PBS Digital Studios have a new video series It’s Lit! which is part of The Great American Read, an eight-part series that explores and celebrates the power of reading. Featuring one of the premiere video essayists in Lindsay Ellis, this series should be brilliant.
The first video briefly discusses a topic I’ve frequently discussed here, what makes a good adaptation and why the book is so often regarded as better.
Lindsay has very concisely summarised why movies so often don’t make for good or faithful adaptations of the source material. But she also touches on why they can sometimes improve the book, or make an adaptation that uses the source material in an interesting way to tell a different story.
With the recent spate of superhero movies, it is easy to forget that not every movie has a superhero in it. Even the superhero films aren’t always about someone on steroids (Captain America) or weather presenters (Thor) but are instead about your everyday billionaire playboy (Batman, Ironman, Arrow). So it is easy to forget that feats of superhuman strength are not meant to be the norm in films.
Think about the scenes where the everyday hero is clutching the edge of a building by his fingertips – and I’m sure someday I’ll be able to write their instead of his. Valiantly they hold on to the ledge with one hand whilst the love interest or bad guy is dangling from their other hand. Of course, the hero never loses his grip on the ledge, but the bad guy may slip from his grasp.
We accept that scene as plausible because we have been brainwashed into thinking that the average person can hold their own bodyweight with a single hand for extended periods. Double their bodyweight? They can hold that for the length of a dramatic moment – a period of time that is impossible to measure in real time since dramatic speeches and slow motion really mess with reality.
The problem is that outside of gymnasts, rock climbers, or people who crush rocks with their bare hands for a living, the Average Joe wouldn’t even be able to hold their own weight with a single hand for more than a few seconds. Good luck having any unbroken fingers if they caught themselves from a fall.
Elite grip strength can be measured a few ways, but the Captains of Crush grippers are one easy way to distinguish strong hands. The #1 requires 64kg (140lbs) of force to close, while the #3 gripper takes 127kg (280lbs) and is regarded as world class grip strength. Just for shits and giggles they made a #4 gripper that requires 166kg (365lb) of force to close and has been officially closed by 5 people. Ever.
So let’s just assume that our generic action movie has an everyday hero who weighs a buff 80kg and his falling love interest is a sexy 55kg – because stereotypes. That’s 135kg hanging from the hero’s fingertips, a weight that even a really strong person wouldn’t have the grip strength to support. Two normal sized adults are not going to be hanging onto that ledge for any length of time.
Which brings us to the next amazing feat of strength in this scenario: lifting that falling love interest back to safety. For a strong person, lifting their 55kg love interest should be easy. Patrick Swayze managed it in Road House. A buff 80kg hero could probably clean and jerk a dumbbell weighing that much…. assuming they work out, have some chalk on their hands, were able to get some leg drive happening, had decent technique, and that the dumbbell wasn’t particularly unwieldy. But most falling love interests are a tad unwieldy, not designed for easy lifting – no obvious knurled handles – and there isn’t a lot of leg drive happening when you’re dangling from the side of a building by your fingertips. Yet without fail, the hero manages to get them both to safety. Well, unless it is one of those tragic character defining moments, in which case the hero will be in the same situation later and will find the determination to succeed the second time. Sucks to be the first love interest in that scenario.
Interesting to think about just how many amazing feats of strength are passed off as normal in movies.
Recently a YouTuber discussed what makes for a good story, based upon three important pillars: pictures, feelings, and ideas. Or as he put it:
Hello and welcome to another instalment of “X lectures you on matters he himself knows nothing about”.
Like with everything that has a simple explanation (and even some complicated ones), I think the response to these sorts of posited arguments is “I think you’ll find it is a little bit more complicated than that.” But this one was funny, so points for effort.
A lot has been written on how to tell good stories. Seriously, every second creative person in history has a list of rules or advice. So here is a list of seven things that make for good stories, because seven is more than three, and it was on the first page of my Google search:
A central premise.
Strong three-dimensional characters who change over time.
A confined space — often referred to as a crucible.
A protagonist who is on some sort of quest.
An antagonist of some sort bent on stopping the hero.
An arch in everything — everything is getting better or worse.
And perhaps most important — Conflict. (Source: from Inducing Reality: The Holy Grail of Storytelling by Ken “frobber” Ramsley)
I think Ramsley’s explanation is more of a traditional checklist of things you need in your storytelling. X’s, in contrast, is a more generalist feel of where a story sits on one of those trinity diagrams. Neither, in my opinion, is right. And as a creative person, I’m now going to make a list of rules and advice….
Joking. Joking. Because I don’t think it works like that. I think that what makes a story good is the execution of the various story elements, done at the right time, finding the right audience, and being interesting enough to be remembered.
As an example, Star Wars is regarded as good, despite containing clunky dialogue, wooden acting, and passable directing. Why is it good? Because it hits all the story elements of the hero’s journey, it was one of the first space operas that hit the baby boomer generation and their kids, and had cool ideas like light sabres, space battles, The Force, and merchandising before that was really a big thing, to be remembered.
I’ve previously discussed how the luck factor of being a good story works. One example I cited was of Moby Dick and how it became good literature by accident/chance. Essentially one person dug it up, liked it, wrote favourably on it, and the rest is history. Shakespeare is in a similar boat, as his works were collected posthumously by 5 fans (750 copies, 250 surviving). These are examples of how finding the right audience is important, and how timing may not coincide with when something is made. How many other potentially good works were lost because they didn’t have an advocate who chanced upon them?
Of course, that’s just my thoughts. It’s probably more complicated than that.
Edit: When I originally posted this discussion on what makes a story good, I linked to a video by a YouTuber. Via Twitter I have learnt that this YouTuber sexually abused his former partner. Please take a moment to read her story in the links.
This isn’t behaviour any of us should condone, nor support. In this instance, I was sharing his video and promoting his profile – hence why his user name and video have been removed from this post. I was wrong to tacitly support abuse in this way. By not standing against abuse you might as well be condoning it.
Given the impending authoritarianregimes and mega-media corporationsforming, CineFix decided that this month’s What’s the Difference? would look at our near future. Reality TV will soon bring us The Running Man.
Back when I first saw Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Running Man the title sequence credited the source material as being written by Richard Bachman. One of the people with me, turned to us all with one of those know-it-all looks and said, “That’s really Stephen King.” So as we watched Arnie take down hulking professional killers with his trademark killer puns, we wondered if he was correct. Spoiler: he was.
Decades later I finally got around to reading and enjoying the novel. The movie and the novel were starkly different in so many ways. For starters, no half-starved, poverty stricken Running Man contestant is going to look like Arnie. But many of the themes are the same, if explored in differing ways.
This made The Running Man more than just a standard action film. By exploring the themes of totalitarianism, class subjugation, and media control while Arnie slices a guy in half with a chainsaw, we got a movie that was subversive and satirical. While not on the same level of social commentary as King’s novel, it does stand as an example of how you can do a loose adaptation of source material as an action movie but retain the exploration of themes.
And watch a guy with no pants get electrocuted when the fire sprinklers are set off. Way better than reading the description of Ben Richards’ entrails getting caught on plane seats.
This month in CineFix’s series What’s the Difference? they cover Oldboy. Live octopus not included.
Not having read the Manga, I don’t really have much to add to the above video. The film is amazing. It redefined “off-the-wall” and managed to make it compelling watching.
Let’s not talk about the Spike Lee remake. Because it wasn’t very good. Although, because it is an American adaptation of a South Korean adaptation of a Japanese work, it can be interesting in an intercultural sense. This article is very interesting in that regard.
Hugh Jackman is a proud Aussie export. We love that he is a Hollywood A-lister, and even more that he makes the rest of us Aussies look awesome.
But, and there always is a but, Hugh has appeared in some films that could have been greatly improved with one simple addition. I give to you the list of movies that would have been much improved if Hugh had popped the adamantium claws and gone berserker.
Let’s face it, anything would have improved this schlocky mess of a movie. Instead of Hugh turning into a werewolf toward the end, if he had turned into Wolverine and shniketied some vampires, this would have been watchable.
Wouldn’t it have made more sense to have Wolverine living in outback Australia? Then he could have taken on the invading army during the WW2 scene.
Imagine a Woody Allen film with Wolverine in it! Imagine the boat scene with Hugh going Wolverine on Scarlet Johansen’s character, and Scarlet going Natasha Romanov on him! Imagine if this newly awesome film wasn’t directed by a creep!
Imagine if this film didn’t suck. I think adding Wolverine to the mix would have done wonders for this lame movie.
Wolverine versus Robots. I rest my case.
Who else wanted to see Hugh decapitate John Travolta in this film? Or any Travolta film barring Pulp Fiction?
I’m not sure anything would have made this a film worth watching, so claws wouldn’t have hurt.
X-Men Origins: Wolverine
Wouldn’t it have been great if Hugh was playing Wolverine…… Wait a minute. This movie sucked even with Wolverine in it.
Do you prefer a Chianti or an Amarone to accompany human liver and fava beans? This month CineFix ask the question in their What’s the Difference? on Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris.
I’m going to be controversial here and say that the movie, Silence of the Lambs, was better than the book. That’s right. I’ll give you some time to warm up the tar and pluck the chickens.
That isn’t to say that the novel is bad, far from it. In my original reviews of Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs, I noted that they were great stories, very interesting and layered (thematically, compositionally, etc), and gave us a charismatic villain for the history books. But I wasn’t a fan of the writing. Some passages were on point, especially some of the dialogue that was pretty much lifted straight into the movie, but other parts felt like they were letting down the team.
Compare that with the cinematic classic and you can see which one stands taller. The themes, particularly the sexism, are more subtle yet more omnipresent (camera angles and shot staging vs inner monologue). The tone of the film is brought to life, and how could it not be with Anthony Hopkins’ Lecter exuding menace and demonic magnetism, and the brilliant cinematography – the night vision scene is unmatched.
It’s a pity none of the movie sequels managed to capture the same magic. I’m yet to read the rest of the Hannibal Lecter novels, so it would be interesting to hear if they managed to continue the magic, or if they slowly drained of life with each thin slice.