Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Judging a Film by Its Book Cover

I wonder if studios know how tough they make it for themselves when their reps give you a survey before you walk into a theater. As soon as I get one of those creamy, would-be soothing sheets, my senses go on alert. My skin draws into goosebumps. The hair on the my nape goes on end. It asks me my sex. A woman yammering behind me distracts me for a second and I check female (MISTAKENLY). It asks me my age. Range. Ever since I was 3 I've been thinking of my age as a precise crisp number, not a range! What's with the trick questions!?! Race. Of course. Hollywood bastards. That way they know which opinions to put in the throwaway pile. Well at least they put "Black/African-descent", and not "African-American" like some stupid forms.

[Imagine the indignity of a Nigerian or Kenyan, just visiting the country and deciding he wanted to check out a movie, only to have a form shoved in his face that tells him he's "African-American." Who pulled the switch on my passport? Or think of the Brit or Italian national for that matter (yes, there are Black Europeans! Even a few whose forebears went there voluntarily!!)? Or how's this for mindbending: you're an Indian from Uganda. What do you say then? Huh? Or how pray tell should Theresa Heinz-Kerry answer on such a form? Didin't think of that one now, did ya??? Silly surveys, trix are for kids.]

But even this little entreaty cannot thwart the coming of my hypercritical self. Like some angry green giant of a movie critic lurking in my subconscious. Mild mannered Bruce Banner that I am would normally be amused momentarily with ridiculously huge mustard yellow polarized glasses. Even the stubby little pencil that comes with the form hearkens back to simpler days when there was nothing one couldn't do with a pencil. No stray mark was indelible. No mistake permanent. Alas, such bliss was only momentary. A palliative, soothing the conscious self to relinquish its hold as monster beneath secured glasses to their perch whilst thumbing the top of his ballpoint like some terrible inky detonator. This friends, was my tenuous grip on reality as I sat down to see the long awaited "V for Vendetta".

For me, two books-made-film have been the standard bearers for said genre: "Lord of the Flies" (the original black and white version), and "Fahrenheit 451". One could argue "Grapes of Wrath" or "The Godfather", and I know the Frodo for President crowd is out there gnashing its teeth in anticipation of locking down on my throat, lithe and tender like a goose. Sorry, Charlie. Get in line behind the "Bridges of Madison County" fans. This is my inch, and I ain't givin' it. Okay. One exception. "High Fidelity". But only 'cause it's John Cusack.

Needless to say, this raises the bar damn high. And 9 times out of 10, even the best (adapted) movies, are mediocre in comparison to the novel. Perhaps even more so with a graphic novel, because unlike a text novel where one must completely imagine settings, and faces, and actions, a graphic novel lays all these out with precision that defies the sharpest camera lenses. Hell, why even make a graphic novel into a movie? Good question.

Well, having eagerly anticipated and now seen "V for Vendetta", I can say why the adaptation is worth the effort.

1) Living parable. Science fiction stories are our modern-day parables. It draws together magic and wonder to warn us of our very mundane human frailties. The story of V is about creating freedom in a society that out of fear has forsaken it in deference to "security". And this was written in the 80's??? Taken as is, the story in its original form is as timely as ever. Well worth a (re)read, even after seeing the movie. However, there is something quite jarring when one sees news footage of the day, OUR day, cut into this fictional cautionary tale. And such a skillfully executed update infuses the parable with new lifeblood. Making a powerful message even more potent by connecting to the accepted and turning it on its head.

2) Flesh, blood, and tears. I don't go in much for movies with a lot of crying. I'll admit it. It scares me. I don't like to cry, and I find the weepy tearjerkers totally manipulative, and I leave them feeling violated. That being said, the most powerful scene in the movie and graphic novel involves Evey Hammond (played by Natalie Portman, "the actress that defines our age" said one WAY too enthusiastic moviegoer walking out behind me when the movie ended) reading a letter she finds in her cell and sobbing and kissing it when she finishes it. These were tears of tremendous sadness and an eternity of pain, but also of defiant and unconquerable love. Her tears are painful, wrenching, triumphant, and joyful. And to have such a scene played by a tremendous actress like Portman (yes, MagnoliaFan walking out behind me was right, but he should have come to that conclusion after seeing "The Professional", as any TRUE Portman fan would have...hah!) is like having a chiropractic adjustment administered to your heart. A visceral moment on paper given bone, flesh, and tears on an IMAX screen no less. My eyes mist and my heart swells simply thinking about it.

3) The Boom Bip. A dark mysterious figure emerges from the shadows. In an elegant frenzy of motion the villain and his henchmen lay thwarted in broken messy piles. We all derive a satisfaction from seeing the truly wicked get their comeuppance. Better still when this vengeance is served in digital surround sound stereo. The snapping of long bones, the swift cuts of the blade, the resonant thud of boot heel to sternum, a triumphant symphony of justice being dealt. One can always imagine using the freeze-frame images a graphic novel provides. But the wonder and magic of the samurai is in that split second pause between his killing stroke and his victims collapse where you can study his face transformed by anger, fear, determination, and possible death. Swiftness of motion, or the illusion thereof, and the power and fury of the bone-crunching deathblow are what make any action comic fan yearn for his favorite books to be made into films. Besides, what's an homage to Guy Fawkes without the thunderous, seat-rumbling, Parliament-leveling fireworks?

Final verdict. Go see it. Then I strongly recommend reading it. Both experiences will change the way you look at your surroundings, the way you breath the air around you, the way you share your life with others (or begin to if you haven't yet started). I have my gripes, of course, having read the book first. And having heard the author's (Alan Moore) own infamous misgivings about the production I didn't want to let Hollywood off too easy. But even in its shortcomings, the filmmakers succeeded where so many others have failed, and attempted and succeeded at things that neither directors, actors, artists, nor writers have dared try. And it's about fucking time.

1 comment:

Amanda said...

I was really interested in seeing V, but was a little skeptical as I tend to be about most things. Thanks for the review. I think I'll go see it, if I ever get a day off.