Thursday, May 13, 2010

District 9

Hey, we're back from the blogging graveyard! Miracles do happen...

What brought about this resurrection? The South-African science fiction film District 9 (not to be confused with Nine or District 13, respectively a modern Fellini-based musical and Luc Besson-produced urban tripe with a few redeeming action scenes).
District 9 succeeds at a lot of things: it has great special effects, a very well-realized alien race (no Star Trek wrinkled forehead aliens here), a clear message, visceral action scenes and more than a dollop of gore, and very good acting from the lead, Sharlto Copey.

Yet is it a classic? I don't think so, though it could have been.

SPOILERS AHEAD... You have been warned.

One of the reasons that District 9 isn't as powerful as it should be is because of the narrative choice made in the beginning of the film.

District 9 shows us what would happen if a mothership full of stranded aliens would appear above Johannesburg. The aliens, nicknamed Prawns for their appearance, are locked in camps and basically stripped of all rights. To introduce us to the complex situation, the film starts off as if it were a documentary. It shows the arrival of the ship, the discovery of the aliens, features several experts who comment on various aspects of the situation (economic, social, judicial, biological...). Slowly, a theme emerges: a certain Wikus van der Merwe, who we have seen as an ineffectual bureaucrat, is apparently missing and considered a traitor to the human race by many.

We then follow Wikus on the ill-fated operation in which the Prawns were served notice that they would be removed to another camp, far from Johannesburg, the following day. All of this is still documentary-style, with Wikus constantly explaining to the camera crew that follows him everything that goes on and is discovered during the operation.

On the one hand, choosing a documentary framework for this story aids in delivering the exposition. A lot of information is not dramatized but explained to the audience directly. But because the film copies the style of a television documentary, this doesn't throw us out of the movie. We know the genre, know how information is conveyed and accept it. So a complex situation is spelled out fairly swiftly, aided by strong visuals, and the need for people to explain a situation they're all aware of to each other is removed.

On the other hand, it makes it fairly hard to become emotionally involved with the story. For quite a while, we're left wondering what the film is going to be about, and we don't connect to van der Merwe until well into the second act.

Things go wrong for van der Merwe when he is exposed accidentally to an alien liquid, which starts a physical transformation in him. The liquid was actually intended to be used as fuel by an alien scientist (we suppose), named Christopher Johnson by the humans, in order to start the mothership up again. When van der Merwe starts changing, he becomes a guinea pig for his company, MNU, which also manufactures weapons and wants to discover a way to have the Prawn weapons function for humans as well. Wikus is the perfect test subject, but is treated horribly and he escapes, finally finding refuge with Christopher Johnson and collaborating with him to get the alien liquid back in exchange for a promise to cure him of the transformation.

It's only from the moment where van der Merwe starts to change, that we're in a 'normal' film story. There's a clear protagonist, he has a goal and is faced with a lot of opposition. And to be fair, we do care about the protagonist once he begins to suffer mightily. This is also the point in the film where the documentary angle all but disappears.

It does return, however, at the very end, when van der Merwe's final fate is once again related documentary-style.

There are two problems with this, from the writing point of view:

1) as stated above, the beginning of the film doesn't draw the audience in emotionally

2) the shift in point-of-view doesn't strengthen the narrative. Even during the documentary section, we cut away a few times to the aliens gathering the liquid/fuel for their escape attempt. And these scenes are 'normal', not part of the documentary. Similarly, we follow van der Merwe together with the documentary crew, until the consequences of his accident start to play up. Then, we're following him as the protagonist of the movie, yet at the very end, all of a sudden, the documentary is 'back'. So, is what we've seen part of the documentary or not? It's a radical shift in storytelling POV (from a very detached third person overview to a very intense first person experience) which doesn't really help the movie that much. Choosing to stick with the documentary angle would have probably made the film too 'intellectual' - by which I mean, appealing only to the intelligence of the audience, not (or insufficiently) to their emotions.
Choosing to tell it as a 'straight' story, without framework, however, would have made that emotional connection from the start. Yes, the exposition challenge would have been huge (though to be honest, we learn very little about the aliens and their society during the film), but the emotional pay-off would have made it all worthwhile.

If anything, this shows how important POV is in screenwriting, and flipping from one narrative POV to another without a very compelling reason to do so is detrimental to the whole.

Another problem with the film is that Wikus has two 'idiot plot' moments which stand out as a sore thumb. First, when he's told by the alien that his cure will take three years, he reacts as we all would (ahem): he knocks him out and steals his shuttle to the mothership. What he hopes to accomplish there, or how he intends to cure himself of his condition is unclear. But it's a moment which is necessary for the escape attempt to go haywire and the bad guys to find the good guys.
A second moment comes a little later when Wikus has acquired a mech suit full of weapons. Does he attack the mercenaries who threaten him? No, he begs for his life and runs away (even though he's got more firepower on board than an aircraft carrier). Only to turn back a minute later when he hears the villainous mercs are going to kill Christopher. One might argue that van der Merwe is an ordinary man with no combat experience, and that his behaviour is therefore logical and well-founded. True, but one minute later he does a complete about-turn and valiantly slaughters dozens of bad guys in creative ways, and holds them off in order to let Christopher fulfill his mission, even though this act will doom him. There's just not enough time to make this change seem credible, though the vigorous action keeps the audience entertained enough not to ponder the point too much.

Add to this some major plot holes (such as, why do the aliens seem to be superhumanly powerful one moment and total wimps the next, or why don't they rebel against humanity when there are illegal stockpiles of alien weaponry all over the district), and the end result is a film with many qualities, but which is dragged down just a bit too much by its screenwriting flaws.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Trouble With Harry - some thoughts on adaptation after watching Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Adapting something like the Harry Potter novels is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it's a high-profile job and box office is guaranteed. On the other hand, the huge and rabid fan following of the books makes it all but impossible to truly adapt the source material to the movie format. Instead, you're forced to translate the story as literally as possible. And with the Harry Potter books, that translation isn't easy at all.

J.K. Rowling uses a fairly rigid formula in most of the series (the exceptions being books 5 and 7). The events take place over one school year, which is a very long time frame for a movie. Moreover, this also means that plotwise, the action is often quite sparse, as whatever problem confronts Harry and his pals can only be laid to rest after several months. In a novel, skillfully told, that doesn't have to be a problem. But in a film, the lack of definite forward momentum presents a real obstacle to good storytelling, especially in adventure-type genres.

So when it comes to Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the weakest novel in the series by far (though more on this later), the limitations of this type of approach take centre stage. I'm assuming you've seen the film or read the book, so I'll spoil 'episode VI'. I'll try to avoid spoilage of book 7 though be warned that it might not be completely possible.

There are only three important events in the narrative: Snape is revealed to be a traitor in league with the Dark Lord, Harry and Dumbledore discover the secret of Voldemort's Power, and Snape kills Dumbledore as the latter is attacked by the Death Eaters. The rest of the book and film are filled with incidents, some of which are amusing, some of which amount to very little. Romance rears its ugly head, and just as with Lord of the Rings, the author's choices about who pairs off with whom are debatable at best. Moreover, the treatment of love is especially child-like and immature in both episodes VI and VII, especially if you keep in mind we're dealing with 16 to 17 year-olds now. And when translated to the screen, these uninvolving romances fall even flatter than they did in the novel. Bizarrely, one scene (not in the book) in the opening sequence of the film shows Harry being hit on by a lovely waitress, and showing every intention of taking up her not-so-subtle invitation. To have him revert to the romantic awareness level of an 8-year old is even less plausible because of that scene.

Now, as I mentioned, there are only three important events in the story, and one of these, Snape's treachery, is revealed straightway. The second and third major events both take place in act III. So here you are faced with two acts in which the storyline barely moves forward. Worse - for a very long time, the audience doesn't even know what the dramatic goals of the story are. We know the Death Eaters are planning to assassinate Dumbledore, but that plotline is kept very much in the background until the end. Harry, Hermione and Ron aren't allowed to discover anything except for 'there are mysterious going-ons going on'. Only neart the end of act two/beginning of act III is Harry given a clear mission by Dumbledore, which leads to the discovery of Voldemort's secret (he's split his soul into seven pieces and is immortal unless all of these shards are destroyed).

The problem here is that there's no reason (logically or dramatically) why Harry didn't get that mission in act 1. It would have made no difference for him - but the film would have been barely 40 minutes long. So the need to stay true to the original plotting of the narrative results in a fundamentally, even fatally flawed film.

This is made even more obvious by some scenes which end too soon, others which go on for too long and still others which seem to be pointless. Much of this is a question of choices made in the editing suite, not in the script per se - but it's obvious the weakness of the central narrative line affected the entire production.

The film version does solve one of the biggest flaws of the book, though. In the nove, Dumbledore tells Harry early on that he's not going to keep secrets from him anymore, from now on he'll be treated like an adult and told everything that's going on. Well and good, but Dumbledore straightaway keeps secrets from Harry all through the novel and this leads directly to his death. Dumbledore becomes as stupid as the Jedi in the Star Wars-prequel trilogy. In the film, this early scene is simply cut, so Dumbledore doesn't lose the respect of the audience. In fact, it's suggested that he's got a master plan which we and Harry aren't completely privy to.

And to be fair, the weaknesses in the novel (the aformentioned Dumbledorian stupidity, Snape's reveal which turns the character into a cliché) are all set-ups for book VII. In fact, book VII places the events of book VI in a completely different light, and 'fixes' everything. However, this invalidates book VI even more as an independent entity, of course.

At least the adaptation of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows won't be facing the same problem. The big challenge will be to find room for all the major events, even taking into account that the book will be turned into two movies. I'm really wondering how they're going to put the 150+-page climax on the screen...

Friday, February 26, 2010

Review: Save The Cat Strikes Back!

Yes, we're back from the blogging graveyard!

And with a review of the final volume in the Save The Cat-trilogy no less.

When Blake Snyder died suddenly late last year, his death sent a shockwave through the international screenwriting community. Blake was well on his way to giving Robert McKee a run for his money as the most influential (and busy) screenwriting guru in the world.

Save The Cat! has become the go-to screenwriting paradigm for an impressive number of writers. Book 1 introduced the model, book 2 was Blake's type on genres (though it's really about story patterns, genres is a misnomer in this case).

Book three is less focused on one topic than its predecessors, but that's not a bad thing in this case. The book really consists of two parts. In the first half, the theoretical model is expanded, and Blake adds a lot of insights he'd gathered during the last few years, teaching all over the world. The second half is practical advice on getting and maintaining a career in screenwriting.

The first half of the book contains the most universally applicable material. There's some great stuff about what makes for a really good logline, the structural model is expanded, especially in acts 1 and 3, and there's a lot of advice on straightening the spine of your story. This is all good stuff, and useful, even though I disagree with Blake's structural analysis of a couple of important movies (Die Hard and Alien.

The second half of the book is obviously intended for people breaking into and/or getting through the door in Hollywood. What's interesting about these chapters is that they're very up-to-date at the moment, showing how the business is involving. Blake emphasizes playing nice and being a helpful member of the team, which is good advice but on the other hand it does very much accept the situation as it is, and this type of approach will of course not lead in any way to improving the system.

The final chapter is about Blake's own story, and I liked this one very much. I'll admit to finding his relentlessly optimistic tone occasionally wearying and grating, but after reading how he came to adopt this attitude after a life-changing event, I find myself admiring the man for breaking out of a downward spiral of negativity.

But most of all I admire Blake Snyder for being a writer and teacher who was constantly learning, and who thrived on the exchanging of ideas and opinions. There are other gurus who finalize their concept or text, and repeat it verbatim, year in year out, brooking neither discussion nor dissention. Blake, on the other hand, kept evolving and improving his material. And it's a great pity we will never have the opportunity to learn what discoveries he might have made in the decades to come.

In case you were still wondering, I highly recommend the book, and the easiest way you can get it is here: