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.

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