By YANANISAI MAKUWA
My favorite part of going to the movies is watching the trailers. I love sitting in the theatre and seeing a snapshot of the endless panorama that is the current film industry. I used to watch the previews and become enthralled by the tidbits of new stories, strung together to entice us into returning to see what else Hollywood has to offer. But unfortunately, as I’ve watched more movies, my experience with trailers has changed. Instead of feeling excited to go see the next big flick, I find myself comparing films to their originals from three decades ago, or naming the six other movies I’ve seen with the same basic plotline, or wondering how many sequels they can squeeze out before the franchise is allowed to rest in peace.
Today, if you aren’t at a cool film festival or an indie movie theatre that shows old classics, odds are you aren’t watching a movie whose main intent is to produce something of real artistic value. Most commercial films nowadays are so focused on making money to pay back rich executive producers that they have fewer qualms about sacrificing quality for something that will make a buck. This central concern, combined with the tried and true facts that people love hype and people love sequels, has led to the movie franchise. The most obvious and current franchise is Marvel’s Avengers. A comic book franchise is perfect for movie adaptation: your protagonist and antagonist are placed into neat, easy-to-cast boxes, there’s a ready-made fan base, the plots are all laid out, and you have several to choose from, so there are obvious opportunities for sequels. The franchise movie doesn’t have to be based on a pre-existing storyline, or even a storyline with sequels (re: The Hobbit fiasco). Examples like the Bring It On cheerleading franchise, and Saw’s ceaseless gore and torture, prove that all you need to make a franchise is a basic plot that can be infinitely re-shuffled with minimal creative effort.
Although the magnitude of remakes has certainly increased over time, the practice of translating books to the screen has been used since the very beginning of motion pictures. Gothic writers like Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley have had their works adapted since the 1890s and Shakespeare’s comedies were adapted for the screen in the early 20th century, beginning with a film version of As You Like It from 1912. Today, it is almost impossible to distinguish adaptations from original movies. An unnerving number of hugely famous films were in fact simply converted from less-than-famous novels. While this appropriation of novel plots has obviously given birth to many excellent films over the years—Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and Forrest Gump, starring Tom Hanks, to name a couple—the movie industry shouldn’t be striving to simply make good adaptions. The novel and the film are two distinct artistic forms, and the points that can be emphasized in each do not always overlap. For example, the movie needs less time for exposition and setting the scene, so more time can go into characterization. Instead of beautiful paragraphs describing settings and interactions, we get facial expressions and body language to reveal motivation. Good filmmakers should be writing scripts and devising plots that take advantage of all that the film genre has to offer.
In spite of the numerous examples of remakes and adaptations (some well done and some not so much), all hope for originality in film is not yet lost. The past decade has seen some real gems in terms of original screenplays, like The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The King’s Speech, and this last year’s winner of the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, Her. Her is a great example of a movie that took advantage of the movie form to do something that couldn’t really be achieved in a novel. The uncanny sight of a man going on a date with a two square inch computer would have been impossible to communicate without the visual, and having Scarlett Johansson’s displaced voice fill the theatre was the ideal way to portray a sentient being without a body. Another recent original movie that takes advantage of form is the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis. With specific and intelligent lighting, awesome reflective subway-window shots, and a soundtrack perfectly tailored to a movie about music, Inside Llewyn Davis is a story made for the visual medium of film.
Art informs art, and expecting movies and other forms of entertainment to have no crossover is ludicrous. How many successful authors and classic greats have borrowed or reused well-known storylines? Many of Shakespeare’s most famous plays were based off of stories or plays that the audience had already heard before. It is also unfair to assume that only original films take advantage of the medium. Movies like Life of Pi with its extraordinarily beautiful CGI, and The Shining with its revolutionary psychological horror, are perfect examples of book to film adaptations that match or exceed their original form in excellence by taking advantage of the styles and technologies of movie making. However, I don’t think it is unreasonable to ask talented writers, directors, actors, and cinematographers to mine their imaginations for new stories that are best told on screen. What can you show us that we haven’t seen before, and can’t read in a comic book or a novel? ◊