Sunday, December 14, 2008

Is Storytelling Failing

I watched two movies yesterday. First, I watched Treasure Planet, an animated retelling of Treasure Island, set in a future with sailed starships. Next, Lana and I watched the recent remake of The Incredible Hulk. I really liked Treasure Planet and didn’t care for the “Hulk.”

Later, Lana and I talked about the movies we’ve watched lately that were “less” than compelling, The Strangers, Mongol, and whatever other ones we’d seen that we couldn’t even remember the titles of. We both decided that Hollywood made better movies in the 1970s and 1980s than today, and I was trying to decide why. A reason occurred to me that I’m throwing out to see what folks think.

I suspect that the people making movies in the 70s and 80s were largely influenced by books, while many of the folks making movies now are influenced by other movies and TV, or by comic books, which are closer to TV/Movies than to regular books. Movies influenced from books seem, to me, to have a better sense of storytelling, of combining all elements such as characters, action, and setting into a complete experience. Movies made by folks who basically only watch other movies or movie-like experiences lack that completeness.

How else to explain my yesterday’s experience? I much enjoyed Treasure Planet, based on a wonderfully fine novel, while with the Hulk I was constantly thrown out of the story by problems with continuity, things that just seemed simple storytelling "don’ts." For example, a chase scene early in the movie, which probably lasts a total of 15 minutes of “real life” time, begins clearly in daylight, and suddenly it is night! Say what? Or another fight scene takes place under a completely blue sky, until suddenly at the end it begins to pour down rain.

Now, Lana looked the Hulk up online and found that they did a lot of neat things to reflect back on the history of the character and on the TV show, and they were the “greenest” production ever in being environmentally friendly, but how could they take such care with these details and let the scene continuity vary randomly? It really hurt the movie for me, and all I can think is that they weren’t quite coming from a storytelling perspective. Rain is dramatic. Throw it in! Night is dramatic. Stuff it here! So it doesn’t make sense? The audience trained on TV and Video Games and comics won’t care. Well, uhm, there are still some of us out here who remember what good storytelling was like.

Nuff said!


Travis Erwin said...

I agree, but sadly movie makers often botch great novels as well. It's a shame that so many people are too lazy to read a good book and would rather waste two hours watching a bad movie.

Angie said...

Humm. [ponder] I don't know that it necessarily has to do with book adaptations vs. comic adaptations or movie remakes or whatever. Continuity is important no matter the medium, and movies get criticized for continuity glitches just as much as books. In fact, I think it's harder to do it right in movies, because there's all this little visual stuff which has to be consistent from shot to shot, or from scene to scene (when the scenes might've been shot days or weeks apart) whereas a book might not even mention those details more than once.

For example, if I describe what kind of watch my protag is wearing toward the beginning of the day, I probably won't specifically refer to those details over and over and over, so I don't have the opportunity to mess up there. Whereas in a movie, the character had better be wearing the exact same watch in every shot, or people will notice even though the watch isn't the focus of the story.

On the other hand, you might have a point (whether you intended to or not :D ) about translations from one medium to the next, vs. remakes in the same medium.

It's like... if you take a drawing class, you're told to draw from life whenever you can, rather than just copying other drawings or paintings or photos. There are details which are lost in translation, and if you draw from another drawing, you get a sort of xerox effect, where each iteration is farther from the original.

But another way to look at it is that going from 3D object to 2D drawing takes concentration; you have to focus on perspective and foreshortening and shading and such, because the object is not a picture, and you have to figure out how to make this 2D picture look like the 3D object. If you're copying a 2D drawing, it's all right there and it's easier to get complacent and sloppy. Does that make sense?

So if you're making a book into a movie, you have to think harder about how to do the translation from words to images, so you're more likely to focus on every bit of it. Whereas if you're remaking a movie, or making a movie out of a TV show, you're going video to video so it might be easier to just take things for granted, to not pay as much attention because the translation seems like it should be easier.

It's something that popped into my head, anyway. I'll have to think about it some more.

I don't think the comic origin of The Hulk had anything to do with the continuity errors, though. That's just a continuity person (and a director, and everyone else involved with the shoot and editing) messing up. Or if they did it deliberately and meant it to be Symbolic, obviously it didn't work very well. But something obviously went wrong with most of the movie remakes and TV-to-movie adaptations in the last ten or fifteen years. I mean, seriously, how do you mess up Godzilla? :/


Monique said...

I'm with Angie. As a scriptwriter (albeit an unsuccessful one) details are crucially important to me. Therefore a scene will usually begin with what was there when we left that scene (endlessly repeated and boring to read, I'm sure).

Anyway, I still love the old black and white movies with Humphrey Bogard, James Steward (my all time favorite actor) and many, many others.

Todays films can still be good though, but I think too much attention is given now to air brushing and high quality effects. To me, the simpler the story is, the more effective.


Rick said...

Charles, I agree with you. When writers start crafting their characters not from real life interactions, but from the movies they've watched, movie scripts sort of "inbreed," and the craft degenerates. Having said that, it is so much easier for them to use "cookie cutter" characters and just reassemble the parts.

G. B. Miller said...

I remember reading the book "Greased Lightning" which was about Wendall Scott, the first black NASCAR driver.

I thought the book was really good.

Then I saw the movie.

By the time I got done viewing the movie, I was ready to throw the remote at the t.v. screen (saw it on Home Box).

The movie butchered the book so bad that only about 25% of the key components in the book made it to the movie.

Continuity? I think not.

Travis Cody said...

I've wondered why I'm not so excited about going to the movie theater anymore. I always thought it was because a night at the movies has become too expensive.

But your suggestion about a lack of storytelling is intriguing.

We pay to be submerged in something other than our current reality. But when some continuity issue rocks the illusion, it does dull the enjoyment of the experience.

I feel the same way about a book that makes a wacky leap sideways.

Lisa said...

It seems like film adaptations of comic books have been huge this year. I saw "The Hulk" because I like Edward Norton and I wasn't impressed. I saw "Iron Man" because I like Robert Downey Jr. and was also not especially moved.

Last night I saw "The Dark Knight" with Christian Bale, Heath Ledger and a slew of other terrific actors and I was blown away. Normally, this is NOT my genre, but the filmmaker did something with this adaptation that I've rarely, if ever, seen. The whole story hinges on huge moral questions that we're dealing with culturally every day and I thought it was one of the best movies I've seen all year.

I'll be curious to hear what other people -- especially fans of comics and action movies -- thought of this one.

Lyzzydee said...

I am at the point where I prefer the books every time, in the past I could be swayed!!

Steve Malley said...

Personally, I believe The Hulk is cursed.

Ang Lee's dark meditation on duality and hidden rage failed. Whatever the hell the new guys are trying to do (it's not out yet in NZ, but the trailer's running in theaters) doesn't seem to be working.

I think the heart of the problem is that Hulk is for kids. 12-13 year old boys, to be a bit more precise. The character is an adolescent power fantasy and an homage to unbridled rage. 'The madder Hulk gets, the stronger Hulk gets'.

Like opera, comics is a specialized medium where the ludicrous can walk alongside the sublime and the audience won't bat an eyelash. Sophisticated work has been done with the Hulk to please adult comics fans, but the average joe still sees a big green guy throwing cars at people.

Marvel adaptations keep making money. Except Hulk. It's a popular comic, and I'm afraid they'll never let it die as a movie.

Charles Gramlich said...

Travis ERwin, you're right, they can certainly botch a good book as well. I don't understand the movie first world.

Angie, I can forgive the little continuity errors, like the watch thing, for example, but it's harder with major elements, like say what kind of gun a character is carrying. I don't know how you mess up day and night, though. I think you might be on to something with the idea of the "xerox" effect.

Monique, a simple story well told is still the most powerful, for sure.

Rick, cookie cutter and reassmble the parts is a good way to word it, I think.

Georgie B, oh for sure, movies can really butcher books, but at least if they start from books they have potential. Or so it seems to me.

Travis, I see some of the new books that do the same thing, because the people writing them grew up watching TV instead of reading. At least I suspect that.

Lisa, I will see Dark Knight and let you know what I think. I liked Iron man quite a bit better than the Hulk but still didn't think it was all that great a movie. Lana didn't care much for it at all.

Lyzzydee, there are very very few movies that are half as good as the books. Very rarely they'll be better. LIke Requiem for a dream.

Steve Malley, I recently read "the Watchmen" and saw what could be done with the comic medium when it's handled right. It was an excellent piece.

pattinase (abbott) said...

The Hulk had no magic in it. You just have to find a way to infuse it into this sort of story.

jodi said...

It's my theory that they are assured they will make up the box office money by HBO reruns and video rentals, so less care is used overall.

ivan said...

Talk about movies influencing film makers. I swear our National Film Board actually put out money for a vignette titled "Godzilla F*cks Bambi." It was very short. Godzilla's huge tortoise foot clomping down on poor, cute Bambi.

Tight shot of Bambi now a grease spot.

Dang full moon!

Cloudia said...

You make an EXCELLENT point, Charles! Movies & TV shows are starting to become so self-referential that it's getting claustrophobic. I tell my artistic nephew to build his "vocabulary" with more than pop culture. "Steal from the forgotten greats," I tell the kid . . . . Aloha-
Best to Lovely Lana

writtenwyrdd said...

I can't believe you guys got more snow than we did in Maine!

I have found that some of the novels I've read in the past couple of years are heavily influenced visually by visual media, as if the images of Hollywood are starting to be new 'visual cliches' that are getting overused.

And the music video attention span is also affecting writing, in that people are seeming to favor more rapid and punchy writing, and complain about more thoughtful and internal stories. but that's probably just a misconception on my part.

but I like writing to be writing, not a description of the latest Hollywood special effect with a single burning tire rolling away from every wreck and all vehicle crashes ending in explosions.

What I also suspect is that people are starting to research things less and groom their writing less. That also includes the lack of editing from publishing houses, which the writers can't help.

Greg said...

I agree. I watched "300" again this weekend, which is one of my favorite all-time movies, but I noticed a couple of scenes where the characters started a conversation in the black of night and two minutes later it was full daylight.

"Treasure Planet" sounds neat. I think I heard about it somewhere a while ago.

I watched "I Am Legend" this weekend (yay for a free weekend of HBO!) and liked it a lot more than I thought I would. I think it's like you said, Charles -- the movie pulled a lot of the "storytelling" from the book -- focusing more on the character's situation and steadily-growing loneliness than on the zombies and special effects, which I think is a welcome change from many movies today.

Lana Gramlich said...

I'm just going to watch "Raiders of the Lost Ark" & "Star Trek II; Wrath of Khan" for the rest of my life.

Angie said...

Charles -- I agree absolutely that forgetting whether it's day or night is a much more egregious fault than forgetting whether the protag's watch had a metal or leather band. I was just pointing out that they're both continuity errors. Assuming the day/night thing wasn't done deliberately for effect (and if so, it obviously didn't work) then someone made a mistake. I think there's a difference between technical errors which anyone would agree are errors, and conscious choices in style and storytelling and presentation which work more or less well.


Barbara Martin said...

I watch next to no TV, and rarely go to movies; prefering to see movies on DVD at home where I can pick and choose the better produced ones.

I agree, Charles, that the storytelling leaves a great deal to be desired in the majority of movies available recently.

Once a week I view the movie trailers on Yahoo to see what might interest me. So far there hasn't been anything I would pay money to sit at the rear of a theatre to see a screen I would prefer to be back another 75 feet. The stereos are set so loud I'll be deaf soon.

It seems people are more interested in fancy graphics, violence with no plot than a well told story.

Lana, I'm with you. I love those two movies.

Charles Gramlich said...

Pattinase, that's a good way to put it. No magic.

Jodi, I'm sure you're right on there. There's little incentive to make a really good movie.

Ivan, I saw that Godzilla, Bambi thing. didn't know they'd gotten money to make that.

Cloudia, the Marvel comic books movies are especialy bad about that. They're really trying to build a franchise but I'm not sure they're going about it right.

Writtenwyrd, I'm seeing a lot of that too. I've actually had several folks tell me how visual my stories are and so much like movies, and it bothers me a little because while I wouldn't say movies have had no influence on my writing, it's minimimal.

Greg, I don't know how you really make those night becomes sudden day or vice versa mistakes.

Lana, those are some good uns.

Angie, sometimes these days it seems hard to tell mistakes from some weird "choices."

Barbara, I think it's getting to the point where some folks can't tell the difference between a good story and fancy graphics, and that's very scary.

the walking man said...

A good writer of books shows the audience a way to suspend belief and, in my opinion, does the heavy lifting for them adapting the book to a movie. But them influenced strictly bu visual medium try to use the eyes more than the brain to achieve that same effect.

You make another good point Charles; it is hard to not view everything with the "editor's eye."

Virginia Lady said...

Well, Hulk has been made and remade both for TV and Movies that I fear there's no chance of it being worth seeing. Maybe if they take a twenty year break. I'm afraid to see Dark Knight for the same reason.

There are very few movies that compel me to go to a theater, most I figure I'll see on TV in a year or so for free and if I don't like them I can change the channel.

Heff said...

I haven't seen the latest Hulk, although I've heard good things (at least compared to the previous Hulk movie, but it COMPLETELY SUCKED).

Tyhitia Green said...

I agree, but I must agree with Travis as well, that moviemakers do make a mess of some novels. There are lots of novels turned movies which Hollywood has no problem ruining.

There are also lots of great scripts that get overlooked because Hollywood is all about what sells and their target audience. Unfortunately, it's all about money and people have forgotten about the storytelling as you've pointed out. Good post. :-)

Charles Gramlich said...

Mark, I think you're right. I think our society as a whole is becoming way too dependent on visual processing alone.

Virginia lady, I'm still hearing wonderful things about The Dark Knight, but I'm skeptical, as you are. I'll probably see it on ppv.

Heff, the good news is that the new Hulk is better than the last Hulk. The bad news... Well, I've already given the bad news.

Anonymous said...

When they have a book to take from they have a complete story there laid out in front of them, but that's still no guarantee that they will do a good job. At least they have something whole that's right in front of them. Usually that gives you a good start.

As a comicbook fan I have enjoyed many comicbook movies, but I feel that no movie has ultimately pleased me. Comicbooks often have years of continuity to choose from, which can make it difficult to boil it down to 2 hours.

Charles Gramlich said...

Demon hunter, oh yes, you and Travis are right. They do butcher plenty of good books. Lately they seem to do most everything wrong, but maybe I'm too critical these days.

Charles Gramlich said...

Folks are posting as I made my post so I'm catching up on comments. If you don't see a response to your comment below, scroll up a touch and you should find them.

Jack, I see in comic books, and book series, that Hollywood tends to rape the best parts for one movie, which leaves them out of luck on the second one.

Angie said...

Charles -- that's my main problem with comic movies too, and particularly the previous run of Batman movies. After Nicholson's Joker, they started burning through villains two or three at a time. Most of the movie was spent giving the villain's origin story, leaving very little time for an actual story set in the "now" of the movie. The stories they were trying to tell tended toward the cheesy, but considering how little space they had to play with, they couldn't have done much better if they'd tried.

The new Batman series is doing much better. They're using two villains per movie, yes, but they're doing an awesome job integrating them into the current storyline, rather than backtracking to someone's childhood or bad marriage or whatever. I highly recommend Dark Knight -- the character development is excellent, and unlike most movies these days it has a coherent story and well integrated themes. Yes, there's a lot of tech and FX, but they don't take over the movies.


Micro 100 said...

Hi, thanks for checking out Micro 100. I look forward to any submissions you may send my way.

I agree as well, the 1980s seems to be when all my favorite films were produced: Repo Man, The Monster Squad, Hellraiser and so on.

Dustin LaValley

Charles Gramlich said...

Angie, my REHupa friends and I gripe about how they did that with the Conan movies as well, stealing all the best parts for the first movie and ending up high and dry after that.

Naval Langa, thanks for visiting.

Dustin LaValley, oddly enough, I just sent a story your way. Thanks for visiting. I think the idea behind Micro 100 is a great one.

BernardL said...

Actually, the comic book story-lines are pretty solid; but the movie makers rarely stick to the plot. The most recent example was 30 Days of Night, which excelled as a graphic novel; but as a movie, it was disappointing. The first Hulk was so bad, I don't think I'll waste any time on the second one. There were enough duds in the 70's and 80's to rival the number today. What's really bad with today's movie producers is they keep making remakes of 70's and 80's movie and TV show duds. :)

Sidney said...

I'm more likely to watch a movie if it's based on a novel, even if it's a novel I've never heard of.

Sarah Hina said...

I like the pacing and arc of storytelling more in a lot of older movies. There was not such a rush, such a desperate need to hook and reel in for the entire duration of the film. I like those peaks and valleys. And a chance for good conversation.

j said...

You made a REALLY good point. Look at movies like the Harry Potter series and The Chronicles of Narnia. Visually they were great but there was a cohesive story line guiding the movie too. I watch so few movies these days and watched SO many in the 80's... maybe that is why I prefer movies of that era - they meant more to me.

the walking man said...

Charles The Dark Night and Batman Begins are two companion pieces that to me are actually the best of the entire Batman series.

Batman Begins uses Bruce Wayne's lost years to tell the viewer how and why Batman acquired his skill, leaving nothing to the viewers knowledge of the comic book.

The Dark Knight far and away is a great follow up with none of the hokey stuff in the villains.

The Joker is completely believable, not getting heavy into "jokes", acknowledging in a perverse way that his life is the joke.

'You don't smile enough (my father) told me, when I stepped in as he was beating mother, he took the knife and put it in my mouth and pushed. Now you can smile more.'

I rarely comment on movies I've seen, but these two watched together really had the flavor they were trying to accomplish.

Mary Witzl said...

I prefer books to movies because I like to be able to go back and read a passage over again when I've particularly enjoyed it, and because I don't like having everything fed to me -- I like to picture it myself. But whenever I see a movie based on the book, I often wonder if the director bothered to read the book at all; so often the parts of the book I consider integral are scrapped and the plot is jazzed up in an unbelievable or sensational way.

And I like Angie's picture vs 3-D object analogy.

Miles McClagan said...

I used to go to the movies with a friend so obsessed with movie continuity he could tell you a continuity error with drink levels...kind of distracted me from the story lines...

Chris Eldin said...

Funny, because for the past two weeks, I've been sortof battling with my kids over what television shows/cartoons they can watch. And yes, the word 'storyline' comes into play.

Paul R. McNamee said...

I have not seen either, but my co-worker did complain about a glaring inconsistency in The Incredible Hulk that destroyed his suspension of disbelief.

Something about the Hulk taking armor-piercing shells unscathed but then bumping his head on the roof of a cave and falling unconscious...

Paul R. McNamee said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Charles Gramlich said...

Bernardl, it's not the story lines of the comics or the book series, but the way they steal from several different story lines. I don't know so much about the comics, but with the Conan movie they cherry picked elements from a number of stories, each of which could have served largely as a move in and of itself. Then they had taken out the best parts for one movie and had only leftovers for the second. 30 days of night was a terrible movie. Really turned me off on the idea of reading the graphic novel, but maybe I'll give it a look see on your recommendation.

Sidney, unless it's an SF/fantasy piece, I'm the same way.

Sara Hina, some new books are doing the same thing. Instead of scene and sequel, it's just scene, scene, scene, and that gets old after a while.

Jennifer, I did think most of the Harry Potter movies were good. And Chronicles as well.

Mark, I find myself making mostly negative comments on movies, but I'm definitely going to give Dark Knight a try. I did like Batman Begins, although in places it seemed almost another "shadow" movie.

Mary Witzl, I'd say that at least 95 percent of the time I far prefer to the book to the movie made from it. It's rare when a good movie is made from a worse book.

Miles, the small continuity errors don't bother me, but going from blue skies to sudden rain breaks my willing suspension of disbelief.

Chris Eldin, I heard someone recently criticise Sesame Street for helping destroy our kids' concentration span. Who knew? I never watched it growing up, although I saw it with Josh someitmes when he was little.

Paul, he certainly shrugged off bullets left and right, but he did hurt his head by bumping it on a cave roof. He didn't fall unconscious but it was a conspicuous difference between his responses to bullets and a bump on the head.

Susan Miller said...

I tend to blame myself for this. It's as if my eyes are not the same ones that saw Star Wars or Raiders of the Lost Ark on opening night. I am more tainted or judgemental. I have become much more critical. My tastes have changed. I've grown older, and the movies that catered to me once upon a time now cater to my teenage son. Of course, it makes sense since my son is much more willing to trade his wages for a ticket, and it seems only the movie makers who are willing to stay true to their heart/art are the ones producing for our critical eyes. As for the other ones (the majority)'s economics.

Or maybe not.

L.A. Mitchell said...

I know I've mentioned this before, but Australia had one of those nighttime to daytime continuity problem scenes. I guess it's b/c we're writers that we even notice things like this.

Maybe it's not so much book adaptation as a greater emphasis on the bottom dollar. The demographic "Hulk" is reaching is not as discerning to tight storytelling. They know their intended audience comes for special effects and action sequences.

I do know what you mean about influences, too. It's much more organic to be influenced by others' written words than by diluted TV or movie scripts.

Charles Gramlich said...

Susan Miller, yes, I've wondered if at least some of my current disphoria related to movies is because of age related growth in criticality. Maybe I am more picky. But some of these things could be handled so easily it seems to me. That frustrates me.

L. A. Mitchell, maybe Susan is right and my ability to suspend disbelief has weakened over time. I just know that movies never did do a lot for me, but I used to find some taht I really liked.

laughingwolf said...

from my look at hollyweird: they still DISRESPECT writers, but do support the hacks they deign to call such grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr

you're right of course, a well turned tale is all....

cs harris said...

I think the problem is that movies have become soooo expensive to make. Back in the days when they "only" cost $2-3 million, movies had typically had one writer, one producer, and a fairly unified vision. Now movies frequently cost over a hundred million, and with that kind of an investment, people get nervous. Movies are now written by committees and produced by layers of "names", and everyone's opinion has to be taken into account. Result? Loss of any kind of coherence.

At the same time, the numbers crunchers discovered that remakes and sequels automatically make more money. Hence, more remakes and sequels.

Charles Gramlich said...

Laughingwolf, I think writers are at most a neccessary evil for them.

Candy, the remake craze especially is driving me "batty."

Rachel V. Olivier said...

I've noticed lately the continuity on day and night time kind of lax with some movies and tv shows. The only thing I can think is that it was late afternoon and then the sun went down fast. That's how I explain it to myself.

eric1313 said...


Our culture is in dire need of being saved from the TV generation.