You mess with Harpo Marx, you get the horns.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

The Perils of Adaptation...

...but not the Darwinian kind. No, those will get you killed. No, I'm referring to the perils of adapting works of literary fiction to the cinema. These perils are mostly suffered by the author. The only times the screenwriter and director are imperiled by their roles at taking a beloved novel and adapting it to the medium of film are at public appearances where people who read are gathered.

All of this came to mind when I remembered that J.K. Rowling's final Harry Potter book is due to be released in a few short months, and that the utter frenzy surrounding it is only going to be magnified by the fact that, merely a week prior, the fifth Potter film is scheduled for international release. Imagine if locusts were human and wore fake plastic spectacles with round frames, and you'll get the picture rather quickly.

For those of you who have both read the books and seen the films, you may have noticed some key differences. For example, characters and scenes missing from the films, scenes added that not only weren't in the books, but that make little sense to the plot apart from the chance to wedge a really expensive special effect into the film. Also, occasionally, characters will say and do things that in the films that they did not in the books. This explains Harry stabbing Draco with a shiv in the film of book 4 ("GoF" as the fans call it).

All right, he didn't do that, but you know he wanted too. I reckon he wanted to beat Ron about the head with his broom as well, at least early on.

I've often wondered just how much control J.K. Rowling, the wealthiest woman in Britain and perhaps the world, exerts over the screenplays. I suspect her motto is "live and let live" although after the third and fourth films I've wondered if it's evolved into "just put the royalty money to good use, Jo."

I mean, let's face facts. I'm a huge cinema buff (this does not mean I watch the cinema "in the buff," at least not usually) but I realize that most mainstream Hollywood adaptations are crap from the precise moment they are optioned by a studio. It's like those science-fiction films where the innocent young woman is barely touched by the alien organism and is instantly and completely infected, corrupted, and doomed to eat human flesh and have skin problems beyond the ken of even the most talented dermatologist.

We all know that Hollywood types like to "put their stamp" on projects, and I don't just mean the actresses in the cheap sci-fi films described above. After all, don't filmmakers, from the brilliant to the gormless, fancy themselves "ar-tEE-sts." (They even pronounce it that way, and not just the French ones). They simply must express themselves creatively to get professional satisfaction from a project, right?

Well, frankly that excuse is complete rubbish. What they really want is the cheap ego massaging and the prestige and perks of control. Directors and screenwriters change things around not to make the story come to life for the cinema audience, but so they can mutter to attractive, thinly-dressed birds at exclusive cocktail parties, "No, that bit... that bit was all mine, baby," followed by the inevitable pitch for a private "audition." The result is a hyperkinetic mosh of vapid ideas, with the original story strewn about in places, like biscuit crumbs in an obsessive-compulsive's kitchen.

Anyway, all this led me to wonder just what the initial conference call on the first Potter sceenplay was like. Surely, the aforementioned perils of adaptation would be clearly on display. So, with a wave of my rhetorical wand (no jokes, please), let's just us find out...


(J.K. Rowling is in her new home she's purchased with the advance from Warner Bros. option of her first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. The phone rings and she picks up. A Hollywood Screenwriter is on the other end.)

J.K.: Hallo?

Screenwriter: Jo? It's Steve, the screenwriter for the film.

J.K.: Steve, nice to speak with you again. How are you?

Screenwriter: I'm doing good. You?

J.K.: Very well, thank you. Well, David said you'd call about the first draft.

Screenwriter: Right. I've got some questions that I'd like to ask you about the book.

J.K.: (Laughs) Well, I'll do my best, but I would like to keep some secrets, as I've six more books to go.

Screenwriter: (Laughs) Oh, I don't care about the secrets. I wanted to ask about making some changes.

J.K.: Sorry, did you say changes?

Screenwriter: Yeah... I mean, don't get me wrong, I love this story. It's a great page-turner and is really imaginative, or at least that's what my kids have told me. However... there are a few things I think we need to adapt a bit for a movie audience.

J.K.: Really? Such as?

Screenwriter: Well, for example, on page 98, where Ron and his brothers introduce themselves. Do we really have to use the name "Weasley?"

J.K.: Well, what's wrong with "Weasley?"

Screenwriter: It just sounds an awful lot like "Weasel." Do we really want the hero's best friend to be named "Weasel."

J.K.: Weasley.

Screenwriter: Right, right, but it sounds like Weasel. With the Brit accents, a lot of Americans are gonna think this kid and his whole family are weasels.

J.K.: I should hardly think so.

Screenwriter: Jo, you gotta trust me on this one. I know the average American movie-goer. These are people who watch Hamlet for the swordfights. Anyway, I've got an idea for an alternate name.

J.K.: (Sighs) All right, let's hear it.

Screenwriter: (dramatic pause) "Granite."

J.K.: Let me get this correct. You are proposing that I call my hero's best friend, "Ron Granite."

Screenwriter: Exactly!

J.K.: Steven, this is a story about a young boy's encounter with a magical world, not the big screen adaptation of The Flintstones!

Screenwriter: Jo, that's harsh. "Granite" says strength and resilience. It says "muscle."

J.K.: Why not just name him "Ron Muscle?"

Screenwriter: The MPAA says that will get us an "R" because of the way it could be interpreted. C'mon, Jo... "Ron Granite." It's magic!

J.K.: It's absolutely out of the question.

Screenwriter: OK, OK, let me give you some time to think about it. Let's move on to the next one.

J.K.: Sure, anything...

Screenwriter: Does Hagrid have to be so tall? Isn't 11 feet a bit much.

J.K.: So tall? (Patiently) Steven, he's part giant. He's got to be somewhat tall, yes?

Screenwriter: Well, if he were only six-foot-four, he'd be easier to get in all the shots. Plus, we might be able to get Ted Danson for the part.

J.K.: I don't want Ted Danson for the part.

Screenwriter: Oh, but Jo, he'd be hilarious. Did you see him in that movie with Whoopi Goldberg? What a hoot!

J.K.: No, I'm afraid that didn't get a very wide release in the U.K. Nonetheless, Hagrid is half-giant. Plus, we need someone British in the part to get the West Country accent right. Let's move on.

Screenwriter: OK, OK... still... Danson!

J.K.: (Tersely) What's next?

Screenwriter: Well, the studio is concerned about the hair colors of the lead characters.

J.K.: What's wrong with the bloody hair colours?

Screenwriter: Quite frankly, they're worried about getting the red hair to come out right on camera.

J.K.: What on earth does that mean? People with ginger hair appear in films all the time. Surely you've heard of Maureen O'Hara or Red Buttons?

Screenwriter: I can only pass along what the director tells me to. If it wasn't red hair, they think they could get Tobey Maguire for the role.

J.K.: (Impatiently) I'd hazard a guess that he was too short and too old for the role.

Screenwriter: You'd think that, but remember that Ralph Macchio was The Karate Kid when he was in his mid-40's. Also, while I'm on the subject, they think Hermione should be a platinum blonde, and can we make her front teeth smaller?

J.K.: A platinum blonde?? She's only 11 bleeding years old!! Plus, she's a ruddy bookworm...she wouldn't dye her hair!!!

Screenwriter: We'd say it was natural because of the "magic." The studio really feels like the actress will grow up in the role and they feel that platinum blonde is what teenaged boys want to see in a heroine.

J.K.: What do the raging harmones of spotty, teenaged gits have to do with my effing story?!?

Screenwriter: Jo, we want the visuals of this story to match the intensity of your words!

J.K.: (Pause) (Muttered curses in the background) You can have the teeth, but the hair is light brown at best.

Screenwriter: Can we cut off the frizzyness?

J.K.: Only if you cut your own head off as well.

Screenwriter: I'd consider it if the money were right.

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Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Well, I Never Thought I'd See the Like!

Longtime Protestant firebrand Ian Paisley and Deputy Sinn Fein Leader Martin McGuinness are working together and sharing power in an attempt to bring peace to Northern Ireland.

There's no joke here, except on the devil, who's awful work was done in the six Northern counties for far too long. Here's praying God's work gets done there now.

Myabe Stew and Nuffy can take this as a sign and share a little power here? C'mon lads, if these two can work together, surely you can take up the bloggin' again!

Well, I warned them.

Obviously, Stew and Nuffy have been about regular here as a cheese-laden pensioner with a severe Metamucil allergy. Therefore, I'm afraid I have to keep my threat to publish some very, very embarassing pictures of them. I hate to resort to such low tactics, but they were duly warned. However, as we work incognito on this site, I have tried to preserve the secrecy of their identity as best I can.

First, here's a picture of Stew, trying to catch an American football at the last DOUI picnic.

And, here's Nuffy, during a very telling jazzercise routine.

If this won't break their posting hoodoo, I'm not sure what will, but I do have even more pictures available.

Monday, May 07, 2007

A World Without America? Bloody Hell.

I was casting about on the web the other day, looking for interesting subjects, when I came across news of a recent Oxford Union debate. The Oxford Union is a very old debating society, 182 years old to be exact. They have debated a number of issues over that time, from aliens to music to sport to who's more intelligent, Britney Spears or Lily Allen (at least I'd like to think they debated that last one, given that it is an unresolvable mystery) but the debate in question was striking for the bluntness of the proposition: "This House regrets the founding of the United States of America."

The U.S. was ably defended by National Review's Jonah Goldberg, The BBC's Matt Frei, and former Reagan Administration official Peter Rodman. The juxtaposition of Goldberg and Frie shows that most people, regardless of their political leanings, could see that this was a proposition that was batcrap barmy at best. It's primary defenders were radical British Islamists and, strangely enough, one Canadian, probably someone who has grown sick of American hockey teams winning NHL titles. Apparently, one Communist was originally on the roster, but he didn't turn up. Perhaps, Castro called and he had to make a quick Caribbean trip to support the glorious revolution, or help change El Maximal Leader's Depends.

Anyway, as a U.S, citizen myself, I too found the proposition to be as ridiculous as . However, I'm about as likely to be invited to the Oxford Union as I am to be invited to Cuba, especially given that last remark. Still, were I to be included in the proceedings, I have a very good idea as to what I'd say. I would have gone something like this...


"Mr. President, Unionists, my gratitude for your allowing me to sneak in tonight. I must especially compliment you on the cocktails and dinner, particularly that 25 year-old Scotch in the locked cupboard. Ah, The Glenfiddich! Good thing I had my lockpicks with me.

"I must begin by expressing my sincere disappointment in discovering that the proposition before this house is one that regrets the founding of America. I was prepared to support it when I was under the impression that we were speaking only of Germany. I truly long for the days when Prussia and Bavaria were independent states who could spend all their time knocking the stuffing out of each other instead of ganging up on poor, defenceless France and Belgium.

"However, to find out that it is the United States of America in the dock, as it were, is beyond the pale. Surely, the existence of NASCAR and the gauche habit of putting ice in tea have not driven Britons so mad as to whimsically set aside an entire nation as grand as America? I must actually recommend the tea thingy for those blisteringly hot American summer afternoons. Otherwise, the cups would melt on the saucers.

"Perhaps, there is still lingering resentment over the awkward events of 1776? I realise that there's nothing so frustrating in government as to build up a region, invest time and money and snobbish, uppercrust military personnel in it, and then have a bunch of hick tobacco farmers and pamphleteers take over the whole prospect, insisting they can run it better and without recourse to royal approval. Still, Britain was always bound to lose her colonies around the world. If Her Majesty's Empire no longer could contain India and Hong Kong, just how long could it hope to contain a massive territory, packed with well-armed, independent-minded nutters like Davy Crockett and Andrew Jackson?

"Losing the U.S. was simply the beginning of a tradition to be expected, whereby former subjects of the Crown decide their interests are better served by transferring control from the blighters at Whitehall to local blighters, within arm's reach so they could wring their necks if needed. Commonwealth? Just wait and see how long it would take Australia to disentangle itself from allegiance to Her Royal Highness if Whitehall were to say, declare Aussie Rules football to be an affront to humanity.

After all, it's only a matter of time before the Scots decide to leave the party as well. One can only endure so many haggis and kilt jokes, especially the ones that combine the two.

Also, Ian Paisley and his ilk can't live forever and even if he did, the changing demographics in Ulster will guarantee that he'll soon be well-outnumbered by convivial Irish Catholics, toasting a fair adieu to the pound and the BBC licence fee.

Even Wales, like the middle daughter in Pride and Prejudice, is no doubt eventually destined to decide to step out on her own, once they convince Charles and his descendants that "Prince of Wales" is only a royal title and not a legal one of property.

A world without America? That's the theme song of Iranian President "Mah-Mood Swings" Ahmadinejad, the well known Holocaust-denier and "casual-day" advocate. Would that outcome really be good for Britain, or for that matter the world in general. Just think of the consequences:

The Beatles would have been touring Hamburg because they had to, and all the songs would be in German. Have you ever tried to sing "I Want to Hold Your Hand" in German? It sounds like the Horst Wessel song with a backbeat. Plus, their entire catalogue would be skiffle.

Twiggy would have been "Tviggy" and would have put on 20 kilos from all the schnitzel.

Wembley Stadium would have been renamed "Bayer-Wilheim Stadium" and done up in a swastika motif.

It's not just America's robust and decisive participation in two World Wars that would have been important. You'd miss out on colour television, hamburgers as thick as George Galloway's neck, rock-n-roll, a PC that came with instructions that weren't in Japanese, the inimitable Ford Mustang, Harley-Davidson motorcycles that could roll over a lorry, not to mention the Oscars. British film stars would only have the BAFTAs to look forwards to, knowing that they'd get a proper stiffing at Cannes.

No, America is a grand old nation with lots to offer, just like the grand old nation that gave birth to her. After all, just think of the things that America and Britain share in common:

We both speak English, mostly.

We both love boring old sport that involves hitting a ball with a stick - yours is flat and America's is round but in both cases there's still plenty of time to dash off for a cuppa or a pint.

We both love the messy process of democracy. Admittedly, Congress is not nearly so entertaining as the House of Commons, except when Dick Cheney and Pat Leahy are prowling the Senate at the same time, but we love the fact that those representatives, weasels and blighters that they may be, are OUR weasels and blighters and not the appointed representatives of some lame Charlie Chaplin impersonator with dodgy bollocks and a self-esteem problem the size of Poland.

We both have obnoxiously bright street corners (Piccadilly and Times Square) that serve as a congregating point of reference for absurd televised celebrations.

You have the West End and America has Broadway, and we both have productions of the Lion King and Andrew Lloyd Webber shows that will outlive everyone in this room.

We love great music, great film, great drama and great eats, which explains why sushi and curry are the current national dishes of America and Britain respectively.

America and Britain are soulmates, like bangers and mash, like football and Wembley, like Oasis and breakups, like Prince Charles' ears and Camilla's wattle. We are meant to be a part of the same world and tradition, outmanoeuvring gormless autocrats with a fondness for march music and military regalia.

Regret the founding of America? Balderdash! If America hadn't have been founded, somewhere there would be Britons trying to invent it.