Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Messing with Icons

by Scott Adlerberg

If nothing else, the many Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice discussions going on reveal the peril writers and filmmakers face presenting their own version of iconic fictional characters.  Alter that icon in any way, however slight the alteration, and there may be hell to pay from a substantial portion of fans.  A comic book character around for a long time or a novel series character who's revered has come to have certain defining traits, and obviously it's those traits the fans of the characters love, or they wouldn't be icons.  Superman, the thinking goes, with his innate decency would not be a brooding figure, wondering whether he should continue helping a fickle and ungrateful mankind. The Man of Steel should not be causing collateral damage while he's fighting villains.  He would find some way to take the fight to a place where the destruction won't cause peoples' deaths.  (Hard to argue against this point, which is NOT a slight alteration of Superman's character.)  Batman has a code against using guns and implacable as he is in fighting crime, he does not kill criminals.  For what we might call traditional Batman, these two points are crucial to his crime fighting ethic.  It's not that Batman has never used guns in his comic book incarnations, but basically through his 70 plus years of battling criminals, it has been established that Batman doesn't use firearms.  So in movies, when people see Superman brooding or see him oblivious to the utter chaos he's causing in his pursuit of victory over an enemy, when they see Batman driving a car with mounted machine guns or shooting a gun from his flying vehicle or using a rifle (these things happen in Batman films made by Tim Burton, Christopher Nolan, and Zack Snyder), people comment on what they're seeing in their heroes. They question the motivation behind making such changes to these characters.  Do the creators actually hate the characters they have been entrusted with?  Don't they understand these characters? Do they even care about them?  These are certainly the types of questions popping up now, with Batman v Superman in theaters, and the various conversations set me thinking about other iconic characters who've seen themselves changed, sometimes drastically, by people who crafted stories around them but who were not their original creators.

James Bond

It's 54 years and counting for Ian Fleming's spy.  Discounting David Niven's 1967 Bond in the comedic Casino Royale, there have been six Bonds.  Everyone has their favorite Bond, their least favorite Bond.  And at least since Sean Connery quit playing the part (twice), there's been a segment of Bond fandom that had reservations with the successor Bonds.  

1) George Lazenby: Too stiff as an actor or too vulnerable in how he portrays a more human Bond.
2) Roger Moore: Too elegant to be a tough Bond, a lightweight, with too much emphasis put on one-liners and a tongue in cheek attitude.
3) Timothy Dalton: Too brooding and humorless, a touch neurotic, playing the role with more gravity than necessary.
4) Pierce Brosnan: A welcome relief from the overly intense Dalton, but perhaps too pretty and polished and suave for a man who's supposed to be a ruthless assassin.
5) Daniel Craig: Remember the furor that greeted the announcement Craig would be the next Bond. He's too short, screamed some.  He has blue eyes. He has blond hair.  He's not handsome enough.

Can the people casting Bond and the actor who winds up playing Bond ever win? Not with everyone, not a chance.  But in this case, it must be said, that no one seems to doubt that the people running the franchise, producing the films, have ever had anything but the best in mind for the character and series.  Maybe not every Bond choice worked to everyone's satisfaction, but I've never heard the sort of disparagement leveled at the filmmakers as I have at Zach Snyder, for example, where the very idea that he's the one shepherding the Warner Brothers DC film Universe is an affront.

Sherlock Holmes

There have been too many Sherlock Holmes' on film and TV to count over the years, so I won't go into every one. My favorite rendition was Jeremy Brett's in the PBS television adaptations, followed by Peter Cushing in Hammer's The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959) and Basil Rathbone in the first two films he did as Holmes - the original Hound and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (both 1939).  But the version that truly messes with the prevailing image of Holmes is The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, from 1976, taken from Nicholas Meyer's bestselling novel.  

If you don't know, the story portrays Holmes as brilliant but hopelessly high strung. He also happens to be a cocaine addict.  Watson and Mycroft Holmes manage to come up with a pretext to get Holmes to leave London and go to Vienna, where the great detective of the streets meets the great detective of the mind, Sigmund Freud. Against his will, Holmes winds up undergoing drug therapy (the cold turkey treatment) and psychotherapy to deal with his inner demons.  The Holmes we usually know as the pinnacle of rationality is here a man suffering from delusions, the main one being his insistence that Professor James Moriarty is a criminal mastermind.  In this telling, Watson has never seemed to buy the idea that Holmes has an enemy who is the Napolean of Crime.

There is some serious icon messing going on here, but in fact, at least as I remember, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution got a very good response when it came out.  As had the book.  I read the book when it first became a paperback and saw the movie when it opened, and even as a 14 year old, I could tell that Meyer was playing around with Holmes in a way quite consistent with how he's presented in the original stories. Holmes of course can be high-strung in the Conan Doyle tales, and we know he resorts to cocaine when bored.  But the cleverness of Meyer's re-imagining extends to "The Final Problem" itself, since in that story, as Doyle wrote it, almost all we learn about Moriarty comes from Holmes himself.  We don't get much outside objective evidence that Moriarty is indeed an evil genius.  Watson takes Holmes' word for everything and so do we as readers, but if you step outside that construct for a moment, it's conceivable that everything Holmes says about Moriarty comes from his own fevered mind.  It's a possibility, let's say, and that sliver of possibility is what The Seven Per-Cent-Solution builds on to give us a drug-addicted paranoid Holmes persecuting an innocent man.  Or maybe not so innocent; the new story reveals that Moriarty does have a connection to Holmes stemming back to the detective's childhood (It has to be childhood. Freud is involved.). Moriarty is guilty of something but it's nothing so grand or extreme as what Holmes has been saying about him.

The-Seven-Per-Cent Solution, for my money, is one of the best examples of a work that plays around with an icon successfully.  It gives us a different Holmes but it's a Holmes created entirely and believably from the fabric of the original Holmes.  I should add that by the time Holmes is both cured of his cocaine addiction and made to understand the roots of his obsession with Moriarty, he gets back on a case and solves it in typical Holmes fashion.  His mind remains razor-sharp, his energy and athleticism are undiminished.  All bases get covered here.

Philip Marlowe

Again, there've been a bunch of different Marlowes depicted on screen, and I don't want to go into every one.  I like Robert Mitchum in Farewell, My Lovely (1975) best, with Bogey in The Big Sleep (1946) second. But wait a minute.  There's also the Marlowe in the film that's my favorite of all the Raymond Chandler adaptations - Elliot Gould's version of the character in The Long Goodbye (1973).  This is the Marlowe to watch for yet more icon monkeying, and it's actually the movie that came to my mind as I started hearing the reactions to Batman v Superman.  I know way more people than not who love The Long Goodbye and consider it among Robert Altman's very best films, but I have met quite a few people who can't stand it.  They feel that what Altman did to Marlowe in the movie, treating him without due respect, and like an antiquated oaf, Rip van Marlowe, wandering around a Los Angeles he doesn't understand, is akin to insulting Chandler.  Altman himself aimed to create a Marlowe who's a "loser".  Worst of all, at the end of the movie, Marlowe simply shoots a man he can't bring to justice otherwise, and then he walks away looking carefree - something that would never happen in the books.  

The critics at the time weren't friendly.  A lot of the initial reaction was withering. Jay Cocks' Time review is typical.  He lays into the movie by saying, "Altman's lazy, haphazard put down is without affection or understanding, a nose-thumb not only at the idea of Philip Marlowe but at the genre that his tough-guy-soft-heart character epitomized. It is a curious spectacle to see Altman mocking a level of achievement to which, at his best, he could only aspire".   

Does any of this language sound familiar?  

With The Long Goodbye, critics eventually came around (though the film flopped at the box office), and the film settled into its place as a 70's classic. It took awhile for it to get that appreciation, though.  When you play with a character people love, people get upset.  We saw it then, we're seeing it now.  And no, I don't think  it's likely, down the road, that Batman v Superman will take on the stature of The Long Goodbye.  But it is interesting to observe old battles fought anew, people debating whether this hero or that one should have been placed in the hands of so and so - "who fucked it all up".


Dana King said...

Wow. Lots of good stuff here, and not just because I agree with it. I loved THE SEVEN PERCENT SOLUTION and hate Altman's THE LONG GOOD-BYE for the reasons you describes, and I believe they dovetail well.

Not to rehash what you said about Holmes—all of which is dead on—but what makes Meyer’s version work is that where he puts Holmes is a not illogical conclusion of a path Conan Doyle already charted. It’s not hard to believe Holmes loses control of his cocaine habit. A man who lives so much in his own thoughts may well find himself slipping over the edge without realizing it. As you said, no one but Holmes ever sees Moriarty. The core tenets of both Holmes an Watson are utilized by Meyer: they’re the same people.

That’s my issue with Altman’s TLG. (Personal aside: I am, in general a big fan of Altman’s work.) I’ve read a lot of stuff about that film and understand what he set out to do; I don’t disagree with much of it. He had a great movie in mind. He could even have lifted the plot pretty much wholesale from the novel and made it work. There’s only one problem: that ain’t Marlowe. The character is fundamentally different. It’s not the same person.

To me, if you want to take liberties, change the character’s name. Make the new story about how someone else would deal with the same situation. Change whatever, but any later adapters must remain true to the character they appropriate. They owe him—or her—that much.

scott adlerberg said...

THE LONG GOODBYE is indeed fascinating in part because both its admirers and detractors have valid points. Either you don't mind or actually enjoy what Altman did with Marlowe or you don't, and that's pretty much it. I agree he's certainly not Marlowe as Chandler envisioned him. Altman did produce THE LATE SHOW a couple years later where the Art Carney character, Ira Wells, is what you're talking about. The old gumshoe a bit out of touch with the contemporary world, but he's an original creation.