucked. Sucked to a degree that made me angry. Sucked to the degree that I actually stopped watching the movie.

This never happens. I'm a narratovore. Once I start a story, I finish it. I can count the number of books I've stopped halfway through on one hand. And I can only think of one other movie that I actually stopped watching partway through.

I gave it a fair shake. I watched 40 minutes. Then, exasperated, I pushed the button on the DVD remote that tells me how much more time is left in the movie. The readout said that I had another hour and a half to go. Too much. I was done.

Now I'm well aware that you can't just take a book and use it as a screenplay for a movie. The change in medium necessitates changes in the way the story is told. You can do things in print that you can't do on the screen, and visa versa.

But here's the thing. The rules of storytelling don't change between mediums. Story is story. It doesn't matter if you're singing it around a fire or painting it on a cave wall.

That means that no matter how you're telling it, you need your story to possess certain qualities. You need tension. You need conflict. You need your audience to be emotionally involved. You need good characters and good interaction between those characters. You need verisimilitude, drama, humor....

Okay, you don't need ALL of those. But you should have most of them. And some are absolutely essential.

You know what isn't essential? Scenery. Pretty actors. CGI.

Don't get me wrong. Those things can be great additions to a movie. But they are not the story itself. Nor are they a functional story-substitute. They are the fancy icing roses on the corners of the cake. They only work because the cake is there, underneath. You can't sit down and eat a whole plateful of frosting roses. Well, you can if you're four years old or mentally deficient. But twenty minutes and a pound of frosting later you're vomiting pink foam all over the couch.

Why? Because story is story, and icing is icing. Why doesn't Hollywood realize this?

Now don't get me wrong, I understand how hard it is to tell a good story. There are a thousand things that can go wrong. I learned most of them firsthand by screwing up my own book for years and years until I finally got it right. I imagine it's even harder to do when you're part of a team. Editors, writers, directors, and producers all have their fingers in the pie. I imagine it's a classic case of too many cooks in the kitchen.

But when you're making a movie that costs a hundred million dollars, you think they would take care to get the story right despite all that. The story is the foundation of the movie. It's the cornerstone. It's the key.

Hold on. Two hundred million? They spent TWO HUNDRED MILLION DOLLARS on that?

I know where the money went, too. Icing. CGI. Scenery. They shot the movie in New Zealand, Slovenia, Poland, and the Czech Republic.

And the scenery was beautiful. The CGI was flawless. Fine. I understand wanting to have those things. But why isn't story given the same attention to detail?

Let's say they needed a centaur for the movie, and the CGI people worked for a couple of weeks and then came back with something that looked like it was made from binder twine, turds, and paper mache.

Would everyone just shrug and move on with the movie? No. Someone would say, "This sucks. You fail at your job. Go back and bring me a real-looking centaur."

And so the CGI is great. The scenery is gorgeous. The actors are pretty. And the story is a mess. How does story so consistently slip through the cracks? How can they not understand how important it is?

It's not like they were making it from whole cloth, either. They had the book as a roadmap. A story that worked well. A story with good tension, character interaction, and a layered series of smoothly functioning story arcs. Why did they make a point of changing things that worked?

Feh.

What really drove all of this home for me was what happened the very next night.

Sarah said, "I've got a movie that I want you to watch."

Me: What is it?

Sarah: Harvey.

Me: [Sigh] The one where the guy has the imaginary friend that's a rabbit? All sorts of people have tried to get me to watch that. It sounds dumb.

Sarah: It's really good.





Obviously I'm not interested, but I can see that Sarah is excited. And she's cute when she's excited. er. Cuter. When she's like that, saying no to her is like kicking a fluffy puppy.

Besides, as a whole, she has good taste in movies. She's the one that got me to watch Fight Club and American Beauty.

So I watch it. This movie is more than fifty years old. Black and white. Probably shot on a sound stage. The sum total of their special effects probably amounted to a piece of string tied to a doorknob. On top of all that, it was fullscreen. Which I hate. HAAAATE.

And you know what? It was brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. I laughed. I cried. I want to watch it again. The best movie that I've seen in... in a long while.

If they made that movie nowadays, they would get ILM to make a ten million dollar CGI rabbit. Keanu Reaves would play Elwood P. Dowd. There would be a car chase. It would be filmed on location in Vancouver, Prague, and Akron. And it would suck suck suck. It would suck to the tune of two hundred million dollars because none of those things is in service to the story.

That's all. Hope everyone is having a lovely weekend. And the next time you're looking for a movie, you should check out Harvey.

Yes you, Hollywood. I'm talking to you.


pat

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