Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Wildly Conflicted: Ruminations on an Adaptation

Several months ago, I heard that someone creating a film version of one of the greatest books of all time: Where the Wild Things Are. My immediate reaction was sheer horror. How could they do this? Why would Maurice Sendak (the author of this and numerous other amazing tales) allow such an endeavor? Would he be involved in the scripting or character and set design? Who would direct this travesty?

Okay, deep breath. Why did I have such a visceral reaction? I didn’t respond this way—well, I was troubled, but not horrified—to the adaptations of The Cat in the Hat or Horton Hears a Who. (Full disclosure: I’ve not seen either of those, and I won’t. I am the opposite of interested.) Why indeed? Well, the power of Where the Wild Things Are resides in its simplicity—it’s made up of maybe a hundred and fifty words (many of them repeated, particularly at the end, where the words that bring him home are the reverse of the words that open up his new world), drawn over maybe forty pages. The images are clean yet lush. They start simple, almost incomplete, and on single pages, with words opposite; then they grow to take up entire spreads, with the words nearly incidental. And the entire thing is a dream. The power of childhood, the simplicity of childhood, the ability of imagination to free us from negative emotions, a child’s need for home, for comfort, for love, for supper—all in a hundred and fifty words and forty pages. What movie could possibly do what this does? I mean, first of all, any writer would have to expand it, and I (still) don’t see how that could do anything but kill it. Just. Kill. It. Combine that with Hollywood’s history of successful adaptations—a very short history indeed—and maybe the reasons for my horror become clear.

Well. Last week my wife and I went to see the movie 9. One of the trailers was for… yep, you guessed it… Where the Wild Things Are. I was entranced. Really. It’s… beautiful. And funny. And cute. The kid playing Max, a newbie I think, is… well, at least three years too old, but his lines are great.

Wild Thing Judith: “You have a home and family?”

Max: “I had one of those once.”

Wild Thing Judith: “But you ate ‘em all?”

Max: “No! I have no plans to eat anybody.”

It’s so damned cute you almost want to spit. But then… The sets—oh, my, the sets. Sumptuous. The humor—all there, particularly in the ram wild thing (who’s on, I think, a single page in the book). The wild things? They are not CGI, not animated. They are puppets, outsize, lovingly rendered, warm-spooky-unsettling-comforting puppets (with voices by an amazing array of unlikely actors, who must be doing it because they too love the book, perhaps as much as I). The costume—Max’s costume—is perfect, down to its floppy ears and sensuous velvet; I just want to touch it. Maybe becoming a dad has made me a sucker, but this stuff just hits me. Right. There. (The heart. You have to imagine the hand gesture.) So far, so good; right? Well, maybe not.

The crux of my problem is this: books are not movies; movies are not books. The experiences are wildly (er, widely) different. Where the Wild Things Are lives in my imagination. It is there, never to be lost. When my first child was born, it was one of the first books I turned to. I could not wait. And now, we can all recite the book without even looking at the pages. While the movie looks perfect, down to the last feather, down to the last gnashed tooth and terrible claw, I can’t help but feel that a movie version is a loss. A loss to readers and to children of all ages. When I shared these feelings with Carla, she said, “Well, I’m glad our children know the book already.” And that’s it, right there. No matter how faithful the adaptation, no matter how wonderful the movie, it will subsume the book. Even for me, I fear to watch it because it could eclipse my memory of the source. And it will interfere—for generations of children to come, the movie will be there; for some, it might be their first experience of the story, and they may come to see the book as some incomplete version of the film. While this is a triumph of the imagination (for the filmmakers), it’s the death of imagination (for readers).

To see the trailer, go to

Where the Wild Things Are, directed by Spike Jonze, opens nationwide October 16, 2009.

[book cover image ©HarperCollins; movie poster image ©Warner Bros. Pictures]

Thursday, May 7, 2009

We're all just background: Book Critic at Play #4

Extras, by Scott Westerfeld
I’m not sure if this is the best entry in the Uglies series or simply the most cerebral. The action is in keeping with the other three books—the surfboards are there, the hidden forces, the adversaries who could easily destroy the hero and who are probably manipulating her as well—though this one seems to take a little longer to get started. The pacing is still nearly perfect and the characterization nearly enthralling; the only bummer is that this one is not about Tally Youngblood, and I’d become rather enamored of our young heroine. Ah, well. Extras takes place after—how long after is not clear, but not more than a few years probably—the events of Specials, the third entry in the series. Aya Fuse is a kicker, or wants to be. The best kickers are citizen journalists; the least of them are gossip columnists. Instead of YouTube, the citizens of Extras have constant feeds embedded in their eyes, or projected from. Extras is a world of instant media, a celebrity culture where no one stays a celebrity for long. The goal of most citizens is to increase their face ranking, their level of fame. At the start of the novel, Aya is a nobody; of course, that changes, and so does her understanding of face ranks, of how life is, of how life should be. Yes, Tally makes an appearance—she has to; it’s the world she remade, and this novel deals with the question of responsibility. But more than that, it’s an exploration of fame, of desire, of identity. Who is Aya Fuse really? Who does she want to be? Does that desire make sense? Does it define her? As with each of the novels in this series, nothing is quite what it seems, including the main character. This is dystopian sf, sure, but it’s also classic coming of age—Aya has to decide where her true path lies, whether what she needs is truly the same as what she wants, who her true friends are and what loyalty means. Part of the fun of a Westerfeld novel seems to be trying to figure these things out before the heroine does, and part is in the language itself—this author combines elements of Australian slang, tech argot, and the language of the world he has invented to create a cant for his characters that is not found elsewhere. This is cultural criticism disguised as pulse-pounding sf thriller. (Image ©2006 HarperCollins Children's Books)

Framing Faith: I Actually Like TV #1

Joan of Arcadia (2003–2004), Season 1
“Faith is believing when you have no rational reason to believe.” This line comes near the end of the season, and while it’s hardly a new concept to anyone with or interested in faith—its challenges and its blessings—it’s fairly unusual to see on TV. Joan is the middle child in a nuclear family that has just moved to the town of Arcadia. Dad is a cop (and a good one), Mom is an artist (a painter, actually), big brother is a former jock who has just been in an accident that left him a paraplegic (confined to a wheelchair), and little brother is super science nerd. Joan is a teenage girl who, simply put, speaks to God. Or more accurately, God speaks to her. In each episode of the first season, God appears with a different face, and each time, the stranger gives Joan a mission—he or she tells her to do something, and out of that something comes a realization, growth for Joan. Ultimately, Joan of Arcadia is a coming-of-age tale, but with a twist, this conceit. It does not preach, nor does its God. He or she insists that free will is the core, his or her greatest gift. God is everyone—black, white, Asian, man, woman, young, old—and God is in Joan. Or god is. She questions, she refuses, she grows. She may actually be delusional, but then faith—whether in something divine or in other people—is not logical. The producers nailed the dual-narrative nature of episodic television, neatly deepening themes by putting one or two other major characters into subplots that echo and resonate with Joan’s. Pop culture that makes you think, that addresses faith and hope and growth? Who says television is soulless? (Image ©2003 Sony Pictures Television)

It Ain't...: Opinionated Movie Comment #5

Rocket Science (2007), Reece Thompson, Vincent Piazza, Anna Kendrick, Nicholas d’Agosto, Aaron Yoo, Utkarsh Ambudkar; dir. Jeffrey Blitz
Jeffrey Blitz first caught the film world’s attention in 2002, with his documentary Spellbound, an examination of eight competitors (I almost wrote “players,” but this is no mere game) in the national Scripps-Howard spelling bee. That film had more drama (and comedy) than many big-budget Hollywood films, and characters no fiction writer could have written with receiving accusations of unreality. Five years later, he brought us Rocket Science. Both feature young adults on a stage, competing against one another in battles judged by adults, not by peers. Both show us young people consumed with ambition and self-doubt. Both show us characters forced to look into themselves and grow. And though one is fiction and the other documentary, both are true. Rocket Science opens with a debate—and what a debate! Forensic debate, high-speed, ridiculous verbal fluency, argument and counter-argument. But it comes suddenly to a screeching stop, almost a stutter. And stuttering is important in this film—or rather verbal shutdown. Hal Hefner, our hero is a very, very smart lad, but he seems unable to speak. He also has another problem: He has a crush on Ginny Ryerson, the debate team star, and she has absolutely zero interest in him. Until, that is, she invites him to join the team. This movie is likable for several reasons: The people who populate the movie are real—no teen movie (or Teen Movie) beautiful people here. No one is ugly or acne-ridden or deformed; they just aren’t beautiful. Blitz and his cast created some fantastic characterization, particularly in Hal’s awful older brother Earl. There is some great toying with music, particularly pop tunes, for comic effect. The Violent Femmes have never been so slick, nor so clever. But in the end, this is a coming-of-age movie—warm, painful, heartwrenching, heartwarming, and true. (Image ©2007 HBO Films)

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Die a Hero: Opinionated Movie Comment #4

The Dark Knight (2008), Christopher Bale, Heath Ledger, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Aaron Eckhart; dir. Christopher Nolan
Batman Begins was a damned fine origin story, with killer set design, great costumery, and a solid story. (Oh yeah, and a damned fine cast, too.) The Dark Knight has all of that, sure, but this second venture is a layered exploration of order and chaos, morality and madness. Ledger’s Joker is a tour de force, a nonstop maelstrom of comic fury and psychotic punch. And the writers captured the Batman/Joker dichotomy perfectly. The added thread that further twists that web is the addition of Harvey Dent. Ah, Harvey—another facet of madness, complete with scarred coin, though with a fine alteration to the original minting. And Harvey the uncaped crusader has the central line in the film: “You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” One might offer that up as a theme, but it’s just not that simple—layered; I said layered. Batman—or, properly, the Batman—feels more real than other superheroes. Why? Simply put, his lack of powers. Batman is a nearly imdomitable warrior, true, but he is all too human; in the movie and in the comic, scenes are often given to surgical repairs, whether performed by the faithful Alfred or by Bruce himself. His tools are technology and his own body, not flight or X-ray vision or silicon webs. But this movie is not about Batman or the Joker—it’s about humanity. It’s about that moment where we have to look our darkest selves in the eye and make a choice: fight or give in. Where the film gets it right—no, where it exceeds expectations—is in its bleakness. The characters talk of hope, but Gotham has none. I mean, sure, the symbolism is operating—Batman offers hope, Dent offers hope, of kinds, but many of the detectives in Gordon’s Major Crimes Unit, the special unit meant to bring order to the city, are dirty; the mob runs most of the city; and Batman’s presence, his beginning, seems to have made Gotham more dangerous, not less so. But Bruce Wayne sees something in Harvey Dent, a hope for himself and for his city, and this movie is Harvey’s story almost as much as it is the Joker’s or the Dark Knight’s. The questions of morality, or of survival perhaps, that fill this story are questions born of the age. The nihilism of this Joker, the desolation of amorality, the atmosphere of fear that inhibits Gotham, the readiness to turn on what was once loved or at least admired, even the technological tool that enables Batman to find the Joker (Echelon?)—these are of our time; they speak to the world we face now. It’s bleak out there, and courage comes in many forms; justice comes from many directions. There is one thing we can agree on—we need heroes, and we need those who operate under cover of the dark. And sometimes, sometimes, those two are one and the same. (Promotional image (c) 2008 Warner Brothers)

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Thank You For Smoking: Opinionated Movie Comment #3

Thank You For Smoking, Aaron Eckhart, William H. Macy, Cameron Bright, Katie Holmes, JK Simmons; dir. Jason Reitman
Yes, the director here is the son of Ivan Reitman (Ghostbusters, Meatballs), and Reitman the Younger appears to be aiming for satire rather than slapstick. The movie is based on a novel by Christopher Buckley, son of conservative (or libertarian) icon William F. Buckley, Jr., so there’s an interesting thing here about the Sons of American Icons, about Hollywood meets Deep Thought. America is living in spin, and our hero (or antihero) is the sultan of spin, the lord of lobbyists. Nick Naylor is the voice of America’s tobacco industry, and he’s damned good at his job. The opening scene lays it all out—he appears on the Joan Lunden show as an apologist for the tobacco industry; he immediately charms a boy dying of lung cancer (caused, of course, by smoking) and he makes a promise that he really doesn’t have the power to keep. He justifies his job, to his son, with an explanation based on flexible ethics; and here’s where the film fails: Is it satire of the industry of spin, of Big Tobacco, or is it a story of a man coming to grips with his relationship with his estranged son? There are numerous entertaining scenes and memorable moments (which I won’t share here for fear of ruining anyone’s enjoyment of the film), and Aaron Eckhart oozes charm, breathing life into this character, drawing us into his world just as he repulses us. So like the film, my review is disjointed: Watch it, but don’t expect a fully functioning, unified piece of work.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

To Hunt Cool or Not to Hunt Cool...: Book Critic at Play #3

So Yesterday, by Scott Westerfeld
In 2001, social commentator Douglas Rushkoff did a show called Merchants of Cool for Frontline. This program takes an in-depth look at marketing to teens, specifically a phenomenon called cool hunting. It’s a great and disturbing program. A few years later—and I don’t know if there’s a direct connection—Scott Westerfeld, author of the wondrous (and disturbing in its own right) Uglies Trilogy, wrote this book: So Yesterday. This novel takes on the very same topics, and wraps them in a tale of… industrial espionage? delusional youth? It’s hard to tell till the last few pages, and that’s a good deal of the charm. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Westerfeld is a master of packing and youthful characterization. Hunter, our narrator, is a 17-year-old Cool Hunter, a focus-group veteran, a Trendsetter but not an Innovator. (Caps are Westerfeld's, not mine.) He meets Jen, a cooler teen, on the street, takes a picture of her shoelaces to send to his boss, and then takes her along to a focus group on a new ad for "the client" (a thinly disguised Nike). Jen makes a brilliant observation that Hunter's boss, Mandy, does not pass along to the client because it would mean they'd have to reshoot the million-dollar ad. (I won't ruin it, but it's a demographic comment, a pithy observation about representation.) Everyone is impressed with Jen's brilliance—and her cool. Jen is an Innovator, and it is near this point in the novel that Hunter explains the layers and levels of consumers, observers, and doers. Clever, very clever. In any case, Mandy later calls Hunter and asks him and Jen to meet her the next morning. The problem is, she never shows. It seems that Mandy has disappeared. Part teen adventure, part romance, part social satire, and all neatly presented by an appealingly self-deprecating and self-doubting narrator, So Yesterday is a fun, finely packaged exploration of consumerism and cool hunting. And this media educator has been wondering how in the world he might use it in class (given that the media course doesn’t feature novels).