Category Archives: Books to Film

The Great Gatsby in 3D

GatsbyBaz Luhrman’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby is the only 3D movie that I’ve seen recently that’s worth wearing the glasses for. Many people I talked to wondered why a story focused on self-centered characters spiraling toward the frayed ends of the American dream needed to be in 3D in the first place. But if you’re going to make a movie about excess, why the hell not? And it works. As soon as the gritty black-and-white title sequence ended, and the golden gatework stretched into the blackness, my slight sense of vertigo told me that someone had actually made good use of the medium.

There are many long shots with almost cartoonish layers that provide the same sensation I had with the red viewmaster that I played with as a child. Animated movies work best for 3D, and Gatsby is no exception. But you almost don’t notice since the sets, costumes, and editing are so stylized. In fact, some of the smoother shots are those that are far away. The camera zooms over the bay toward the green light, over the immense grounds of the estates, and over the ash heaps the cars race through to get to New York. This provides a much better feel for the immense world these tiny people are lording over in their various reckless ways.

The pace set in this adaptation does a much better job at capturing the anxiety of the book than the older movie starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. That version does a great job with the emptiness presented in the novel, but it’s too slow and calm. Luhrman’s quick cuts accompanied by a jittery dialogue capture the feeling described so well by Nick Carraway at that first party in New York when he meets Tom’s mistress, Myrtle: “I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.”

Some aspects of the movie do an even better job than the book at showing the world Fitzgerald created, particular the racing cars and the large divide between Long Island and New York with the piles of ash in between looking somewhat like Mordor from Lord of the Rings, only with a pair of glasses on a billboard instead of a fiery eye. This racing around that the characters engage in gives a much better sense that something terrible is going to happen, especially with the near misses on all of the trips prior to the tragic accident at the end that unravels the world Gatsby and the others have created for themselves.

I did not like the cliched treatment of the narrator writing this story for a psychiatrist. When the list of Nick’s ailments were ticked off, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes. He wasn’t left a broken man in the book, and you get the sense from the very first line that he has a healthier grasp on reality than any of the people that he meets in this period of his life: “In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. ‘Whenever you fell like criticizing any one,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.'” Immediately, we have the impression that the narrator is a mindful person who’s careful with what he says and does. And we see this played out in the story; or at least, that’s how he presents himself. But instead, we see Toby McGuire’s character of Nick progress through a number of sessions as he comes to grips with the events of that tragic summer.

I just don’t think that a veteran of World War I who has successfully reintegrated into society is going to become completely debilitated by the tragic consequences of some foolish rich people. What’s sadder for him is watching these characters destroy themselves in the attempt to recapture something that was lost years ago. He argues with Gatsby that you can’t repeat the past, and he ends his story with a restatement of that idea and an observation of how it led to Gatsby’s doom. His position hasn’t changed at all from the time he lived through the events to the telling of it, which is much too stable for someone who might be broken up enough to visit a psychiatrist in those days. It seems that Nick’s telling of this story is much more of a cautionary tale than an exploration of his tortured psyche. I can almost imagine him telling this to someone who might remind him of Gatsby’s idealism and where it leads. Or maybe it’s a friend who’s dating a girl as potentially harmful as his cousin Daisy was.

Still, the movie works and does a much better job at getting the feel of the book right, which is generally what you hope for with any adaptation. And if 3D movies don’t give you a headache, this one is definitely worth the extra price of admission.

 

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The Hunger Games Movie

When I initially read The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, I had my doubts that the violence promised in the early pages would be delivered in the ways described. When I found out there would be a movie dealing with the same theme, I became even more skeptical. Collins’ book brought something dark and new to a market flooded with predestined heroes dispatching foes with various forms of magic, where the violence occurs just off screen or through more sanitary means that do not involve blood. From the first sprays and splatters at the mouth of the cornucopia on the arena floor, I knew this was a serious writer who was quite capable of exploring the complex issues of children and violence and the media’s role in it.

The questions raised within the novel move far beyond the blood sport that serves as the story’s base. It’s easy to question the proliferation of violence in the media; it’s another thing entirely to question the viewer’s role in it. The opinions held toward the games among the deeply segregated districts serves as a litmus for where you might find yourself on this spectrum. Though our natural inclination toward the entire ordeal might be outright disgust, as held unwaveringly by our hero from District 12, we might find ourselves mixing in with the brightly colored crowd from the Capitol at times, especially when the aspect of romance becomes involved.

The pageantry leading up to the games seems so odd on its own because of the knowledge that these children will be dead soon, but when it becomes clear that Katniss must appeal to this crowd through feigned romance with Peeta in order to survive, the most interesting aspect of the book begins. How does melodramatic romance connect to extreme violence, and what does this say about our own celebration of it? Does one necessarily lead to the other? Even Katniss becomes confused in the midst of it. She reaches a point during the games where she can’t determine whether her actions toward Peeta are real or fake. She doesn’t know if she’s just going through the motions of what’s expected, or if beginning those motions has led her to a genuine love.

These ambiguities serve as the most stimulating parts of the book. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t have the luxury to delve into these more delicate matters. While I didn’t see it as a failure on the film’s part, I did miss it. The driving force of tension in the book is the sheer uncertainty of self, and that’s easier to do when Katniss serves as the narrator. Because the movie doesn’t take that perspective, various aspects of the story must appear in clearer forms. And honestly, I don’t think the movie would have worked with constant narration from Katniss. Instead, the film relies on dialogue to show how stubborn Katniss can be, and it uses Hamich much more than the book does to explain what Katniss is failing to understand.

The first book in particular paints Hamich as a hopeless drunkard, but this is partly because we’re stuck in Katniss’ mind. Since the film’s perspective of Hamich is broader, we see much more clearly what Katniss only starts to realize in the second book: Hamich is a champion of the games for a reason, and he knows how to throw his weight around both in and out of the arena. In the movie, we see him making deals and campaigning for sponsors in order to make sure Katniss receives the items necessary for her survival. In the book, we are stuck with the occasional appearance of the silver parachutes and Katniss’ speculation as to why Hamich had bothered to send them to her at some times and not others.

In the movie, the romance is clearly a ruse from the beginning, and even though there is an attempt to blur the line between how Katniss and Peeta act and how they feel, it comes off as caring for a friend in a time of desperation. The triangle between Katniss, Peeta, and Gale is clearly established, but I’m not sure how that will play out onscreen in the next movie.

In order to earn a PG-13 rating so that the core audience could even attend the showing, the movie cut away from the goriest parts of the games, but it managed to capture the Lord of the Flies feeling of outright animosity held by the career players of the games when the alliances are formed. These weren’t the only horrors that went missing. The muttations eyes weren’t even mentioned, and this is one detail that truly speaks to the sickness of the game makers. I don’t know why it wasn’t in the movie, but it wouldn’t have taken much. The characters are chased by several large dogs, their running style reminiscent of the demon hounds from Ghostbusters, but there’s no closeup on the eyes, and neither Katniss nor Peeta gets a line of astonishment to express their shock at the lengths of perverseness to which the Capitol is willing to go. It’s also not clear that the shiny, black shell they climb onto is a cornucopia and not some hollowed-out spaceship or the shell of a robotic scorpion. That may have been a detail more easily departed from.

The acting was done well, with the roles of Hamich and Caesar Flickerman standing out. Stanley Tuchi plays Flickerman and manages to make him into a fairly likeable creep. He comes off as a shallow person at the center of the spectacle of the games, but like many in the Capitol, he doesn’t seem to know any better. The blue ponytail and extreme fake teeth definitely help. Woody Harrelson adds much needed depth to Hamich, but again, part of this is probably due to being free of Katniss’ narrow vision of a very complex character. He presents Hamich as a rough but extremely humane character, whose drinking seems understood if not quite justified.

The younger members of the cast do well, but I couldn’t help wondering if Jennifer Lawerence had been typecast. Moments from her performance in Winter’s Bone resonated strongly here, especially in the beginning. The challenges provided by the games rescue her from that, but I’m not sure that she manages to show that Katniss is still a girl in many ways. It’s difficult to see what maturity she lacks in the confusion of performing on a national stage, something that’s much easier to make clear through Katniss narrating the book. We also don’t get any indication that her mother is an accomplished healer, the closest thing the entire district has to a doctor.

Overall, the adaptation was successful in many ways and clearly communicated the themes of the book. The movie wasn’t able to go into nearly as much detail, but it was enjoyable, and it managed to capture the most desirable visual moments from the book, Katniss’ fiery outfits, the excessive ornamentation in the Capitol, and most importantly, the arena itself. My only complaint is that the contrast of the Capitol with District 12 was almost too much, and some moments looked very much like you could see the green screen if you squinted hard enough. The costumes and dazzlingly facial hair almost make up for it though. The movie is definitely worth seeing if you enjoy the books.

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