Tuesday 17 February 2009

Guest post: Adrian Tchaikovsky

I was frantically wondering what to blog about this afternoon, and was on the verge of throwing a frilly-cuffed strop (not strictly true...in fact, not true at all. I just try to use/abuse that phrase as much as possible) when I was rescued by Shadows of the Apt author Adrian Tchaikovsky, who emailed me to submit his guest article that he'd kindly agreed to write a short while ago.

Adrian's debut novel Empire in Black and Gold was published by Tor last year, and the next two novels Dragonfly Falling and Blood of the Mantis are to be released this year.

So, without further delay, here is what Adrian thinks of that much-maligned beast - the fantasy film.

Enjoy - I certainly did.

- - - - -

The Empire (in Black and Gold) Strikes Back.

Out of the blue, in the middle of an interview for SF London: "So... what are your thoughts about a film?"

To which my automatic response was, "Well, a good film of the books would be Best Thing Ever, but..."

Fantasy films have a dodgy pedigree. Until quite recently it was entirely defensible to say that there were no unqualifiedly good heroic fantasy films: any list of their virtues would always have to qualified by "but..." or "except..." There was a golden age of cheap fantasy films riddled with poor special effects(1), wooden acting(2), ludicrous villains(3), muddled concepts(4), ill-chosen music(5), chauvinism(6), bad plotting(7) and sheer all-round gut-cringing awfulness (8). The only thing that saves most of those bad old films is their very cheapness. It makes them enjoyable because you know that, between their soaring ambition and their plunging budgets, nobody was going to do any better than Hawke the Slayer. Once you get past the "except..." many of them are actually quite good, and all of them are watchable.

More recent bad films are less amusing to watch, because they stand as clear demonstrations of the adage that you can't just throw money at a problem, and that's a waste. It may seem incredible but had the right writer, director and producer been given the brief "Dungeons and Dragons Movie", they could have pulled something decent out of the bag, given the enormous budget they had to work with. After all, if that's not a free-form brief I don't know what is. Make sure there's a dungeon and a dragon in there somewhere and, if you cared a damn about the project, you could have something worthwhile. The result: Joint Worst Fantasy Film Of All Time. Worse than Hawke the Slayer? By several hundred miles, because you can always go further with more money behind you, especially in the wrong direction.

Some of these films are adaptations, some are not. Others claim to be adaptations but really, really aren't. Whether Conan the Barbarian kept the spirit of Howard is arguable either way, it certainly didn't keep the text. And this is the basic problem for an author, of course, because, JK Rowling excepted, it would seem to be a pretty shaky business handing over the film rights. The princess in Rumpelstiltskin had the same contract: a stack of gold for your firstborn (10). A number of writers have been quite vocal about the quality of adaptations of their work, notably Ursula le Guin, on whose behalf the Sci-fi channel (11) failed to seize the opportunity to present her timeless masterpiece, and of course Alan Moore, who goes into vitriolic detail about his clashes with the film industry in the interview published in Jess Nevins' Impossible Territories. However the most sublime author commentary on film adaptations comes in The Last Watch, the fourth book in Lukyanenko's Night Watch series, which has spawned two films that diverge exponentially from the plots of the books. In his latest work, Lukyanenko has several characters refer to events in the films as particularly disturbing and inexplicable dreams that they had, putting continuity firmly in its place. Should it matter to the author what Rumpelstiltskin does with his child? Phillip Pullman has said, talking about the film The Golden Compass, that it doesn't. The book is still there on the shelf, he points out. The text has not been changed by the film. I'm less convinced of the church-and-state separation that he claims. After all, more people will see the film than read the book, most likely. If the film is a dog, and if it acquires that particularly odiferous reputation that bad films do, then the title is surely tainted by association. A really bad film can cast a long shadow.

Of course, it would be a remarkable book that could be turned straight into a film without the slightest changes, and probably not a very satisfying book at that. There are bad reasons to deviate from source: for fleeting fashion, or because of some executive producer's idea of "what the kids want", or some committee somewhere decides that people are far too stupid to get the original. However a different medium will always require some tinkering. I'd even venture so far into heresy as to say that sometimes the plot of a book, for whatever reason, can benefit from medium-scale changes when being filmed. After all, and against tradition, we have actually had some good adaptations on screen recently. Fantasy films based on books have been enjoying a moderate renaissance. Leaving aside the ubiquitous Mr Potter and his misadventures, and other adaptations of young adult books such as Spiderwick Chronicles and Inkheart (12), the scope of adaptations runs the gamut of faithfulness. Lord of the Rings is the big one, and is mostly both very good and also true to the original, save that Jackson made the wise decision to cut back and forth between the divided characters in instalments 2 and 3, and took a few other liberties to make the fights more cinematic (13). It does make great cinema and it's a very subjective call, depending on how much you like the original, whether that kind of change is justified or not. At the further end of the scale is last year's Prince Caspian, which was an extremely successful adaptation precisely (imho) because it replotted the original quite a bit, bringing the Pevensies in a lot earlier in the fight, making Caspian himself a lot more capable (14), and adding a cracking castle assault in the middle. Of course, the Narnia stories are getting on a bit now, and expectations of a fantasy action film are such that the original would probably have come across as plodding and light on incident and emotion. The film isn't perfect, but I was very taken with it. I'd go so far as to say that even the romantic subtext, that Lewis would surely rather have stabbed himself than written, was a Good Thing. However, as an example of doing things by the book, there's always Stardust, an extraordinarily good film that manages to stay spot on with Gaiman's original almost all the time. It's also an unparalleled example of a film that balances serious and comic elements to the detriment of neither, a rare thing indeed. A key factor here, I suspect, is that Gaiman is writing now and has a good knowledge of the film industry himself. It makes one long for an American Gods TV movie...

It's worth putting a word in here for cartoon adaptations, which like the films are an odd lot. Aside from Bakshi's troubled Lord of the Rings (or, given that he never finished it, Lord of the R) there's a halfway decent cartoon of Beagle's The Last Unicorn with a cast including Christopher Lee, but marred by some unfortunate Disneyesque musical numbers. Moreover Studio Ghibli, doyennes of the Anime world, have now had a crack at both Diane Wynne-Jones and Ursula le Guin and, whilst both adaptations were wide of the mark on accuracy, they were still good in and of themselves. As I'm currently presiding over a series of books that checks the boxes [1] strong female leads [2] steampunk tech; and [3] giant insects, I'm watching with interest.

So I suppose the final word comes down to: good films are good, even if they diverge from source, bad films are bad, but cheap bad films are just funny. As for me, well, the film rights are still up for grabs, and everyone's high-faluting principles are soluble in sufficient sums of money...

And if Empire in Black and Gold subsequently ends up filmed under the title A Bug's Life II you'll know what happened.

(1) James Earl Jones turns into a snake in Conan the Barbarian for, let's face it, no reason whatsoever. Plus there's the magical travelling gate the heroes enter in Hawke the Slayer which is clearly, when they exit it, not only the same gate, but the same gate in the same piece of forest with the same distinctive tree to one side of it. That's just lazy. Good old Hawke also gives us the world's shortest giant and the world's tallest dwarf.
(2) The hero of The Beastmaster is out-acted by his own ferrets, whilst the elf in Hawke the Slayer is apparently on valium for the entire film, save when he's loosing arrows at a rate of fire that would impress an AK47.
(3) Poor aging Jack Palance in (yes, again) Hawke the Slayer who stands like he's on a horse even when he's not, whilst Rip Torn in the Beastmaster chews the scenery enough to give it rabies.
(4) Krull, whose producers, terrified by the success of Star Wars, tried to turn it into a SF film in post-production.
(5) Poor, poor Ladyhawke which was doing so well until someone decided that all that star potential would be wasted without a disco soundtrack.
(6) Of which the best/worst example is surely Conan the Destroyer whose lesbian villainess gets somewhat graphically impaled.
(7) The party of heroes in Legend which, Eddings-like, actually outnumbers the villains (9) considerably, are so utterly clueless that Tim Currie's marvellous villain actually has to explain his own fatal vulnerability in their earshot, apropos of nothing, before they have a hope of defeating him.
(8) Hawke the Slayer. Hawke the Slayer. Hawke. The. Slayer.
(9) The Fortress of Darkness in Legend is almost completely empty. Its complement of staff appears to consist of two ogre jailers, who double up as chefs. The goblins that received a disproportionate amount of screen time in the first half of the film have apparently hightailed it, and there are some druids or something who are presumably kept in a box until the last scene, wherein they accomplish absolutely nothing.
(10) Guessing the name of the holding corporation will not get you out of the contract.
(11) Whose adaptations of Dune were so damned good, for the lord's sake!
(12) Where's the Frances Hardinge film or TV adaptation? That's what I want to know.
(13) In the books the Steward of Gondor had the sense to evacuate the city before the orcs arrived, for example.
(14) You'll recall that originally Caspian basically makes an utter fist of the war before the kids turn up and save his useless ass from his own shortcomings, for which he's jolly dashed grateful, what?

- - - - -

Many thanks to Adrian for his excellent guest post! I heartily agree that Hawk the Slayer is easily the worst fantasy film of all time, for the reasons Adrian mentioned but also for the fact that Hawk himself has no personality - at all. And because the evil dark lord is his brother (and has a comedy 'evil' name - Voltan). And because the director thought using dozens of luminous bouncy balls would work as a 'magical' effect (it doesn't). And because there's a woeful attempt at a 'comedy interlude', where the giant and dwarf have an argument about holy bread. And because almost the entire film takes place in a murky wood. And because the plot is unbelievably dire. And because...well, you get the idea.

One of my friends once watched Hawk the Slayer twice in a row, back-to-back, and barely escaped with his sanity intact. It's that bad.

Krull actually isn't too bad, if you excuse the fact that - as Adrian points out - the makers clearly thought "Shit - we should be making a science-fiction movie, not a fantasy!" halfway through production. And also if you excuse the fact that the evil bad guy is called 'The Beast.' (No, really. He is. Seriously).


Todd Newton said...

Oh man, I totally forgot about Krull. NO WONDER that movie was so confusing.

The "cheap" Fantasy movies make me very, very sad. I actually just watched the first D&D movie a couple of weeks ago (for free, of course, I wouldn't pay to see THAT thing again) and nearly wanted to bash my skull in by the end simply due to lack of a cohesive plot and the overly preachy moral argument. If that's not the best example of American-influenced cinema, I'm not sure what is. I mean, who was that film marketed to, and do any of them give a crap about freedom and equality in some no-name fantasy world?? At least give us a believable bad guy--you'd think with Jeremy Irons--and NOT a henchman wearing PINK LIPSTICK throughout the film.

Okay, rant over.

I've kind of wanted to watch the Conan movies again, just for fun, so I think I might add them to the ol' Netflix queue.

Oh, also, I heard last week that they are remaking Red Sonja starring Rose McGowan (of recent Grindhouse fame, and less recent marrying-Marilyn-Manson acclaim). I still have not decided whether this is a good or a bad thing.

PS. My word verif is "cully." Sounds like homicidal playground occupant.

Iain said...

Conan the Barbarian is an absolutely blinding film. I love every last second of it. From the pounding opening sequence as Conan's father forges his sword to the sequence where Conan in true Howard fashion walks off into the dawn with the princess I adore it. It was done with passion, the production values are spot on, with great costumes, sets and gallons of fake blood galore. The best movie soundtrack of all time by the late, great Basil Poledouris sends me into shivers of delight. Sure its a bit corny, yes it does stray from the books and Oliver Stone does inject West Coast hippie death cult mysticism into the script, but; when Arnie buries a yard and half of Atlantean steel into a puny Snake cult warrior's gullet and a spray of blood arcs across the screen who gives a damn. Magnificent.

I agree that Hawk the Slayer is a bit pants and the guy in Beastmaster is out-acted by his animal co-stars but I do have soft spots for them. D&D is beyond shite. It is actually in another dimension of crapness.

After the like sof LOTR and 300 where digital warriors occupy the screen in the tens of thousands I wouldgive my eye teethfor someone to have a go at Legend. However, that will likely never happen. TD mentions that Red Sonja is to be remade by Robert Rodriguez starring the delightful Rose Magowan. That's good. However, I have read that Conan is to be remade (BOOOOO!!!!!!!) by Bret Ratner, the man who gave us the Rush Hour movies, and the execrable X men 3 and the soon to be seen Beverly Hills Cop 4. Dear God no....

Long live the fantasy film.

ediFanoB said...

There are more good fantasy books than fantasy films.
A good book creates a film in my mind.

I didn't like CONAN or RED SONJA.

For me LotR is the best fantasy movie so far.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes insight into a ropey film can come from the dvd extras. To those lost souls who actually bought the DVD of the D&D movie goes the prize: the deleted scehnes demonstrate that some certified clown actually removed all the scenes that might have made sense of the plot, and also turned down an alternative ending in which the comedy sidekick *stays dead*. It wouldn't have been a good film with all of that, but it would have been better.