I hate to write this regularly about science fiction, but people keep writing things I have to respond to. Graham Sleight (or Nick Lowe) does the usual special pleading over at the Locus blog. Here the villains are film adaptations which naturally dumb science fiction down: of course, this is because SF is particularly different and Quite Special, thus setting itself in opposition to the simple narrative forms developed by daft old Hollywood. Graham makes the good point that SF should maybe get itself some better characters, but alas I have to take him to task on the perennial assumption that SF has a richer armoury of narrative forms than other modes of literature.
As a spin on this tired old debate, it may even be unfair to accuse film of ‘dumbing down’ rather than playing to its particular strengths. Jonathan McCalmont argues over on Ruthless Culture that the recent film of Jose Saramago’s complex novel, Blindness (I have read the book, but not seen the film) fails because “film is not a medium that deals terribly well with these types of abstract theoretical ideas.” By trying to do so in a way similar to the novel, the film hobbles itself. To paraphrase the film theorist André Bazin, swapping a story from one medium to another will necessarily involving changing its form – or else there seems little point.
To whit, the adaptation du jour, Watchmen. With a source considered (of course by fans) unfilmable, the director Zack Snyder has in fact done a creditable job of taking what Graham might call an SFnal narrative form – the ideas-led non-linear narrative with no standard moral growth for any of its panoply of ‘protagonists’ – and rendering it into a film. Ultimately, though, I agree with Abigail that such slavish devotion to the source makes the adaptation a hollow exercise: at times, what is on screen is precisely, boringly, what was in the panel, and its faithful and graphic reconstruction of comic book violence can only result in the film’s culminating massacre seeming somehow less horrible than it did on the page.
All of which is not to say that Hollywood (as presented by Lowe and Graham or otherwise) is an inspiring repository of revolutionary narrative. But I’m not sure it’s the case that literature adapted is hard done by when film imposes its own conventions – in fact, films are often hard done by when they genuflect at the altar of their source. It’s hard to argue for fidelity to SF’s specialness (or that of any other branch of literature) and simultaneously ignore (or disparage) cinema’s own prerogatives.