Almost every aspiring novelist salivates over the dream of having their work turned into a box office hit, and devoted fandoms will turn downright vicious if an adaptation does not meet their expectations or strays too far from the source material.
The popularity of film adaptations of novels (especially trilogies and sagas), short stories, and articles has noticeably increased in recent years; in 2016 alone, twenty eight novels were adapted into a feature film. However, this fascination for turning literary classics and contemporary page turners into big screen blockbusters has been around since the dawn of cinema – there is no definitive way to prove the age or title of the earliest book to film adaptation, as 90% of films made prior to 1929 were intentionally destroyed by film studios when talkies came into formation, however film historians believe it was Cendrillon, an 1899 film based on Charles Perrault’s Cinderella and directed by French cinema pioneer Georges Méliès.
On the surface, novels and films have little in common; novels are verbal storytellers, while films are visual storytellers.
Films begin life as a script, with verbal and physical directions not dissimilar to lines of action and dialogue in a novel. It takes the combined effort of a team of actors, stunt persons, cameramen, make up artists and costume designers, directors, set designers and others involved in the filmmaking process to bring to life the emotion that it takes authors only a handful of words to evoke. On the flip side, however, authors spend hours, days, even weeks thinking of ways to translate musical montages, camera angles, special effects and other filmmaking techniques into written words that evoke the same level of emotion it takes a film only seconds (on screen, at least) to arouse.
But both books and film have their roots in language and communication, and ultimately, audiences watch films for the same reasons bibliophiles read books – to escape from reality, or to understand it a little better.
In this second part of a special edition of Fan Girl Corner, I will continue to summarise the use of literary techniques that separate influential auteurs from average filmmakers. Warning: may contain spoilers.
My favourite Burton films include: Beetlejuice (1988), Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992), Edward Scissorhands (1990), the Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), Sleepy Hollow (1999), Big Fish (2003), Corpse Bride (2005) and Dark Shadows (2012).
Burton is the dictionary definition of an auteur – he LOOKS exactly how his films FEEL; eccentric, gothic, witty, fantastical and perhaps borderline psychotic. And we, as an audience, can’t get enough of Burton’s darkly whimsical style.
Over the last 30 years, Burton’s distinctive gothic artistry has developed a cult-like fan base around the world and helped to establish him as a master of gothic fantasies and dark comedies, while his numerous collaborations with the equally quirky Johnny Depp have delighted studio executives and audiences alike. But beyond Burton’s penchant for bizarre, almost dream-like settings and characters lies the mind of an advanced storyteller.
Eccentric, misunderstood outcasts are often the central male character of Burton’s films – perhaps because he is an eccentric, misunderstood outcast himself – and as it goes with fish-out-of-water characters who disturb the status quo, the themes of prejudice and discrimination follow them from Burton film to Burton film.
Burton clearly feels more comfortable among the unconventional and the macabre than he does with mainstream, as identity and self discovery, the struggle between good and evil, isolation, death and sanity are also common themes in his films.
The gothic genre first rose to popularity during the Victorian era, so it stands to reason that Victorian sets, props and costume designs remain a mainstay in gothic imagery today. And Burton’s films are no exception, but it is his individually striking yet off-the-wall twist that elevates his graphics above his peers’.
Often blending dark, Victorian gothic with bright, pastel-coloured suburbia (think of the shadowy, decaying castle perched above the bubble gum coloured houses in Edward Scissorhands), Burton uses this visual contrast between lightness and darkness in most of his films to emphasise the strangeness of the protagonist and the fish-out-of-water theme.
This distinguishable visual style has also bled into Burton’s stop-motion animation films, such as the Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride. In fact, his brand of animation is so distinctive that a Burtonesque animated character is as easy to identify as a Disney character.
To paraphrase Forrest Gump, horror and comedy go together like peas and carrots. Black comedy as a storytelling genre holds a fun, almost escapist appeal for novelists and filmmakers alike, as it allows for us to push boundaries and revel in some of our darkest fantasies; yet mastering this marriage of genres can be tricky, as knowing what type of humour to use, and when, is crucial.
Physical comedy (the demonically hyped up sex scene in Dark Shadows), sarcasm and hyperbole (the character Betelgeuse), irony (a hungover Edward vomiting at the offer of lemonade in Edward Scissorhands), dry wit, satire (the whole of Mars Attack!)… Burton’s comedic range is undeniably extensive. Even if it’s a shade or three darker than the standard dark comedy film.
Had Burton been born a century earlier, he most likely would have enjoyed the company of the Grimm’s brothers and Hans Christian Anderson; his films contain the same fantastical, playful and underlying moral elements as fairy tales while also embracing the darker, often frightening aspects that have been deleted by modern culture.
AUTHOR COUNTERPART: EDGAR ALLAN POE
My favourite Cameron films include: the Terminator (1984) and Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991), Titanic (1996) and Avatar (2009).
It takes a masterful storyteller to be the writer and director of the highest grossing film of all time; but to knock that film from the top spot with another film of your own 12 years later is storytelling genius. And that’s exactly what Cameron is.
In addition to smashing all sorts of filmmaking records over the past 35 years, Cameron is a deep-sea explorer who has made numerous underwater documentaries, and an inventor and engineer noted for his contributions to underwater filming, like co-developing the digital 3D Fusion Camera System. It would appear that from the deepest depths of the ocean, to the furthest corners of time and space, Cameron is determined to bring his stories and fantasies to life, much to the delight of audiences around the world.
- STRONG FEMALE CHARACTERS
Before Buffy Summers, before Daenerys Targaryen, before Katniss Everdeen – there was Ellen Ripley and there was Sarah Conner. Along with Princess Leia of George Lucas’ Star Wars franchise, these two kickass women were the only strong female film characters that young girls had for roles models.
And the underlying feminism in Cameron’s films isn’t just limited to his iconic action/ sci-fi film heroines; a love story set in the early 20th century seems like the last place you’d expect to find examples of a woman straining against the societal restrictions placed upon her, yet Rose DeWitt Bukater spitting in the face of her elitist fiancé almost feels like a loogie in the face of stereotyped female characters everywhere.
A self-described feminist, Cameron’s effectiveness at writing empowered women lies in the fact that he writes not only to their physical strength, but their emotional and intellectual strengths as well, their natural stamina as survivors. Aspects of the female psyche that Hollywood would do well to observe.
If George Orwell was trying to warn us about government, then Cameron has been trying to send us a message about technology. Man VS technology is the prevalent theme of more than half of Cameron’s films (both Terminator films, the Abyss, Titanic and Avatar), and his ultimate message is that WE WON’T WIN. Other topics explored in Cameron’s films include man VS nature, colonialism, classism, greed, courage and cowardice in the face of disaster; and although Cameron doesn’t seem opposed to romance, he does appear to have a preference for the doomed variety – for example, Jack and Rose in Titanic, and Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese in the first Terminator film.
- WORLD BUILDING
If Spielberg has used world building technology to create blockbuster storytelling, then Cameron has used storytelling to create world building technology.
Cameron is that much of a perfectionist when it comes to world building that it took him ten years to complete Avatar; because CGI technology wasn’t advanced enough to create the alien world of Pandora, he had to develop the technology. He literally took filmmaking to new depths when he took a handful of deep sea dives to the wreck of the Titanic while researching for the film.
And Cameron’s world building expertise doesn’t only rely on digital special effects, either; in order to portray as much historical accuracy as possible, he consulted with historians and Titanic experts during the writing process, adjusting his script accordingly, and hired a full time etiquette coach to instruct the film’s cast in the manners of upper class society in the early 20th century.
When Joss Whedon, Quentin Tarantino, Baz Luhrmann, Peter Jackson and Michael Bay consider you as one of their major influences, you must be doing something right as a filmmaker.
AUTHOR COUNTERPART: GEORGE ORWELL
My favourite Tarantino films include: Pulp Fiction (1994), Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2003) and Kill Bill: Volume 2 (2004), and Django Unchained (2012).
Just as Spielberg’s name is related to blockbusters, Tarantino’s name is synonymous with independent films of cult status. From heist, crime noir, Blaxploitation, spaghetti-western and martial arts (all laced with heavy profanity), Tarantino’s films have received international acclaim from film critics and audiences for innovating postmodern filmmaking.
And with his intricate knowledge of storytelling, it is no wonder that academics and literaries are also fascinated with Tarantino’s bold yet intelligent style.
I am not one for graphic violence, but I will make an exception for a Tarantino film. Sometimes cartoonish or artistic, sometimes realistic, the violence is always gratuitous, playing on our deep, dark desire for chaos.
Also appealing to our primitive impulses are themes including vengeance and justice, redemption, judgement, deceit, racism and the different faces of insanity. References to popular culture, which younger audiences take for granted in their modern literature, music, films and television, are also common in Tarantino’s films (you can see a video compilation here), adding humour to the plot and helping the audience to relate to the characters.Of his writing style, Tarantino says, “I’m using old forms of storytelling, and then purposely having them run awry. Part of the trick is to take these genre characters and situations, apply them to some of real life’s rules, and see how they unravel.” Although he enjoys turning stereotypes on their head, Tarantino is not completely adverse to classic crime story archetype characters, especially the “bully”, which can be seen in characters such as boxer Butch Coolidge in Pulp Fiction and Calvin Candie in Django Unchained.
Tarantino’s films are like a jigsaw puzzle – guessing at the bigger picture is part of the fun. Nonlinear plots (where the story is told out of chronological order) are used in novels to create or elevate suspense, and although Tarantino wasn’t the first filmmaker to use this technique effectively, he implements it will such precision and so frequently that
Flash forwards and flashbacks are a staple in Tarantino’s arsenal of storytelling techniques, not only because they are necessary for comprehending the plot, but also because they reveal character and move the plot forward. Christopher Walken’s sole scene in Pulp Fiction is a flashback, but without it, the audience wouldn’t understand why Butch flies into a rage when his girlfriend forgets to pack his heirloom gold watch in the following segment.
- LESS IS MORE
When you have an abundance of visual and audio aides at your disposal, it takes great respect for the art of storytelling to omit seemingly vital details from the plot and leave it to the imagination of your audience to fill in the blanks.
Tarantino has said that the initial reason the heist itself was not shown in Reservoir Dogs was budget restrictions, but that he had always liked the idea of not showing it as it made the details of the heist ambiguous; his original plan to have the briefcase in Pulp Fiction contain diamonds was ultimately deemed neither exciting nor original, so he decided to never actually show the briefcase’s contents. The orange light bulb, which projected a “shimmering” light onto the actors’ faces and added an unintended fantastical element, was a last-minute decision.The result is not only rabid fan theories surrounding the nature of the missing plot detail, but a film elevated above the usual heist/Blaxploitation/ crime noir/ martial arts genre story to classic, even evolutionary, status.
- EXTENDED DIALOGUE SCENES
Dialogue in modern literature is becoming noticeably shorter and sharper, and the monologue is best left to novels written prior to the mid 20th century. Tarantino’s films are just as famous for their dialogue-heavy scenes as they are for their gratuitous violence. Seemingly unrelated to the overall plot and mood of the film, the topics vary from the mundane to the philosophical, but it is through these exchanges of dialogue that Tarantino reveals his characters and themes, and pushes the plot forward. For example, Pulp Fiction begins in the middle of a conversation between Pumpkin and Honey Bunny, partners in crime and love, as they sit in a restaurant booth discussing something described by Pumpkin as “too risky”; as the conversation evolves, the audience realises that they are weighing the pros and cons of their usual robbery target, liquor stores, and by the end of the conversation (and the opening scene), the pair are holding up the restaurant at gunpoint.
With only eight films to his name, Tarantino’s filmography looks a little sparse when compared to other filmmakers; however, anyone who has seen a Tarantino film knows the man prefers quality over quantity. And with Tarantino stating that he will retire once he has made 10 films, audiences will have to make do with the breadcrumbs of brilliance he will leave behind.
AUTHOR COUNTERPART: FRANK MILLER, creator of Daredevil, The Dark Knight Returns and Sin City graphic novels
Who is your favourite auteur filmmaker, and why? Do you agree with my filmmaker-author comparisons? Leave your comment in the section below.
In Cinematic Storytellers Part 3 – Sofia Coppola, Amy Heckerling, Penny Marshall, and some special shout-outs.
© Tara Jenkinson 2016