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Posts from the ‘Movie Reviews’ Category

Pacing and Narrative Structure: How The Hobbit and Django Unchained Screwed Up


At first glance, Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained are fairly dissimilar. One is the tale of a beleaguered young man who is put on the path to a quest by an older, bearded wise man. The other has a dragon.

Jokes aside, both movies have come in for some criticism, though Django Unchained has gotten far less criticism than I think it deserves. Fans of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (myself included) were fairly incensed by the liberties The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey took with its source material. And some folks have been grumbling about Django Unchained on grounds of race, representation, and its indulgent depiction of violence (though why anyone would have expected anything else from Tarantino, I have no idea). But these criticisms (deserved or not) are not what I took away from the two films. Instead, I think that both movies – especially when taken together – can show us something interesting about the way that pacing stems from the story’s narrative structure and its presentation.

Where Jackson’s The Hobbit Fails

Tolkien purposefully kept The Hobbit short, simple, and very focused. This choice is exceedingly clear when we compare it to The Lord of the Rings, which features an epic scope and scale. The Hobbit – thematically and artistically – was never designed to be a big story, and its narrative structure is therefore constrained.

When Tolkien first wrote the book, and when his editor first edited it, they determined how best to communicate the narrative and its themes to the reader. They had to decide which information to include, what sequences to portray and which to leave “off-camera”. These are not – as Jackson’s The Hobbit would suggest – idle choices. They are the foundational choices any decent creator makes, sometimes intuitively and sometimes painstakingly, but always integral to the narrative.

Tolkien’s book focuses on a simple man hobbit, one Bilbo Baggins. Yes, on his adventures, Bilbo stumbles into other characters’ epic (Thorin Oakenshield) and tragic (Gollum and Thorin both) journeys. But Bilbo’s narrative is neither epic nor tragic. Tolkien chose to focus on the narrow, pastoral concerns of an anachronistic, pastoral character. Through Bilbo’s perspective, Tolkien looks in on Thorin’s epic journey and Gollum’s tragedy. But – like Bilbo – we remain outside looking in. The Hobbit as a result reads like an anti-epic, specifically presenting the futility of a traditional epic structure.

This fact – apparent, I should think, to most of The Hobbit’s readers – apparently escaped Peter Jackson et al. Whether out of nostalgia for Tolkien’s (actually epic) Lord of the Rings, or a desire to stretch a short book into three movies, or simply the belief that Tolkien and his editors got it wrong, the film makers chose to reverse what may be Tolkien’s most important creative choice.

When we read The Hobbit, we are invested first in Bilbo, and only secondarily in the other characters. Jackson tries to simultaneously earn an equal investment in both Bilbo (who Martin Freeman plays amazingly), and in Thorin Oakenshield (who Richard Armitage plays woodenly). These two characters’ narrative arcs are thematically and structurally incompatible.

By cramming his “white orc” plot line into the movie, Jackson weakens the narrative structure of Bilbo’s story. It makes the film painfully schizophrenic: one half is a version of The Hobbit which stays (relatively) true to the book’s themes and structure. But the other half is taken up by a story which contributes nothing to those themes. Because the events are largely constrained by Tolkien’s original plot, there is no opportunity for either a more complex exploration nor for a subversion of Tolkien’s original themes. If that were Jackson’s conscious intent, then an adaptation is not the place for it.

Jackson has successfully developed split narrative arcs before. The Lord of the Rings – which is an epic story – features this kind of split narrative. We have plot A (Frodo/Sam/Gollum) and plot B (Aragorn et al.). But as Diana Wynne Jones discusses beautifully in “The Shape of the Narrative in The Lord of the Rings” (recently collected in the fantastic Reflections: On the Magic of Writing), that “split narrative” is actually a complex weave, where each strand supports, relies on, and contravenes the other. And both of those strands are epic in nature. They are compatible, and the narrative structure relies equally on their compatibility and differences.

It would be impossible to develop a deeper narrative structure around Thorin Oakenshield without rejecting either the structure or the themes of Bilbo Baggins’ arc. This puts the audience in a difficult situation: We must choose which narrative we will actually invest in. This choice plays havoc with the movie’s pacing. If I’m only invested in one half of the film, that means I spend the other half waiting to get to the good bits. One half of Peter Jackson’s movie contributes nothing to its narrative, and so tries the audience’s patience.

Django Unchained and the Pacing Impact of Self-indulgence

Tarantino’s Django Unchained has a different lineage. It doesn’t stem from a book, and so its plot is unconstrained by outside factors. An unabashed homage to the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Corbucci and Sergio Leone, as evidenced in the main character’s name (i.e. Django is a nod towards Sergio Corbucci’s excellent classic Django), offhand references (e.g. a character “Eskimo Joe” gets mentioned, probably a nod towards an often-forgotten spaghetti western Navajo Joe), and actor cameos (e.g. Franco Nero, who played the titular character in Corbucci’s classic Django).

From a narrative standpoint, spaghetti westerns tend to explore themes of moral ambiguity and the interplay between justice and vengeance. Tarantino’s Django Unchained plainly follows in this thematic tradition, with its heroes relying on both deception and nigh-superhuman gun-slinging skills to free Django’s wife and exert justice on a rich southern slave-owner.

In general, the narrative itself is satisfying enough. It absolutely lacks the moral ambiguity or character complexity characteristic of the best spaghetti westerns, and in essence is little more than a classically-structured heroic quest (as the movie itself acknowledges). But that’s fine, and I would be happy to experience that kind of story. Unlike Jackson’s The Hobbit, Django Unchained picks one narrative and thematic structure and sticks to it. Where it ran into problems for me, however, lay in quite a few self-indulgent directorial choices that diverted attention from that narrative and easily added an unnecessary forty-five minutes to the movie.

Here are two examples:

Through vivid experiential flashback and spoken dialog, Django establishes his desire to free his wife Hildy (Brünnhilde, more properly). We understand what he wants, and we identify with it. We want him to succeed. The story has us invested. Great. But from this point forward, Tarantino chooses to throw in scenes where Django imagines (hallucinates?) his wife. The action slows down for each of these moments, giving us a drawn out pause that grinds the story’s movement to a halt. No dialogue is exchanged, and Django never remarks on these moments.

How do they help the narrative?

They don’t. Django’s motivation – and his character – are sufficiently established through other moments in the film. The story has only one narrative arc, and it’s pretty straightforward. We’re not likely to forget what Django wants. So these hallucinatory interludes only distract from the narrative, bringing its forward momentum to a grinding halt.

There is a similar, though much longer sequence, lampooning the KKK (to be fair, it’s really a “proto-KKK” since the movie is set pre-Civil War) which adds little to the narrative. Taken on its own, the sequence is actually quite funny, and from a moral/ethical standpoint I am strongly favor of portraying prejudiced bigots as the idiots they are. But what does it add to the story? It is a momentary side-adventure, which does nothing to move the main narrative arc (Django’s quest for his wife) forward. And it fails to deepen our understanding of either Django or Doctor Schultz: we already know where both characters stand on slavery and race relations long before this scene. While it is a very well-composed sequence, it is didactic directorial self-indulgence. And it slows the narrative arc substantially.

Window-dressing and Economic Storytelling

Whereas Peter Jackson’s choices in The Hobbit actively broke the story’s narrative structure, Tarantino’s choices in Django Unchained merely distracted from it. But while the scope of their poor judgment may differ, their mistakes were of a kind: both confused the presentation of story with the story’s narrative.

Presentation is a technical concern. It might be prose structure, language style, camera angles, or shot composition. It is the technique – any technique – through which the narrative gets communicated. When we tell a story, regardless of medium, we have to choose how to present that story. We choose our words, our sentences, our shots. But if we lose sight of what that technique is meant to communicate, if – like Peter Jackson – we choose to present thematically and structurally incompatible components, or if – like Quentin Tarantino – we choose to present self-indulgent sequences which fail to deepen the narrative arc/themes, then we’ll be damaging our story’s pacing (and possibly breaking the story beyond repair).

In short, Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit and Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained just reinforced for me that presentation should always be in service to the story. That’s what people are there to read/see/experience.

Super Hero Narratives and Our Re-discovered Love for Them


NOTE: Sorry for posting this a bit late. The only excuse I’ve got is that I was busy at the movie theater doing more research for this blog post (honest!).

Despite the fact that the comic book industry bemoans its sad state on average once every nanosecond (more frequently than the book industry, believe it or not!), they must be doing something right if mass market narratives like Marvel’s The Avengers can just elide backstory, origins, or explanations and expect audiences to accept their characters as given. Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, Superman, Batman, Spider-man (note the sustained and sad preponderance of the male adjective in there) have become so integrated into Western culture that their mythos are omnipresent. But why? Why do we love super heroes and why – after two decades in the weeds – are super heroes flying off movie screens and DVD racks?

Super Heroes as Archetypes Embodied or Applied

There are a great many different kinds of comic books, from the spandex-clad super heroes we think of by default, to fictional slice-of-life stories, to crazy experiments in form and narrative. For the purposes of this discussion, I’m going to focus on the super hero genre – the others operate within entirely different conventions.

Let me start with a disclaimer: My name is Chris, and I am a lapsed comic book reader. As a kid, I must’ve spent a small fortune in birthday and couch cushion money at my local comic book shop. Every X-book, all the Spider-man books, the Batman line, Superman, Image’s early stuff, Alan Moore, Frank Miller, etc. etc. The list of books I inhaled uncritically is kind of embarrassing (and my bagged and boarded long boxes are still taking up space in my parents’ basement more than a decade after I moved out). It wasn’t until I got a lot older (and abandoned the super hero genre due to the fact that it generally did not and does not care about quality writing) that I started to really think about why certain comics appealed to me more than others.

Like any fictional conceit, super heroes are concretized metaphors. This applies just as much to Superman as it does to the X-Men. Only some metaphors are more transparent than others. It doesn’t take a doctorate in semiotics to label the archetypes that some characters represent: Superman, Batman, the Hulk, Captain America, Daredevil are idealized symbols for our collective imagination. These characters embody a particular ethos, and we enjoy their stories because they allow us to vicariously partake of a Nietzschian ideal.

Other heroes – Moore’s Watchmen, Spider-man, the X-Men, or the Fantastic Four – do not so much embody an archetype as provide a lens to examine its aspirational application. Through Peter Parker’s struggle to balance his heroic aspirations against his family life, we can examine what happens when one strives towards the archetype in a more realistic world.

At their core, this is what gives certain super heroes staying power within our culture. And story arcs that tap into this core are those that will resonate and stay with us. But that is the deeper, unspoken truth about comics and about super heroes. It speaks to our psychology as an audience, and to the creators’ philosophy as artists. But identification and concretized metaphor does not explain why audiences shelled out over $300 million to see spandex-clad divas smack each other around.

The answer lies in a dirty word: escapism.

Escapism Can Be Our Friend

That’s right. I said the e-word. I think of it as dirty because it is how “serious fiction” sidelined speculative fiction for decades. But escapism is a powerful narrative tool. It is a release valve for societies, and it is one that Marvel’s The Avengers employs flawlessly.

Regardless of whether it is in sequential art or film, ensemble narratives like The Avengers, or the Justice League, or the X-Men cannot possibly focus on their characters’ underlying archetypes: there are too many characters playing upon too many archetypes for that kind of narrative to hold together (despite the industry’s love of over-played crossover arcs). Instead, they tap into the audience’s yearning for entertainment and the abrogation of responsibility.

As human beings we like to have someone else do the work. We work hard all day long, we are stressed, we take tough phone calls, and we have difficult conversations. Most of us don’t need to fight giant robots or aliens or monsters, but we all struggle anyway. And there is something cathartic about watching someone else do the struggling for a little while.

This is the same desire that makes us appreciate eucatastrophe in fiction when executed well. I’ve mentioned before that I don’t much like (or really believe in) eucatastrophe as a narrative device, but when done well it is satisfying for the same reason: it places the hard choices on someone else, someone “extraordinary” with whom we can never wholly identify.

Come Away with Me, oh Human Child

Ensemble super hero narratives rely on Othered saviors rescuing us from Othered villains. Though in a more focused narrative the villains might well play archetypal roles, they are simply external threats which we (collectively) are not responsible for.

Sure, Magneto is responding to anti-mutant bigotry. But we, the enlightened audience, are never responsible for that: we like the mutants…or why would we buy their books? And Lex Luthor might be a product of capitalist laissez-faire society, but hey…he’s one egomaniacial super-genius. And Loki…well, he’s a demi-god, an alien, and crazy to boot. And lest we forget, if something goes wrong in comic book land you can bet the Government (or its sunglass-wearing agents) had a hand in it somewhere.

Ensemble super hero narratives are summer blockbusters, meant to briefly entertain, not change the world. And they do so by presenting us with problems that are not ours, and then parachuting someone else in to fix them.

Why are they resurgent now?

Yes, yes, I know that comic books as a medium are struggling for a host of economic reasons. And while I personally think that’s because it is hard to grow an audience solely by focusing on art with scant attention to writing, it is fair to say that the super hero genre is doing better today than it ever has.

Could a movie like The Avengers have been as successful twenty years ago? No. Because we as society were not in the mood for it then. Today, that kind of escapism is in the air. It is something we need.

Thirty years ago, Moore’s Watchmen showed us that heroes and villains need not be archetypal or aspirational. That they can be flawed, and human, and with all of the ugliness and beauty that entails. What followed was three decades of increasing grit, and darkness, and hard-edges…perhaps a counter-reaction to the Cold War’s end and the ensuing economic, technological, and social boomtimes of the ’90s.

But today is a very different world, beset by very different problems – environmental, political, social, economical, and diplomatic. And over the course of the last decade, it seems to me that the super hero pendulum has been swinging back in the direction of greater escapism: to offer a soothing balm to the challenges of our real world. In real life, there are no heroes able to step up and deal with these very real problems on our behalf.

And when – as these days – we see our leaders failing to do so, when we see our neighbors failing to do so, and when we see ourselves failing to do so, it is only natural that we should fantasize about a group of different people, with different backgrounds, different beliefs, and different skills doing the impossible.

In the United States, at least, we mythologize our cultural heroes. Whether it is the revolutionary militias camped at Valley Forge, the Founding Fathers in a hot Philadelphia State House, the pioneer settlers pushing west, or the Greatest Generation, we expect someone in our society to step up and fight the hard fight. Only for our generation, nobody is really doing so. Which is why we need it in our fiction.

In The Avengers, Maria Hill at one point asks Nick Fury why the heroes would come back to save the day. And Nick Fury’s answer is poignant, relevant, and sad: “Because we’ll need them to.” That is the dream and the yearning that drives super hero narrative, and which underlies our fascination with the archetypes it exposes.

Because we always need heroes. And today, in our world, it has become awfully difficult to spot them (at least among our supposed leaders). And we need heroes today, in places of great power, on local street corners, and in our schools. Because Cap and the Avengers, Supes and the JLA, are just stories. And they won’t save the day, no matter how much we may need them to.

Stumbling through the Arena: Thoughts on the Hunger Games Movie


Folks who’ve been reading this blog for a while probably realize that I’m a big fan of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy. I frequently use it as an example, and have written up some more in-depth discussions of the books, as well. And having recently seen two very different yet still compelling film adaptations (see my write-up here), I was looking forward to Gary Ross’ adaptation of The Hunger Games. Here’s what I thought:

NOTE: What follows doesn’t really have any spoilers as to what happens, but it does discuss particular scenes that worked or didn’t work in the movie itself. So be warned.

Pacing is the Heart of the Hunger Games

In the book, Collins nails a slew of narrative techniques: her characters are compelling, the world she describes is vivid, and the story itself is fast-paced. There are plenty of iconic moments in the book, scenes and passages that leave the reader crying, terrified, or cheering. One can’t help but invest in the characters. But if the characters are the lifeblood of The Hunger Games, then it is Collins’ deft management of the story’s pace that keeps that blood pumping.

Regardless of the medium, uniform pacing kills narrative momentum. Yes, the audience wants the story to move forward. But for that movement to be emotionally satisfying, it needs to be modulated. We need moments where we’re on the edge of our seats, our hearts hammering. And we need moments when the action slows, where we can take a moment to breathe, and to savor deeper emotional content. Despite the action at the heart of Collins’ story, she still manages to include enough introspective moments to imbue her characters with an emotional progression, which in turn gives their actions and choices emotional meaning for the audience. Stories whose pace is unmodulated, where the rate at which we are asked to invest in the characters is unchanged, are exhausting.

Unfortunately, Gary Ross’ adaptation of The Hunger Games evidences a clear lack of analysis into why the original book worked so well. While it gets the window-dressing right, it stumbles on the most important points.

The Hunger Games According to Gary Ross

A story is more than a collection of scenes. Each moment serves a particular purpose, be it expository, emotional, inertial, etc. Often, a moment works to fulfill multiple purposes simultaneously. When I talk about the unity of a story, I mean having each moment and each level of the story working in concert towards a shared purpose. Collins’ books evidence great and powerful unity throughout. Key inflection points are able to escalate our emotional investment through their drama, which in turn builds upon the foundations laid through preceding moments.

On the face of it, Gary Ross’ adaptation can be called faithful: most of the key moments from the book are there (FWIW, io9′s got a good analysis of what’s missing), from the reaping, Katniss’ heartfelt goodbyes, the arrival in the Capitol, the tribute parade, the interviews, the training sequences, etc. So yes, on the superficial level of “what happens” the movie remains reasonably faithful to the book.

However, though every scene contributes to a story’s overall emotional impact, different scenes demand, need, and produce varying degrees of emotional investment. One of the differences between good storytelling and bad lies in knowing which scenes should evoke stronger and weaker emotions. In her prose, Collins gets this right. In his movie, Gary Ross does not.

Shortly before the movie’s premiere, I came across an answer Gary Ross gave to a question about his favorite scene in the movie. It was the kind of standard question for which every director has some sort of diplomatic throw-away response, perfectly geared to not offend any fan. Ross’ answer was that for him, every scene was just as important as every other, and thus he didn’t have a favorite. At first blush, I thought this was just a diplomatic non-answer. But after seeing the movie, I realized that this value judgment carries through Ross’ directorial vision.

In his adaptation, Ross imbues each and every scene with the exact same level of emotional intensity. The actors deliver solid performances (though in some scenes I found Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss a touch wooden), but I had no sense of which moments in the story were supposed to be more or less dramatic/important than any other. In most movies, a scene’s cinematography, editing, music, and the transitions between its preceding and following scenes give some indication of its relative importance. Not so in Ross’ The Hunger Games, where Katniss’ appearance in the Tribute Parade is apparently just as important as her stroll through the woods at the movie’s opening.

Many reviewers have called the movie exhausting – and they’re right. With no variability in its pace, or with the audience’s emotional investment, its uniformity turns it into a slog. Whether the audience’s emotions run high or low doesn’t matter: what matters is that because they are relatively unchanging, the entire experience is lessened.

Tent-pole Moments that Fall Flat

In reading the book, there were several key moments that (for me) rang with resonant power. These are the scenes that – several years after first reading the book – have stayed with me. They are, in order of their occurrence:

  1. The Reaping, where Katniss volunteers on her sister’s behalf,
  2. The Tribute Parade, where Katniss’ dress lights on fire,
  3. The Interviews (Katniss and Peeta’s) where they begin their conscious manipulation of the games’ audience,
  4. The Training Evaluation, where Katniss’ demonstrates her skills, and;
  5. The Games themselves (which to avoid spoilers I won’t get into).

Each of these scenes represents an inflection point in the story, both for the characters and for all events that follow. They are the tent-poles on which the story hangs. One would think, therefore, that these scenes would demand more of the director’s attention. But in the film itself, almost all of these points fall flat. Let me consider each in turn:

The Reaping The book’s first-person, present-tense narration rapidly invests us in Katniss’ perspective of the events. We perceive the Reaping, and her sister, and her sister’s selection, through her eyes. This gives the moment poignancy, relevance, and immediacy. The movie, however, is not a first-person experience. And by the time the Reaping takes place, we lack the world-building background or emotional investment in the characters to really care about Prim’s selection, or to understand the implications of Katniss’ volunteering.
The Tribute Parade Katniss is “the girl on fire” and it is at this moment in the story that she receives that sobriquet, and when she realizes that she can affect the games’ audience. It is a turning point for the character, both in terms of how she perceives herself and how we as the audience are meant to perceive her. When her and Peeta’s costumes light on fire, it is a visual dramatization of their characters, which in the book unifies in that one moment the book’s themes, the characters’ journeys, and the imagery in the prose. But on film, this (very brief) moment rings hollow because of terrible costume design and even worse CG (seriously, I’ve seen animated GIFs with better rendered flame animations).
The Interviews The interviews with Caesar Flickerman further drive home the shift in both Katniss and Peeta’s awareness of themselves. They are the denouement to the Tribute Parade, deepening our understanding of the characters’ changes. As such, they are central to the progression of each character, to their relationships with Haymitch, and to their relationships with each other. They also fundamentally drive our awareness of each character, respectively. Here, too, Collins’ relies on the symmetrical visual imagery of Katniss as the “girl on fire”, where in one scene her dress lights on fire…and then becomes a completely different dress. As a symbol, this works on every level: it ties into the series’ over-arching themes of revolution and dramatizes the character’s growth…and again, the CG and direction fall flat on film: the fact that the dress doesn’t actually change ruins the effect. The scene itself is only saved by the excellent acting of Stanley Tucci (Caesar Flickerman) and Josh Hutcherson (Peeta Mallark).
The Training Evaluation The training evaluation gives us further insight into Katniss’ character, and into the lengths to which she is willing to go. It is a visual, dramatic moment in the storytelling that focuses entirely on Katniss’, her relationship with Haymitch and the unspoken relationship with the gamesmaster Seneca Crane. In the movie, it gets about as much focus as Peeta giving Katniss burnt bread.Both are necessary, but I would argue that the training evaluation raises the stakes for the character and thus deserves more focus (screen time, directorial consideration).

I won’t comment on the Games themselves, since doing so would include far too many spoilers to be helpful. But the uniformity of tension and emotional engagement is almost perfectly maintained throughout. There are, in fact, only two moments which deviate from this uniformity – and both make for some of the best acting in the entire movie.

Overall Assessment of The Hunger Games (movie)?

Overall, the movie was “okay”. As far as adaptations go, it wasn’t anywhere near as well directed as Scorsese’s Hugo (see my earlier post), yet it was infinitely better than Chris Wietz’s adaptation of The Golden Compass.

The Hunger Games’ weaknesses are not inherent to the story, nor as far as I can tell do they stem from the screenplay, and certainly not from the actors’ performances. They are – in each case – a consequence of the director’s understanding of narrative. As such, they were all avoidable.

Despite these weaknesses, fans of the book will enjoy the movie…but they (like me) will be relying on their experiences of the book to support their experience of the film. People who come to the story fresh, without having read the book, will likely respond with a “meh”. The book will surely be a fan favorite for years to come, but I suspect this movie adaptation will be forgotten relatively quickly.

With three more movies to come (because apparently every third book in a trilogy needs to be two movies, e.g. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Twilight: Breaking Dawn, Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit, etc.), I hope that Lionsgate either gets a new director who understands pacing, or that Gary Ross learns something about storytelling. Considering the amount of money the first movie made opening weekend, I think that they could afford to do either.

Moving Across Mediums: Assessing the Adaptations of Hugo and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy


In the past month, I got to see two very different film adaptations of books that I loved: Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (which adapts Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret) and Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (an adaptation of John le Carré’s novel of the same title). Although both feature science fictional elements (if you don’t believe me about Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, then check out my earlier blog post on the subject), they could not be more different. Hugo is a children’s story, and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is as far from middle-grade as one can get. And yet, their screen adaptations got me thinking about the nature of prose and film, and on the differences in storytelling between the two mediums.

Why The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy are Compelling

Both Selznick’s middle-grade novel and le Carré’s spy novel are excellent works of fiction, captivating and moving on multiple levels. What makes these books so good is the way in which they unfold with unity of plot, theme, and character. At its most basic level, The Invention of Hugo Cabret is the story of how a young orphan named Hugo finds a family, and how an old man named George finds himself with Hugo’s help. Le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is the story of how an old retired spy is dragged back into the murky world of betrayal he had (ostensibly) left behind.

Selznick and le Carré are very different storytellers. More than half of Selznick’s book is told visually through gorgeous drawings. A picture is worth a thousand words, and as a world-building device Selznick’s drawings perform beautifully: his opening sequence introduces us to 1930s Paris, to the Gare Montparnasse, to our hero Hugo, and to the old man at the train station. In a handful of drawings, Selznick quickly draws us into Hugo’s world and engages us with his two primary characters. When Selznick switches into prose, we already suspect what comes next, even if we can’t articulate it. Selznick uses his drawings to lend emotional immediacy to his story, thus accelerating the rate at which we invest in his characters.

Le Carré doesn’t use illustrations. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is all told in prose, and deals with the very difficult themes of betrayal, loyalty, and motivation. Although the book follows George Smiley, it actually features a broad cast of characters. Le Carré’s omniscient narrator takes us in and out of their heads smoothly, giving us insight into everyone’s motivations, concerns, and emotional states. And while Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a spy novel, a great deal of its prose focuses on the (seemingly) banal personal relationships of Smiley, his wife, and his friends. By showing us both the intellectual game of espionage and its more private underside, le Carré earns our investment in the character: we understand the degree to which Smiley is conflicted with his charge, we understand the degree to which the chase both excites him and disappoints him, and we understand why his companions and quarries act the way they do. His personal concerns, and those of his friends and enemies, serve to establish moral equivalence, to humanize them for the reader.

Both books feature multiple, related plotlines, and all of these plotlines oscillate around the same themes. The different converging plots involving Hugo, his father’s automaton, the old toyshop owner, and the Station Inspector who hunts the orphan child all swirl to greater or lesser extent around the question of family and acceptance. The same holds true for George Smiley: the A plot of Smiley’s hunt for the traitor puts into concrete action the themes of le Carré’s B and C plots (Smiley’s relationship with his deceased mentor, and Smiley’s relationship with his wife). This unity of action, theme, and emotion closes the emotional distance that would otherwise have been built between the characters and the reader. And ultimately, it is this unity that makes the stories compelling.

The Differences Between Film and Prose

Obviously, there are many differences between text and film. However, I like to believe that good storytelling transcends the medium and that the underlying goals of storytelling are universal: we want the audience to be engaged, we want them to be interested, we want them to turn the page. However, different techniques are employed in different media to achieve our intended narrative effects. In a real sense, authors and film-makers are master manipulators: it is our job to evoke some kind of response on the part of our audience. If we evoke the response we intended, then we’re doing a good job. If we evoke a different (or the opposite) response, then we’ve made a mistake.

Narrative Tools in Prose: Events Shown, Information Shared, Language Used

The Narrative Tools in Prose

In prose, our primary tools are the events that we depict, the information we impart to the reader, and the language we use to do both. Of course, this is a gross over-simplification: I could probably talk about choosing a single metaphor for a day or two if given the chance. Yet nonetheless, it is our job as creators to choose what we want to present and how to present it. In prose, all of these tools are in the author’s control (although to be fair, good editors have their say, too). When we write, we make conscious choices as to what information our reader needs, when they need to get that information, and how that information is delivered to them.

Narrative Tools in Film

Narrative Tools in Film

In film, it’s a little more complicated. At the most basic level, movie-makers have the same two basic tools as authors: they select the events they wish to show, and decide the information they wish to impart to their viewer. However, language is only one of the many devices they have available to accomplish both goals. Actors convey a wealth of information on multiple levels: their facial expressions, movement, and tone of voice all are part of the storytelling and are only partially (at best) under the screenwriter or director’s control. Then, directors choose what visuals are presented in the film, how shots are set up, how a scene gets lit, and how it gets staged. This is conveyed visually, but can be used to elicit an emotional or intellectual response in the audience. And the soundtrack adds an emotional undertone to the visual events, guiding the audience into a certain desired state. And finally, we get the language that is used in the dialog itself.

This is not to say that there are more moving parts in film-making. There aren’t, despite what movie makers might say. It’s just that the moving parts are very different from those faced in prose, and I think that when writing and directing an adaption it is incumbent upon us to bear in mind the differences in technique that both mediums work with.

Why Hugo Works as an Adaptation

Martin Scorsese’s Hugo is probably one of the best film adaptations I have ever seen for the simple reason that it tells the same story that the book told, hitting the same narrative notes and evoking the same emotions in me as an audience member. While Scorsese may have chosen different events to show, different information to share with the audience, and of course made his own choices on cinematography, soundtrack, etc., his adaptation stayed true to the overarching flow of Selznick’s story. Hugo achieved the same type of unity in plot, theme, and character as The Invention of Hugo Cabret, and as the original book’s story was excellent, so too was its film adaptation.

To be fair, Scorsese’s task was made easier by Selznick’s beautiful illustrations. The book was itself already heavily cinematic, with illustrations that conformed to most of the classic structures of visual storytelling: establishing shots, action shots, close-ups to communicate facts and emotions, etc. Since half of Selznick’s book consisted of detailed illustrations, much of the visual storytelling had already been done. I expect this made Scorsese’s task at least somewhat easier, since Selznick had already made a slew of decisions regarding the story’s visual narrative.

Of course, this is not to suggest that Scorsese, the actors, and the screenwriter John Logan didn’t have a lot to do with the finished product. But it is very clear that they were heavily influenced (as is only right for an adaptation) by Selznick’s original book. By letting Selznick’s illustrations and storytelling influence their choices, they were able to capture his thematic and tonal focus, leading to a finished work as beautiful, compelling, and moving as the original.

Why Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy Does Not Work as an Adaptation

Unfortunately, Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy does not work nearly as well as Scorsese’s Hugo. It remains a good movie: the cinematography is solid, the music is excellent, the acting great, and the writing good. It clearly tried to stay true to the original source material, but by de-emphasizing the characters’ personal lives it weakened the overall product.

The film version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy engages us on an intellectual level: George Smiley (played well by Gary Oldman) and company keep the audience at an emotional distance, presumably just as they keep themselves emotionally removed from the sordid work that they do. That leaves us with the intellectual mystery of the whodunit: we are engaged with the story because we want to identify the traitor…not because we care about what happens to any of the characters.

Superficially, this is consistent with the book: le Carré portrays most of his characters, and Smiley in particular, as emotionally distant. Yet le Carré shows us that their reticence to engage emotionally is a sham: by showing us their emotional reactions to their personal lives, we know the characters to be living, breathing, feeling human beings. Alfredson chose to de-emphasize this emotional dimension of the story, and his movie suffers for it.

It is telling that the two characters who I found most engaging in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy were the two shown to be emotionally invested in their own stories: the naive Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy), who tragically falls in love with a Russian agent, and Peter Guilliam (Benedict Cumberbatch), who kicks his lover out of his flat to keep him safe. It is precisely because these two characters are shown to be more than cold-blooded apparatchiks that they evoke an emotional response. We can identify with their concerns, and can feel empathy for their troubles.

The emotional concerns of the other – more principal – characters are merely alluded to, and not really explored. It could be argued that those concerns are purposefully left between the lines, there for the discerning viewer to pick up and project onto the screen. That may well have been the reasoning, but I for one found the effect flawed: if that was the intent, it didn’t work for me. The movie was engaging on an intellectual level, but fell short of the unified intellectual/emotional impact evoked by the original book.

Advice for Book-to-Movie Adapters

It seems to me that putting together a good film adaptation of a great book relies on a careful examination of why a book worked, and then translating the techniques that worked in prose form to film. If the method by which a book worked were correctly identified, then a good filmmaker should be able to achieve similar effects using the tools available to them. Of course, this is easier said than done, especially in a Hollywood driven by consensus decision-making.

What are some other examples of good adaptations? Why did they work? Or how about some terrible adaptations, and why did they fall apart? Love to have some more perspectives!

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