Monthly Archives: December 2013

Typecasting Tuesday – Procrastination

TypecasingTuesday-Procrastination

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The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug – An Epic Failure of Adaptation

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is a perfect storm of predictability.

Hobbit01If you decide to adapt a single novel into a movie trilogy, the middle story, the bridge, is the hardest one to pull off successfully.

Having the middle story as part of a prequel makes the project a recipe for failure with The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug as the main course.

In the film, a group of dwarfs continue their quest, heading to an abandoned dwarf kingdom hidden under a mountain that contains a massive collection of gold and jewels.  The kingdom is now home to a huge, overly-chatty dragon.

On their quest, they cross paths with a bunch of big spiders, angry elfs, and a hunky seaman.

Their goal is to get a precious stone that the dwarf leader can use to bring the fractured dwarf tribes back together and they need the hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, to retrieve it.

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There were so many problems with this film, its hard to believe it made it into production.  Lets go over a few:

1) It’s a prequel.  Most viewers will have read/watched the Lord of the Rings prior to watching this film, which means they know the following:

  • The tension between the elfs and the dwarfs gets resolved and end up working together.
  • Gandalf is never in danger, since he leads the efforts in Rings.
  • Bilbo is never in danger, since he’s in Rings too.

So, three major points of conflict or suspense are diffused.

2) It’s the middle film of a single quest.

  • Since the trilogy is really a single quest, you know they make it.  You never doubt they will survive the journey.

Which means another major point of suspense is lost.

And there are other problems.

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3) The bad guys are computer generated:

  • Our brains react differently when two people are involved in a stunt than when two computer characters are.  The reason?  Danger.  It’s why people love car races or watching football.  The risk is real.  This is the same reasons we love amazing stunts by real people in real places.  Your brain can’t imagine how they pulled it off.
  • When characters are fighting computer generated bad guys, your brain never worries about them, never tries to figure out how they survived.  Your brain becomes passive.  A passive audience is a films worst enemy.
  • In Rings, the hand-to-hand combat scenes were with real people in make-up (along with some computer generated augmentation for scope and effect).  In The Hobbit, the bad guys are 100% fake, which makes their interaction with real actors 100% ineffective.

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4) Dragon TMI:

  • In the story we learn this dragon can only be killed by a certain type of arrow, which can penetrate his skin.  Legend had it that the dragon was nicked by one of these arrows and it knocked off a couple of scales, making him vulnerable.
  • Near the end of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug they show two things they shouldn’t have.
    1) the dragon does, indeed, have a few scales missing.
    2) there is one super arrow left.
  • So, what does this tell me?  It tells me the dragon gets killed by that arrow.  And, as luck would have it, this dragon killing won’t happen in this movie, but in film #3.
  • Which means, The Hobbit not only destroyed suspenseful moments in this film, they’ve actually undermined suspenseful moments in the NEXT ONE!

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All that being said, you can save a middle film of a trilogy if you leave the audience satisfied by surprising them at the end.

  • Star Wars: Empire Strikes Back – “I am your father.”  Enough said.
  • Hunger Games: Catching Fire – The games were a ruse for a rebellion.

The Hobbit’s ending wasn’t surprising at all.  Dragon gets loose and heads to a nearby town, the one with the super arrow.  Gee, I’ll talk about for as long as it takes my theater seat to return to its upright position.

But, if you can’t surprise anyone with the ending, then maybe you could surprise the audience by killing off one of the heroes.  Someone important, preferably.  But, no, EVERYONE survives this movie.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is a shining example of a series of bad decisions made by Hollywood just so they could make money.

1) make a prequel because the Rings made serious $.
2) turn the one Hobbit tale into a trilogy to make serious $.

It shouldn’t surprise us that Hollywood wants to use The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug to make more money.  Why should it?  After all, nothing else in the movie is surprising either.

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Book Review – Wounds

Wounds, by long time, successful Christian author Alton Gansky, delves into the victims of a serial killer whose motive is evil and whose crimes are biblical.

woundsGansky’s approaches the subject matter in a way I love, not as Christian fiction, per se, but as a book that has characters who are actively Christian.

This is a big difference to me.

In my experience, Christian fiction novels tend to be preachy and geared specifically toward Christian fans, where fiction with Christian characters are just good stories that includes characters who happen to have a strong faith.

Due to this successful approach, Wounds would be enjoyable by Christians and non-Christians alike.

In the story we follow detective Carmen Rainmondi, who leads the team of San Diego police working to catch the killer, while still struggling with the on-going emotional toll of the murder of her sister years earlier.  When one of the first victims turns out to be a local seminary student, she crosses paths with Dr. Ellis Poe, a frail, reclusive man who not only can help the police make connections to the serial killer”s motives, but also has insight into the death of Rainmondi’s sister.

Gansky’s novel moves relatively quickly and the author does a great job of bringing us into each scene and location through the type of detailed descriptions that can only come from someone who has been there.  The title, Wounds, not only refers to the marks on the victims, but the hidden damage the main characters each possess that have helped shape them into the people they are today.

The book is an easy and enjoyable read.  Devout Christians may connect the dots sooner than non-believers, but that doesn’t diminish the effectiveness of the storytelling.

Wounds is a good read for anyone the fan of crime drama, either Christian or not.

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Hunger Games: Catching Fire – Adaptation Choices

“I have an image of Prim in a white room, strapped to a table, while masked, robed figures elicit those sounds from her.  Somewhere they are torturing her, or did torture her, to get those sounds.”

In my last podcast I talked about the process of adapting a screenplay to a novel.  The opposite path can be taken when adapting a novel into the screenplay, but instead of looking for ways to fill your story, you look for ways to streamline the novel into an effective screenplay.

catchingfire2A lot of tough choices have to be made during such a process.  Locations may be trimmed, characters combined into one, etc.  Then, that script, that blueprint, is given to a director to be turned into a series of visual images.

The first Hunger Games film, directed by Gary Ross, was one of the best film adaptations of a novel I had seen.  It captured the life and essence of the book perfectly and the additions and changes to the screenplay aligned to a T with the novels original feel and mood.

When I read the second Hunger Games book, Catching Fire, the story was more vast and the action, much bigger.  I was concerned if Ross, who nailed an intimate feel in the first film, with a lot of handheld camera work, would be able to pull off the larger action sequences in the second book.

Ross, not believing he had enough prep time to direct the second film, stepped down and Francis Lawrence was hired to direct both the second film, Catching Fire, and the third and fourth films based on the last novel, Mockingjay.

In Catching Fire, both in the book and the movie, during the games Katniss finds herself stuck listening to jabberjays scream in Prim’s voice.  It is a horrendous sound that wreaks havoc on Katniss’ fragile psyche.

The quote from the Catching Fire book that started this blog entry shows what Katniss is fearing, that in order for the jabberjays to mimic a tortured Prim, Prim, herself, would have had to be tortured.

catchingfire

In the movie, Katniss is stuck in the jungle, forced to hear these screams for an hour.  The film director chooses to show Katniss covering her ears and screaming, trying to block out the sound.

This adaptation choice was an exceptionally weak one.

Author Suzanne Collins explained perfectly what Katniss was imaging had caused these horrendous sounds.  Lawrence, the film director, should have shown us that in the film as well.

Film is a visual medium.  If the director would have chosen to inject flashes of the images ricocheting through Katniss’ mind, we would have be thrust into her psychological shoes, and we would have become an active participant in a very disturbing moment, like we were in the book.

However, by the director only showing Katniss’ reaction to the sound, we are passive, like Peeta, sitting on the other side of the force field, watching her in agony.

A very, very poor choice.

Both novels and films have one primary goal, to emotionally engage the audience.  They do this by putting us in the protagonists point-of-view as much as possible.  In novels, you do this by hearing what they think, what they fear and what they dream.  In film, it has to be done visually, otherwise we’re a passive observer eating popcorn in an air conditioned theater instead of in the mind of the hero stuck in a jungle facing her greatest fear.

That adaptation choice, either by the screenwriters or the director, was the wrong one and wasted one of the most emotionally powerful moments in the story.  Instead of jarring us into Katniss’ world, it just became another hurdle the contestants had to overcome in a long series of challenges.

I hope in the next two films, when given the opportunity, they make more powerful and effective choices when adapting the novel into a film.

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Podcast 04 – Screenplay to Novel Adaptation

Today’s podcast discusses some tips on how to adapt a screenplay into a novel.


Running Time: 12:11

Here are a few steps to consider when adapting a screenplay to a novel.

Step 1) Overview.  Look at the story from a 30,000 foot level.  Sketch out the basics of the plot (beginning, middle and end).  Also, write down the main protagonist’s character arc to identify where the character starts and ends up.

Step 2) Characters.  Write down all of the characters in the story in order of importance and synopsize their purpose in the story and their growth arc.

Step 3) Story Detail.  Synopsize each scene into the following basic information:

– Where does it take place?
– Which character(s) is in the scene?
– What is the conflict?
– What information is relayed?

Step 4) Gap Opportunities.  Identify the areas in the story that could use elaboration or character relationships that need to be augmented and explored further.

Step 5) Outline.  Now that all of the prep-work is done, create an outline for your novel where you take all of the information and reorganize it to make the most effective novel possible.

Step 6) Get to  Work. Understanding the expectations of your audience, write, write and rewrite until you’ve written a novel with which you are happy.

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Residuals

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, I was a screenwriter.

I wrote screenplays, won some awards, had some optioned and a few produced. One of those screenplays I wrote at the request of a friend of mine, Jenni Gold. I recently mentioned Jenni in a post about her work on the documentary Cinemability.

Back in the last 90’s, Jenni, ever the pragmatic filmmaker, had a great idea.  We were both living in Florida at the time and Hollywood was testing out to see if Orlando could be Hollywood-East.  The work in Florida was seasonal and, because of the heat, film making slowed down during the summer.

Jenni thought she could get the Hollywood level stunt talent in the area for cheap during the slow season.  And she was right.  So, she secured financing for an insanely low budget and came up with an idea about an action film about an injured CIA Agent who uncovers a nasty plot and uses other discarded government thugs to form a team and save the day.

rwaShe asked me if I would write the script, so I took her original idea and wrote the screenplay for Ready, Willing & Able.

The writing process was very interesting.  As Jenni gathered more resources, she would call and say:

  • “We have access to a small plane.  Can you add that in there?”
  • “I was able to get access to the Universal lot.  They have an exterior cafe set.  Can you write that in?”
  • “A guy offered to let us use his two wave runners.  Can you write in a chase sequence?”

It was kind of backwards to fit the changing resource availability into the script instead of writing the story and then finding the resources, but I loved the challenge.  I figured I had to dedicate 75% of the story to action, leaving 25% for character.  So, any character development I wanted to include in the story had to be quick and simple.

The film was shot in Orlando (I got to visit the set) and I got meet the actors.  (BTW – one of the actors, Isaac, went on to have a large supporting role as one of the ghost crew in Pirates of the Caribbean).  RWA won an award at the Fort Lauderdale Film Festival, but never got full domestic distribution.

It did, however, get distribution overseas.  Apparently, even today, it does very well in Russia and Italy.

The fun part about this process is, some 16 years later, I still receive a small residual check from the Writers Guild of America.  The last one I got was about five years ago.  Yesterday, in my mailbox, another one appeared.

wga-check

So, it looks like Ready, Willing & Able is not only still being shown overseas, but its still making enough money to throw me a small check every half decade.

Who would have thunk it.

I hope my future work is as generous as the small script I wrote over 16 years ago.

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