I’m a film nerd, I’ve got the certificate that costs as much as a Lexus and everything to prove it. And there are certain filmmakers and movies that you’re required to like while you’re in graduate school, because they are Serious Artists. They can do no wrong.
Oh? Wanna bet? Here are four classic science fiction, fantasy, and horror books, and the undisputed geniuses who made a total hash out of them.
Horror movies are, at root, emotional experiences. A good horror movie is a good character drama with a metaphor laid over it. At root, to make a good horror movie you have to care, a lot, about everyday people and their everyday problems, because that’s the only way your movie will actually be scary. This is why The Shining, as a book, works: Jack Torrance wants to be a good father. He wants to be a good husband. But ultimately, he fails, which is where the horror comes in.
So, in adapting a book that requires profound emotional subtlety, careful performances, and above all, somebody who’s great with actors, the job goes to Stanley freaking Kubrick, undeniably a genius but also one of the emotionally coldest, least actor-friendly directors in film history. This is a guy who should have made The Long Walk.
The resulting movie fails to make you care about the characters, mostly because Kubrick didn’t direct his cast so much as abuse them until they made the take he wanted, plowing under anything resembling subtlety from his actors. Jack Torrance, for example, never seems like anything more or less than a crazy person, and Shelley Duvall hands in a performance that have most people rooting for the axe murderer. Kubrick’s refusal to use anything that wasn’t abstract classical on the score really doesn’t help matters, either; half the time the music barely fits the intended tone of the shot.
It’s worth noting that this isn’t entirely Kubrick’s fault: when Stephen King went back with Mick Garris and a script he personally wrote, mostly out of a desire to stick it to Kubrick, the resulting miniseries wasn’t any better and in a lot of ways substantially worse. Still, take out the twins, the elevator scene and “Here’s Johnny” and basically what you have left is the first mainstream acknowledgement of furries.
Hey, speaking of cold, actor-hostile, and basically borderline autistic, how about a nice shot of Andrei Tarkovsky?
Tarkovsky is one of those names you never hear outside of film nerd circles, mostly because his movies are in Russian, three hours was a short running time for him, and as you may have guessed “depressing” does not begin to cover it.
Solaris, on the other hand, is Tarkovsky trying to stuff his personal obsessions into Stanislaw Lem’s novel about how humans and aliens fundamentally can’t communicate. Not helping matters was that this was a paycheck gig. Soviet audiences were no more interested in complex and profound metaphysical meditations than Western audiences were. They wanted big stupid sci-fi movies. So Tarkovsky wrote a sci-fi movie about how much he hated his dad. It’s also a science fiction movie that turns the genre’s tendency towards unease at scientific progress into outright hostility for anybody rational.
Worst of all, none of it makes much sense unless you’ve read several books about Tarkovsky’s personal life. Plenty of people will tell you this is a great science fiction movie: Mostly they are people who have no great love of or interest in the genre. It’s science fiction for people who think science fiction just has spaceships in it.
Solaris would go on to be remade as an equally terrible Steven Soderbergh movie in 2002. Tarkovsky would go on to make Stalker, a way better science fiction movie, which if no less long and slow, at least had a point and that you don’t need to read a thousand pages to understand.
To this day, one of the most baffling riddles of Hollywood is why Kubrick didn’t get to adapt this book, and why Francois Truffaut wasn’t given a crack at The Shining. Ray Bradbury has suffered some fairly serious abuse at the hands of Hollywood, but this was by far the worst.
To be fair, Truffaut was screwed from the start. Julie Christie plays two roles in the movie not for any profound reason, but because they couldn’t find somebody to fill the role of Clarisse. Truffaut spoke no English, which is kind of a problem for a movie in English, and he fought constantly with Oskar Werner, who believed he was a big movie star and phones this one in.
That said, Truffant never should have taken the job, because he didn’t want to make a science fiction movie. At all. While he does try pretty hard to put the best face on it, and has a lot of fun with the theme of narcissism, he also tried to cut out anything that smacked of science fiction in favor of making a Hitchcock movie. Except set in the future. Kinda.
The resulting movie was wishy-washy, as you may have guessed, and it also doesn’t do justice to the book. The book’s message becomes ham-fisted and a lot of what made it genuinely sad and troubling is lost in translation.
At least we were spared Mel Gibson’s version.
Hey, you know what totally makes sense and is completely logical when you’ve got a big, less-than-subtle political allegory about oil with lots of spaceships in it? Hiring the guy who made Eraserhead to direct it!
David Lynch has admitted that he’s never had an interest in science fiction and, oh brother, does it ever show. Dune is a book for a natural showman, somebody who wanted to tell a story, blow some stuff up, and maybe work a message into it, like Ridley Scott, who was supposed to make this and then dropped out.
Lynch’s cut is by all accounts not bad for what it is, but it was also nearly four hours long. So Dino De Laurentiis cut it down to two hours, adding those infamous voiceovers and terrible reshoots, and pretty much driving Lynch away from huge Hollywood budgets in favor of making classics Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks.
Maybe we should make weird directors try to adapt Dune more often.