Wednesday 18 April 2012

"RE" THIS!: Episode 2 - Survival

Why do we feel the need to turn Shakespearean plays into teen-rom-coms, transform monstrous tyrants into more literal monsters or update Astro Boy? It is all for the same underlying reason, regardless of the superficial motives.

Survival through accessibility. We recreate a story to get more from it. To make it stronger. It is needless to to say that this doesn't always work. This can occur because the original is so heavily entrenched in the public psyche or because of the shortcomings of the newer versions. The triggers that lead to and the ways in which we go about re-engineering our stories are varied. Where some retellings try to shift a focus to increase the relevance of the story to contemporary issues, others might just reanimate, or add explosions.

Astro Boy was a Japanese comic serial that started in the early fifties called Tetsuwan Atomu ("Mighty Atom") which later became (in order); A live action television series; live action film; black and white animated series; colour animated series; second colour animated series; and a CG animated film (amongst other things). At every stage this was to make the story more accessible. This was also the reason that the series was translated into English. The other side of this is that when we talk about increasing access we talk about increasing the market too, but it amounts to the same thing with a different trigger.

In some cases the money trigger can work in conjunction with other triggers. It is common for stories, characters and settings to be rebooted due to an "unpainted corner". DC comics went through the process of retconning their multiverse multiple times eventually making it the plot in most major DC events. After years of painting themselves into corners they finally relaunched entirely in 2011, again using their shifting multiverse as the trigger. Leiji Matsumoto reboots his Harlock character on nearly every outing keeping only the characters and their motives. This allows him to tell the story he wants to tell without being hindered by his earlier writings.

Battlestar Galactica worked, because the approach revolved around accessibility. On a superficial level the new series looked much more real, which helped with our suspension of disbelief. At a deeper level the new series took a closer look at concepts that are more relevant to our own world, such as religious conflict, reliance on technology, failure of democracy, the horrors of war and human rights. On a personal level they made the characters  feel much more human and identifiable, with the inclusion of heavily flawed characters with flawed relationships. This focus on accessibility took a show that was cancelled after a single season due to poor ratings and turned it into a hugely successful four season series with wide spread appeal.

Unfortunately the most common method and trigger for rebooting anything is to take advantage of a trend. This is 'Trend-whoring' and it is boring. Recreating a familiar franchise to fit into an otherwise unrelated set of new criteria is irritating for everyone involved. I could get on Michael Bay's back about this, but if I ignore him maybe he will go away. Dino De Laurentiis, I choose you! And, oh, what a wealth of trend-whoring you have to offer. Two of his most recent production efforts have been Hannibal Rising and The Last Legion and they are the purest form of trend-whoring.

Let me set the scene. It is early years of the twenty-first century and Dino De Laurentiis is sitting at home thinking to himself "what are these origin films that everyone is talking about?", so he decides to google it. He stops musing over an artist's rendition of what he might look like as a giraffe and hops onto his computer. After a few minutes of searching he gets onto the phone with Thomas Harris and basically bullies him into a Hannibal Lector origin film. Don't like my version? He it is in Dino's words:

"I say to Thomas, 'If you don't do [the prequel], I will do it with someone else...I don't want to lose this franchise. And the audience wants it...' He said, 'No. I'm sorry.' And I said, 'I will do it with somebody else.' And then he said, 'Let me think about it. I will come up with an idea.'"

Take what you want from that, but my point is that the thought process and motivation for the film were fairly repugnant, and as a result the film is awful. Some people might argue that it is a prequel to the other films, but I disagree. I put it to you that it is so divergent from the original series in tone and characterisation that it is a reboot, and that is before you even get started on the story elements that don't match what we know about the lead character form the other films and books.

Unperturbed by the whole experience, Dino De Trend-a-whorus Rex gets back onto the internet to find out what else is popular, and hears about these things called Romans. He understands that they are a kind of soldier, and that they are all dead now. He then orders some artist's renditions of himself as a Roman giraffe, and decides that Romans are probably pretty popular after all. Blah blah blah, he got the film rights to an Italian book called The Last Legion and made another horrible film that not only disregarded the events of the novel, but also the course of history. Why bother getting the rights to the book in the first place? The answer of course being that trend-whoring is what happens when you suffer from a total lack of imagination, so you can't even think of your own ideas to trend-whore with.

Dumbass De Laurentiis is an extreme example of the kind of negative processes (and outcomes) that can be involved in the retelling of a story, but he isn't unique. Michael Bay retold Transformers and made it less relevant by downplaying the fuel and energy war that was at the centre of the original series. Is there something wrong when a twenty year old children's cartoon is more relevant to current events that your new movie based on the same cartoon? I think so.

I'm not going to come down hard on this. It is a thing that happens, and it can be done well. Blade Runner didn't even touch on one of the major plots of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, but it is far more accessible to many audiences because it avoids the whole topic of religion. There are aspects of the film that are clearly part of the Hollywood machine, but they work well, and don't interfere with what is being said. Philip K Dick said of the film's relationship with his book that the two works reinforce each other.

If you are all geared up to hate on the latest Spider-Man film because Toby Maguire isn't in it, maybe it isn't Spidey that you like, but Toby. That right there is something you are going to have to come to terms with on your own time. Clearly I'm not saying there should be infinite leeway for any reworked version of a classic or adaptation of a comic, but think about why something is being done the way it is. When all is said and done, and you still get your discontinuity boner on perhaps you need to invest in something a little less mutable than stories. Try mathematics. I hear it is pretty rigid.

Thursday 12 April 2012

"RE" THIS!: Episode 1 - The Great Tradition

Contrary to things I may have said or are yet to say I'm not totally against reboots, relaunches and re-imaginings. It is a thing that happens. Not sometimes either. It is a constant thing happening and moving and changing and trending. Some people get traumatically bent out of shape about this. There little fanboy rage gets all up in their nasty little fists and they start screaming about how someone (original creator) or another (IP holder) has just jossed their entire fanfic catalogue. To such folk I shout, "Welcome to the history of storytelling". It is part of the Great Tradition.

I don't think that there is a single myth that hasn't been reworked, transposed, recast, updated, exaggerated, expanded, combined, retconned, appropriated, romanised, stolen, assimilated, reinterpreted or misinterpreted. This is just how we roll as a species. Everyone agrees that Heracles got him some labours that numbered twelve, but if you get your research on (not Wikipedia) there is a much longer list of labours apparently accomplished under the "Twelve Labours" (c)(TM) brand. This is because everyone town wanted a piece of the action. They wanted to point at a rusting '89 Magna and say "Heracles pushed that car to the side of the road when it ran out of petrol by himself, and Iolas had all his kids in it. Including the three fat ones."

This isn't a behaviour that has been confined to the ancient world either. Let's do an easy one.

Once upon a time there was a man named Vlad Tepes who was Prince of Wallachia. He earned a bit of a reputation for being an impaler. Same say this made him a horrible tyrant, others suggest he just liked knowing that people he didn't trust stayed where he left them.

During his lifetime he had a disagreement with some folk (mainly of the Ottoman Empire). Folk to whom he later lost. It was also these folk who we rely on for our account of his cruelty. Considering that the tales of hiss cruelty continued to grow for nearly a century after his death from these same sources is it fair to suppose that they were not entirely accurate? I think so. It is also important to note that during his lifetime and in the centuries that followed the people of his own country saw him as a hero.

A couple of centuries roll on and we get to the closing years of the 19th C. when an Irishman knocks out a novel about the vampire count of Transylvania, Dracula. This book combines the figures of Vlad Tepes (Vlad III) and Vlad Dracul (Vlad II) into a single character, who is actually a vampire hell bent on becoming a London real-estate mogul.

Twenty-five years later Team Germany bust out the classic Nosferatu starring Max Schrek. Dracula is called Orlok and he travels to Germany instead of England. The Author's estate tried to have all prints of the film destroyed, but their lack of thoroughness is our boon. As the twentieth century continued Dracula would be retold and the character reused hundreds of times, amounting to dozens of reinterpretations of both the historical figures and fictional characters.

That's not all folks. If you call now Bram Stoker's Dracula is a hydra of the Great Tradition. He adopted a traditional European mythological creature, and changed its "rules" just enough to suit his tale, thus creating the basis for the modern vampire.

Popular culture over the next one-hundred plus years would jump in to adjust and reconfigure the concept of a vampire to suit trends and limitations in special effects. Enter Anne Rice's Interview with a Vampire (not the film, the book) that recasts vampires as lonely lovelorn creatures of the night. Then Buffy comes along and they start dating teenagers. By the time Stephanie Meyer throws her hat into the ring what is there left to do, but make them sparkle in the sunshine.

I've been guilty in the past of complaining about the "death of the classical vampire", but in all fairness Anne Rice, Joss Whedon and Stephanie Meyer are only participating in the Great Tradition. My definition was an arbitrary line drawn by myself (and others), where a better term would be 'pre-Varney vampires'. I do think it is important to make distinctions, because although they are all vampires, Edward Cullen (MeyerPire or Glampire) is a very different creature to Angel, or Lestat, or Orlok, or Dracula, or Varney. I think there is room for all.

Tuesday 10 April 2012

Thanks for the memo D-bag, but we're all already on the same page!

I've never understood the seemingly constant need to reestablish elements of a story that already has currency. This is something that seems to cycle back around to the forefront of my mind whenever anyone makes a film out of a well known IP or any movie with a number at the end (or replacing letters or words in the title). Such a time looms now as over the next year we will be getting a a couple of reboots, some prequel stuff, remakes and who knows what else that might be relevant to what I'm talking about. A lot of the time the public knows the score enough for the film to just get on with the story.

Take a knee kids. If you are making a movie about Superman we all have a fairly straight forward idea of what a Superman is and how they get down, and unless you are doing something really different with your Superman you don't need to fill us in on the flying and heat vision. We're all there on that. We know the drill. Aliens who look like humans for the convenience of the plot jettison their son into space as their world dies. Ma and Pa Kent find the aforementioned alien baby in a field and raise it as their own. Eventually the baby turns out to get extraordinary powers from Earth's yellow sun, even though it's really white. There is at least thirty minutes of your movie right there. How much of this do we actually need for the last sixty to ninety minutes? How much of it do we already know? His origin story was covered in the film, three TV series and at least three comic series. This is important because the Superman reboot, Man of Steel, is on the horizon. How much of the film will be spent covering old ground?

A title that has less uncertainty about it is The Amazing Spider-Man. I've seen the previews and they make it very clear that it is another origin story, or at the very least about the early events in what could be considered the interesting part of Peter Parker's life, including getting nibbled by a radioactive spider. Where this film might differ, and I am speculating, is that this story is about the young Spider-Man. It is a story about a time when he is not only new at the whole super-hero thing but also still quite naïve on the whole. There are Spider-Man stories that really hammer into Peter's sense of self, and drive home some incredibly vicious lessons on responsibility and foresight, and from the presence of certain characters in the upcoming film it seems as though these are the stories they are planning to tell.

Generally speaking I don't like origin stories. Well, actually I do, but I like going off and discovering them, and I hate them for the sake of themselves. Hannibal Rising is a perfect example of this kind of behaviour, and not only was it one of the worst films I think I can remember seeing, but it wasn't consistent with things established in the other films. Good work on that one. Thanks for playing.

When it comes to prequels and origin stories, and in fact any film, telling some kind of story should come first. This is especially effective if you tell a story that can only be told with that character, or at the very least can't be told with every second character. If you feel the need to rattle through the dot points of the character's back story starting with the loss of their parents or guardians and culminating sometime after they started running around in tights and a mask the very least you could do is put some effort into accommodating an actual story into all of it.

This is where I actually really like the idea of rebooting a franchise every couple of films, or just ignoring the accumulating pile of discontinuity collecting in the wake like they did with James Bond for forty years.

You've got the IP. We know the score. Tell us a story.