“The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way.” - William Blake
- Booksellers vs. Bestsellers -
by Jamie Lutton
- For The Capitol Hill Times -
Discerning moviegoers have been complaining for decades over the lack of good, original movies in theaters. Original screenplays that are brilliant and not derived from a play or book are rare. “Groundhog Day” comes to mind, as well as “The Sting,” “When Harry Met Sally” and “Citizen Kane.”
The problem is that studios do not want to risk money on anything that is not sure, and a pre-tested play or book is a safe bet. In modern times, theaters are filled with remakes, mediocre sequels and remakes of remakes.
Consider the new prequel to “The Wizard of Oz” that came out this week. Instead of working from one of L. Frank Baum’s other Oz books, this is a splashy 3D attempt to capitalize on the popularity of a 54-year-old movie. Not wanting to risk failure, the studio backed a film that is unimaginative and weak, taking no creative chances. Its reviews say that it is tepid, or safe “children’s” fare at best.
Other recent films, like Robert Downey Jr.’s two Sherlock Holmes’ films also bear little resemblance to their original material. The scriptwriters, who I suppose weren’t sure that a moviegoing audience would enjoy the original stories, add violence, sex and special effects to plots, making them as close to the original Sherlock Holmes’ stories as “Life of Brian” is to the Four Gospels—marginally enjoyable, but hardly recognizable.
The best films, historically, often start out as successful stage plays or books. A good example is the 1942 movie classic “Casablanca,” which began as a play called “Everybody Comes to Ricks.” The film became such a huge cult hit that, curiously, the actors and the studio denied that it began as stage play, jealously guarding the credit for its success, which is why the film’s snappy, witty dialog, without a misplaced word, echoes the limitations of the stage. Generally, stage plays rely on good writing and believable characters for their success, not (only) special effects.
Sometimes a film bombs in the theater its first time out. “Harold and Maude,” first a novel written by Colin Higgins, who co-produced the film, was released 1971, and took years to develop an audience, but later had a seven-year run as a stage play in France.
Sometimes musicals don’t translate well on the movie screen. “Rent,” based on the opera “La Bohème,” was not success as a movie. Too much had to be cut, and it was “too big” for a movie screen.
Musicals made in the 1950s like “South Pacific” and “West Side Story” are good, but any decent stage production of these is better than the admittedly well-made film productions. It’s the same with “Amadeus,” which was a stage production in London before it was filmed with American actors.
Even light comedy classics like the Marx Brothers’ movies started out as stage productions. When you see several Marx Brothers’ films back to back, you see that the same jokes are recycled over and over, and the films are just a rehashing of their Vaudeville productions from the 1920s.
Before a film can be funded, there are powerful people who need some hope that their investment will pay off. When “Harold and Maude” was first pitched as a film idea, studio heads were disgusted by the theme—a young man falling in love with an old woman—and could not see past their own reactions to see the brilliant ideas behind this anti-war movie. This film had to been seen over and over, like “Groundhog Day,” to catch on and become a cult favorite.
The modern film adaption of “Les Miserables” had the advantage of having been tested onstage many times, and with many different productions, before it made a jump to the stage, while this year’s miracle was “Life of Pi,” as it is a straight adaption from what was said to be an “unfilmable” book.
“Jaws,” for example, made in 1974, straddles two eras of filmmaking. As a popular novel of its time, it is still a good, popular movie, even though the bloody special effects are antiquated. In the end, “Jaws” is about the relationship between people, not just a big fish showing up and eating swimmers at random. It was the characters’ fight with the shark, and the separate struggle among the three main characters that created a classic.
But after “Jaws” made hundreds of millions of dollars, with people going to see the movie over and over, studios went nuts. “Jaws” and “Star Wars” damaged the film industry. Studio heads only saw the big fish, not noticing that the film was really about people. And so funding for films about people dried up, and sure things, like science fiction, remakes and comic book movies, have dominated the industry ever since. Films are now made for the lowest common denominator: the teen audience, which is why movies made 30 or 40 years ago, like “The Godfather,” “The Graduate,” and “Harold and Maude,” are considered classics, while modern films often fade from memory quickly.
The best way to appreciate what great films have to offer is to go to live theater. See hot new plays as well as classics (like Shakespeare!), if you can.
Musicals are better to see live, if you can manage it. They can capture you and stay in your heart, if you let them, in a way that few movies can, even with 3D and surround sound.
And remember to vote with your pocket. Go see serious small films in the theater and not just on Netfilx, so that they don’t die out completely, and we are left with bloated special-effect-driven films with no heart.
Jamie Lutton owns Twice Sold Tales on Harvard Avenue. Read more of her work at booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com.