Posts Tagged Movies
This is not meant to be a review of the movie “Dunkirk.” I just want to use it to make a few observations about stories and writing.
I saw “Dunkirk” last Thursday, and it deserves all the good things that are being said about it. (It was loud, though. For some reason either the theater turned up the volume on the sound, or maybe the sound was recorded that way, perhaps, as my companion said, to emphasize the nature of the warfare the movie displayed.) The movie is about the evacuation of British, French, Dutch and Belgian troops from the French port of Dunkirk in 1940 as they were surrounded by German troops. For some unknown reason, the Germans halted their advance on the Allied troops, encircling them on the beach, giving them a couple of days to evacuate. But the British navy didn’t have enough ships to do the job, so hundreds, if not thousands of smaller civilian craft, from small sail boats to pleasure craft, came from England to help. They eventually evacuated over 330,000 men, allowing the British to continue to fight later. (Keep in mind England and France declared war on Germany in September, 1939, after the Nazis invaded Poland.)
Dunkirk was a disaster of, if I may use a well-worn cliché*, epic proportions, and would have been much worse if the Nazis hadn’t stopped their advance and destroyed or captured them. The consequences could have been tragic. England would have had difficulty raising another army over the next several years, and the eventual invasion of France in 1944 probably would have been much different. Field Marshall Montgomery’s forces in Egypt in 1942 might have been much smaller, and his victory against Rommel could have turned out much differently. They have some unknown order to German forces to stop their advance to thank.
But most of this was never presented in the movie. Not even hinted at, except for the eventual count of troops evacuated. The movie took a far different route to tell the story. The story was told from the point of view of individuals, not armies or even divisions or regiments or battalions. Individuals just doing their job to either make the evacuation happen, or try their best to get off the beach. No large-scale events were described, or even hinted at. Just individuals. The story made personal. This was the story brought down to its basest level: the soldier or sailor himself, one at a time, running, swimming, dodging bullets, finding safety, or not. Nazi troops were not shown at all. Only their bullets. (Except for one brief shot where a Spitfire pilot who landed his plane on the beach when he ran out of fuel (“petrol”) was captured by German soldiers, and then shown only out of focus so their faces were not visible.)
I liked the way the story was told. I did have a little difficulty with the fact that the entire movie was told this way, because it didn’t put the affair in perspective. All events and all people have a greater impact on life than just their individual lives. Every human has two parents and four grandparents, and so forth. Every human exists in a larger situation. Even a man who retreats to a cave on a mountain top as a hermit has a larger life than that. Where did he come from? What drove him to that cave? How did he grow up? Did he go to school? And so forth. Other than the fact that the final total of troops rescued was given, little was said of the broader picture. That certainly wasn’t necessary to enjoy the movie, but it would have been nice to know. To complete the picture, so to speak.
I look for a broader picture when reading novels and non-fiction. Put things in context. But tell the story from the individual point of view. It’s far more satisfactory.
(*Of course, “well-worn cliché” is itself a well-worn cliché.)
A few days ago I watched the second half of a movie from 1974, called “The White Dawn,” about three whalers, two Caucasian and one African American (played by Warren Oates, Timothy Bottoms, and Louis Gossett, Jr.) who get trapped in the Arctic, and have to rely on the local Eskimos to survive. The movie takes place in the late 19th century, and the natives rescue them from a hunk of ice in the Arctic Ocean. They take them into their extended family and feed them, and generally keep them alive until, ostensibly, they can get back to the civilization they are more familiar with. I found it interesting to watch the use of Eskimo culture in the movie: life, fishing, killing seals, building igloos, etc. The terrain was fascinating too, especially the way the ice, snow, rock, and water came together to produce a real otherworldly—and in a color movie an almost black-and-white—landscape. From the list of names that scrolled across the screen at the end of the movie, it appears that real Eskimo people were used as actors in the movie, not Caucasians made up to look like them (as so often happens in American western and Indian movies). The outsiders bring to the Eskimo culture some of their own culture such as booze, sex, and a sort of “me-first” attitude that the Eskimos don’t have. Eskimos live in a severe environment and depend on one another for survival. A “lone wolf” or “loose cannon” type of person could jeopardize the entire extended family. Eventually the outsiders make some home brew and get some of the Eskimos inebriated. One young woman gets so warm from drinking the concoction that she strips to the waist and goes outside the igloo, but collapses in the snow and eventually freezes to death. The outsiders are subsequently either run off or killed, and the movie ends.
But as I watched the movie, I began to take it in as a writer would, and I realized there are things in this movie I can use in my next novel. I have in the back of my mind an idea for a science-fiction novel, and I’ve begun to make notes about plot, characters, terrain on a far distant planet, the natives, and so on. But within that movie, details of Eskimo culture could be adapted to my fictional characters. I would never transfer Eskimo culture directly to a made-up culture, of course, but broad concepts such as dance, sex, life in general, hunting, terrain, housing, and so forth, could form the basis for the fictional culture’s life. And I certainly don’t mean to pick on Eskimo culture alone here either; far from it. There are many different cultures around this blue and brown and green and white globe we live on that ideas about culture can be gleaned from many, many different areas. It’s just that I happened to be watching an Eskimo movie at the time.
Some non-writers ask authors, “Where do you get your ideas?” That’s especially true of sci-fi writers. Well, here’s one answer: the movies. (I’ve heard that some people get their ideas at Sears, but I never have.) Ideas are a dime a dozen. They’re all around us. Some good ideas come from the movies, some appear in the newspaper, some from politics or science, or whatever—you name it. This one movie I watched just goes to show you (pun intended) that ideas can come anytime, anywhere. Just keep your mind open.
A few days ago I watched the movie “The Caine Mutiny,” for about the fourth or fifth time. A great movie, and a solid member of my Favorite Movies list. (You can see the list on this blog site.) But as I watched the movie, a couple of strange and odd things gnawed at me. I can remember thinking about this during some of those times I watched the movie before, so I decided to explore these questions in a little detail.
As a movie (released in 1954), it’s one of the all-time greats of World War II naval movies. It was based on the Pulitzer Prize-(1952)-winning novel of the same name by Herman Wouk. The Executive Officer of the USS Caine (played by Van Johnson) is moved to relieve his captain, Lt. Commander Philip Francis Queeg, played by Humphrey Bogart, during a storm at sea. The executive officer is court-martialed (of course), but is acquitted. Much of the evidence against Cmdr. Queeq is based on the idea that Queeg is “mentally unstable,” to use the words of his most senior crew. And throughout the first several months that the Caine is commanded by Queeg, they document in detail several incidents they feel establish Queeg’s mental illness. They say these incidents show he’s “paranoid,” even they don’t really know the meaning of the term. During the court-martial, testimony reveals that three Navy psychiatrists have examined Queeg and declare him to be free of mental illness, and the conspirators get called on their “armchair psychiatry”. How could they make such a diagnosis? They’re not medical doctors. But my viewing of the movie has consistently led me to wonder if Queeg isn’t really just scared. That’s what it looked like it during the storm, when Van Johnson took over command of the ship. The terror in Bogart’s eyes, and the fact that Johnson had to pry the captain’s arm from around some object on the bridge of the ship, perhaps the compass housing, as well as the fact that Queeg issues all sorts of unrealistic orders, orders that could conceivably sink the ship in the storm—all these point more to cowardice than paranoia. At least, that’s the way Bogart played the character, and Bogart is a fine actor. I don’t know if it was Bogart’s decision to play Queeg that way, or the director’s, Edward Dmytryk. This is where the first difficulty comes in.
During the trial, the defense attorney, played by Jose Ferrer, states quite explicitly that a Captain in the US Navy could never be guilty of cowardice on duty, because he has to rise through the ranks to command his own ship, and anyone who ever exhibited any evidence of fear or timidity would be cut long before he reached command rank. Yet that’s the way the captain was played, and it brought a question to my mind just exactly what the movie was trying to say.
The second difficulty I had with the movie was that the “real” reason the Executive Officer took over command of the ship had to do more with the manner in which the captain was handling it, not his paranoia. All of that didn’t seem to matter at the time, though. The ship was in imminent danger of capsizing, and only Van Johnson’s orders kept the ship upright and brought it safely into port, especially after it had sustained major damage. I got the strong feeling from the movie that this was the “real” reason for the mutiny, not the Captain’s mental illness, but it never came up in the trial. That seems rather odd.
I went to see the movie “The Martian” about a week ago and was impressed. I thought it well done, well-acted within limits, and all around a good show. I’m not ready to add it to my list of favorite movies (which you can access on this blogsite), but I liked it. Some reviewers have said they felt Matt Damon was miscast as the astronaut Mark Watney stranded on Mars when all his buddies leave the surface because of a tremendous wind and sand storm that threatens to blow over their ascent vehicle, but I disagree. I felt he did a good job. To continue the plot line, his comrades have to make a decision whether to go or not. If they don’t , the vehicle could be tipped over and everyone will be stranded. So the thrust of the story is to get the one stranded astronaut off the surface alive, and get him back to Earth. An interesting concept.
I’m putting aside here the one glaring mistake in the movie (and in the book) that a wind/sand storm on Mars could blow over a spaceship. In reality, it wouldn’t have enough force to do that because the atmosphere is so thin that even at one hundred miles an hour, there’s too little air to move. If you suspend belief in that one fact, the movie becomes logical and reasonable, and I highly recommend it. What I want to focus on for the sake of this post is the relationship between the book and the movie.
During the movie, I found myself thinking about the detail in the book that wasn’t in the movie. Movies are great, as I’ve stated before, for doing special effects. And “The Martian” was no different. I was impressed by the spaceships, the habitat on the Martian surface, the Martian landscape, and so forth. But the book is so much more detailed than the movie. Many things that were just glossed over in the movie were treated in considerable detail in the book. The author, Andy Weir, goes into a lot of detail in many places. Especially, I remember, about how Watney was going to travel from the habitat where he’d been living, to an ascent vehicle that would get him off the surface. He had to travel several hundred kilometers and Weir went into considerable detail about the trip, working out the details, how much energy it would take, loading the rover vehicle that would take him there, and so forth. In the movie, Watney simply did it, and left much to the viewers to figure out for themselves. It works, and you can handle the situation that way, but the book is better.
Additionally, Watney in the book expresses himself more. Rarely does Watney in the movie lose his cool, yet he did several times in the book. This, I feel, is the one real drawback to the movie. Watney is almost too cool.
All this reveals the real drawbacks about translating a book onto the screen. Detail can be lost, and this kept bothering me. Perhaps it’s my scientific training, but I would have liked to hear more about what Watney was going to do as the movie went along. I realize, of course, that that would make the movie horribly long, and the producers had to cut something. As it was, the movie was 141 minutes anyway. That’s 2 hours and 21 minutes, long for a movie. Any more detail would certainly have been boring and interminable, and the producers did the best they could. If you want detail, read the book. This is another reason why I feel that if any of my sci-fi books ever get published I will not let a movie be made from them (assuming someone wants to in the first place). Books are more detailed, and in that detail lies the essentials of the plot. Read the book. Make up your own mind. Savor the detail. That’s what a book is for.
The post I put up last week—just below this one—had to do with not describing everything in a piece of writing. I generally write fiction (novels and short stories) but that admonition applies to non-fiction as well. Keep description short, I said, just enough to allow the story line to flow from the page into the reader’s mind. Let the reader imagine everything else in his/her mind’s eye. Let the reader fill in the details. Keep it simple, stupid. (That’s the KISS philosophy.) In short, never tell the reader what to think. Now I want to take that concept in a slightly different direction.
It’s that word “details” that’s important in writing. Details get filled in by the reader. This has the effect of allowing the reader to stay focused on the action. I know I like to follow the action of a novel I’m reading if the writer hasn’t peppered it with too many details. I like to visualize it on my own. The more details I fill in by myself, the more I enjoy the book I’m reading. I have a difficult time with manuscripts that try to cram in too much detail in the narrative. I can get confused, wondering if the details of the action are those of the author or my own. I don’t want to be told everything, I want to imagine it.
That’s where, as the title of this post demonstrates, movies come in. Movies are great at showing action, but they show everything. Car chases, airplane dogfights, love scenes, you name it and its all there, put on the screen for the audience to see. Movies are a descendent of the stage play, of course. Plays existed for thousands of years before Edison invented the motion picture camera. Playing things out on the screen in all their glory is a time-honored way to provide an exciting and entertaining time for all of us. And motion pictures can do things that would be impossible in a stage play. Can you imagine the chariot race in Ben-Hur on the stage?
But isn’t that the problem with transferring novels to the screen? The novel is, if done correctly, a medium of minimalism. Minimal description that allows the reader the chance of experiencing the action in his mind. Taking a novel to the screen removes that chance. The movie does it all for you. It shows you everything—what the characters look like, what they’re wearing, their mannerisms—in short, everything. These are two different ways of doing the same thing.
I like movies that didn’t come from a book. Star Wars and Star Trek, for example. (Books have been written using the Star Wars and Star Trek characters, but they came after the movie.) When you watch a movie, everything is done for you. The plot may have twists and turns you couldn’t see coming, but the details are spelled out. A novel gives you more chance to immerse yourself into the action. You have to do more. You don’t have the advantage of someone else showing you. And that is why I have decided, provisionally, at least, not to allow my books (if they ever get published) to be optioned or purchased for the screen. Either the big or small screen. I want the reader to imagine what is going on. Not see it as imagined by some movie company. Never tell the reader what to think. And that’s just what a movie does.