“Rorschach’s Journal, Act I Scene iv”

What Do You See?
Everyone Sees It Different.

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.

2 thoughts on ““Rorschach’s Journal, Act I Scene iv”

  1. I hate to write this regularly about science fiction

    Oh, you love it!

    To the extent that mentioning Stapledon is a bit of a cop-out, I agree with you. Stapledon is going to be way out on the end of any bell curve you care to look at. Equally, I don’t think the example of “The Screwfly Solution” is a good one, because it has been successfully adapted.

    On the other hand, I think you’re conflating “cinema” and “Hollywood”, and that Lowe was talking primarily about the latter. Surely it’s true that there’s a lot of good sf that is in principle filmable, but which doesn’t fit the particular model of character that Hollywood wants. Compare the two films of Solaris, for instance (and I like Soderbergh’s version). The film of 2001 is notable because it, like Stapledon, is way out on the end of the bell curve for sf film; yet it’s not an uncommon arc for an sf story.

    If a given Hollywood version of a story replaces the virtues of the original with notable virtues of its own — Blade Runner may be the canonical example — then that is indeed well and good. But there are plenty of adaptations of sf works that miss the point of the original and are bland, generic films, and I find it really hard not to feel that that is the result of a particular production process, rather than an absolute vision of what cinema is and is not good at. I mean, can you imagine what Hollywood would do to Light?

  2. Niall – yes, I think ultimately the majority of SF is far less different to the ‘Hollywood mode’ than Graham contends. The ‘sympathetic protagonist who learns something’ rubric is after all one applied to a good many novels, short stories and computer games of all genres. Where rare authors buck the trend, it is easy to find dozens who don’t.

    At the same time, there is something focussed about it which suits cinema’s particular qualities, and not just the Hollywood sort, very well – I know what you’re saying about avoiding conflating the two, and yet, either because of Hollywood’s influence or because the ‘mode’ isn’t really born of Hollywood at all, much cinema does choose a POV character and stick with them: even so unusual a ‘world cinema’ piece as Russian Ark, or so transgressive an American example as Eraserhead, can be seen to fit the clothes of Graham and Lowe’s straw man. I’m not saying Hollywood makes uniformly great movies (though I’m dubious as to why ‘popular’ or ‘mainstream’ cannot be seen to be a ‘quality’ – and at times a valuable one – of Hollywood cinema) … I’m just saying that Graham’s piece is dancing with Aunt Sally.

    Think of it the other way around: how many film novelisations are (even) blander and (even more) generic than the movies they adapt? I’m not sure this says anything useful about the book business; it might say something about the function of adaptation across forms, but it claims nothing for either a) the singular brilliance of the source, or b) the backwards stupidity of the adapting form.

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