Tuesday, 27 September 2011

'Ray, face it, Ghostbusters is over'. Why Ghostbusters 3 is a Really Bad Idea and Won't Work.

Ivan Reitman's 1984 film Ghostbusters is due for theatrical re-release this October. For whatever reason, call it luck, call it fate, Ghostbusters is one of the most successful and beloved comedies of the 1980s. The chemistry between the three leads of Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis and Bill Murray is as rare as it is perfect, the script is almost flawlessly paced and hilarious, and with the possible exception of Groundhog Day, the incomparable Murray has never been better. Its sequel, 1989's Ghostbusters 2, while widely regarded as inferior, still draws big laughs. The impact of Ghostbusters remains phenomenal, with lines from the film very much a part of the pop-cultural lexicon, and the theme song, Ray Parker Jr.'s Who Ya Gonna Call, is undeniably one of the most iconic and recognisable in cinema history.

Who Ya Gonna Call? Ray Parker Jr. and the film's cast
In 2009, Ghostbusters: The Video Game was released across all the gaming platforms. Set two years after the events of Ghostbusters 2, the game features an all-new story, co-written by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis, who both wrote the screenplays for the films, and sees the return of most of the major actors from the movies. Since the release of Ghostbusters 2 over twenty years ago, there has been much speculation over a possible third film, and the 2009 video game certainly re-ignited popular interest in seeing the old team suit up again for one more outing. Clearly, the Ghostbusters franchise is still going strong, and as the box office sales for the imminent re-release will suggest, the fan anticipation for a third film is high. So why such a pessimistic title for this week's post? Well, there are several reasons why making Ghostbusters 3 would be bad. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin. *** SPOILER ALERT *** If you don't know about 'the cameo' and would prefer not to have it spoilt, you should skip section 1.

1. Bill Murray's reluctance to participate
This one's an easy one, but it's also probably the most important. For the last three years or so, where a new film has seemed increasingly likely, Murray has flip-flopped on whether he will appear in the third movie. He famously dislikes Ghostbusters 2, and has said several times that he would only appear in Ghostbusters 3 as a ghost. I can understand Murray's reticence to return, especially since he doesn't like the second film, but a Ghostbusters film without Bill Murray would be like Indiana Jones without Harrison Ford. The trio of Harold Ramis, Dan Aykroyd and Murray are essential to the franchise, and to remove any of those elements would be to remove a vital component of the formula. Murray clearly likes Ghostbusters; these days he tends to pick his projects carefully (Garfield excepted) and wouldn't have returned to voice Peter Venkman in the game if he hadn't seen some pleasure to be had, nor would he have delivered one of the funniest and affectionate cameos in cinema history in 2009's Zombieland. Despite this, Murray clearly does not like the idea of a third Ghosbusters film. What does this tell us about its quality?

2. The concept
Even if we don't take Murray's word for it, the movie concept itself throws up a few warning signals. However we deal with it, the Ghostbusting foursome will have aged more than twenty years since their last cinema outing. They're going to be older, fatter and less capable than ever, but this doesn't have to be problematic. One of the central jokes in the original films is that the team are consistently out of their depth: the Ghostbusters are comprised of tubby science nerds and workshy layabouts playing at being superheroes. Making them older would just underscore a major premise already established in the franchise. But the concept of Ghostbusters 3 has less emphasis on this, and more on the old 'busters passing on the mantle to a younger team. Again, this does not necessarily spell disaster, but not only is this a rather tired concept for belated sequels (see Shia LeBland in Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and Tom Cruise in The Color of Money, Martin Scorsese's inferior 1986 follow-up to The Hustler), but it kind of misses the point of the original films. Ghostbusters wasn't successful just because proton packs are cool (though by God, they are), it was because the dynamic between the central characters worked so well. Capturing that again with a different crew, whilst not impossible, is already setting the writers (also new) an uphill struggle.

3. They've already made the third film
Well, not literally, but the third Ghostbusters story has already been told in the form of the 2009 video game. The original concept for Ghostbusters 3 was for the team to go to Hell, with the title being Hellbound: Ghostbusters 3. This concept was incorporated for significant portions of the recent game, and Aykroyd himself has even stated that the game is 'essentially the third movie'. If we do consider it as such, the game is probably the third best 'film' in the franchise, but it is undoubtedly worthy, and manages to balance the tricky business of nostalgia for fans of the original while still creating a compelling story and retaining some of the creative and comedic magic of the films. After the success of the game, do we really need another Ghostbusters story? I'm inclined to say that we don't.

4. The time has just passed for a third film
In science, we always look for the simplest answer. Here, perhaps it is simply that, as great and iconic as Ghostbusters is, maybe it is best left well alone. The first film in particular captured lighting in a bottle with a hilarious script, an incredible cast and a great concept, and it's incredibly unlikely that the same magic can be repeated. Ghostbusters 3 could certainly be very good, but it can't have the same magic formula that the first, or even the second film had, and will always suffer as such. 2001's Evolution, also directed by Ivan Reitman, is effectively an homage to Ghostbusters, and even features a cameo from Aykroyd. But at the same time it is able to be its own thing, because it isn't Ghostbusters. Is it is good as Ghostbusters? No, of course not, but it isn't trying to be. The same could be said more recently for the superb Zombieland. In light of comedies like these, Ghostbusters 3 seems increasingly unnecessary and irrelevant.

5. Who ya gonna trust?
I will end here with a simple rhetorical question. Dan Aykroyd, who, bless him, actually believes in ghosts, and is somehow even dorkier than his on screen character Ray Stantz, thinks Ghostbusters 3 is a good idea. Bill Murray, who is possibly the coolest man on the planet, doesn't. Who are you ready to believe?

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

I Preferred The Book: What Makes for a Good Adaptation?

Can an adaptation ever match the original?
Right, so on Sunday night I saw the 1939 version of Wuthering Heights, starring Laurence Olivier and directed by William Wyler. I saw it at the Star and Shadow cinema in Byker as part of their Great British Romance season, which you should definitely check out here. The immediate murmurs amongst I and my companions was that it was very good, but lacked the intensity of the novel and watered down Heathcliff and Cathy's overall nastiness. However, I wonder if this necessarily makes the film a poor adaptation. Sure, the movie lacks the thematic complexity of the novel, but does that make it a bad film? Similarly, should we demand that adaptations remain doggedly faithful to their source material? Can we judge adaptations simply as standalone films in their own right, or should they always be evaluated against the shadow of their literary source material?

These are tricky questions, but in short, I think the answers are ‘no’, ‘of course not’, and ‘it depends’. Plenty of great films are relatively simple in theme, and the nature of the medium demands a narrative economy and efficiency not usually necessary in literature. David Lean’s epic masterpiece Lawrence of Arabia, for all its near four-hour running time, and grand, sweeping visuals, has a remarkably single-minded and linear plot. Because of their relative brevity, the stories that films tell usually need to be clear, short, and to the point. Even mainstream films that challenge linear storytelling, such as Pulp Fiction or Memento, or that baffle us with interminable plot twists, like Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep, still follow relatively basic stories. Literary novels have the advantage of being able to be as long as they need to be, as opposed to the lengths of feature films, which are determined by convention, the expectations of audiences, and the economic demands of cinemas. Where authors can fully explore their characters over dozens or even hundreds of pages of description and development, directors must point to character motivation and depth in just a few key scenes. The best directors do this throughout the entirety of a film, but even the longest films are restrictive in comparison to the resources of time available to authors. This inevitably creates conflict when long novels are re-formatted into the relative constraints of filmed story-telling. A simple story, however, is not necessarily a poor one. For the record, the novel Wuthering Heights is definitely better than the film. The novel, I think, has more cultural value as a vital component in the Victorian Gothic tradition, and as a moment in the history of women’s writing, than the film does as a very respectable Hollywood romance. But, crucially, the novel isn’t better because it has a more complicated story.

This leads me on to faithfulness. Almost without exception, how faithful a film is to its source material is the benchmark by which adaptations are uniformly judged. Given the rather glaring differences between film and literature, this doesn’t make a great deal of sense, yet people will crow at the slightest deviation from the original material. My favourite example of this is in the transposition of High Fidelity’s setting from London to Chicago, which elicits howls of derision from the novel’s (invariably British) admirers. Why this is such a betrayal of the novel’s central theme of commitment and neuroses continues to elude me. I want to know why audiences frequently demand that the exact same story be re-told in a different medium, when some of the least successful adaptations in cinema are the most faithful to their sources. 

The Golden Disappointment
Chris Weitz’s severely disappointing  2007 The Golden Compass, remains doggedly close to the plot of its source, the lauded children’s novel Northern Lights. Practically every scene in the book found its way to the screen, the special effects did justice to Pullman’s descriptions of daemons and warrior-Polar bears (yes, that is as awesome as it sounds. If you haven’t read Northern Lights and its sequels yet, crawl out from under your rock and get them read, they’re fucking class), and yet somehow, the heart and soul of the novel was utterly and completely absent from the film. There is an impatience to The Golden Compass’ narrative, hurriedly rushing towards each scene in a vain attempt to keep up with every plot point in the novel, instead of focussing on a few of its central themes and relationships. In contrast, Thomas Alfredson’s dark, disturbing and heart-breakingly excellent Let the Right One In excises not one, but two very substantial sub-plots from its source, allowing the film to focus squarely on the central romance between Eli and Oskar. In contrast to the novel, the film is intentionally ambiguous about the origins and motivations of two of its characters, which further complicates the future of a third, and all because it tells us less, not more, of the story. This is an example of an adaptation bettering its original through narrative economy. Where The Golden Compass simply tries to retell the same story that Philip Pullman already had, Let the Right One takes the novel as a starting point to tell its own story. There are numerous examples of this approach to adaptation. Ghost World does a fine job of taking a very minor character from the graphic novel and uses him as the basis for an entirely new story. Furthermore, Dune, whilst clearly an unmitigated failure, fails as a bad film and not as a bad adaptation; no one could accuse David Lynch of a lack of original vision.

So should we judge films based on other works as standalone movies or as adaptations? As with the above example, it’s certainly difficult not to view the American remake Let Me In as a poor man’s (or idiot’s) Let the Right One In. Moreover, it’s impossible not to watch film adaptations of Hamlet as part of a tradition of adaptation, rather than a singular work in its own right. These, however, I believe are the exceptions that prove the rule. The film Wuthering Heights does not reflect either the thematic complexity of the novel, and it does not explore the historical and social context in which the novel was written, but nor should we expect it to. We watch, for example, James Whale’s 1931 version of Frankenstein as part of a series of horror pictures that Universal Studios produced in the 1930s and 40s, and so should we watch Wuthering Heights not as an adaptation of a gothic Victorian novel, but as an example of Golden Age Hollywood romance. It is only on their own terms, and in their own contexts, that adaptations can be very successful, important and beautiful films.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Organise! The Story of One Man's Obsessive Journey through Film

The organisation of one's media collection of choice is a tricky business, particularly for the obsessive individual. After one's film collection reaches a certain size, the organisation of DVDs (or Blu-rays) seems necessary in order to keep track of all the delightful goodies that have accumulated over the years. This also applies to a music collection, an obsession no better commented on than in Stephen Frears' High Fidelity (currently occupying space number 213 on my DVD shelf), in which Rob, the owner of a record store, rearranges his music collection in autobiographical order as a way of recovering from a nasty break up. I can personally recommend re-ordering your stuff in this way as a glorious tonic for all sorts of crises. Curiously, I have never encountered anyone who organises their book collection as obsessively as Rob does with his records, or I do with my films. Perhaps it has something to do with the relative newness of the medium of film, or the primacy of film and pop music over literature as the dominant cultural outputs in modern society.

As High Fidelity's Rob would certainly attest, at one point or another the obvious and frankly amateurish alphabetical method of DVD organisation will simply no longer cut the mustard for the obsessive collector, and a more obscure method of organisation must be adopted. For example, one associate of mine  asserts that organising films by studio is the way to go. Certainly, not only is it aesthetically pleasing to see all the little 'Warner Bros.' and '20th Century Fox' logos all lined up together, but also, you get a sense of the kinds of films that those studios produce. For the film obsessive, this is a fine way to organise your movies. However, it is not quite sufficient. Nor is organising by director, actor, or other single creative entity, as the titular alphabetic pandemonium ensuing from placing Raising Arizona (written and directed by the Coen brothers) before The Birds (directed by Alfred Hitchcock), is simply not an acceptable aesthetic proposition. Even worse, the logical conclusion of such a filing system would mean splitting up film series that were not always made by the same people, for example, Alien (directed by Ridley Scott) and Aliens, (directed by James Cameron) or Superman: The Movie (Richard Donner) and Superman II (Richard Lester). No, no, no, this aesthetic violence will not stand.

My solution, therefore, is to return to the classic alphabetical system (by title), but cross-referenced by director, cross-referenced by franchise, cross-referenced by studio, and if I'm feeling particularly sexy, cross-referenced by producer. Or, to put it less like a madman, my DVDs are allowed to sit in eye-pleasing alphabetical order but only on the strict condition that they take into account the main creative force or forces behind the film. No, wait, that still sounds mad. Right, listen: we start with letter 'A', so The African Queen might come first. But then we look at the director, which in this case is John Huston, so he gets to have his films The Maltese Falcon and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre next. They still nestle happily under 'A', like disc-shaped cuckoos fooling their surrogate mother alphabet, whilst simultaneously satisfying their own urge to cluster with their directorial kin. So now we've put Huston together, we can move on to the next film in alphabetical order, let's say Alien. This is followed by Aliens, even though they were made by different directors, because splitting up a franchise would be fucking mental. When the franchise is complete, then, and only then, do we return to the director, so we now get Blade Runner (Scott), and then The Terminator (Cameron). Are you following me? Excellent, then I'll continue.

Usually, a director is the main creative force behind a film, directing, as you might expect, most of the major decisions that are made during the film-making process. However, sometimes other entities, like writers, producers or even studios are as, if not more important. A good example of this would be the Disney studio. Films made by Disney are one of the most recognisable, and iconic, types of movie in the world, transcending the usual distinctions of genre, director or actor to become, simply a 'Disney Film'. Off the top of my head, I can't think of a single director or writer from any of the myriad Disney films I've seen, but we all have a clear understanding of what a Disney film is. In my catalogue de films triomphante, it makes far more sense to group Disney films together and more or less disregard their directors. This leads to other, lovely little crossroads where creative auteurship is not so clean-cut, like the spate of gangster films that Warner Bros. produced in the 1930s, or the classic Universal horror pictures such as Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi, and Frankenstein, starring Boris Karloff and directed by the legendary James Whale. These groups are fascinating (no honestly, they really are) because, while they belong to the horror and gangster canons that Universal and Warner Bros. studios fostered, they also belong to the separate, but contiguous, canons of their directors, writers and stars, not to mention the stylistic canons of their historical periods. It's good to be a bit obsessive about how you organise your movies (and music and books, for that matter) because when you are all these little connections are forced to surface. They pull at each other and fight for dominance. They all demand attention like two interminable, simultaneous itches, and it's essentially impossible to satisfy the demands of each. What is particularly fascinating about films is that the creative process is such a collaborative effort, perhaps more so than in any other artistic medium. Organising your films properly is a way of revealing that lovely big, aesthetically pleasing, cacophony of order. The process exhumes the collaborative, thematic and historical links that tie films together in a great big, interconnected spiderweb of cinema. Plus, it's an evening, ain't it?