Saturday, April 28, 2012

Screen Adaptations

I was surprised to discover that they're making another Percy Jackson movie. I saw the Lightning Thief and thought it was an abject failure. I had high hopes and they were dashed.

Some of the best movies start out as short stories. Hollywood likes to keep movies down to about 90 minutes in length. (Bollywood is another matter.) Thus a novel has more content than will fit into the available space. The screenwriter must adapt the novel to the screen by removing content.

The gold standard of screen adaptations is John Huston's work on The Maltese Falcon. If you read the novel by Dashiell Hammet, you might notice that the fat-man, Gutman, has a daughter. She doesn't contribute much to the story and thus the scene where Sam Spade talks to the daughter can be safely cut from the screenplay.

Screen adaptations are a game of Jenga where you pull out pieces of the story. Some, like Gutman's daughter, can be removed with anyone noticing. Others leave gaping holes. Or removing some story elements can cause the narrative structure to sag or to collapse altogether.

The art is in picking what to cut.

Some story elements can't be removed, but can be combined. Let's suppose Percy Jackson has two female classmates, suppose further they are both daughters of Greek gods of war: Ares, and Athena. Perhaps they can be combined. That would be a good idea if the girls both had the same sort of relationship with Percy, but in the novel one is an antagonist and the other an ally. The movie combined the two and the result is a high-maintenance girlfriend. Sorry, didn't work for me.

Other story elements can't be changed or the character of the movie changes drastically from the book. In the Lightning Thief novel, the school for god-kids is a big old mansion surrounded by Elysian fields and hills. It has some cottages but I got a definite Woodstock Yasgur's Farm/Strawberry Fields forever vibe from the prose. The movie moved the camp to woods that was recycled from some slasher pic. The atmospherics changed completely and not for the better. Every screen adaptation will have to deal with fan boys like me who are married to a mental picture they've formed of what Middle Earth or Hogwarts looks like.

But sometimes the film can convey a mental that was only indistinctly conveyed by the prose. Peter Jackson got the Balrog much better than Ralph Bakshi. And there's an art to getting the image that best fits the prose.

Underneath all this is the fact that stories are told through distinct media: prose, ballad, radio drama, or film. Each medium brings with it constraints and advantages.

The writer knows the story, but must also be aware of the medium able to work through it. The magic is made by telling the story in a way that leverages the advantages.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Third Act Fail

A while back I watched an old movie. It starred young versions of Dick Van Dyke and Barbara Feldon. I was amazed that I'd never heard of it before, because it started out hilarious, had great actors, and an amusing story line: Dick Van Dyke is a butler and a con-man who defrauds the rich to maintain the illusion that Miss Vicki the woman for whom he's butlering for still has money. He runs a gang of thieves who are all servants in Miss Vicki's household.

The inciting incident occurs when Miss Vicki hires Barbara Feldon as her assistant. Several madcap escapades ensue as Van Dyke tries to keep the truth from Feldon. On top of all that add a large dollop of romantic tension between the two. The conflict ramps up marvelously.

All the while I'm watching it, I kept thinking, "why haven't I ever heard of this movie before?"

Then I saw the third act. Van Dyke fesses up to Feldon and they profess their undying love. OK, then what? Sadly, a tedious final caper. It's tedious because all the air has been let out of the tires. All that delightful tension between Van Dyke and Feldon is replaced with tiresome happiness. Fail. Instead, when Feldon finally figures out what Van Dyke is really up to, an equivalent conflict/tension should have taken its place.

More recently, I watched another movie about a Coca Cola exec adjusting to Australian cultural differences and his attractive secretary. In this story, the conflict comes to a head with just a few strings left dangling--what happened to the girl's dad? This kept my watching closely through the final scene where words appeared to this effect "Then a week later a nuclear war started." What? Where'd that come from? Is this some kind of 1980s Australian political stupid tax? There was nothing to foreshadow that and it had no basis in anything in the movie. Left a bad taste in my mouth. It was like the writer ended the movie and then flipped the bird at the audience.

The last chapters of Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon are a disaster because he wraps up too many loose ends too quickly. At each point in the narrative you should ask yourself, "what loose ends are dangling and should I answer these story questions, because bigger story questions are now before the reader?" You should never get to the end of writing The Big Sleep and not know whether the chauffeur was murdered or had killed himself.

A third act fail happens when you start a story with a good premise with a great deal of promise. But all that potential is squandered when the 3rd act rolls around. A story has a natural arc and the characters should be going through changes that are fitting to that arc. Story questions should be raised and resolved with bigger story questions raised in turn. Every unresolved story question needs to be wrapped up. And they can't be wrapped up in a rush.

They say that you should always use the last chapter of your book to sell your next one. That's gospel truth. When I finish a book I feel a certain natural let-down. It's worse when the book ends badly. A 3rd act fail will vaccinate me against ever reading another book by that author. Instead, if the book ended well and left me wanting for more, I'll scour the libraries and booksellers for anything else written by the same author.

Each writer has to worry about maintaining his or her personal brand. I cannot imagine anything s/he might do to damage it worse than a 3rd act fail.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Telling Truths Through Lies

Fiction writers occasionally say that they tell lies. We often see the disclaimer that "any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental." Despite this, the best fiction will depict truths about the human condition that bad fiction omits.

Some stories contain the same truths even if the facts are rearranged. Rhett Butler's disgust with Scarlet at the end of "Gone With The Wind" is the same even if her name were Ruby instead. Kenny Rogers' ballad would be as sad if Lucille were to take her love to town instead of Ruby. Or if Scarlet would pick a fine time to leave.

On one hand, consider the Parables of Jesus. He told stories about lost coins and yeast that are posed in such a way that they they don't need to be accurate recitations of events to be--by definition--gospel truth. You needn't take Jesus as your savior to derive useful meaning from the parables.

On the other hand, consider the situation in WW2 when a Nazi soldier came into a house and demanded, "Are there Jews here?" The woman living there replied, "Sure. They're hiding under the kitchen table. Can't you see them?" She uttered the literal truth, because beneath the kitchen table was a trap door that the Nazis couldn't see leading to a hiding place. Nevertheless, her literally-true reply was as misleading an outright falsehood.

This suggests a spectrum of truthiness in stories. Brute facts can be presented accurately with no truth in them. Or fantastic story elements can come together to convey higher truth.

Incidentally, the latter is my preferred mode of lying. I lament the fact that the harlot Rahab in the Bible didn't devise some clever evasion when asked if she was hiding the spies in Jericho. I like few things more than reading a Shakespearean utterance that "No man born of woman shall harm MacBeth" only to find out a little bit later that "MacDuff was from his mother's womb. Untimely ripped." Using a caesarian-section the Bard wrote a loophole.

It can be a taxing mental exercise to craft such things into one's writing, but I think it's worth the effort and I'll be delighted to see what people come up with.

We see a much more pernicious way of misleading in advertising--particularly political advertising--where half-truths are uttered without the larger context that would falsify them. Or where inconvenient facts are omitted. I've spoken of this before. But I never got around to mentioning How to Lie with Statistics.

Some years back a US President left some DNA on a girl's dress. That's a brute fact that most will stipulate as being accurate. What followed after that was called a "spin cycle" and it's more interesting, because it started a battle to assert "what does this mean." One narrative was that the DNA-on-dress clearly evidenced perjury, bad faith, and untrustworthy character on the part of the DNA-depositor. This narrative fit the facts, but a competing narrative held sway: The DNA-depositor was just acting naturally, and his accusers were dirty-minded hypocrites.

There's some truthiness in both narratives. Spin consists framing a narrative that imposes a desired significance onto brute facts.

Words written in a story have their own denotation and semantics, but what a work means transcends that. When you read something or write something, you should have a sense of "what does this mean." The writer may have one thing in mind, but the reader may have a different thing in mind. For instance, I watched a play a couple years back where the villain was a Christian with a Southern Accent. Oh, how original! Instead of passively going along with the playwright's bigotry, I decided to imagine the villain was a Bolshie community organizer with a Massachusetts accent. I recommend the practice.

The writer ought not be so heavy handed. The viewer will identify good guys and bad guys, and then map them to  categories s/he finds comfortable. Maybe you LIKE Bolshies, and HATE Baptists. Fine. The smart writer will put neither a red star on the hero's hat nor a Bible in his hand. Or maybe both.

Heroic valor and greedy fecklessness are as easily found in Bolshies as in Baptists. Or Scarlet, or Ruby or Lucille.

Those more worthy than I: