By Jay Stringer
I have a few different ideas I want to talk about today. I'm not sure that they weave together into a coherent post, but we'll find out together.
It all starts with Godzilla. And there be mild spoilers here.
I finally watched the film at the weekend. I had a lot of fun with it. It's not a perfect movie, there are things that can be nitpicked and really it takes too long to show us the big G -for a while it treats Godzilla like the shark in Jaws, whereas really G is the hero- and it gives us a little too much of a human story that we don't really care about past the first 40 minutes. There are a few times when it has an identity crisis about whether to go all-out as a Godzilla film, or to try and be something else. But it's well directed, tells it's story, and doesn't lose sight of the end.
I went in wanting a modern take on a proper old-school Godzilla movie, and I got it. You know the ones? A cheesy but cool film where some monsters turn up (from the past, or from outer space, or from monster island, or whatever) and start destroying things, and then Godzilla turns up like the grumpy hero that he/she/it is, and saves the day.
Reaction among my friends has been split 50/50. Half got a kick out of it the same way I did. The other half hated it. And here's where I get to the first point I want to talk about; expectation.
I've learned since getting published that audience expectation can be as decisive as the quality of the work itself. For Godzilla, the friends who hated the film are the ones who didn't really go in wanting an old-school Godzilla movie. Many of them have never seen one. What they wanted was what the trailers seemed to promise; a tense and scary epic film starring Bryan Cranston and a monster. I can completely understand why people would get that impression from the trailers, but in truth that film is not a Godzilla film. (You could make an argument that the U.S. edit of the very first film in 1954 could be remade that way, but that's not the film we're getting here) The Cranston portion of the film is really only there as exposition. It's set up. A way of easing a modern audience into the cheesier, looser, Godzilla film that follows.
I went into the film thinking, the trailers looked cool, but they didn't really look like a Godzilla film. Some friends went in thinking, those trailers look cool, I want to see that. I walked out happy, they walked out angry. I'd argue that, to a large extent, the actual quality of the film was a smaller part in that outcome than our expectations.
I've learned that there are some readers who simply won't like my books. Maybe they're the readers who don't like swearing, or they like long action sequences, or they want clean resolutions and clear morals. Maybe they're the readers who go into books with a world-view that is different to mine, or they go in with an assumption of what my world view is.
And I also learned; that's fine. There are plenty of books out there for those readers, and I will write plenty of books that aren't for those readers, and there's more than enough room for both of those to be okay. But I try as much as I can to let those readers know up front. I'm vocal in some of my views online, I talk about things that are key to the books, and I embrace bad reviews, because they help to show some readers that I'm not for them. In a perfect world, every reader on the planet would buy and embrace what I write and I'd be able to earn a living doing it. In the real world, I feel bad at the thought that some readers who are really not looking for the kinds of books I write, may end up committing hours or weeks to reading my books and not enjoying themselves.
I recently tried watching Game Of Thrones. I stopped somewhere in the middle of season two. I can't recall exactly where. I have no real drive to go back and continue. Thing is, I don't blame the show for it. It's well made. There's a lot of hard work and passion gone into it, and I can see why so many of my friends love it. It's simply not for me, and that's not really the fault of the material.
Expectation is a buzz kill. Expectation can kill your enjoyment of something far sooner than the quality of the work. A story, a really good story, can take it's whole running time to get it's point across. It can take until the final act to really pull it's trick and show you the brilliant idea that it's been hiding away. But you know very early on whether it's the kind of story you wanted it to be. And that can make or break your experience.
Bringing this back to Godzilla, there's another idea I want to talk about. The idea of "re-imagining" something. One of my friends who didn't like the film said that he knew what an old-school Godzilla film was, but that he'd hoped this new film was a re-imagining of Godzilla. If you want a re-imagining of Godzilla, go watch Cloverfield or Pacific Rim. Both do that job in different ways.
I think we've let this concept run away with us. We rarely really want something to be re-imagined. We want something to be captured, to be distilled. If we're going to see an adaption, or a reboot, or a sequel, what we want is a story that gets what is good about the character. Re-imagining something has become a byword for "making needless changes." At this point, my friend pointed to the Chris Nolan Batman films as proof that re-imagining is whats needed, but here, I'm convinced, is actually proof of what I'm arguing.
If your only concept of Batman is what you've seen on the screen, then I can understand it's easy to get the idea that Chris Nolan came along and did something completely new. He re-imagined the hell out of it, if "it" is limited to Adam West, Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer and George Clooney all looking stupid. But if you've read the comics, you know that what Nolan did was to distill. He captured ideas, tones and images that already had a proven track record on the page, and he fashioned them into two very good films. He simply understood the concept in a way that the previous filmmakers hadn't. He understood what worked on the page, and found a way to express that on the screen.
When he did decide to re-imagine was with the third film. And that was an unholy mess that simply failed to understand the character of Bruce Wayne, that actually failed to understand the character they had set up so well in the previous two films.
The Marvel movies have been working (mostly) because they get the characters and they bring them to the screen. They're not making pointless changes. Whereas DC/Warner Bros are now trying to turn every character in their stable into a version of The Dark Knight, Marvel are saying, Captain America is a noble boy scout, Iron Man is a bit of a dick, and hey, here's a talking raccoon from space with a machine gun.
Contrast that with Man Of Steel, in which they decided to re-imagine the character. It's one of the worst films I've ever seen.
Love or hate Superman, there are certain things that the character is about. He's a hero because of Ma and Pa Kent, not because he has super powers. The powers should make him a tyrant. A dictator. A God. He's not a spoiled billionaire like Bruce Wayne, who can afford to be whatever he wants. He's not a bullied geek like Peter Parker, who suddenly becomes more powerful than the bullies.
He's a farm boy who wants a quiet life. What makes him Superman is that he had normal, decent, parents who instilled ethics and responsibility in him.
Kevin Costner in Man Of Steel should be the most important figure in the film. He should be the father figure who says to Clark, you can do great things. When that tornado hits in the movie, the real Jonathan Kent would be saying, now is your time, you can save EVERYONE. Instead Costner spends the whole film telling Clark to hide, to not be special, to not stand out. He's a scared coward of a father, and as a result there's no real reason for Clark to be a hero. And, if you've seen the film, you'll see that he isn't. He leaves Pa Kent to die. He levels an entire city. He wanders the globe listening to moody music and being broody, because the filmmakers decided to take a selfless and inspirational figure like Superman and re-imagine him as a self-centred coward.
Don't re-imagine. Capture. Distill.