Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Slamming The Box

Saturday, November 7, 2009

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Slamming The Box

by Tony Dayoub

Those who follow me on Facebook may notice I can be a little less erudite in my critical reactions. But sometimes that leads in some unexpected directions, as when I made a bad joke on my Facebook status update which went something like this:
[Tony] Dayoub thinks it's too bad The Box doesn't exactly rhyme with "sucks!"
Here is an edited reprint of the exchange that followed, guest starring some other bloggers you may already be familiar with:

Chuck Williamson: I'm tempted to see it, just so I can witness the train wreck firsthand.

James Hansen: Pshht. Its far from a train wreck. A little silly, sure, but far from train wreck. Hell, I'd even go so far as to say I mostly like it. Still working out my own thoughts for an Out 1 review...

Me: James, we used to be so simpatico. Great performances, sure. But the movie's a mess. Kelly overextended a good (not great) short story. I'll get into it a little further at my site.

Peter Medak (The Changeling) did a version starring Brad Davis and Mare Winningham in the 80s Twilight Zone that sounds better (haven't seen that one), and Richard Matheson disowned that one. I'd hate to see what he'd do with this one which took so many liberties with his original story.

Bill Ryan: While watching a commercial for The Box last night, it occurred to me that Kelly is doing the same thing to Matheson's story that he did with the director's cut of Donnie Darko. Okay, I haven't seen that version of Darko, or The Box, but my understanding of the later Darko cut is that everything that was mysterious about the first version is now explained, ruining whatever impact the story has. The commercials for The Box indicate to me that we find out how the box works, and who's doing it, and why, thereby robbing the basic story of any genuine dread or mystery. Am I wrong, Tony?

Me: Very perceptive of you, Bill. That is exactly the problem with this version. What is the point of adapting Matheson if you are going to eviscerate it of all the mystery?

Imagine what Duel would be like if you found out that the trucker was part of some government conspiracy out to kill Dennis Weaver because he had stolen some McGuffin from the CIA, and you'll get some of what's wrong with Kelly's film.

The other cardinal sin: Kelly decides to ignore Matheson's original ending, and instead incorporates the very ending that Matheson disowned from The Twilight Zone version of his story.

James Hansen: We'll sync up again, I'm sure. I actually agree with the weaknesses, but I thought, even with them, this was pretty interesting. I mean, it shows you things and is overexplanatory, but there is plenty of bizarre mystery even if the brunt of the story is too on the nose. Still, there was enough to keep me interested and leave me mostly satisfied. I'm not giving it a rave or anything, but I think it's worth seeing.

I also have no ties to the Matheson story (haven't read it or seen The Twilight Zone episode for that matter) so that's not a connection I'm making. I also typically don't have a problem with making radical shifts from the source. Authors sell the stories, adaptors bring them into the new format. Along with the new format, I have no issues with specific things in the story changing. But that's just me.

Me: I should clarify that I'm all for taking liberties when adapting material, IF it strengthens the story. But why Kelly did it in this case mystifies me. It smacks more of egotism. And it sorely weakened it.

Some of the more bizarre aspects struck me as being cliche (very derivative of Invasion of the Body Snatchers). And these new subplots ended up being non-sequiturs that failed to reach any kind of conclusion storywise. It's as if someone were to stick an unexplained fat clown on a tiny tricycle hoping to be compared to Fellini.

James Hansen: Yeah, I just don't think it's fair to compare it (re: anything) to the source story at all. It's worth mentioning, sure, but I don't think you should compare something that made in one context to something in another, whether it's a "source" or not. ['Compare' is too broad a word, as genre criticism (i.e., derivative of Body Snatchers) is all good. It's just saying 'this did this this way, and this did this a different way and I didn't like it because I know and like the first thing more' seems relatively useless to me). It just immediately limits the ability of the 2nd object to function in its own form. This is the same reason I don't really get bothered by remakes of things. The form of the genre and the importance of the story (or whatever) changes, so it's hard to say it demeans the other object or fundamentally changes the first thing (which, when people complain, is usually something they are nostalgic about). It's difficult to separate sometimes, but essential, at least for me, to do so as much as possible.

Me: James, I think movie adaptations MUST be viewed within the context of their relationship with the original material. Applying the metaphor of a trial, it is the adaptor that has introduced the original story as evidence simply by using it as the basis for the new story.

I agree that one shouldn't be beholden to the original work. But my general rule is that if you must mess with the original work you should improve it. The Godfather movies are good examples of films that achieve an artistic zenith that the novel never does because Coppola added a level of complexity that was never extant in the original work. The Shining is an example of a film that is better than the original novel because Kubrick strips it of some of its sillier elements to hone in on the primal fear of a man slowly losing his sanity and attacking his family in a desolate, remote location.

I'm glad you brought up remakes. I've always wondered why the majority of remakes are of classic films rather than crappy films. Why attempt to update a "timeless" film rather than attack a problematic one which could almost certainly be improved and become a classic in its own right?

I'm never married to the original material, but I believe a new adaptation is pointless unless it introduces an element that improves on the original. In this case, Kelly's decision to add density to The Box didn't translate into intelligent complexity.

James Hansen: Well, not to latch on your purposeful metaphor, but movies aren't trials. :-)

I thought once we got going on this that our approach to adaptation is likely different (esp. since you're a screenwriter, right?) but I'm curious - and this is for anyone - how they think adapting a book to film is somehow moving from an original to secondary item. I understand novel as a source, per say, but a movie is a movie, a novel is a novel, etc. I don't think making a movie from a book can infringe on "the original" (other than in people's nostalgia) because it's created in an entirely new form.

I certainly see where you're coming from and don't have a problem holding the new works to a high standard. But filmmakers aren't rewriting books. They're making movies. The forms are so completely different that I would have trouble calling a book "the original" and the movie a remake of the book, or even a secondary item to the book. I think your point applies a lot more to remakes of other movies or even fan-fiction and sequels written by different authors. The form matters enough that, when moving from one to another, it's very difficult, for me, to hold it to the standard or creation of another form.

Me: No they aren't trials. ;)

While I agree that movies and books are different, I believe that you have to show some respect for the source of inspiration. And while I don't think it means you have to be slavish, I do believe you have to do your best to not undermine the central thesis of the source. I don't disagree with anything you said in principle. But I don't think your arguments justify Kelly's reworking in The Box.

This argument will probably continue without a resolution since we can't really convince each other. And truthfully, I see your point even if I don't always agree. I'm confident you see my point as well, even if you don't agree. I'm interested in seeing what my readers think of the issue so I'm going to reprint this exchange at my site.
So I put it to you, readers. Do you think one should judge adaptations in relation to their source material? Why or why not?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm sort of in the middle on this argument (if that's possible). My gut reaction is to compare the fidelity of the texts ("But on pg. 236 she first steps forward with her LEFT foot!"), but the place where I usually settle is that they are separate works that can't be judged on the same scale. The intentions (particularly of the plots) might be the same (though not always), but the different methods give me pause.