Tag Archives: movies

Living in the Land of the Lost

I see that 22 Jump Street is doing reasonably well, and getting moderately positive reviews. It’s the sequel to 21 Jump Street, which was, in turn, “based on” the late-80s television series. That series is most notable as being the first real success for the FOX network (preceeding The Simpsons by two years), and for introducing the world to Johnny Depp, who would, of course, go on to bigger and better things. I’d like to say that the minute I saw him, I said, “This kid is going to become one of the great actors of our time.” Yes, I’d like to have said that, but I didn’t. Oh well.

I wasn’t especially a fan of the series, it being yet another triumph of style over substance that typified 80s action shows. But that’s not the reason I have no interest in seeing either movie. As I said, they’re “based on” the series, but in the same way that some horror movies are marketed as “based on a true story,” meaning, “Yeah, there was a family, and, yeah, they did move into an old farmhouse in Connecticut. Beyond that… we may have taken a few liberties.”

These movies are just part of a recent trend of taking an existing TV property and turning it into a broad comedy spoof. This bothers me. Now, it’s not exactly a new phenomenon to make a movie based on a TV series, although before that it was more common to go the other way, and make a series based on the movie. But in those cases it was capitalizing on a popular property, and often made use of existing sets, writers, and sometimes even cast members. There are many examples, but usually they are a poor shadow of the source (anybody remember Delta House?). Indeed, only four series stand as not only matching, but indeed surpassing, the movie in terms of quality: The Odd Couple, M*A*S*H, The Paper Chase and Alien Nation.

But now it goes the other way, further proving just how much the film industry is devoid of ideas. They used to make movies based on Broadway shows, with varying levels of success, whereas now they make Broadway musicals based on old (non-musical) movies: Little Shop of Horrors, The Producers, Hairspray. Then, even more bizarrely, the shows get made into new movies, thus giving us, in effect, a movie based on a movie. No wonder the film industry has decimated the publishing industry. When they reach the point that they make movies out of comic books, and then claim these are serious films instead of the popcorn b-movies they actually are, just dressed up with cookie-cutter CGI, there’s little hope left.

So it’s no surprise that the movies are mining old TV shows for ideas. We can see this at least as far back as the Star Trek franchise. But those movies were a direct continuation of the original series. More often we see what amounts to a “reboot.” The problem there is that, once the property is in the hands of a different set of people who had no connection to the original, they all-too-often reveal a total lack of understanding of what made the series what it was.

We can illustrate it with Star Trek itself, which has been given two movies of a reboot that is pretty far removed from the series (although I give them credit for a clever way of discarding continuity while maintaining it at the same time). The actors are generally well cast, but the writers clearly have no idea what made the original characters tick. Chris Pine’s Kirk always seems to be heroic by accident and is at no time the deliberate man of action portrayed by William Shatner, and Zachary Quinto’s Spock isn’t a man wrestling to control his human side through logic so much as just a guy with Asperger’s Syndrome (and don’t get me started on his affair with Uhura!). Karl Urban’s McCoy is spot-on, but we have yet to see him have the sort of heartfelt philosophical conversation that revealed his real role in the series: the embodiment of Kirk’s conscience. To the filmmakers, I pose Guy “Crewman #6” Fleegman’s great question from Galaxy Quest: Didn’t you guys ever watch the show?

The problem with reboots is even more clear with Tom Cruise’s Mission Impossible movies, which are so oblivious to the whole nature of what made the series great that they begin by completely undermining the entire premise, and then eschewed most of the series’ key characteristics, except in the most shallow ways (“Wasn’t there a part where a guy would peel off a mask? Let’s make sure we have that.”) I was initially impressed by the first movie, until they pulled out the rug. I have to say that I would have rather seen a whole movie with Kristin Scott Thomas and Emilio Estevez, the only ones who seemed to understand how Mission: Impossible worked.

That’s the thing. I loved the show, because it demanded that viewers pay attention and think, and I was hoping for a serious treatment by people who got it. It makes me very sad when that doesn’t happen. But it’s far, far more painful when an old property is used as a basis for broad, farcical comedy. I’ll give a pass to the Brady Bunch movies. The original was itself a comedy that even those involved considered inane, and playing up the anachronistic qualities was inspired. But it’s a different thing when something intended to be serious is run through the fart-joke machine. I will grant that, in retrospect, we can look back at these shows and say, “I can’t believe this was considered good.” But they were. They were limited by the conventions of the day. Starsky and Hutch was an over the top action show, but it was played straight, not as a vehicle for Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson to play further iterations of the exact same characters they play in every movie. The Green Hornet may have been campy, but its venerable premise was a good one that went back to the days of radio drama: a wealthy man who masquerades as an underworld kingpin to bring down real criminals. It deserved a serious treatment using all the resources available today. Its fans would have loved to see that, rather than Seth Rogan playing yet another clueless idiot.

Which brings me to the most egregious example of all: Land of the Lost. For those unaware, this was an early 70s Saturday kids’ show produced by Sid and Marty Kroft, already famous for their incredibly surrealistic, puppet-driven shows about kids trapped in a bizarre world best appreciated under the influence of hallucinogenics (seriously, that’s the only way H.R. Pufnstuf or Lidsville make any sense at all). But Land of the Lost was different, an attempt to do serious science fiction, an ambitious goal on a 70s kids’ show budget.

People may not realize that the show was actually conceived and developed, not by the Krofts, but rather by Star Trek writer David Gerrold. He laid out an astonishingly sophisticated, mind-bending premise of a pocket universe with its own laws of physics, then invited his friends to come and play. By which I mean established, serious science fiction writers like Larry Niven, Norman Spinrad, Samuel Peeples, Theodore Sturgeon and the inestimable D.C. Fontana, who contributed the powerful “Elsewhen,” essentially inverting the premise of her animated Star Trek story “Yesteryear.” The result was one of the most intelligent, sophisticated “children’s shows” in the history of American television, equaled only by the contemporaneous animated Star Trek, which similarly refused to dumb things down, believing children were sophisticated enough to handle serious ideas.

Yeah, the special effects were famously cheesy, and the acting uneven, but the heart was there. The rules were consistent, so that the idea of riding a river that went in a circle, or standing on a mountaintop and seeing yourself in the distance, would be profound and believable. We were fascinated by the mysterious pylons that dotted the landscape; bigger on the inside than the outside (sound familiar?), they controlled every part of the Land, including weather, earthquakes, and possibly even time itself. The backstory was rich and ripe for discovery, giving us a lost civilization and the bestial Sleestak, who were their descendants, rather than ancestors. The writers even invented an actual language for the missing-link Pakuni.

The characterizations were also strong and complex. Here we had a quiet, dependable father doing his best to take care of his kids while repressing his own profound loneliness, and a teen hero who screwed up as often as not, but whose heart was in the right place. And then there was Holly. A feisty, resourceful young girl decades before that was in fashion, she was treated as an equal by her father and brother and was the first crush for a whole generation of boys. I suspect my own fondness for strong girls started with Holly, and I guarantee she would have no patience with Katniss Everdeen’s angry bullshit.

After the first year, the original writing team left. They weren’t even sure the series would continue, ending the season with “Circle,” a mind-blowing finale that had the Marshall family escape the Land by stranding themselves in it (you have to see it, and even then you’ll still be confused). The show was renewed, and a new writing staff took over, but quickly proved that they completely understood the concepts, building on the Land’s strange mysteries (leaving some of them exhilaratingly unanswered), and producing some of the best episodes of the series, notably “The Zarn,” “The Pylon Express,” “The Longest Day,” and “The Musician.”

The third season was another matter. Yet another writing team came in, and relied on dumb formula, where some improbable fantasy character would inexplicably arrive, interact with the main characters, and then leave. They saddled the show with truly ludicrous things like a two-headed swamp monster and a fire-breathing dinosaur, and had the characters meet the Abominable Snowman, the Flying Dutchman and Medusa. Sheesh. Only “Timestop” was even close to what the show had been, not surprising as it was a holdover from the previous year.

A remake/continuation appeared in the 1980s, but it was rather goofy, although it still tried to stay true to the sophisticated concepts. This cannot be said of the Will Ferrell movie that came out a few years back, and tanked. It was clear that, despite Ferrell’s proclaimed fondness for the series, all he really seemed to know about was the dinosaurs and the generally embarrassing production values. No doubt he would sit around with his friends laughing about how ridiculous it was. My heart sank when I learned he was behind the movie. Because I wanted what those of us old enough to actually have watched the show wanted: a serious treatment that would finally do justice to the show’s brilliant ideas. I wanted realistically rendered dinosaurs. I wanted the Sleestak to be truly scary, rather than just basketball players shuffling around in rubber suits. I wanted the bizarre, unreal landscape of the Land to be brought to vivid life (distant mountains that are close up, and so forth). I wanted a rich, provocative story.

But that didn’t happen. Nor will it at any point in the foreseeable future. Not so long as the film industry is devoid of creative people capable of deep, complex ideas, making Hollywood the real Land of the Lost. As long as they continue to mine anything they can for an easy buck, the downward spiral that has allowed us to see nearly a dozen “Marvel Movies” that are all basically the same thin “plot” over and over, and has taken interesting old concepts and literally taken a dump on them, and their fans, we won’t see improvement. I’ve been accused of insulting young fans of today’s lame entertainments, but what about the insult to us older fans of the original source material?

What about you?  What old series would you like to see given a serious, respectful treatment?  Or do you like the comedy spoof approach? Do I need to get out of the way and stop complaining? Tell me if I’m wrong about all this.  Wouldn’t be the first time, won’t be the last.  Please, join the discussion.


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Diet for the Mind

When your child has an unhealthful, junk-food diet, you can either follow the encouragements of the mega-food industry (whose sole motivation is to get your money), and continue to feed him crap, since it’s what he craves and has become accustomed to, and after all, at least he’s eating something…

Or you can follow the advice of health professionals and put your foot down and say, “Enough! Crap is crap, and you don’t treat poor health by continuing to provide that which ruined it.” You fight (and it will be a fight) to restore healthful eating habits in your child, and perhaps to help other parents do the same by reducing the prevalence of junk food. A good way to do that last part is by refusing to buy what the purveyors are selling.

Sensible advice, right? The same holds true of the books we read and movies we watch. Perhaps your children crave the lurid, sensationalistic violence that pollutes media today, but that doesn’t make it less unhealthy. People defend this literary junk food by saying, “At least the kids are reading,” but that’s not good enough when it comes to food, so it shouldn’t be good enough when it comes to literature.  And how much is the desire for junk-reading due to it being the kids steady diet? The book-to-film industry insists they are simply providing what the people want, washing their hands like Pontius Pilate, but are they providing what kids want, or have the kids been conditioned to want it, for lack of any alternative that doesn’t seem as undesirable as brussels sprouts? Funny thing is, brussels sprouts are only unpalatable because they are so often poorly prepared. But there are some great recipes out there.

And there are great books; we just have to get kids used to the idea that conflict in a story doesn’t require physical violence, and the “stakes” don’t have to be death. Anyone who has had to eliminate salt or sugar or fat from their diets (I had to do one, and chose to do another) will tell you that at first it’s awful, that everything is bland and flavorless and makes you want that Bag O’ Calories all the much more. But gradually you adapt, and discover the amazing array of flavors that had been buried under all that sodium (I discovered the joy of black pepper when I reduced my salt intake). Subtle, delicate flavors that are far more rewarding. This is true of literature as well. When all you read is maiming and killing, anything else is boring, but eventually you can discover the much more profound strivings of the human heart and the human spirit, important things that were lost in the constant bloodbath.

I’m not all-or-nothing. There’s a place for tasty snax. But it’s a small place. I’ve always maintained that the key to healthy diet lies in two words: balance and moderation. Eat a variety of foods, and don’t eat too much of anything. Don’t deprive yourself of ice cream, but just have a small scoop, rather than the whole pint of Cherry Garcia in one sitting. It lasts longer, and you enjoy it more. Focus on quality: a six-ounce filet mignon is far more enjoyable than a two-pound porterhouse, and you are left feeling better afterwards.

But the interesting thing is, as far as the real junk food, the true crap, you find that, once you have reduced or even eliminated it from your diet, you not only don’t want it any more, you can’t even enjoy it. Once I got off salt, I became quite sensitive to its presence, and now I can barely stand salty foods. And this is as nothing compared to the experience of vegetarians who, having eliminated meat from their diets, find that if they do have meat, it makes them very sick.

I’m not advocating vegetarianism, although it’s a valid choice for people who know what they are doing. But I do think we should reduce or remove from our diets those things that make us sick once we’ve had a chance to step back from them.

And I think this can be true of media-literature as well. I hadn’t read much nor gone to many movies when I began my writer’s journey a few years ago. I’d been a voracious reader in years past, and once went to all the big movies. But I stopped, for reasons I’m unsure of. As a result, upon exposure to the media diet children subsist on today, I was literally sick, and, as you can tell, have perhaps not yet recovered. Had I been immersed as my fellow writers have been, the ones who responded to my horror with, “What’s your problem? I love that book!” I likely would have shared their enjoyment of these things. Yet a meager few actually listened and, taking a step back, looked at this stuff with clearer eyes and said, “Oh my God, this is awful!”

As I said before, some of my favorite movies were quite violent for their time, and I was concerned I was being a hypocrite. But that’s the key: for their time. Recent studies have shown that the ratings have changed. Movies that just ten years ago would have been solid R-rated for violence are now barely even getting PG-13. Dirty Harry, one of my favorite movies, was quite controversial for its extreme violence, and the glorification of it. But it would probably get a PG today. The level of violence in entertainment has increased, and continues to do so. When we feed our cravings, they are not satisfied. Drinking a sugary soda makes you want more sugar. Hyper-violent books and movies make you want more carnage. This has been confirmed in studies.

The junk-food industry isn’t going to stop producing Cheezy-Poofs, and the literature/film industry isn’t going to stop making carnage-filled movies, with higher and higher stakes, including younger and younger victims, and killers. So we have to be the ones to say enough. We must refuse to let them tell us what we want to read and to see. That’s the reason literary agents lie. They say they want something new and different, but they continue to go with vampires and zombies and dystopia and death. Something new and different is a risk, and there’s big money at stake. So they keep giving us more of the same, thinking it’s what we want, when in fact they are part of the conditioning to make us want it.

But if we stop, if we say, “I don’t want that, not matter how tasty you make it look,” then eventually they’ll have to do something else. As I said, there are good books. And there are good movies. Not just saccharine fare either, but rich, provocative stories that get awards, but rarely pack theaters or fly off bookshelves. Demand more of that, and less of the sick ugliness. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll all be healthier for it.

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The Movie of the Book

I’m frequently told by well-meaning fellow writers (and non-writers) that I shouldn’t be concerned about whether what I am writing is going to be a best-seller and make me the next J. K. Rowling, nor that it should be successful at all, nor even get published, especially in the age of self-publication.  I should write, they say, for myself, because I enjoy it, because I have stories to tell and all that sort of inspirational stuff that writers always tell themselves.

And I have no doubt some, perhaps many, writers really do feel that way: they write because it burns inside them and they have to get it out, and what happens after that is of less consequence. But the reality is, as in all things, it’s not really that simple.

The majority of writers have in mind the model of all the successful writers we follow.  We celebrate each others’ publications and sales milestones and eagerly peruse the bestseller lists.  We may write for ourselves a bit, but really we write because we want to be read.  And because we want to be able to think of ourselves as writers, rather than as teachers/lawyers/accountants/computer technicians/sales managers/lab workers/etc. who also happen to write in our spare time.  To quit your day job and be “A Writer,” you have to write a bestseller.  And yes, that’s kind of what I want.

Then what?  What about the writer of a bestseller that goes on to be made into a successful movie.  Some would say that’s sort of selling out, but most would consider it that much sweeter.  Most of us write with mental images of what we are writing, and, to some degree, have in mind what the movie might look like.  Who should play this part, how should that scene be staged, and so on.

I certainly have had those thoughts, but I also believe that what I am writing, even if it is published and becomes successful, is probably unfilmable.  Not because my vision is beyond the scope of film, but rather because of certain elements of story and character about which I would not want to compromise.  And I would be expected to do so.

Established, successful authors have some influence.  Perhaps they get first crack at writing the screenplay, or maybe some input towards casting, music and so forth.  But mostly, once the book becomes a movie, it’s out of the author’s hands.  I understand that, and I understand why that is.

The fact is, many of the things that make a novel great do not translate effectively to film.  Many of us have had the horrifying experience of seeing the movie based on a beloved book and bemoaning how “they ruined it!”  But to translate a book to film, changes must be made and compromises are inevitable.  Consider the films based on The Lord of the Rings, which endured significant changes.  Some were due to the tastes of the filmmakers: Peter Jackson favors elaborate battle sequences and action and spectacle and so emphasized those elements even when they were only alluded to in the text.  And it was often at the expense of the moments of tone and character that make the books so beloved. 

In some cases the changes arguably damaged the story.  There was great controversy about the complete removal of the “Scouring of the Shire” sequence near the end, a part of the story very important to J.R.R. Tolkien, that made a strong point about the aftermath of war and how it is worst when it comes close to home.  Jackson admittedly didn’t like that part and so left it out, at great loss to the story.  And yet, he may well have been right to do so.

Modern day audiences have little patience for a story that goes on for a long period after the Big Climax where the main villain is defeated.  They got to the place the story was going and are ready to move on.  To test this, next time you attend an action movie, right after the villain is blown away, start watching the audience; you will see them reaching for their jackets and packing up their popcorn empties and all that.  Because for them, the movie is basically over, so let’s get ready to go.  As it was, the third Lord of the Rings movie confounded its audiences by continuing on for nearly half an hour after the Big Climax, and that was with a lot of the subsequent story removed.

Another, even more justifiable change made by Jackson was the complete removal of the three early chapters dealing with Tom Bombadil.  Indeed, virtually every dramatic adaptation ever produced leaves out Bombadil, despite those parts being among the most magical, engaging passages.  Why?  Because it’s a total three-chapter digression that has nothing whatsoever to do with the rest of the story.  Had Tolkien been writing today, he would surely have been told by editors to lose that part, and also the “Scouring of the Shire,” probably.  Yet they make the book work.  But not the movie.

I have no illusions that, if my book were made into a movie, I would be faced with changes and compromise.  I’d be willing to listen in most cases, and actually have only a few areas where I would not give in.  My main action hero being a girl of apparent Polynesian extraction is one.  My youngest character having red hair is another, along with one of her most defining chacteristics: her preferred mode of (un)dress.  And that alone would be a huge impediment to film.  So I have no expectation that I’m writing the next summer blockbuster.  Just as well, because I have to finish writing it before it can be anything.

But there is one way it could be done, a way that might well address some of the stickier character elements.  I have come to realize that I see considerable appeal in the possibility that my book could be made into a movie… in animated form.  I’m a big fan of animation and would wholeheartedly embrace such a prospect.  Provided that the state of American animation could get past the assumption that animation is strictly for children.  Yeah, there’s the problem.

To be continued…


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