The New York Times did a photoshoot/video series where a bunch of actors dressed up as famous movie villiains. Rooney Mara dressed up as Alex DeLarge is kind of awesome. Ryan Gosling and George Clooney are in it too.
The New York Times did a photoshoot/video series where a bunch of actors dressed up as famous movie villiains. Rooney Mara dressed up as Alex DeLarge is kind of awesome. Ryan Gosling and George Clooney are in it too.
So to start off this review I must get something off my chest: I have not read the books. Well, to be absolutely truthful I have read the first twenty pages of the first book in a well meaning but ultimately futile attempt to read the book before the movie came out. For fans of the book, or at least the first twenty pages of the first book, don’t worry because the first ten minutes of the movie are a very good adaptation of those first twenty pages. For everyone else out there, here is my review.
Released posthumously in 2005, the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and its sequels have become a surprise worldwide sensation leading to a miniseries, a popular and well received Swedish movie (along with its sequels of questionable quality), and finally this inevitable American adaptation. Fans of the books and original movies all over the world must have absolutely pillaged the internet like a horde of angry vikings when the american adaptation was announced, but the tremendously talented David Fincher being attached to it calmed them down a bit. David Fincher is known as a master of the mystery movie, the man directed both Zodiac and Se7en, and when you get down to it the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a ostensibly a murder-mystery. I’m glad to say for fans and newcomers alike that Fincher lives up to his reputation and has delivered a great adaptation of this immensely popular book that is both gripping and stylish.
And stylish it is. Fincher is firing on all guns here when it comes to the style of the movie. When one needs watch no further than the title sequence, a borderline music video for Trent Reznor and Karen O’s cover of Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song, to understand just what kind of tone and style Fincher is going for. Fincher’s style in the movie emphasizes start contrasts and duality. There is black and white, loud and quiet, warm and cold. These are the types of things his shots focus on, and every shot uses a different contrast to build the tone and mood of the movie, and it works very well. Fincher is at the top of his game here in his directing, but the style of the movie cannot be attributed to him alone.
Daniel Craig turns in one of his better performances as Mikael Blomkvist, an extremely talented reporter who is down and out on his luck. While he may be playing another shade of the Craig we have all come to know and love, he is also a very vulnerable character, a side to Craig we have seen little of during his career. Blomkvist is a character who is at the bottom of a deep rabbit hole: his life savings are drained, his reputation ruined, and his marriage a distant memory. He desperately latches onto the investigation of the disappearance of Harriet Vanger so that he can have some kind of redemption after his horrible humiliation. Despite this Blomkvist is still very confident and talented and Craig flows between confidence and vulnerability seamlessly. Despite this performance however, real praise should be given to Rooney Mara as nearly iconic Lisbeth Salander.
Rooney Mara is a newcomer to the world of acting and her existence has really has only come into the public consciousness after she was briefly in the Social Network. Mara takes a much larger role here, and one that is far more difficult to play. Lisbeth is a deranged and damaged character who suffers a terrible happening early in the movie. Scenes that Rooney needed to act in would have forced more seasoned actresses out of the role (the actor who played in the scene with her broke down after it and locked himself in his room for a day) but Mara commits completely. Being a gothy/punked up chick super-hacker with a mohawk and a leather jacket is a description of a character whom I would love to hate. As a character Lisbeth flirts with the line between ridiculous and serious. With a lesser actress at the helm Lisbeth would have been absolutely unlikeable and completely ridiculous. Luckily the character, and with her the movie, is saved by Rooney’s acting. She is completely unrecognizable as the girl leering angrily at Jesse Eisenberg from across a table at the beginning of the Social Network, she completely owns the role and becomes Lisbeth Salander, and for that I believe she at least deserves a nomination for best supporting actress. The other actors in the movie turn in good performances too, but Craig and Mara really carry the movie on their shoulders.
The final key to the style of the movie is Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s score, a 173 minute opus (the movie is only 158 minutes long mind you). Reznor and Ross put their all into the score, one that I feel surpasses even their efforts on the score for the Social Network. The music fits Fincher’s style perfectly, a primary reason Reznor, Ross, and Fincher have continued to collaborate. From the cover of Immigrant Song that plays during the opening title sequence, to the quiet strings playing in the background during the brief moments of peace, to the loud and NIN reminiscent garage rock which plays during the action scenes, the score just sets up every shot Fincher makes perfectly. Reznor and Ross have earned their Oscar again, if not at least a nomination and I look forward to seeing what their future collaborations will produce.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is by no means a perfect movie. Despite the incredible talent and commitment from the production team, the script could have used perhaps one more rewrite. Everything is there loud and clear, from the themes of violence and the relations between men and women to the complex and thickly woven mystery. It isn’t a bad screenplay, but it could have been shortened some. Certain parts of the movie drag on for a little too long, and overall the movie could have been ten or maybe fifteen minutes shorter. The third act comes off as particularly in need of some revision since a large number of significant events happen in a relatively short amount of time, making the various resolutions to the running storylines feel cheap. The ending is very close to the book I’m sure, but this is a case where it may have been better to make some deviations, if only to make the flow of the third act work a little better.
Despite the problems with the script the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is still a great movie. It features the best original soundtrack of the year, magnificent lead performances, and a style that only Fincher could produce.
Warning, spoilers below.
Dexter, with its engaging plot lines and characters that have successfully propelled it season after season, has consistently been one of my favorite shows on television today. Some may even call me a Dexter apologist or fanboy, given that I like the slower and more character oriented seasons 3 and 5 just as much as I enjoyed the breakneck and twisty seasons 1, 2, and 4. Going into this season I was excited by what I was seeing; Dexter had finally moved on from Rita’s death, religion was a new and fresh topic never touched by the show, and not to mention the always enjoyable Colin Hanks was on to guest star as the season’s villain. Everything seemed set up for a season that was at least enjoyable in its quality and I was just as excited as I have ever been when I sat down to watch it when it returned in October. It may come as a surprise then that I, a self-described Dexter fanboy, disliked this season so very much.
First thing’s first: the writing this season has been below par. Whether this is due to the change in show runner, a position which has changed hands three times in three years (a worrying inconsistency in leadership), or just simply that this particular story is starting to stale like old bread is a question I do not know the answer to. I do know that something is wrong with the writing of the show when characters experience little to no development over the course of a 12 episode season. Debra is lieutenant now and it’s stressful but she is essentially the same as she was last season but with some pseudo-incestuous feelings now bubbling to the surface. Quinn, who experienced a lot of change and growth during seasons 4 and 5, has been doing nothing all season but being kind of a dick. Sure, he fucked up a couple episodes ago and almost got Batista killed, but even this seemingly significant event has little real significance to anyone on the show. Dexter must have changed though right? I mean, every season he changes significantly, whether it be the understanding that he can never have anyone know the ‘real him’, the realization at the hands of Trinity that his double life will only lead to the people he loves getting hurt, or even just getting past the death of his wife. Early on in season 6 the idea of Dexter contemplating his life through the lens of religion was toyed with, especially with the character of Brother Sam. However, this plot line took a backseat starting with the abysmal seventh episode, ‘Nebraska’, and never quite recovered. In the end Dexter makes no personal insights, comes to no conclusion about religion in his life. He simply kills the bad guy and gets caught, but in the end he is the exact same person he was at the beginning of the season.
The writing of the characters isn’t the only weak point this season had. Season 6 obviously tried to position itself with the crazier seasons of Dexter rather than the more slow burn seasons. This choice is all fine and dandy, after all season 5 was more of a slow burn and we could use a little jolt of adrenaline to speed things up. The only problem is the twists fell flat, the suspense was contrived, and the ‘big bad’ was just plain boring.
Most fans guessed correctly (by episode 2) that Gellar, the man who seemed to be the mastermind behind the ‘Dooms Day Killings’, was dead and was appearing as a double personality to Travis. This is a plot twist so generic that it is made fun of in Charlie Kaufman’s movie Adaptation. The writers could have at least made it a surprise if they understood the fine art of subtlety. Instead they practically hit us over the head with clues that Gellar is dead, such as a waitress not giving him a cup of tea, his mysterious ability to be everywhere at once, and hints were even given through Dexter’s imaginary friends. It may have surprised people in 1998, but in this post Fight Club and Sixth Sense world when the reveal came it just felt like it had been done better before. Then there is the twist in the finale, a moment we have all been waiting for for six years. This particular moment is pretty unexpected and is actually done half-competently, the problem being that it just didn’t feel like it should have. My jaw should have hit the god damn floor during the last few seconds of the episode. I was surprised, but I figured something had to happen to justify this season. I narrowed it down to Quinn getting killed or Dexter getting caught, and I was somewhat disappointed that I guessed the conclusion. While this sets up an interesting premise for season 7, I can’t help but feel disappointed at how they finally made it happen. It didn’t have the impact it should have had, and I was just left wondering why this didn’t happen at the end of season 5 when they pulled the whole plastic sheet gag. If it happened at that moment in season five literally nothing would be different than it happening now, and I guess that just makes the season feel kind of pointless.
Seasons 1,2, and 4 are known for the suspense that drives each and every episode, from the barbie doll head found at the end of the pilot episode to the famous “Hello, Dexter Morgan” moment in season 4, Dexter was a show that kept me at the edge of my seat in anticipation of what would happen next. Season 6 tries to emulate this feeling of suspense but to much less effect. Dexter himself is never in much personal danger the whole season, in fact no character anyone cares about is in any danger the whole season. Sure, Batista gets kidnapped, but in true TV fashion is saved at the last second. Harrison gets kidnapped at the end of the finale as well, but by then it is too little too late. While it was an entertaining part of the episode, we all knew they aren’t going to kill the fucking baby. Not to mention the contrivances around Harrison’s kidnapping, such as Travis apparently being given the powers of Night Crawler as he takes Harrison and disappears while Dexter is ten feet away on a phone call for 30 seconds. It all just seems created as a desperate attempt to call back to earlier seasons where this show was sharp and quick, but it only comes off as lazy and dull.
This lack of suspense can also be attributed to the ‘big bad’ of the season, the Dooms Day Killer, which I must say is a pretty silly name. Colin Hanks does what he can with the role and actually portrays Travis Marshall very well. After Gellar is gone from the season and he is in pure crazy mode it is a joy to watch him on screen. Sadly the premise behind the killer himself is rather silly, after all I feel like the religious nutjob serial killer is a character done so many times through so many types of fiction that it has nearly become a trope. Not to mention that Dexter has no real close connections to Travis, he learns nothing from him. Dexter has been deeply and personally involved with every other main villain, and each one has taught Dexter something about himself along his personal journey these six seasons. But Travis teaches him nothing. Dexter just kills him and its over. The kill room scene with Travis just doesn’t deliver emotionally compared to the ones with, for example, Trinity or Prado.
I guess that in the end this just didn’t feel like a season of Dexter. There was to
little development for it to fit in with seasons 3 and 5, but also too little suspense to be with 1, 2, or 4. The changes don’t work in a good way and it just makes one feel like the writers are going through the motions, riding out this cash cow as long and as safely as they can. I am disappointed to say that I could see Deb repressing what she saw or suffering some kind of amnesia most of or at least part of the next season so they can delay this show’s end game even longer. The writers aren’t willing to take real risks anymore. Sure, the ending twist was exciting but I can’t help but feel like it was put there to keep people watching after this mediocre season. The only redeemable part of the season in my eyes is the acting. Michael C Hall and Colin Hanks turn in good performances while the rest of the cast maintains the quality of previous season. I’ll watch this show for its last two season and if they deliver I can just wipe this season from my mind go on with my life. I hope the writers learn from their mistakes of this season and that this show reclaims its place as one of the best on television.
Writing is one of the more difficult arts, requiring and understanding of grammar, word
relations, and sentence structure to create anything half worthy of publication. One needs to have a mastery of both their own ideas and the finer minutiae of the English language to properly transmit their ideas into the mind of another person. Stephen King put it well when he said that ‘writing is telepathy’. King is a man who clearly understands and has nearly mastered the requirements of prose writing, after all he is one of the most prolific and successful authors in the world. However, where King succeeds in prose he has stumbled along in the realm of screenwriting. Despite the many adaptations of his movies that exist in the world today, very few are actually written by him, and those that are are not particularly memorable. Any fan of Stanley Kubrick is familiar with the drama which surrounded the filming of the Shining where Kubrick rejected a script written by King himself, instead choosing Diane Johnson’s loose treatment of the novel. King went on to throw a small temper tantrum and created a much closer TV miniseries a few years later, an adaptation which ultimately fell flat compared to the Kubrick film. All of the great films created from his novels or short stories like the Shawshank Redemption and the Green Mile are not written by King. Movies where King actually wrote the screenplay include titles like Desperation and Cat’s Eye. Ever hear of these movies? Me neither. So then how can an author, who clearly understands the pace and beats of storytelling, have such difficulty creating a movie? King is not alone in his struggles in the film world; F. Scott Fitzgerald, a master of modernism literature, experienced such difficulty in the film world that his latent low self esteem got the better of him causing him to spiral into depression and think of himself as a failure. Screenwriting is simply a different art form than prose, sometimes the transition is easy for authors, but other times it is a very bumpy ride indeed. Let’s take a closer look at the differences between these art forms by looking at another Kubrick film:A Clockwork Orange. A Clockwork Orange is a movie that is very close to the source material and presents itself as great candidate for a side by side comparison of the two types of writing.
A Clockwork Orange was written by author Anthony Burgess in 1962 as a reaction to the assault of his wife by soldiers during his time in the British Armed Forces. It explores the nature of violence in society and presents important choices between violence and free choice. A Clockwork Orange is written in a first person past perspective and Burgess intelligently uses language and slang to present a time different than our own. The book is told using slang terms that the teenage main character and his ‘droogies’ use in their every day speech. Take note of the density of words on the page, a near wall of text filling up almost any white space available. Despite the appearance of density Burgess’s prose is actually rather brisk and his words and descriptions flow through the page smoothly, once you get past the small language barrier of course. A Clockwork Orange owes at least part of its popularity to this brisk pace. It is a classic that one can read easily, not needing to go through the thick prose and symbolism present in the works of someone like James Joyce. One can read the book easily and bring it up at wine tastings to appear smart and/or cultured. Not to mention the poignant and compelling themes of the book which can be understood by anybody anywhere, especially these days where topics like ‘desensitization’ and the corruption of children by gratuitous violence are so common. Unfortunately the popularity of the book went on to cause considerable frustration for Burgess as he did not consider it his finest work but it went on to be almost the only thing associated with him in the public eye. I’m sure the release of the popular and controversial Kubrick movie in 1971 didn’t help much.
Translating a book to film is always a difficult procedure, a topic I covered in an earlier blog post.
However, some books are fairly easy to adapt to film, and luckily A Clockwork Orange is one of those rare cases where it works almost perfectly. A screenplay is written in a much more rigid structure than a novel, involving three acts and two plot points which act as catalysts between the acts. A Clockwork Orange was already in three acts in novel form, and as such was translated almost completely to film, except for the last chapter… an omission which changes the entire meaning of the work. This almost works better than if they kept the ending because it lets the movie stand on its own. Kubrick also keeps even the more obtuse aspects of the novel, such as the slang terms made up by Burgess and even the point of view the story was written in. Though as a movie A Clockwork Orange presented a visual style impossible to have in novel form with its unique and memorable ‘aristo-punk’ fashion scene which went on to inspire slutty Halloween costumes the world over. As a book, A Clockwork Orange utilizes the strengths of the novel form to create its popularity and acclaim while the movie uses the strengths of its own medium in different ways to keep in the public eye and win over critics. A Clockwork Orange presents itself as an almost perfect adaptation, both works are acclaimed and both stand on their own, but lets look at the two side by side to understand just why Burgess’s own script got rejected by Kubrick.
Writing a novel and screenplay are two sides of the same coin, and when person is accustomed to one form it becomes difficult to work in the other. As a writer of prose one learns to use language to describe scenes, characters, noises, smells, etc. Like King said, ‘writing is telepathy’, a writer creates worlds in the mind of the reader through the mind of the reader, not through the eye. Burgess builds his world with slang and quick prose, but this does not translate to screenplay form. When writing a screenplay a writer is not concerned with prose or getting inside the mind of the reader. A screenwriter must write visually, not cerebrally. The scene descriptions must be concise, not wordy, and present a clear and simple visual image of the events taking place. Screenplays also fit a more rigid form than novels do, almost universally sticking to a three act two plot point structure, where novels can be more free form. As stated before A Clockwork Orange lends itself well to the rigid structure of film, but things still needed to be cut. In a 120 minute movie you cannot go into the minutiae of every character and event like you can in a novel, you need to pick your battles. Some authors of novels have an eye for telepathy, but not for presenting things visually. Many authors, whether it be King, Burgess, or even Fitzgerald couldn’t separate themselves from the novel form, whether it be a difficulty conforming to the rigid structure of movies or having a misunderstanding of what works in novels but not in films. Many authors know books, but don’t know film, thus they cannot be counted on to adapt their works well.
Authors the world over shake their fists in the air and curse the heavens in their attempts to translate their novels to screenplay form as they try to save their creation from the greasy hands of Hollywood. Just being a great writer one way doesn’t mean you can write the other, a handicap which becomes more obvious the more you work in one form or the other. Sometimes they can’t kill their darlings and sometimes they can’t give up their flowing and lovely prose for the simplicity of the screenplay. Everyone out there hoping to have the Hollywood adaption of their favorite book not be ruined may yell in anger when they see some random screenwriter attached to it instead of the author, the person who penned the story themselves. But sometimes when it comes to the translation of book to film the Hollywood treatment of the script is just better than the alternative.
At least once a week we have a movie coming out that is some kind of adaptation or another, from this week’s small screen opener Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy to the wildly popular Transformers series that bombard our senses every summer, movie makers apparently cannot get enough of adapting things. Adaptation brings with it certain advantages, like a built in fan-base and cheap marketing by slapping some obnoxious banner on the source material that says ‘Now a major motion picture!’. Not to mention that with these perks also come the ease of already having a solid idea of what the movie will be about, making a seemingly quick and easy job for the screenwriter. However, over this past adaptation-crazed decade, it has become obvious that adaptation isn’t as perfect as it may seem. Sometimes movies are too similar to the source material to be translated effectively to film, like 2009’s Watchmen. Other times they stray too far away and barely resemble the thing they are based off of, such as 2007’s I Am Legend, which of course will lead to a backlash from the original fan-base and begin to make one wonder why they even have the same name. To please both fans of the source material and make a quick buck one must hit an elusive Goldilocks zone between too close and too far, a zone which is different for every piece of source material.
Sticking close to the source material would at first come across as the obvious choice. After all, this is supposed to be this thing transcribed to film right? Changing things would seem counter intuitive and sacrilegious. However, the amount of the original thing one keeps depends heavily on the source material’s ability to be filmed. Whole franchises cannot get off the ground because the source material is ‘unfilmable’, just look at this whole fiasco with the Dark Tower franchise. Before the Dark Tower, Watchmen was the ‘unfilmable’ movie. Over the course of 23 years Watchmen went through seven different development periods with everyone from David Hayter to Terry Gilliam to Darren Aronofsky being involved at some point or another. Finally, in 2009 it seemed that Zack Snyder had saved the adaptation. Snyder seemed like a good choice, especially given his well done remake ofDawn of the Dead; he changed many things about the original film and updated the setting to suit a more modern audience. It seemed like he was a director who wasn’t afraid to change what needed to be changed so that the film would work, so it is perplexing as to how little he was willing to sacrifice during the filming of Watchmen. As a movie, Watchmen keeps extremely close to the graphic novel it is based off of, going so far as to recreate entire scenes panel for panel from the comic. Watchmen is also a movie with considerable visual flair, with strong colors and a great art direction headed by Snyder. So then it is curious why the movie fell flat for fans and film goers alike. The main problemWatchmen faced was that it was too similar to the source material. Watchmen’s sprawling narrative works well in comic book form, where you have all the time in the world to get your point across and to set up the characters and events needed to have the ending work. Condensing Watchmen’s incredibly dense 320 page narrative into a 120 page screenplay without making some major cuts and having restructuring is a nigh impossible feat. When adapting something to film one needs to think of it less as another form of the source material and more like it is its own work. It is a translation more than an adaptation, and this fundamental rule of adapting was apparently lost during the Snyder production, swallowed up by his well-intentioned desire to stick close to the comic book. Ultimately, despite his good meaning, this desire made Watchmen a weaker film.
Of course changing everything about the
original work does not necessarily work either. Year after year remakes or adaptations come out that have the fans of the original work absolutely livid over how far away from the original work they have become. Whether it be a classic novel hollywood-ized for a larger audience with younger characters and hot actors, or old movies remade with no soul for the sake of a quick buck (I’m looking at you the Wild Bunch remake). It makes sense how angry the fans get, after all this is a piece of work that they have a deep reverence for. The movie will likely be more popular than the original work, and some people fear rightfully that the movie could inadvertently ‘Doublethink’ the source material out of existence, a case I have encountered numerous times when it comes to 2007’s Will Smith drama I Am Legend. The original Matheson novel admittedly needs some changes to be adapted to screen. After all, the vast majority of the book takes place in his head and there are no other human characters. But the book posses an uncanny ability to be easily transcribed to film, it is a moody and mature story about the end of the world, carried by the weight of an incredibly interesting psychological study of a normal guy going through this ordeal. From his interactions with a lone dog he finds to the drunken rage he expresses night after lonely night of drinking and listening to the vampires outside taunting him, we get an inside look at the inner workings of a lonely and incredibly frustrated mind. Then there is the ending, a great twist that flips the entire narrative on its head and makes one question the classification of ‘monsters’ and brings up considerable moral ambiguity towards the actions of the main character. Sure, it was written in the fifties and some things needed to be changed, but the brisk 160 page story could have transcribed fairly easily into a low to mid budget post-apocalyptic character study with both atmosphere and class. But then… money happened. What we got was a bloated 150 million dollar action movie written by the always ‘lovely’ Akiva Goldsman. The movie is admittedly more of an adaption of the Heston movie Omegaman than I Am Legend, but this brings up the question as to why they kept the name of the book if they were going to stray so far wildly off course. The setting was moved from a suburb in LA to the heart of New York City, the character changed from a lonely factory worker to a scientist/super army guy who is both mega smart and good with guns, and the monsters of the movie are no longer the deranged but intelligent vampires featured in the book but poorly CGI created zombies. Though these changes could have been forgiven if they kept at least the core theme of the novel, but even that was not done. The movie instead opts out for a Hollywood ending that puts a smile on your face rather than makes you think. In the end I Am Legend is not a bad movie. But it is a movie that bears so little resemblance to its namesake due to the big budget Hollywood treatment it got, that it makes you wonder why it kept that name in the first place. This is not even a little annoyance but is destructive to the legacy of the novel. Simply put I Am Legend should have just been called what it was, a remake of Omegaman.
It is obviously no easy task to hit the adaptation Goldilocks zone, you either misjudge where it is and go too far or stick too close. Though it isn’t a black and white ordeal either, it is usually more of a grey zone. In terms of adapting the source material few films succeed as much as the 2010 comedy Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Say what you will about the movie, it is a near perfect adaptation of the source material. The first half of the movie is almost page for page from the comic, but the latter half of the movie is completely different, changes were made that needed to be made so that it could translate to film. Comic books are different than movies and Edgar Wright certainly understood this fact. One would think this change at the halfway point would anger fans and send the internet into a rage induced flooding of the Universal message boards. However, the things changed in Scott Pilgrim keep the same tone and humor of the comics. The changes are consistent with the content that the fans went in to see, and in some cases actually works better than the comics did. Scott Pilgrim is a translation of the comic book to film rather than the comic book reproduced on film. The movie certainly has its flaws, the central love story takes a backseat to the humor and the movie flopped upon release (though it did have considerable DVD sales and has gone on to become a midnight movie in some cities). But in terms of adaptations few movies have hit that elusive Goldilocks zone as well as Scott Pilgrim did.
No movie has ever summed up the difficulty of conversions between the page and screen as well as Charlie Kaufman’s 2002 movie Adaptation, a movie about Charlie making a movie about a book that is simply unfilmable. It is another case of a great adaptation and really puts the troubles that the creative team faces when they go to make these things into perspective. Do you want to honor the source material or make money? Keep die hard fans happy or attract a wider audience? Every production is asked these questions and there is simply no easy answer. Adaptation is a fine and tricky art repeated endlessly in the film world and few films get it right, but those that do are a rare gem that is a joy to watch for newcomers and fans alike.