Friday, September 6, 2013

Someone Has to Stand Up to the Fans

In the past month there have been two major fan-base meltdowns over high profile casting decisions. The first was the casting of Ben Affleck as Batman for the Man of Steel sequel. The other was the backlash against the casting of Charlie Hunnam and Dakota Johnson for the upcoming movie adaptation of the novel Fifty Shades of Grey. Fans unhappy about the casting decisions have used social media to protest. The furor over Fifty Shades of Grey was intense enough to prompt the producer to defend the decision.

These protests echo similar complaints to be found in blogs, discussion boards, and Twitter feeds in which fans of popular source material hurl insults and grievances over changes made by filmmakers. There was last year’s flap over the casting of actors of color in The Hunger Games, the critiques of alterations to World War Z, and disappointment with the elimination of Tom Bombadil from The Fellowship of the Ring and the loss of the scouring of the shire from Return of the King.

I’m sympathetic to the passion these fans have for the stories and characters that are important to them and it is certainly true that filmmakers have turned great novels into disastrous movies. But the protests of fans—usually worded as “They ruined the book!”—reveal a fundamental misunderstanding about what filmmakers are supposed to do. The job of a filmmaker isn’t to translate a novel—or recreate the version of the novel in your head—and put it on screen without comment. Adaptation is a craft and it requires filmmakers to change the material from a literary source and into the cinematic form. Things that work better in a comic book or as prose may not work on screen.

A good example of that is this year’s version of The Great Gatsby. That novel is primarily a literary work, which is to say it is a book whose greatness is not found in its plot or its characters (elements that can be readily translated into a feature film) but in the subtleties of its language. When Gatsby is adapted to cinema, it loses the very thing that makes it special. This is evidenced in the difference between the party scenes and the driving set pieces, which are terrifically cinematic, and the dialogue-heavy dramatic scenes which are a drag.

There is an assumption that source material, and especially books, are inherently better than film adaptations but this is a baseless prejudice. There are plenty of examples of movie adaptations that removed significant parts of their source or made radical changes that ultimately improved the text: Dracula (1931 and 1992), Psycho, Jaws, The Godfather, Die Hard, and The Lord of the Rings.

We are in an age in which fans have been enabled by social media and in many ways that’s great. When filmmakers adapt a beloved piece of literature or other art and do a lousy job fans can make their voices heard. But the creation of art cannot and should not be a democratic activity. Filmmakers must be able to take a character or a story, including those that are beloved, and make something interesting out them. Sometimes that means the movie you get isn’t the one you expected.

But innovation isn’t the trend in the Hollywood marketplace. Films adapted from preexisting material are increasingly faithful to their sources, often to a fault. In fact, several recent high profile adaptations of popular novels turned out to be duds because they didn’t make changes. Consider the Twilight series and the adaptations of Dan Brown’s books The DaVinci Code and Angels and Demons. All of those films were headed by competent directors but the filmmakers barely strayed from the source material when they clearly should have. These films were terrible because their source material was terrible.

This problem isn’t likely to change because it is systemic. Hollywood studios are especially risk adverse and are producing movies from a shallower and shallower pool of material, making sequels and spin offs until they run aground, and then discarding the property or rebooting it. At the same time these studios are committing tremendous amounts of resources into blockbuster movies which need to become megahits in order to support the Hollywood business model. One of the ways they’ve found to ensure success is to court the fans. Conventions like Comic-Con, which were once small gatherings of devoted enthusiasts, are now major corporate showcases. It’s nice to see that studios are taking an interest in what the fans want but their efforts to appease the fan base may result in movies that appeal to the lowest common denominator.

Fandom is vocal and passionate but it is also fickle and sometimes wrong. When it was announced that Heath Ledger was cast as The Joker in The Dark Knight, fans reacted with disdain. Less than a year after the film was released, fans (probably the same ones) were demanding that DC Comics retire The Joker from all future Batman films out of deference to Ledger’s performance.

Not all creative decisions lead to great films. But creativity requires risk taking and a commitment to artistic vision. Fan outcry can deter bold casting and innovative filmmaking. As much as filmmakers may want to court the base there has to be a point at which they take a stand. Otherwise the studios might as well just film cosplay activities, covert it to 3-D, and broadcast it to theaters. Then maybe the supposed super fans will have what they really want: themselves on the screen.

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