Sunday, 19 April 2015

Three is a Magic Number: Star Wars Trilogy

I have a theory about the reason why three seems to be a good number for a film series. It really comes down to the classic structure of screen drama: the 3 Act structure. If you are unfamiliar with it, it comes from Aristotle's writings on drama, and underpins most Hollywood films. Act One is the beginning - set-up, inciting incident (spark for action), and often has a significant setback as it climax; Act Two begins with a change of plan as a result of setback, which leads to a 'midpoint' (point of no return), and climaxes with the moment when things look their bleakest (the dark night of the soul, if you will); Act Three begins with a hint of hope that leads to the film's overall climax, is finishes with a resolution (riding off into the sunset). You'll notice the plot points within each act are also grouped in threes.

Does this still apply to the various trilogies that we are all familiar with? In the case of Star Wars (Episodes 4, 5, 6), I think it does. Star Wars (1977) is largely set-up of the story's world: the Empire, the Rebel Forces, Luke, Han, Leia, Darth Vader, Obi-Wan, the droids, light sabers, spaceships, etc. There is also the overall spark for the story, which is Luke deciding to follow in his father's footsteps and become a Jedi. This is the Inciting Incident for the trilogy; for the film alone the I.I. is Luke buying the droids. Of course, one could argue that this is also the I.I for the whole series, if Luke didn't find C-3PO and R2-D2 there would be no story. But Luke's choice to become a Jedi affects the whole rest of the story. He could easily have said, 'No thanks, I'll just help you with the droids, but then come back home (and probably die). Instead he says 'There's nothing here for me now.' This propells the story beyond this one film. It also makes the significant setback (Obi-Wan's 'death') all the more significant. How will Luke become a Jedi now!?

The film doesn't end with the significant setback; it has its own resolution, which is triumph for the Rebels as they destroy the Death Star. However, its impact is not that long lasting. At the beginning of Empire Strikes Back it is being rebuilt, a symbol of the resurgent Empire. The change of plan in Empire Strikes Back is Luke decision to go to train with Yoda (this is the change of plan for both internal and external structures of the story). As a result of this change of plan, Luke is made to confront some uncomfortable truths. The trilogy's midpoint shows us Luke fighting and killing Vader (in his mind), only to discover that under the mask its his face. Not only is his a nice bit of Freudian foreshadowing, but it tells us that Luke needs to overcome himself before he becomes a fully fledged Jedi. He will also have to resist the temptation to join the Dark Side. The films famously ends on a dark note (ie the moment when things couldn't be worse). Han is frozen, the Rebels forces are still scattered around the galaxy, and Darth Vader has made Luke very vulnerable.

This movie also follows the exploits of Han, Leia, Chewie and C-3PO via a B-Plot. They wander around trying to evade capture by the Empire, eventually ending up at Cloud City - and walking right into the Empire's clutches. They become the bait for Luke, luring him away from his training. Their plot also develops the relationship of Han and Leia, resolving some of the sexual tension begun in the first film.

The third film begins with a conclusion to Han Solo's B-plot, as Luke, Leia, Chewie and Lando rescue him from Jabba. This successful rescue provides hope for the overall plot; now everyone is back in action, the main antagonists can be dealt with. Return of the Jedi builds towards the trilogy's climax, where the Rebels defeat the Empire, and Luke ultimately chooses to be a Jedi; he even manages to re-convert his father before he dies. The story's resolution sees peace restored to the galaxy. There is also hope for the future, as the Luke, Leia and Han are set to become one big, happy family. Darth Vader/ Anakin also gets a send-off, cremated by Luke on Endor.

Though there are some problems with the story (Ewoks defeat the Empire forces, really?), the overall structure is not one of them. It gives the audience the emotional ups and downs that are traditionally satisfying. It may not be something most fans think about, or even notice, but it is one of the trilogy's strengths.

Do you agree?

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Based On: The Big Sleep

'I'm a licensed private investigator and have been for quite a while. I'm a lone wolf, unmarried, getting middle-aged, and not rich. I've been in jail more than once and I don't do divorce business. I like liquor and women and chess and a few other things. The cops don't like me too well, but I know a couple I get along with. I'm a native son, born in Santa Rosa, both parents dead, no brothers or sisters, and when I get knocked off in a dark alley sometime, if it happens, as it could to anyone in my business, nobody will feel that the bottom has dropped out of his or her life.'

Quite a character to have as your moral centre. Yet this is what Philip Marlowe is in Raymond Chandler's novels: he works to discover the truth, who killed who, why and will they do it again. In The Big Sleep, the first story featuring Marlowe, we follow our detective as he investigates a blackmailer who is targeting the wild daughters of General Sternwood. The book was released in 1939, with Howard Hawks' film adaptation following in 1946. The novel is a hardboiled crime novel, which translates into a film noir on the screen.
The starkest difference between Hawks' film and Chandler's novel is the relationship between Marlowe and Mrs Vivian Regan (in the film Vivian Rutledge), General Sternwood's oldest daughter. In the book Marlowe interacts with her about four times in total: at the Sternwood house, his office, the gambling house and once again at her home. The movie includes Vivian in more scenes, and even creates one at a restaurant. There is an obvious answer to this: the studio wanted to capitalise on the chemistry and notoriety of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, who played Marlow and Vivian. chemistry is there in spades, particularly in the restaurant scene and later in a car. Bogie and Bacall spark off each other, but there is also a genuine sense of affection: they care for each other. In the novel, while Vivan does try to seduce Marlowe, he carefully rebuffs her (after accepting a few kisses). This change in their relationship drastically changes the outcome of the story and the projection of Marlowe's character.

Marlowe ends Chandler's novel feeling wistful not for Vivian, but rather Mona Mars, the beautiful woman that has been missing for most of the novel. The last line of The Big Sleep is 'All they [the alcoholic drinks] did was make me thin of Silver-Wig, and I never saw her again.' There is a great bitterness and sadness in this line. Marlowe has something of the courtly knight about him; his quest is always to uncover the truth, and he occasionally becomes attached to the women caught up in the plots. Mona 'Silver-Wig' Mars was a bit of a damsel in distress, and Marlowe's sense of decency responded to her.

This is the last shot of the film:

Marlowe isn't so alone now, is he! Not only is Vivian with Marlowe at the end, she is the one who saves him from Canino, not Mona Mars (who is there but leaves in a huff after Marlowe says some nasty things about her husband). The love scene in the car is more romantic than in the novel as well; it is not simply an exchange of sleazy kisses but sincere declarations of love.

The result of this change is that Marlowe changes as a character during the film. He begins as the cynical Marlowe from Chandler's novel, but at the end has found love with another. They both know the truth about each other and rather than being repulsed, are actually drawn together. Chandler's Marlowe ends the novel perhaps even more jaded than at the beginning; most of his views of life have been reinforced, not challenged.

The reason for this change is down to both the audience expectation. As previously mentioned, Bogie and Bacall were famous for their chemistry, and the audience would have wanted to see them together at the end, just as they were in their first film together To Have and Have Not (1944). It is interesting to note that nowdays audiences would protest at such a pandering alteration being made to such a great book. However, this change allows the two texts to stand on their own and be enjoyed separately. The novel is a great piece of hardboiled fiction, the film a great example of film noir.

Do you agree? Can a film change enough of the story to be its own text, or are you a purist?

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Some reflections on Adaptations

I have a great interest in film adaptations of literature, as evidenced in my 'Based On' series of posts. Adaptations are an interesting beast in the world of film. They often have ready made audiences who look forward to seeing their favourite books/plays/comics presented with all the magic of film: this audience, however, approach the film with a highly critical eye. Adaptations get received differently depending on what type of adaptation they present of the text, as well as the original text's status within current culture. Popular bestsellers are treated differently to 'classics,' which are again treated differently from biography or stories from history.

There are several different types of adaptation. The most common approach assesses the film's faithfulness to the original text. How many scenes and characters are included? Do the characters resemble the author's descriptions of them? How much dialogue is included from the original text? In this reading the original text casts a shadow over the film; everything is viewed in how it relates to the book. Inevitably the film comes off second-best to the book.
'There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs,'
This is the main way fans examine this films; they are purists. The movie doesn't have their favourite scene, or line of dialogue, or the characters don't look the same; therefore it is somewhat wrong. While this reaction is understandable, overall I think this is the wrong way to approach film adaptions. The idea that a film could ever be as the original story was is foolish. On a most basic level films are visual, and books (the mostly commonly adapted sources) are word based. They also have different tools they use to convey meaning: books can give detailed explanations of a character's inner life; films, unless they use voice-over, have to find other ways to probe character depths. A well executed example of this is Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange which included Alex's first-person narration from Burgess' novel, giving us intimate access to the character's thoughts. adaptations of stageplays, the space the story plays out in is the greatest change. In film you can put your characters in any setting you want and make it look realistic. You can move from a tiny cramped room to outer space (sometimes in the same shot). On stage you are limited to the space of the stage, and dialogue is often used with scenery to represent the setting.
“Were I to fall in love, indeed, it would be a different thing; but I have never been in love ; it is not my way, or my nature; and I do not think I ever shall.”
Not all adaptations aim at faithfulness. Denise Faithfull in Adaptations* lists three others: variation, appropriation and intersection. Intersection is the attempt to 'absorb' the original text into cinema; to find visual, aural and verbal correspondences to the original text's language, rhythms, patterns and tone. The first two types don't treat the original text's as sacred, untouchable sources but choose to play around with them a bit. Amy Heckerling's Clueless is an appropriation, setting Jane Austen's nineteenth century novel Emma in 90s California.

For me, the most interesting adaptations of novels or plays presents a particular reading of the text.  This doesn't mean an academic reading, but rather one that follows a particular theme, or chooses one genre to pursue (focus on the drama, comedy, romance, etc.). Because novels tend to have far too much material to include in a film (or even a series of films), the screenwriter, producer, and director have to make choices about what and what not to include. If the filmmaker is serious about making a cohesive film, the choices must be based around the chosen theme or emotion. An example of such choice is the Harry Potter films: the detail about everyday life at Hogwarts, homework, exams and classes, were largely excised from the finished films. They were only included when they provided information essential to the Voldemort/Harry plot. As a result the books feel darker and more serious than the novel, which have episodes and B-plots that provide comedy.

Filmmakers should heed the advice of Orson Welles, a prolific adaptor: 'you must say something new about a book, otherwise it is best not to touch it.'

How do you approach screen adaptations? Are you a purist or an anarchist (or somewhere in the middle)?

*Denise Faithfull (with Brian Hannent), Adaptations, Currency Press: Sydney, c2007.