B-Movies Extended: Movies That Missed The Point

Bibbs and Witney take a look at remakes and adaptations that get it entirely wrong, from The Passion of the Christ to The Last Airbender. 

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

Now, I'm not familiar with the 2003 Mark Millar comic book Wanted, but I did see the 2008 feature film based on it. The film, from what I saw, was an over-the-top, and rather bug-nutty male power fantasy about an office wonk who was spirited away from his job by a particularly sultry Angelina Jolie, and forcefully inducted into a secret cabal of assassins who could change the paths of bullets with their minds (or something), and who received their instructions from a magical loom (or something). It was a rather dumb action film that was mildly popular when it came out, and is now, a few years after the fact, being worked into a sequel (even though, if I recall, most of the central characters died at the end of the first. But whatever).

Bibbs, however, on our last episode of The B-Movies Podcast (which, at Episode #35, can now legally run for president), announced that he was indeed familiar with the source material for Wanted, and pointed out how wildly differing the two were; the filmmakers did not merely change a few incidents, story elements, or characters, but they seemed to have changed the entire premise, which was, if Bibbs is to be believed, a much more interesting and complex idea than what we saw in 2008.

This happens a lot, though, doesn't it? This kind of Hollywood misunderstanding. I don't really need to reiterate this point, as the recent, decade-long assault of remakes has made this point abundantly clear, but Hollywood is intensely eager to bank on name recognition above all else. Hollywood studios, you see, rarely invest millions of dollars in something they don't feel will instantly make its money back. If they can't get a big star (which is the usual route), they'll make the film look like a previous success. If that's not enough, they'll simply update an old familiar saw, and hope that the cultural consciousness with vaguely recall the title (or at least absorb it through osmosis), and shell out for this new version. How many remakes are actually warranted? I will grant that there are a few; I'm rather fond of Martin Scorsese's The Departed, Werner Herzog's Nosferatu is astonishing, and I'm always eager to see any new Shakespeare adaptation. But, as we all pretty much feel at this point, the remake machine was creaky to begin with, and needs to shut down for a while.
 


But in this desperate grab of ever-dwindling recognizable properties, Hollywood will often forget what made the original striking to begin with. There are scads of movies out there that look at a famous book, play, or previous movie, and, by remaking/adapting it, entirely miss the point, the themes, the function, and (naturally) the striking originality of the source material. These are films that make us roll our eyes in pained frustration, and hope that this well-publicized film version will not sully the strength of the book/play/movie that we previously loved. Y'know, like what happened with Wanted.

In that spirit of frustration, Bibbs and I have decided to list a few (and only a few) adapted feature films that truly got lost in translation.

 

Romeo + Juliet (dir. Baz Luhrmann, 1996)

William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet (c. 1592) is probably one of the single most-read plays in English, having been handed, year after year, to millions of American and British schoolchildren over the course of the centuries. And while most teachers focus on the gorgeous romantic language of the two title characters, and the youthful energy of Mercutio, and we've all, likely, had to write at least one paper on the play, I still feel the need to point out a basic tenet that is often forgotten: Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy. A tragedy. Not a romance. While the love of these two ignorant little kids (aged 16 and 13, remember) is beautifully rendered by some rather striking romantic poetry, it's their end that really defines the play. They both, in a fit of familial conflict and protracted misunderstanding, each believe the other to be dead, and both commit suicide. They don't get a final farewell, or a moment of catharsis. They simply, out of adolescent romantic rage, kill themselves.

Baz Luhrmann, that master of confusing flash, and director of several overrated films, in 1996, made a film version of Romeo and Juliet, wherein he set the action in modern times (“longswords” were a brand of gun), and ramped up the style to look like an MTV music video. Many people responded positively to the style, and while I'm not so keen on the film, I do appreciate the experiment. But Luhrmann, at the end of his film, completely lost me, and pretty much blew Shakespeare's entire vision. Rather than being eternally separated, Luhrmann staged the double suicide scene as a tender farewell, where Romeo and Juliet had a final, heart-rending moment together. Romeo died in Juliet's arms, proclaiming his love. This adds a note of insufferably angsty teenage melodrama to a scene that was previously possessed of real adult tragedy. This is an easy play to stage, sir. Why'd you mess with it?

 

HALLOWEEN (dir. Rob Zombie, 2007)

You know what I find so chilling about the mute serial killer Michael Myers in John Carpenter's 1978 classic Halloween? That he cannot be reasoned with. Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance) explains at one point that Myers, while locked up in a mental hospital, never spoke a word, but was clearly simmering with evil. When we later see Myers, wearing that spooky white mask, we know he intends us harm, and that there is nothing we can do to convince him otherwise, or even distract him from the task at hand. He will kill you. It's just what's he's built for. He takes on a supernatural quality (and this was before he became legitimately and actually supernaturally immortal in sequels), and becomes something spookier, larger than life, indestructible, terrifying. He is the ultimate killing machine. He is a cipher for our fears. That's where his power lies.

In 2007, Rob Zombie was hired to remake Halloween, and his approach, while gritty and gut-churning and brutal, and even occasionally scary, kind of missed the point as to why Michael Myers was so scary. Zombie, you see, was interested in the actual origin of Michael Myers; The psychology of what made this monster tick. We were treated to an extended sequence where we saw the young Michael at home, and the horrors he suffered at the hands of his family. Is it me, or does this kind of dissection of an icon make it less interesting? A silent monstrous boogeyman is much scarier when our imaginations are filling in the gaps. Spelling it out for us demystifies the fear, and declaws it.

 

CHICAGO (dir. Rob Marshall, 2002)

Harkening back to Baz Luhrmann for a second, the success of his 2001 film Moulin Rouge! had Hollywood eager to put more musicals into production (musicals, it has often been point out, rarely extend beyond the kid-friendly animated feature these days, and Broadway is actually using films as inspiration when, a few decades previous, the reverse was the case). Hence, the adaptation to the screen of the famed Kander and Ebb musical Chicago. The final film was also a huge success, and won an Academy Award for Best Picture. The success of the film frustrated me, however, as I was familiar with the original production, and I seemed to be the only one to see how off base the film version was.

Chicago, I declare, is a black comedy. It's wicked and snarky and cynical and fun. It has a comically acidic tone that was brought out by the production's racy costumes and sexy choreography by Bob Fosse. The 2002 film version was not a black comedy. I'm not exactly sure what it was. A limp legal thriller with musical numbers in it, I suppose. Rob Marhsall somehow got it stuck in his head that every musical needed to be glitzy and stagey, bright and magical, and seemed to stay on that note. Musicals, I would like to remind you, can be dark and funny and weird. Look at anything by Sondheim. Marshall, however, seemed to have forgotten this when adapting Chicago. He also seemed hellbent on casting actors – and not singers and dancers – in his adaptation, resulting in choppy editing to hide the fact that these people couldn't dance. What's more, he staged the film's musical numbers as if they were elaborate fantasies imagined by Roxie, the film's anti-heroine. What greater disservice can one do to a musical than marginalize the music as fantasy asides? The more I think about this film, the madder I get.

 

THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST (dir. Mel Gibson, 2004)

I'm not a Roman Catholic, so maybe this springs from a simple dogmatic misunderstanding, but I fail to see the true point behind watching Jesus Christ getting the ever-loving snot beaten out of him for 90 minutes. Now I'm no ignoramus; I do understand that in Catholic teaching, Christ's suffering and painful crucifixion is central to our absolution. Jesus died for our sins, and suffered so that we may come unto the kingdom of Heaven. So I know that The Passion plays a central role during mass.

But it seems to me that by merely seeing Christ's suffering and his suffering alone, it kind of eschews his importance as a holy figure, a teacher, and a philosopher. Gibson is sure, in his famed religious film, to show us a few flashbacks of Christ during happier times, giving parables and hanging with his disciples, but these seem like rushed little tidbits that feels less like an earnest look at his teachings, and more like a greatest hits reel. Without the context of his importance, or at least a look at what he was saying to stir up the locals, his suffering seems less like a noble martyrdom, and more like a fetishistic violence reel. Of course, Jesus is, one must admit, one of the single most important figures in all of Western civilization, so perhaps Gibson assumed we knew his context already. It just would have been nice (said the calm Protestant) to have focused more on Jesus' reaffirmations of life, rather than his bloody, bloody, bloody death.

 

NEXT: Bibbs explains how bad adaptations actively ruin their source material, whether the original authors admit it or not, and offers some examples of his own…


FROM THE DESK OF WILLIAM BIBBIANI:

A lot of writers and filmmakers, if you ask them about a shoddy film adaptation of their works, will say they are nonplussed by its failures. I’m sure on one side there’s an element of Schadenfreude – “Well, I knew how to make it work!”– but what they usually say is that the remake doesn’t affect their original version, which is still readily available at bookstores or Best Buys (increasingly the only retail location that sells DVDs, unfortunately) near you. I sympathize with their plight, but at best they’re wrong about this, and at worst they’re outright lying…maybe even to themselves.

A case in point, which comes up regularly in my conversations at least, is Witney’s superb example of Halloween. Obviously, the John Carpenter version remains a milestone horror classic, which plays just as well today as it did upon its inception, relatively unmarred by the cacophony of inferior knockoffs which followed in its wake (not to mix metaphors). Nowadays, if you ask somebody if they’ve seen Halloween, you have to clarify which version you mean. Rob Zombie has injected himself, and his misdirected version of the story, into every conversation about the original film. The original Halloween remains technically unmarred, but it is now intrinsically linked to the inferior version, which doesn’t quite sully its significance but will (until the remake slinks away from the public consciousness, which I am fairly certain it will) taint it somewhat, at least in the years to come. Another example: in a recent interview at CraveOnline, director Rod Lurie explained that he remade Straw Dogs because he disagreed with the ugly worldview espoused by Sam Peckinpah in the original, classic film. He didn’t make a movie of his own to convey a different message, he made a film with the exact same name and storyline as the original, and as such forcefully interjected his own message into conversations about the original work, which comes across as a bit underhanded, doesn’t it?
 


I spoke quite heatedly about Wanted on this week’s B-Movies Podcast, and it’s a prototypical example of this unfortunate trend. The original mini-series, turned trade paperback, was a modest critical success whereas the feature film was a box office hit. The result is that an entire generation – the exact same generation that should have been reading the comic – is now more familiar with the bizarre, poorly conceived movie version as opposed to the exceptional (and admittedly still bizarre) work that deserves to be the main talking point instead.

Some remakes or adaptations vary wildly from the source material in an effort to convey a different, but still fair interpretation. Perhaps even portray elements which could not have been dealt with as overtly in the original due to changing cultural tides or shifts in the Hollywood paradigm, such as the movement away from a stultifying “Production Code”which limited “mature”content in all mainstream films. Adrian Lyne’s Lolita is an inferior film to Stanley Kubrick’s version, but at least it attempted to adapt Vladimir Nabokov’s work more directly than the 1962 version, which injected a greater sense of comedy into the tale in an apparent attempt to make it more palatable to the Production Code, and as such remains in my eyes a noble, if rather failed, effort as opposed to a merely “bad”remake. Another, perhaps more interesting case is Kihachi Okamoto’s truly wonderful samurai movie Kill!, which was based off the same Shugoro Yamamoto short story, “Peaceful Days,”as Akira Kurosawa’s famed Yojimbo sequel, Sanjuro. Despite conveying the exact same plot and themes of unconventional nobility, the two films are radically different. Okamoto’s version is a clearly a comedy, Kurosawa’s is clearly a drama, but the varied takes on the same material only serve to solidify the original story’s versatility, and the power of its engaging, meaningful plotline. Both are classics.

Like Witney, I bring with me today a handful of recent films which aren’t just (or even necessarily) bad remakes or adaptations, which can spring from even the noblest intentions, but rather missed the point so thoroughly that they are practically cautionary tales. I’d tell you to enjoy, but that would be disingenuous.

 

THE SPIRIT (dir. Frank Miller, 2008)

Will Eisner’s original comic book series of The Spirit has been described as the “Citizen Kaneof comic books. ”The shoe pretty much fits. Like Orson Welles, Will Eisner miraculously retained ownership of his property at a time when storytellers were otherwise indentured servants (the creators of Superman, or at least their families, are still embroiled in legal battles over their rights to the character). But more importantly, Eisner’s work represented both a superior display of all the artistic qualities comic books had represented up until its creation, and a giant leap forward for the medium to which practically every comic book owes a debt to this day, from revolutionary page layouts to artful, meaningful examinations of the character, his world, and the themes related to it. The Spirit was, by Eisner’s admitted intention, a superhero on the surface only. He wore no costume, and Eisner only gave him a tiny domino mask in a successful effort to convince his publishers otherwise. He fought crime, but not supervillains. He was a human noir hero in a stylized but recognizable world riddled with realistic thematic issues.

In 2008, Frank Miller, afellow comic book storyteller and personal friend of Eisner’s, set about making a feature film of The Spirit in a similar vein to Sin City, which Miller co-directed with Robert Rodriguez. But whereas Sin City was a (mostly) shot-for-shot recreation of Miller’s original illustrations and artistic intentions, The Spirit almost completely ignored everything about Eisner’s work except for his artistic style. Everything else about The Spirit screams “Frank Miller.”Actually, given the green screen approach to making the movie, even the visual style does too. Miller turned Eisner’s everyman into an actual superhero, negating the entire premise of the comic. He turned Eisner’s supporting cast of strong, and buxom, female characters into a menagerie of hyper-sexualized stock characters straight from Miller’s own mind, which many have described as overtly sexist. The only redeeming value to the picture would have been if it worked on its own merits, but of course it does not. The flimsy, ridiculous plot contrasted with Eisner’s smart storylines, the flimsy characters failed to craft much rooting interest, and the action sequences were so over-the-top that they fell to their death. I still consider The Spirit to be the worst film of the last decade, and only partly for missing the point so thoroughly.

 

GULLIVERS TRAVELS (dir. Rob Letterman, 2010)

Jonathan Swift originally wrote the classic fantasy Gullivers Travels in 1726, under a title so long that it takes less time to apologize for not including it than actually write it out. On the surface, the book – about a man who becomes lost at sea and travels to various fantastical realms – was a satire of the then-popular “traveler’s tales”genre, of which the name is an apt description. But more than that it was a satire of human nature, with each world representing a different aspect of man’s folly. In the first part of the story, Lemuel Gulliver travels to Lilliput, where he is so much taller than the entire population that he becomes a stand-in for their own army. He eventually refuses to conquer an opposing land and finds the Lilliputian government decidedly fickle. They betray Gulliver and sentence him to be blinded.

Gulliver would eventually escape his fate and continue to many other worlds with many other themes beyond overt criticisms of corrupt politicians and the folly of war, but for some reason this first story is the one most often filmed, such as in the recent 2010 adaptation by Monsters and Aliens co-director Rob Letterman. The film stars Jack Black, and is a mediocre but watchable film about a loser who winds up in a land where his size makes him the greatest in the land. But rather than explore the original, genuinely interesting topics of Jonathan Swift’s work, Letterman & Co. transformed the tale into a by-the-numbers comedy cliché of a movie, in which Gulliver learns the importance of…now stick with me on this…“just being yourself.”To describe it as a missed opportunity would be most generous indeed. Mildly entertaining? I’ll give it that. Good? Not really. Fewer films lack this much ambition, which ironic given the scope of the production.

 

THE LAST AIRBENDER (dir. M. Night Shyamalan, 2010)

The television series of Avatar: The Last Airbender (renamed in the theatrical version thanks to that other Avatar) remains – and I stand by this – one of the best television series ever created. Beautifully animated, classically plotted and brimming with fully-realized characters, the animated series tells the Eastern philosophy-influenced story of a young boy who rebels against his responsibilities and gradually learns to accept them. Aang (Zach Tyler Eisen in the series, Noah Ringer in the live-action movie) is the latest reincarnation of the Buddha-like Avatar. Each kingdom of the world is represented by a different element – air, water, earth and fire – and natives of each land are often born with the ability to “bend” these elements to their will. Only the Avatar can master all four elements, and as such has the unique ability to exist in each culture and unite them despite centuries of conflict. At the start of the story, Aang flees from his responsibilities like many another young boy only to disappear for a century, frozen Captain America-style in an iceberg. He eventually awakens and travels the land encountering the people who depended upon him but suffered from his absence, and goes on a truly remarkable journey to manhood with a sizable supporting cast which represented various aspects of his own personality, station and personal growth.

To describe the myriad of problems with M. Night Shyamalan’s film adaptation, The Last Airbender, is a mighty undertaking better suited for an edition of We Can Fix It (I’ve actually been avoiding it until now since it’s such a mammoth proposition, but it’ll happen sooner than later). Suffice it to say, the feature film makes it seem as if Shyamalan never even watched the series. He changed the pronunciation of the characters’ names and their ethnic identities, which were originally conceived as smart cultural commentary and are now merely arbitrary. The good guys are white, which they weren’t before, the bad guys are now Indian (the civilization I’m sure we all think of when we ponder imperial nations colonizing distant lands), and the characters are so “off” that it’s like Shyamalan flicked a switch. Gone is the tale of joyous irresponsibility leading to genuine maturity, and in its place is a sad sack tale of a depressed young boy who stays equally depressed throughout the narrative, and learns little. The Last Airbender is full of hot air. (Yuk-yuk.)

 

SILENT HILL (dir. Christophe Gans, 2006)

When Roger Ebert brought up the whole “videogames aren’t art” debate a few years ago, avid fans of the medium scrambled to come up with examples that disproved his thesis. In fact, they came up with so damned many that the lack of a cohesive single example seemed to prove their point, but one of the video games mentioned most often was Silent Hill 2, a moody, fascinating story about a widower traveling to the town of “Silent Hill” to meet his dead wife, who mysteriously sent him a letter years after her death. Once there, he discovers a nightmare world filled with intriguing metaphoric examinations of his own neuroses. The popular villain “Pyramid Head” represented his squelched masculinity with his muscled form and engorged phallus of a sword. The sexualized monsters, like the buxom undead nurses, represented his dead wife and his own stifled libido. And so on.

Christophe Gans’ not-altogether-bad film adaptation, Silent Hill, mostly adapted the story of the original, rather inferior video game but incorporated elements of Silent Hill 2 without rhyme or reason. The story, now about a mother seeking her lost adopted child, no longer supports hyper-sexualized imagery since the thematic elements of the narrative are maternal in nature, rather than based on heterosexual desire. The look of the film remains intriguing, and the suspense is often palpable, but what began as an unusually well conceived horror tale was sadly dovetailed into another, only mildly-related narrative that did not benefit from  the merger. It would be like adapting Dracula but dominating the film with imagery more closely related to, say, Frankenstein, with recurring elements of man attempting to play God rather than a focus on the perverse seductions inherent to the tale. The movie of Silent Hill was a serious misstep, but it was a fairly watchable enterprise regardless.

 

WHAT MOVIE ADAPTATIONS DO YOU THINK MISSED THE POINT ENTIRELY?