When the news broke… slowly… over the last few days that Michael Chabon was, in fact, recently hired to rewrite the latest drafts of “John Carter Of Mars” by Andrew Stanton and Mark Andrews, there was much rejoicing. Nerds everywhere have been giving each other virtual high-fives all day long. After all, Chabon isn’t just a Pulitzer Prize-winning author… he won his Pulitzer for writing about freakin’ comic books.
Now, let’s be very clear about how I phrase this: Michael Chabon on his worst day could fucking crush me as a writer. I get that. Please don’t write me angry e-mail explaining that to me. He’s wonderful. I think The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier & Clay is cover-to-cover magic, and a number of his books are just tremendous reads. But he wasn’t hired as a novelist here… he was hired as a screenwriter.
And I’ve seen a few people who are excited because Chabon wrote “Spider-Man 2.” Only… really… his “Spider-Man 2” is not the film. There are some similarities, but structurally it’s different and Doc Ock is a radically different characterization in Chabon’s script. There’s more business about how Spider-Man loses and gets back his powers. Doc Ock has a predatory interest in Mary Jane in this one, and it’s all very big and pulpy… and that’s not a bad thing, necessarily…
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… but as a screenplay, I thought it sort of laid there. It’s an interesting piece of prose, but it’s not a script for a movie. It’s not something you’d shoot. And in that regard, Chabon certainly wouldn’t be the first novelist whose screenwriting efforts were still too dense and… well… novelistic.
Much of what Chabon’s written has been a reaction to the pulp influences he grew up with, and in that sense, I can see why someone would hire him to write a “John Carter Of Mars” script. Or to rewrite one. I can’t imagine they’re going to throw out the work that the very, very smart Andrew Stanton and Mark Andrews have already done on the film.
I’ve been told in the past that any and all discussion of the script to a film in development is “immoral” and “unethical,” but I maintain that this is hogwash. If people don’t read scripts and understand who wrote what on a film, then how are they qualified to credit someone with something when discussing it? WGA credits do not always refect real authorship, and we all know that. There are writers who got lucky, who got a shared credit on something, and although the film that was released that was a hit doesn’t resemble their script in the slightest, they still manage to book a ton of jobs as a result. Stuart Beattie is still getting hired as Mr. First Draft because of “Pirates Of The Carribean,” but that film’s script was undeniably authored by Elliott and Rossio. It’s just the way credits work. I read scripts so that I have a sense of who’s doing really interesting work, who is an exciting addition to a creative team, who will probably not close the deal and who will.
So if it’s immoral to have read Chabon’s “Spider-Man 2” script, then so be it. But it makes me nervous because I don’t think the guy who wrote that script is comfortable with the language of film or how something’s going to be shot. If he’s being brought on to help with the language of “John Carter Of Mars,” that’s probably a good thing. But if he’s the one driving the train creatively, if he’s overhauling the script completely, then I’m a little hesitant. I think this great writer has yet to translate his love of real pulp into his own pulp screenplay voice, and I don’t think this megabudget adaptation of the beloved Burroughs SF/Fantasy novels is the place for him to get in a little more practice. This film’s been a long time coming, and this close to the finish line, with this much at stake, I’m not sure this choice should be celebrated until we know whether or not the work’s even going to make it to the screen.
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