Empathy and Male Fantasy in American Beauty and The Virgin Suicides

American Beauty and The Virgin Suicides

The image of a young woman lying naked on a bed of red rose petals in Sam Mendes’ American Beauty has become one of the most iconic in 90s cinema. It’s the erotic daydream of a narcissistic, middle-aged man whose chance to escape banal suburban life is wrapped up in thoughts of sex with a teenage girl. If this idea wasn’t troubling enough in 1999, that he’s played with relish by Kevin Spacey only heightens its unease today.

Kevin Spacey and Mena Suvari in American Beauty

Daydreams can be a useful device for filmmakers, helping to expose the friction between who we are and how we want to appear. They are egocentric, allowing characters to live out their suppressed feelings without empathy. Unsurprisingly then, the erotic male daydream routinely objectifies women, repurposing the female image for an exclusively male fantasy. Used shrewdly this familiar motif can meaningfully lay bare the dissonance between male and female desire. But American Beauty is too busy saying something else about stagnated happiness and unfulfilled ambition.

Angela, the film’s teenage cheerleader is an aspiring model. Seeing this seductive image of herself reflected in the eyes of Spacey’s Lester, she happily resides in, and encourages, his fantasy. But when the chance to have sex with him materializes at the end of the film, the cracks and complications in her desire become clear. Nervously, she tells Lester she’s a virgin. His fantasy crashes into reality and we feel the depth of his inadequacy. 

Lester has never considered the perspective of a teenage girl.

Rather ironically, Mendes makes a similar lapse. After waiting so long to unmask the fragility (and passivity) of Angela’s own desires, Mendes turns them into a teachable moment for Lester before dismissing her almost entirely. 

In the same year that the male-centric American Beauty took home five Oscars, Sofia Coppola made the harmful consequences of male fantasy the foundation of her feature film debut. Based on the novel by Jeffrey Eugenides, her The Virgin Suicides reveals the shared experience of adolescent boys who watch, fantasize and lust after five Lisbon sisters living across the street. The tragic suicide pact of these teenage girls shakes the foundations of the community and leaves the boys – now grown men – with a grief they cannot subdue. 

They blame themselves.

And with good reason. The boys’ romantic obsession – a mixture of hotblooded adolescent infatuation and anxiety – prevents them from seeing the girls as they are. Using low contrast film stock and vintage lenses from the golden age of Hollywood, the film is infused with a heady glow and nostalgic grain. Daydream sequences are inspired by 70s Playboy fantasies, steeped in romantic cliche and reproduced with dreamy lighting, slow motion, and extreme close-ups. Floaty images of the girls dissolve into each other. It’s an intoxicating illusion. No wonder that, when the girls eventually reach out for help, the boys’ sexual urges override their empathy. “These girls make me crazy, if I could just feel one of them up, just once,” says Chase, before glimpsing Bonnie’s dead body, hanging from the ceiling.

Both The Virgin Suicides and American Beauty depict young women desperate to escape the confines of suburbia, while middle aged men pine for their lost youth. But, twenty years on, American Beauty offers little more than broad gender stereotypes, while The Virgin Suicides actively challenges them. The film’s opening sequence – which contrasts women chatting together with a father and son barbecuing – establishes the gender conventions that detach and distance the characters from each other; that make the retreat into fantasy inevitable. 

From behind the titles, Lux Lisbon – the object of the boys’ naive fantasies – appears in the clouds and winks. It’s as if she knows the film will demolish our fetishized perception of young women. And Coppola challenges the lack of empathy underpinning this from the very beginning: “Obviously doctor, you’ve never been a 13 year old girl,” says Cecilia to the dismissive middle aged man sent to help her following the first suicide attempt. Despite outward appearances, these suffocated young women are desperate to live – eager to explore their own desires and attractions – and Coppola liberates them from the novel’s male perspective. A cookie cutter shot-within-shot reveals a boy’s name inscribed on Lux’s underwear. And events, unseen by the narrators, play out with poignant authenticity. Unlike Lester and the boys, Coppola cannot help seeing the girls as they really are.  

The tragic disconnect between the men’s heavy-hearted, past-tense narration and the impulsive romanticism of their boyhood creates a peculiar space in which the Lisbon sisters will always be young and beautiful. But Coppola makes their craving more complicated than sex, reflecting a nostalgic yearning for the mysteries and possibilities of adolescence. As boys, the narrators endlessly fantasize about the Lisbon sisters; as men, they spend decades trying to understand them. Whether they can escape their egocentric fantasies remains uncertain, but this timeless film exists as their imperfect act of catharsis. 

American Beauty and The Virgin Suicides are now available on Blu-Ray and DVD.

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What to Read Next

The Film Version A-Z of Adaptations

What do digital technologies and global audiences mean for adaptation? And what devices can filmmakers use to translate literary stories into cinematic ones? This series explores the most pressing questions in adaptation today, from A-Z.

The Film Version Companion Pieces

Often storytellers make deliberate connections. Sometimes we make our own. We’re reminded of themes, messages and ideas explored elsewhere in other stories, in other art forms. Taken together these stories can communicate something bigger.

If you’re short on time, start with these quick reads. Through images and quotations, each post explores a different film adaptation and the devices used to transform its literary story for the screen.

Blockbusters: Transmedia Storytelling & Franchise Adaptations

Harry Potter battle

How did simple film adaptions balloon into vast multi-platform franchise adaptations? And how are studios and filmmakers using transmedia storytelling to build both vast fictional worlds and brands? Why do young adult novels make great franchise source material? And are mega franchises – like Marvel, Star Wars and Harry Potter – changing film criticism? In my A-Z of Adaptations, B is for Blockbusters.

“If you think adaptation can be understood by using novels and film alone, you’re wrong,” 

Linda Hutcheon, A Theory Of Adaptation 

In the last two decades, evolving digital media has changed the way we create, consume and interact with fiction. James Bond, Jason Bourne and Harry Potter are no longer simply book characters but brands. Audiences are global. Fans are thirsty for participation. And media conglomerates are designing elaborate strategies, across multiple platforms to fuel their fandom and cultivate new enthusiasts. The language around franchise adaptations is relatively new and erratic but it is clear that we have entered into a “convergence culture” in which books, films, television, video games and social media are intersecting to create superabundant universes whose narratives resolve only briefly and with little finality. Marvel, in particular, has a reputation for bringing its characters back from the dead. 

The concept of ‘transmedia’ has emerged from this din, not yet fully formed but capable of articulating the shift in adaptation away from relatively simple one-off translations (from book-to-screen, for example, or stage-to-screen) to more complex, multi-directional, multi-platform storytelling. Put simply, transmedia storytelling describes the process of telling one complete story through multiple platforms, each of which contributes new information. Henry Jenkins, the originator of the concept, explains in his book Convergence Culture: “a story might be introduced in a film, expanded through television, novels and comics; its world might be explored through game play or experienced as an amusement park attraction”.

Transmedia is also used to describe the simultaneous, multi-platform marketing productions that support major film releases today – campaigns that go beyond traditional licensing efforts to engage fans in a wide-reaching story world. In the video below, interactive designer Alvin Groen explains how his team created “an immersive, multi-channel narrative” to promote and grow audiences in advance of the first Hunger Games movie. The campaign on Facebook, Tumblr and Youtube, “allowed fans to become citizens of Panem and advance the campaign’s narrative through their own actions”. This is not adaptation in the time-honoured sense, where ‘original’ (book) and ‘adaptation’ (film) exist fairly independently of each other and their merchandising. Instead, adaptation has become multi-textual, the separate fictions coming together to form a complete narrative unit – a sort of atom in which the multi-platform backstories and sub-plots are electrons whirling around the film’s nucleus. 

Transmedia campaigns offer multiple points of access to the story world – multiple points of discovery – engaging and drawing in the widest possible audience. They provide opportunities for video gamers, readers and social media users to cross-pollinate, transfer and converge. “Everything about the structure of the modern entertainment industry was designed with this single idea in mind – the construction and enhancement of entertainment franchises,” writes Jenkins. Economics and entertainment are in constant tension.

1. CHASING THE BIG BUCKS

The opportunities of the digital age arrived at a period of intense commodification in the film industry. “Movie spectaculars have existed since the silent films and have always had a close relationship with literary works,” writes adaptation theorist Timothy Corrigan in his book Film and Literature, but it wasn’t until the mid 70s that both art forms became “enmeshed in the commercial shapes that determined their artistic possibilities”. Throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s, Corrigan argues that “the restructuring of the film industry through conglomerates and media giants has major consequences for film and literature,” the “cultural and aesthetic values” of these art forms becoming “overshadowed” by their financial worth. 

Jaws Beach Crowd Franchise Adaptation

It was during this time that the sequel (an adaptation by expansion or extension of the fictional world) became a Hollywood staple. Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (itself adapted from the novel by Peter Benchley) kicked off the summer blockbuster phenomenon in 1975, swiftly followed by Jaws 2 in 1978. And with the unexpected success of Star Wars: Episode IV in 1977, came a realisation that movie concepts could be adapted into mass-market merchandise (what theorists today call ‘tie-intertextuality’). Kenner bought the rights to Star Wars toys for $100,000 and children around the globe began adapting Star Wars through play. When Disney bought Lucasfilm in 2012, “they made it very clear… that they were spending $4 billion for two things — No. 1, the intellectual property rights to make more Star Wars movies, and No. 2, to increase the amount of merchandise,” said Steve Sansweet, Lucasfilm’s former director of specialty marketing. Franchise adaptations – a series of different stories within the same universe, evolving organically through expansions and extensions, sequels, prequels and spin-offs – were here to stay.

The twenty-first century has seen blockbusters bloat and swell into huge ‘tent-pole’ films, so called because their high earnings prop up the rest of their studio’s slate. In the 20 years between 1999 and 2018, big film budgets – those greater than $100 million – increased as a proportion of all US releases from 4% to 12%, while mid-budget films declined by a similar proportion. When tent-poles work the rewards are great, but these obscene financial investments also present huge risks and this creates an environment in which studios seek to “capitalise on clearly pre-established properties… or establish new ones in an endlessly renewable series,” says Kyle Meikle, author of Adaptations in the Franchise Era.

We need look no further back than 2019 for evidence of adaptation paying off. On its whopping $400 million production budget, Avengers: Endgame made $2.8 billion at the worldwide box office, while The Lion King made $1.6 billion on its $260 million investment. The remaining eight films in the 2019 worldwide box office top ten were all sequels, remakes or parts of wider film universes: Frozen II, Spider-Man: Far From Home, Captain Marvel, Joker, Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker, Toy Story 4, Aladdin and Jumanji: The Next Level. Only three of these franchises – The Lion King, Star Wars and Toy Story – began their life as original films. The rest are adaptations of fairy tales, comics and children’s books.

Lion King Simba Born

At its worst, the economic imperative leads to unmitigated content creation. The last five years of cinema has been defined by unnecessary shot-for-shot remakes. Since Kenneth Branagh’s box office hit Cinderella in 2015, Disney has been rampantly remaking its animated classics as live action films. And, in the wake of their acquisition of 21st Century Fox in 2019, came Disney’s decision to reboot Home Alone, Night At The Museum and Planet of the Apes. This trend for re-making is the least ambitious form of adaptation. It requires only changes in context and occasionally technique (from animation to live action, for instance, or vice versa). 

Elephantine franchises – like Star Wars, Marvel and Harry Potter  – on the other hand, involve intricately co-ordinated, multi-textual, multi-platform adaptations. Marvel even has its own self-titled ‘Marvel Cinematic Universe’ or MCU. Its slate is so abundant – connecting the independent story strands of its numerous superheroes (Iron Man, Captain America, Thor) in its wider Avengers universe – that it is organised in phases. Each phase offers a number of tent-pole films or ‘instalments’ – some telling different, relatively separate stories, others tied together more tightly in the telling of the same story – and each surrounded by their own bubble of transmedia campaigning.

If that wasn’t enough, film studios are now expanding their story worlds between tent-pole releases through further adaptation in other platforms. Marvel have developed storylines in tie-in comics and connected television series. Indeed, the very structure of modern media conglomerates who “hold interests across a range of what were once distinct media industries” operates as “an incentive to spread its brand or expand its franchises across as many different media platforms as possible,” writes Jenkins. Over time, the references and interconnections become labyrinthine, the franchises distended and amorphous. 

2. LOCKING DOWN INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY

Meikle uses Harry Potter to demonstrate the length and breadth of multi-textual adaptations in the franchise model. The first novel, Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone, was released in 1997 and adapted into film in 2001. It spawned a further six books and seven films. In 2016 the franchise was expanded in Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them. It was the first of a new five film series and “a somewhat surprising commitment, given that the source material was little more than a tie-in textbook sold (along with the equally slim invented history Quidditch Through The Ages) to benefit the UK charity Comic Relief,” writes Meikle.

In the same year, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child – a two part stage play about Potter’s son and now rumoured for film adaptation – opened in London. Meanwhile, the Harry Potter universe was expanding laterally with the 2012 release of the interactive online experience Pottermore. Interactivity has been a staple part of the franchise since the release of the first LEGO sets in 2001. The first LEGO Harry Potter video game arrived in 2010. And, since the opening of the London Studio Tour in 2012 fans have been able walk through the film’s sets. Today, Orlando theme park, Wizarding Worlds, also offers fans the chance to ride through the Harry Potter universe. For Meikle, the adaptation of Harry Potter suggests adaptation is no longer simply book-to-film but “a process of endless intertextual citation”.

Fantastic Beasts Eddie Redmayne Franchise Adaptation Transmedia Storytelling

But Harry Potter isn’t the first literary character to exist in an ever-expanding universe. Sherlock Holmes stepped from the page to the stage in 1899. He appeared in an early Mutoscope film in 1900 and a series of silent films in the 1920s. The concept was rebooted for film audiences in the early 1930s and again in 1939, with Holmes played by Basil Rathbone in a series of 14 films. Holmes arrived on television sets in 1965, again in the 1980s and 2010s, this time with the characters also interacting on social media. In the last eleven years, Holmes has been revived in the action genre (played by Robert Downey Jr), the comedy genre (Will Ferrell) and the grey pound drama (Ian McKellan). He was animated in Disney’s The Great Mouse Detective and again in Miyazaki’s Sherlock Hound. In 2007 Holmes became a playable character in a series of video games.

Sherlock Holmes is a part of our cultural consciousness but his various appearances are disparate, disconnected and often inconsistent. Like Potter, Holmes’ universe has multiple points of entry but the independent instalments are not bound by the rules of fidelity; new storytellers are free to ignore, overwrite or reshape what has come before. Franchising, by comparison, offers codification; consistency, conformity, stability. Through “twenty-first franchising,” says Meikle, studios are able to organise their intellectual properties into “official constellations, affiliated, incorporated, and copyrighted through the business of horizontal and vertical integration”. Brand-building through “legality,” writes Meikle, is “a major way that franchise adaptations gained meaning,” in the twenty-first century. 

Ian McKellan in Mr Holmes film adaptation

Only last year, the film adaptation of Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep (and sequel to The Shining) faced the intractable challenge of remaining faithful to both Stephen King’s novels and Stanley Kubrick’s very different take on the material in his 1980s classic film. It’s this kind of conflict that franchising aims to prevent. And, in order for franchise adaptations to be sustainable over an extended period of time, it is vital that their creators think carefully about how the various narrative elements, across all platforms and phases, cohere and connect.

Jenkins has argued that franchises are most coherent when heralded from start to finish by a single creator or group of creators (although this idea has been called into question by critics of Star Wars episodes I, II and III and the Fantastic Beasts series). But, when expanding their story worlds across unfamiliar platforms, even the most imaginative and talented creatives must embrace the experience of others. Writing in 2006, Jenkins highlighted the growing importance of co-creation – a shift away from simplistic licensing arrangements which typically produce work that is “redundant,” “watered down,” or “riddled with sloppy contradictions,” to a scenario in which “the companies collaborate from the beginning to create content they know plays well in each of their sectors”.

He points to The Matrix and the Wachowskis’ awareness of, “co-creation as a vehicle for expanding their potential global market, bringing in collaborators whose very presence evoked distinct forms of popular culture from other parts of the world”. Their use of Asian animators, for instance, and their Hong Kong fight choreographer, Woo-ping Yuen; their multiracial cast and Australian costume designer. As we might expect, Disney (whose acquisition, not only of the intellectual properties of 21st Century Fox but also Star Wars and Marvel, make them the biggest franchise operator in the business) are acutely alert to the benefits of co-creation too. In 2019 they employed “a popular in-house writer for China Literature” – an online platform with 217 million monthly active users – to author their first Chinese Star Wars novel.

3. GOOD TRANSMEDIA STORYTELLING

The economic imperative to keep expanding content is strong and Jenkins is not alone in arguing that typically, “franchise products are governed too much by economic logic and not enough by artistic vision”. “In reality,” he writes, “audiences want the new work to offer new insights and new experiences.” Transmedia products are often viewed as secondary to the tent-pole film release. But to perceive them as a marketing strategy is to overlook and undervalue their entertainment potential. Theorist, Siobhan O’Flynn notes that despite the huge market share of video games, those adapted from films are largely perceived as film merchandising. This “does a marked disservice to the fan interest in console games,” she writes, especially given the success of titles like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, which reached sales of $1 billion faster than James Cameron’s Avatar.  

In good transmedia franchises “reading across the media sustains a depth of experience that motivates more consumption,” says Jenkins. But, in order for this to happen, the works must have “enough depth that they can justify such large scale efforts”. This means becoming more than just a ploy to “monetize new content” or funnel audiences into the multiplex. Instead good transmedia storytelling satisfies the demand for audience interaction emerging from a digital information society that’s increasingly dependent on “collective intelligence”

“In the ideal form of transmedia storytelling,” says Jenkins, “each medium does what it does best,” and each “entry needs to be self contained so you don’t need to have seen the film to enjoy the game, and vice versa”. “The Wachowskis played the transmedia game very well,” he writes, “putting out the original film to stimulate interest, offering up a few Web comics to sustain the hard-core fans’ hunger for more information, launching the anime in anticipation of the second film, releasing the computer game alongside it to surf the publicity, bringing the whole cycle to a conclusion with The Matrix Revolutions, and then turning the whole mythology over to the players of the massively multiplayer online game.”

When the volume of transmedia products is so high, it becomes impossible for consumers to engage with everything and the experience becomes highly individualistic. The selected texts come together in different ways for different consumers – accessed in different sequences and combinations. And each new text changes the possible meanings of those before it. In order to fully understand these immense fictional universes, consumers must pool their resources. Often this results in vast online communities where the subjectivity of the experience fuels debate. 

Transmedia adaptation Matrix Revolutions Keanu Reaves fights

Crucially, the Wachowskis didn’t just seek to expand their audience, but “used these inter-texts to create a much more emotionally nuanced and complicated story,” says Jenkins. He explains how a “major turning point” in the franchise occurs “not on screen for a mass audience but in a game for a niche public” and that the experience of playing as a character in the game creates “an intense bond” that illuminates choices in the film. 

The challenge for transmedia creators is finding how to “trigger a search for meaning” – how to spark consumer desire for a deep-dive into their fictional worlds. “Increasingly,” writes Jenkins, “elements are dropped into the films to create openings that will only be fully exploited through other media”. Good transmedia stories are encyclopaedic, not only immersive but extractable; eminently quotable and replete with ‘things’ ripe for merchandising. The Wachowskis succeeded by creating a world pregnant with mythology and philosophy, scattering the transmedia landscape with gaps and references, and by refusing to give fans definitive answers, pushing them even closer together online. 

4. WE BECOME PROSUMERS

“Younger consumers have become informational hunters and gatherers, taking pleasure in tracking down character backgrounds and plot points and making connections between different texts within the same franchise,” writes Jenkins. Transmedia storytelling has made this information gathering an increasingly social activity and “viewers get even more out of the experience if they compare notes and share resources than if they try to go it alone”. But this fictional landscape – in which multiple access points and labyrinthine intertextuality stimulates diverse interpretations and vast online communities – is changing the way we think about the ownership of ideas. By inviting audiences to participate in the creation of story through puzzle solving, transmedia creatives have inadvertently devolved ownership of the story’s meaning. For media conglomerates eager to lock down their intellectual properties, it’s one hell of an unintended consequence.

Film adaptation Artemis Fowl Judy Dench

“What was once a one-way conversation controlled by authorised producers of content is now a multi-channel networked exchange between communities of fans and content producers where the expectation is that producers will respond to and accommodate fans,” writes O’Flynn. In March 2020 social media erupted in disproval of the latest Artemis Fowl trailer, with film critic Ben Child leaping in to declare: “What’s surprising here is not that Hollywood appears to have got Artemis Fowl (or at least its marketing) so wrong, but that studios still haven’t woken up to the importance of fan service in 2020.” The fans criticised the main character who conflicted with their own impression of the novels. As they reinforced the flawed idea that film adaptations should remain faithful to the original novel, they were also asserting the value of their own interpretation of that original, busting the myth that stories are owned by their original creators (in this case author, Eoin Colfer). Their yearning for fidelity and consistency might, on the face of it, appear to suit the franchise model, but vocal and vehement fans are not stopping there. 

In the fourteen years since Jenkins’ study, the growth of social media has only fuelled our “hypersociability” and desire for participation. If franchising and transmedia storytelling emerged, in part, from the desire of studios to expand and cement their brands, it has also had an unintended side effect in evolving fans from consumers to ‘prosumers’ who produce and customise their own content through participatory transmedia, including “fan vids, fan fiction, fan art, mash-ups, remixes, sweding and cosplay,” says Meikle. “Fans expect to be able to play with and adapt content and arguably, in the digital era, being a fan is demonstrated by the extent to which one adapts and generates” content, writes O’Flynn. “The reach and connectivity of the Internet have given fans today leverage as collaborators” and “unwillingly positioned” intellectual property owners “as reactive to the ebb and flow of changing social phenomena”.

How studios deal with fan produced content – essentially breaches of their stringent copyright – has come to define them. O’Flynn suggests they have two principal options: “the economics of scarcity and plentitude. In the first the corporation retains complete control… believing value and revenue depend on the scarcity of content, and in the second, corporations realise they “have a right to retain copyright but they have an interest in releasing it.”” Indeed, given that fan involvement has become such a strong element in franchise development and longevity, O’Flynn asks, “If your production has not generated fan adaptations, what are you doing wrong?”.

Star Wars Franchise adaptation Transmedia Storytelling

In the franchise age, corporate capitalism constantly conflicts with the democratisation of stories through fan interaction and prosumerism. And, while fans fuel the corporate flame with an intense desire for more franchise products, our natural preference for the original often leaves those sequels coming up short. O’Flynn notes that even in “the phenomenon of fan remakes… paradoxically, fidelity is desired and simultaneously unimportant,” with the official story prevailing over unofficial fan offerings. Her analysis of the negative reactions to the edits, made by George Lucas, to the original Star Wars films in 1997 and 2011, “reveal the depth of fan loyalty to the original releases and the perceived value of fidelity to that original content.” Even George Lucas cannot re-write the canon.

5. HOW TO BUILD WORLDS

Sustaining an enormous number of transmedia products and providing the space for an interactive, subjective, ‘prosumer’ fan experience requires the creation of a vast fictional world. “More and more, storytelling has become the art of world building, as artists create compelling environments that cannot be fully explored or exhausted in single work or even a single medium,” says Jenkins. But the explosion of franchise adaptations in the last two decades is linked to the advances in special effects that make this world-building possible. Today, CGI offers filmmakers more storytelling opportunities, enabling “detailed realizations of the fantastic beasts and expensive environments at the centre of most fictional series like Harry Potter and the Hunger Games,” writes Meikle. Cinema is finally capable of indulging us in a fantastic vision of the immense story worlds in The Lord Of The Rings, Marvel and DC Comics.

Indeed, a staggering number of transmedia franchise adaptations are based on stories for children and young adults prompting Meikle to ask, “why did adaptations – so often associated with lofty literary ambition – regress as such in the franchise era?” The answer might lie in their appeal to our innate playfulness and imagination. “Perhaps,” speculates Meikle, this material “emphasizes interactivity in a way that grown-up content does not”.

Meikle concludes Adaptations in the Franchise Era, by exploring the video game LEGO Dimensions. It draws together LEGO’s vast catalogue of licences from Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings to Mission Impossible. It’s a self titled “multiverse,” a huge, amorphous web of intertextuality; a gratifying bubble of pop culture that delivers a barrage of in-jokes that play with and reward our fandom. It’s little wonder that a generation raised on a diet of Star Wars action figures, movie merchandise and information technologies, seeks as adults to participate in story universes that provide space for fan content, social interactions and knowledge building. “The world is bigger than the film, bigger even than the franchise – since fan speculations and elaborations expand the world in a variety of ways,” writes Jenkins.  

World Building Lord Of The Rings Franchise Adaptation

“World-making creates its own market logic, at a time when filmmakers are as much in the business of creating licensed goods as they are in telling stories,” he writes, “Each truly interesting element can potentially yield its own product lines.” But the shift away from an emphasis on plots and characters in franchise adaptions to ‘worlds’ or ‘universes’, reveals a delicate symbiosis at work. Digital effects make their immense fictional worlds finally filmable, presenting new (if expensive) possibilities. Yet the “pre-awareness” that adaptation brings also reduces the risks associated with this financial investment. And so, in the 2000s, writes Meikle, “the steady advancement of special effects both spurred the creation of franchise adaptations and ensured their survival.” Now, in the age of streaming services, epic, visual worlds also make the best use of the advances in technology – from 3D to IMAX and 4DX – that entice audiences into theatres. As an added bonus, these “premium formats,” writes Meikle, allow “studios to charge higher prices.”

6. ARE FRANCHISE ADAPTATIONS SUSTAINABLE?

Some franchise worlds, like Marvel or X-Men, are now so immense that it can be hard for audiences to keep up with the bare minimum of their transmedia products (see the abundance of characters in the Avengers: Endgame poster below). These franchises go beyond encouraging their audiences to pool knowledge in fan communities and now require audiences to do ‘homework’ – watching every tent-pole movie, even re-watching and revising. “The old Hollywood system depended on redundancy to ensure that viewers could follow the plot at all times, even if they were distracted or went out to the lobby for a popcorn refill during a crucial scene,” writes Jenkins, “The new Hollywood demands that we keep our eyes on the road at all times, and that we do research before we arrive at the theatre”.  

In his Transmedia Storytelling 101, Jenkins explains that “this is a very different pleasure than we associate with the closure found in most classically constructed narratives, where we expect to leave the theatre knowing everything that is required to make sense of a particular story”. These vast fictional worlds actually encourage our “encyclopaedic impulse… we are drawn to master what cannot be known about a world which always expands beyond our grasp”. But this approach may only succeed for a niche audience.

The more intricate transmedia storytelling becomes the more difficult it is to balance the desire of dedicated fans with casual movie-goers. “Could any film have matched the fan community’s escalating expectations and expanding interpretations and still have remained accessible to a mass audience?” asks Jenkins about the divisive final film in The Matrix trilogy. In 2019, The Hollywood Reporter claimed Chinese audiences were baffled by the “referential storytelling” and “complicated backstories” of the latest phase of Star Wars films, prompting Disney to undertake even more adaptation. They announced the translation of 40 authorised Star Wars novels for the Chinese market and one brand-new book featuring an original Chinese hero. This was a relatively low cost way of working up a fanbase, argued Forbes, in a market where the Star Wars franchise was relatively new and audiences had shown muted interest in the films. Adaptation became part of the ‘long-game’ in global franchise domination.

Marvel Franchise Adaptation Audience Avengers Endgame Transmedia Storytelling

But Jenkins raises concerns about the potential narrowing of audiences when “too many demands” are placed on them. “There has to be a breaking point beyond which franchises cannot be stretched, subplots can’t be added, secondary characters can’t be identified and references can’t be fully realised,” he writes, “We just don’t know where it is yet”. In the 14 years since Jenkins wrote Convergence Culture, studios like Disney have tested these limits. In 2019, Marvel chief creative officer Kevin Feige revealed, “If you want to understand everything in future Marvel movies… you’ll probably need a Disney+ subscription, because events from the new shows will factor into forthcoming films.” His announcement prompted some fans to call time on the franchise. With Disney+ subscriptions costing $6.99 a month in the US and £5.99 in the UK, the franchise is asking a significant financial investment from its fans.   

At first glance, the “narrative worlds” explored by Corrigan and Jenkins, that “become too large to be contained within a single medium,” suggest franchise landscapes are fuelled by hyper-creativity. But the reverse may actually be true. By producing too much content, studios may inadvertently close off the imaginative avenues open to fans and so crucial to the sustainability of their online communities. By the same token, locking down well-loved characters in legal arrangements arguably limits their potential, with tone changes available only at crucial ‘reboot’ phases. In the last decade, the action, comedy and drama ‘versions’ of the unincorporated Sherlock Holmes are more creatively diverse than those of Harry Potter or James Bond in the same period. Meanwhile, the organic, infinite evolution of franchises ensures that no character ever really dies and narratives never fully conclude. This environment creates a peculiar mindset in which it becomes hard to evoke jeopardy or a sense of lasting consequences. As Film Crit Hulk puts it in his article Avengers: Infinity War and Marvel’s Endless Endgame: 

“After 10 years of unparalleled success [Marvel have] managed to inherit the same exact problems of critical mass that plague [the comic book] industry. Endless cycles. Confusing timelines. Continuity issues. Basic bloat. Feints of death. This isn’t the infinity war; this is the infinity loop. And the MCU had the opportunity to avoid all that. But thanks to its unparalleled success, they took on the same exact problems of comics instead. But that’s how fear tends to work. You cannot rock with the idea of making billions and billions in profit.”

7. IS FRANCHISE CULTURE CHANGING OUR PERCEPTION OF ADAPTATION AND FILM CRITICISM?

The history of blockbusters has always been intertwined with adaptation but, for Meikle, something changed in the early 2000s when adaptation began to lend “film franchises some of the respectability that they had lacked in the decades prior.” Today, it stretches beyond ‘book’ and ‘film’. The very process of adaptation – the changing of existing story material to fit new art forms, platforms or products – underpins the franchise model. Books become tent-pole films, tent-pole films inspire tent-pole sequels, prequels, spin-offs and reboots. Story material – perhaps just a character or a place – is further adapted into books, comics, fan-fiction, video-games or social media products. Sometimes this tells one complete story and is carefully co-ordinated at the outset – it is truly transmedia. At others it evolves organically over a long period of time, telling many stories within a vast universe of franchise adaptations.

Harry Potter Transmedia Franchise Adaptation

“In franchise adaptations, books are always both books and movies, both toys and television, both television and movies, both movies and shows, both shows and rides,” writes Meikle, “the franchise adaptation is more like a house of mirrors: enjoyable in its distortions, disorientations, and unreliability.” The process of adaptation has made global franchise possible – facilitating and fuelling the saturation of the fictional world across all artistic platforms. Adaptation is the life-force of franchising. 

“Not every story will go in this direction,” concedes Jenkins. But texts with an established fanbase, the potential for creative and spectacular visual world-building, encyclopaedic environments and back-stories, and an aura of literary value, are the golden ticket. This trend may have lasting consequences for film critics whose professional landscape is fundamentally transforming. “Most film critics are taught to think in terms of very traditional story structures,” wrote Jenkins in 2006, “If you look at [transmedia stories] by old criteria, these movies may seem more fragmented, but the fragments exist so that consumers can make the connections on their own time and in their own ways.” If the ‘best’ experience of the story is obtained through engaging with multiple platforms, should critics now go beyond the confines of films in order to review them? Can franchise movies ever really stand alone? 

Increasingly, critics who give unfavourable reviews to franchise films are denigrated by the deeply engaged fan-base whose pooled knowledge it is becoming difficult for critics to ignore. As it turns out, Jenkins’ words in 2006 were staggeringly prescient: “Criticism may once have been the meeting of two minds – the critic and the author – but now there are multiple authors and multiple critics.”

The rise of transmedia franchises is changing the way we see adaptation too. Meikle notes how the fifteen years between 2001 and 2016, saw “the foundational binaries of adaptation criticism (original versus copy, book versus film, fidelity versus infidelity) shaken and stirred by the kinetic intertextuality of massive franchises.” For a field often caught in the crossfire between ‘literature’ and ‘film’ this is particularly liberating. Through the “intrinsic multiplicity” of franchises, adaptation is being restored from the damaging effects of a cultural hierarchy that has historically treated literature as most valuable and has seen film adaptation as a poor imitation. Debates about authorship are becoming more nuanced too, as fans take ownership of the fictional worlds they inhabit. “It may now be more appropriate,” writes Timothy Corrigan in Film and Literature, “to think of the relations between film and literature as less about texts and screens or about readers and viewers than about creative and interactive players.”  

This post is part of The Film Version’s A-Z of Adaptations series. You can find more posts in this series here.

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Kids With Guns: Depictions of Adolescence in Monos and Piranhas

Monos and Piranhas LFF

As teenage gangs and knife crime become familiar news stories, two exciting filmmakers expose the frenetic energy and naivety of youth by putting weapons in the hands of their fresh-faced casts. From Alejandro Landes (Porfirio) comes Monos, an extraordinary and atmospheric drama about the disintegration of a team of child soldiers. Monos took home the Official Competition prize for Best Film at this year’s London Film Festival and opens in UK cinemas today. Piranhas, works in the opposite direction focussing on the rise of a child gang or ‘paranza’. Piranhas also received its UK premier at LFF where I spoke to writer-director, Claudio Giovannesi (Alì Blue Eyes, Fiore) about his depiction of adolescence in the film. In this feature I explore how Monos and Piranhas portray this complicated transition and what they might tell us about teenage life today. 

The teenagers in Monos use their semi-automatic rifles to guard an adult hostage on a remote Columbian mountainside. They are unpredictable, excitable, impulsive. Rarely visited by their military commanders, they revel in love, games and magic mushrooms, jubilantly firing their AK-47s in euphoric, hot-headed celebration. Knife-edge tension accompanies their volatility seen through the eyes of their mature hostage ‘Doctora’ (Julianne Nicholson) at the mercy of their every whim.

Monos film

Monos has been interpreted as a meditation on the use of child soldiers and an examination of cult dynamics; a power struggle in the vein of Lord Of The Flies. Beneath this lies a much simpler story about the over-confidence of youth; about foolish mistakes with lasting consequences. Recklessness with their guns sets in motion a cataclysmic series of events that the young people cannot escape.

The same kind of frenetic energy bubbles through Claudio Giovannesi’s coming of age drama about teen gangs in Naples, Piranhas. On the roof of an apartment block this group of triumphant teenagers fire their own AK-47s at satellite dishes. This gleeful target practice, aided by Youtube videos, is masked by the ecstatic sound of fireworks. Based on Roberto Saviano’s novel, Piranhas took home a Silver Bear at Berlin earlier this year.

Piranhas film

Just as Monos builds tension from the conflict between the teenagers’ youthful exuberance and the seriousness of their task, Giovannesi suggests the irony of a drug dealing ‘paranza’ who still live at home with their parents. His attraction to the project lay in the “possibility to portray a series of teenagers who are constantly in a precarious balance, somewhere in between war and game, innocence and fierceness, unawareness, the lack of thoughtfulness and tragedy,” explained Giovannesi in conversation at the London Film Festival, “I found this kind of contradiction very poetic”. The poetry is echoed in the haunting portraiture of Monos, the camera closing in on fierce yet ambiguous shots of the characters’ faces imbued with Shakespearean intensity.

The sensual photography of Monos deserves to be seen on the biggest screen available. But it’s the sound design – a hallucinogenic score from Mica Levi that’s fused into the film’s sound architecture with birdsong – that most effectively reveals the teenagers’ connection with their environment.

Monos film

Landscape is vital to the depiction of adolescence in both films. The young people strut just as boldly through the narrow streets of Naples as the exposed hillsides of South America. The teenagers’ habitats not only reveal their confidence and resourcefulness, but also the edges of their comfort zones. Their experiences are intense but, ultimately, limited. For Giovannesi:

“The area in which the film is set is one of the protagonists because the whole struggle of the film, the whole conflict of the film, has to do with who has power over it. So it really is like a fairy tale with a kingdom that has to be conquered or retaken from the invaders. So of course what was very important was that the film was actually set in the areas where these stories happened and where the novel is set. And it is very important because you get a sense of the identities that the characters or the actors had in relation to the areas that they come from.”

His film is spoken entirely in Naples’ unique dialect. “In Italy when it came out in cinemas,” Giovannesi explains, “you needed to have Italian subtitles because no Italian would be able to follow the dialogue otherwise”. The way the characters move through the urban landscape evokes their chaotic, unpredictable energy. Giovannesi oscillates between a static frame crammed with the paranza and a moving camera that traces their motion. “If you think about their essence,” says Giovannesi, “it really has to do with movement and the lack of stasis or the lack of stillness.”   

Piranhas film

While Landes might suggest the impressionable nature of young minds to radical ideology, Giovannesi reveals their susceptibility to the everyday pressures of a consumerist society. His young men covet designer clothes and watches. Their jaws drop at the ostentatious homes of the local bosses. They too want to be seen; to have their own table at the best club in town. Once on top, the teenagers pour all their money into designer gear. They might be dealing drugs, shooting guns and committing murder, but their purchases reveal the wide-eyed immaturity of youth. Gifting the ageing Don Vittorio a widescreen TV and a Playstation, they entertain him with games while he’s under house arrest.

Self-appointed leader, Agostino, hankers after a t-shirt emblazoned with a set of wings. It’s rich with symbolism, suggesting both Agostino’s ‘coming of age’ and the rise of his paranza. As he explains in Saviano’s novel:

‘“It’s like taking someone else powers: it’s as if we’d captured an archangel, which is sort of like saying the boss of the angels, cut its throat, and taken its wings. It’s not the kind of thing that just happens along, it’s something we sweated for, that we fought hard for and won, and now it’s as if we were Archangel from the X-Men got it? It’s sort of like… something we achieved, got it?”’

Pop culture and social media is ever present, feeding and communicating the teenagers’ lifestyle. Don Vittorio asks why Agostino doesn’t try to become a footballer – ‘they’re rich’ – driving home the idea that the teenagers are looking for a shortcut. They are overconfident, lack experience and yet seek to fill a power vacuum left by outgoing mobsters two or three times their age. The story feels acutely relevant, symptomatic of a youth raised on X-Factor and Got Talent, conditioned to easy routes to fame. 

Piranhas film

Giovannesi explains his desire to “portray them as any other adolescents… with their whole world of social media, YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, selfies”. Mobster movies inform their behaviour, shaping not only their aspirations but their very identities. Their naivety is charming, often funny, but it’s overlaid with a tragic sense that behaviour in youth defines adult futures.

Saviano, whose novel homes in on dialect and language, explores this through the teenagers’ nicknames or monikers. Don Vittorio explains that:

‘“It’s important what people call you. Your moniker is more important than your real name… If you want to command, you have to have a name that commands. It can be ugly, it can mean nothing, but it can’t be foolish.”’

The pressures faced by young people in establishing and defining their identities also runs through Monos. Indeed, Landes’ characters are known only by their nicknames: Wolf, Bigfoot, Lady, Rambo, Boom Boom, Dog, and Swede. Writing for Roger Ebert, Sheila O’Malley asks whether the sensitive Rambo’s “nom de guerre” might be “a mean-spirited tease imposed on her by the squadron”. “This is how “peer pressure” works in its most sinister state,” she explains, “If it’s hard for adults to stay their own course, then imagine how hard it is for teenagers.” 

In both films, the young people negotiate subtle forms of intimidation, identity crises and shifting morality in their attempt to claim a piece of the adult world; taking chances and seizing the opportunities placed before them. The child soldiers in Monos declare “Doctora is ours now”; a power grab that smacks of a yearning for adulthood. Relocated from the thin air of the mountains to the intense, sticky claustrophobia of the jungle, the young people begin to lose command of their landscape, tipping towards chaos: a choice that’s earned the film comparisons to Apocalypse Now. Landes’ depiction of group mentality and dynamics stings with the anxieties of adolescence; the desire to fit in; the significance placed on bonds of friendship.

Monos film

Blood and friendship lie at the centre of Saviano’s Piranhas novel too. Agostino seeks to build his paranza out of camaraderie and fellowship, the antithesis of mob families bound in blood: ‘the enemy of your enemy is your friend, aside from any issues of blood or relationships’ he thinks. By the end of the novel and Giovannesi’s film adaptation, Agostino will have learned the limitations of this thinking and experienced the pure, instinctive tug of family.

“Unlike the novel,” says Giovannesi, “what the film does is it focuses on the feelings and this huge sensitivity of the characters and that helps us see them not as criminals but as normal people that can be very close to us – our children, our brothers, our friends.” Tonally distinct, Piranhas and Monos close with shots that drive home their characters’ vulnerability and depth of feeling. For Landes, the film’s external conflict is a metaphor for the internal one beneath. “The conflict of adolescence and the actual conflict of war mirror each other,” he told Deadline.

What these films reveal is the perilous mixture of confidence and naivety that typify adolescence. By putting weapons in the hands of their young characters, Landes and Giovannesi amplify their chaotic energy; their ebullience; their impulsiveness. Crucially, the teenagers’ heedlessness and immaturity conflicts with the worldliness of the audience: will someone lose control? will there be an accident? The effect is near unbearable tension that reverberates longer and harder because it echoes a very real problem: that of youth knife crime. 

The young characters remain green and raw at the end of both films; they are not yet ‘adults’ but have instead ‘come of age’ by way of their actions. “When you make a choice of that sort,” to take up arms and enter a paranza, explains Giovannesi, “there is no way out.” The weapons in Monos and Piranhas are a dangerous and tragic extension of ordinary youth.

Read more London Film Coverage here. Don’t miss Monos in UK cinemas from Friday 25 October.

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Audiences: Censorship, Screen Tests & Crowd-Pleasing in Film Adaptation

Call Me By Your Name Film Adaptation Pool

How does the target audience change the content of film adaptations? In this post I explore how film marketing is used to ‘bait’ novel readers and how the desire for mass-market appeal influences the style and content of film adaptations through censorship and screen tests.

PART TWO: THE RULE OF THE MOB

‘To leverage book equity and have a successful opening for a book-based movie,’ say Amit Joshi and Huifang Mao in Adapting To Succeed, producers should ‘select recent best-selling books and make films of close adaptation”. But, by their own admission, their research had one conspicuous gap: it did’t differentiate between viewers who had read the book and those who hadn’t. 

There is evidence to suggest that some viewers prepare for their film experience by seeking out the novel in advance. Film tie-in copies of My Cousin Rachel, for instance, saw the novel’s sales increase immediately before the film opened. This trend was born out in a short poll I ran recently on Twitter. Yet exit polls for film adaptations of Brick Lane, We Need To Talk About Kevin and even the literary phenomenon The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (which hit 2 million UK book sales and 15 million US sales in the year of its film release), revealed that readers make up only a limited portion of the audience (31%, 39% and 43% of viewers respectively). Filmmakers often talk about their desire to remain faithful to the spirit of their source material, but only a small portion of their audience are likely to have a clear idea of this material in the first place.

It is more likely that the financial demands of the industry requires filmmakers to appeal to different markets than that of the novel; in other words, to appeal to mass-markets. And often this means changing the novel’s content. As George Bluestone said in 1973, ‘Movies are simply too expensive to provide the kind of variety that the novel allows’. It seems little has changed.

The Impact of Censorship on Film Adaptations

Most recently, the debate about the impact of ‘catering to the tastes of a mass audience’ has landed on the erosion of sex scenes in cinema. ‘Today, films need only to get bums on seats, not to cater for them once comfy’, says Catherine Shoard, film editor for The Guardian, ‘This means there is studio pressure to sanitise and so secure as low a certification as possible – particularly in the US, where most English-language films sink or swim, and where an NC-17 rating (meaning you have to be 18 or over) is a cold shower for your commercial prospects.’ Last year in the UK, certificate 18 films made up a mere 4.8% of total releases. They took home a disproportionate 2.6% of the total box office.

‘The summer begins with a new crop of sexually explicit, mostly European movies set off from Cannes to the festival circuit and eventually to brief art-house runs, while Hollywood churns out its chief export of gun-happy escapism and wholesome kid stuff,’ says Ann Hornaday for The Washington Post, ‘Between those two channels the classic sex scene – once a staple of high-gloss, adult-oriented, mainstream movies – has been largely forgotten and ignored’.

Luca Guadagnino’s adaptation of Call Me By Your Name fell into this chasm in 2017. The rich, fevered, sensual novel by André Aciman, on which the film is based, is told in the first person from the perspective of seventeen year old Elio. His frank and vivid descriptions of complicated desire – including his first sexual experience with a man – are the very essence of the novel. Take the complex emotions in this passage:

André Aciman Call Me By Your Name quote

Two versions of James Ivory’s screenplay (you can read the scenes by downloading the pdf below) reveal a gradual erosion of the love scene’s realism on screen. Even the descriptive language is softened into cliché – ‘make love’ – as Elio’s consent is made clear. In an interview with The Guardian, screenwriter James Ivory was disdainful about the film’s treatment of sex, ‘When people are wandering around before or after making love, and they’re decorously covered with sheets, it’s always seemed phoney to me’.

Call Me By Your Name script

In the final cut, Guadagnino pans across from the lovers and out of the window. It’s a cheesy device that cheats the viewer of a sincere human connection. ‘The sex scene has been reduced to a shorthand, an instantly recognizable grammar that begins with some jokey or flirtatious foreplay, cuts to some flesh (tasteful enough to honor the actors’ no-nudity clauses), then discreetly cuts away when things get real,’ says Hornaday, ‘You know what happens next, the camera seems to tell us. Do you really want me to spell it out for you?’. 

Guadagnino’s treatment of the scene was controversial. Hornaday notes how movies like Milk and Brokeback Mountain, that ‘broke ground in representing gay protagonists’, have often ‘shied away from depicting the most intimate mechanics of men having sex, to the consternation of viewers who wanted to see their sexuality represented and normalized’. Others, like Vox contributor Alex Abad-Santos, were baffled ‘that anyone could adapt a novel whose greatest strength is that it shows the thrill, madness, eroticism, and regret of sex, and decide to minimize those feelings and emotions’. His words reveal how the use of the novel as bait in the film’s marketing can actually lead to disappointment: we have come to expect that the film will be a close approximation of the novel. Both Shoard and Abad-Santos go on to speculate about the role of awards season posturing in the tone of the scene. 

The Impact of Screen Tests on Film Adaptations

In 2009, the desire for a PG-13 rating moulded the content of Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Alice Seebold’s The Lovely Bones (2009). The novel explores the consequences of the rape and murder of a teenage girl but ‘we wanted to make a film that teenagers could watch,’ said Jackson in conversation with SYFI Wire, adding ‘there are a lot of positive aspects of this film… So it was important for us to not go into an R-rated territory at all’. But at the film’s screen test, audiences demanded more violence, not during the girl’s murder but at the film’s resolution: they wanted to see the killer suffer.

The authority of the screen-test has shaped the content of numerous film adaptations. The story behind Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) is, by now, renowned: production was defined by discord between screenwriter and director, loss of financial backing and micro-management by its new funders. In this environment the screen testers had considerable power. A loose adaptation of Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the film’s voiceover narration and uncharacteristic, happy ending resulted from screen-test feedback. On its release in 1982 it was commercial flop. Even the 1992 Director’s Cut paid ‘lip service to the director’s design’ while actually resulting from ‘commercial imperatives,’ says Sean Redmond in Studying Blade Runner. But what this second release revealed was just how wrong the screen-test audience had got it. This version reinstated Scott’s bleak ending and added further ambiguity: it became a ‘mainstream commercial success’.

Film adaptation Blade Runner Harrison Ford screen test

Spielberg’s Jaws offers a more positive spin on the screen-test. At its early screenings, Jaws created such a huge response (including one man running to the bathroom to vomit) that the filmmakers ‘set about calibrating the mysterious alchemy that seemed to have sprung up between Jaws and its audience,’ says Tom Shone in his book Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer. Spielberg was overjoyed that his film had one big scream and set out to create another, much earlier in the movie. But this new surprise altered the film’s dynamic: from this moment on, his audience became ‘defensive’, always ‘looking for something something to pop out’. The second, original, scream arrived once again but, this time, it was ‘only half as intense’. ‘Spielberg had gone for two screams, and got them,’ says Shone, ‘but somehow they didn’t top the one scream he started out with’. In all three of these examples – The Lovely Bones, Blade Runner, Jaws – crucial decisions about content had very little to do with the novel at all.

The Value of Crowd-Pleasing Adaptations

The content of adaptations is shaped, in part, by the particular demands of the film industry and by the desires of audiences who are different from readers – both demographically and in their relationship with the source material. Yet evidence shows that baiting audiences with references to the novel in a film’s marketing does work, particularly in the case of well known classics. More than half of people surveyed after watching Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights said their awareness of Emily Brontë’s novel contributed to their decision to see the film.

It is easy to get frustrated with industry business models that favour 12A certificates and crowd pleasing subject matter, shying away from literary content that is potentially challenging. Yet it is important not to undervalue financially successful, mass-market adaptations. In the BFI’s Opening Our Eyes research just 5% of audiences stated that they watched independent films with smaller budgets ‘most often’, identifying a ‘distinct sub-current of thought that art film was by its very nature serious, avant-garde and hard to understand’. This reputation buys independent filmmakers and their films a certain degree of freedom, their small but loyal fanbases often empowering them to make bold decisions about the treatment of their source material. Arnold, for instance, embraced the cruelest and most violent elements of Brontë’s novel, even depicting Heathcliff’s grief-induced necrophilia. 

That there remains a strong desire to make films like this is evident in the sheer number of dramas made from novels and short stories in 2018 (a whopping 46%). Many of these low budget features made a bigger profit, in percentage terms, than their big budget counterparts. Yet they also remain a significant risk, with limited earning potential in real terms. The adaptation of Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, with rising star Saoirse Ronan, made just $3.4 million at the worldwide box office; the lauded You Were Never Really here just $7.4 million. Clio Barnard’s excellent Dark River made just $200,000. It is the profits made from mass-market, high-grossing films that enable distributors to take these risks. We would not have a film industry without them.

* You can find more posts in my A-Z of Adaptations series here. Let me know your thoughts in the comments…

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Audiences: Money, Mass-Markets & Film Adaptation

Jane Eyre Film Adaptation carey Fukanaga Mia Wasiakowska

Ever wondered if readers and film audiences are really so different? Does the film industry’s profit motive mean pandering to mass audiences? And does the need to make big bucks affect the type of film adaptations that are made? Or even influence their content? In the first instalment of a two part feature I look at the demographics of readers and film audiences and explore how the mass-market influences the type of adaptations in production.

PART ONE: THE PROFIT MOTIVE

In the early 1970s George Bluestone’s seminal book Novels Into Film effectively kicked off film adaptation theory. ‘Big business has always treated the film as a commodity,’ he declared, ‘While a novel can sell 20,000 volumes and make substantial profit, the film must reach millions’.

Novel sales are not guaranteed, but authors’ advances are the result of carefully calculated projections and manufacturing costs are relatively predictable. By comparison, movie making continues to be an expensive business. In 2017 the average (median) budget for co-production films in the UK was £3.5 million. For inward investment features (ie. those features funded by international sources such as the US), this figure rises to £11 million. Even adaptations that appear relatively low-key – like Can You Ever Forgive Me and If Beale Street Could Talk – come with sizeable production budgets.

Exacerbating the film industry’s profit motive is the relatively short window in which movies can make back their costs. In 2017, research by the BFI revealed that while ‘television remained the most popular platform in the UK for watching film’, it is cinema-going that remains ‘the largest single revenue source for the film industry’. Novels can gain traction over a number of weeks and months, but a film’s financial success is largely determined by its opening weekend. Films that perform badly are quickly removed from multiplex timetables.

‘It is hard to conceive a more risky business than trying to produce a profitable film,’ says Dean Keith Simonton in his book Great Flicks. ‘It is telling,’ he says, ‘that Donald Trump… had originally planned to become a movie producer but eventually switched to the real estate business when he realised that it would be much more reliably profitable’.

Now a 2018 report for the Publishers Association claims that basing films on novels can help to reduce this risk in three main ways: by demonstrating the story has potential mass-market appeal; by helping to attract quality talent; and by providing a positive contribution to the marketing campaign. ‘Adapted material is concentrated among high-grossing films,’ claims the report, receiving ‘on average, higher critical acclaim’. But how is the profit motive driving the industry’s choice of projects? 

Who’s Watching? Film Adaptation Audiences

Let’s get technical for a moment. Statistics relating specifically to audiences of film adaptations are sparse, largely because these films cross-cut so many different genres and target groups. What we do know is that cinema-going audiences as a whole are skewed towards the younger, male population. In 2017, 28% of UK cinema audiences were aged 15-24 and 54% of these were male. Although this group continues to ‘outweigh those aged 55 or over by a factor of almost 3 to 1,’ says the British Film Institute in its 2018 Yearbook, cinema attendance amongst older audiences is growing. The over 45s now make up more than 20% of cinema audiences. And, in this group, women are much more evenly represented.

‘It is hard to pinpoint the reasons for this’ growth, says the report. But ‘we might have expected the audience profile in 2017 to have shown an increase in the proportion of 55+ cinema-goers… given the growth in both accessible and ‘silver’ screenings and the number of films released during the year with appeal to this demographic’. Indeed, the ‘silver screen’ or ‘grey pound’ genre began to gain serious traction at the turn of 2011/2012 with the release of Jane Eyre, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel claims the BFI. All are adaptions of novels. Could film adaptations actually be fuelling growth in this market? If so, demand for adaptations that reflect their particular preferences (for historical novels and dramatic features) is likely to increase as the ‘baby boomer’ generation reaches retirement.  

The Relationship Between Reading & Watching

Indeed, when we look at the 2018 films where the audience contained a higher than average proportion of people aged over 55, almost half were based on novels (see the results by clicking on the image below). A further three were based on non-fiction books. This shouldn’t surprise us. Statistics from Kantar Media found that those describing themselves as heavy readers (reading more than ten books a year) were 26% more likely to be over 65. By comparison, those aged 15-24 were 32% less likely to identify themselves in this way.

It follows that just one of the top ten 2017 films with a higher than average proportion of 15-24’s in their audience was based on a novel: Stephen King’s It. King is amongst a number of ‘go-to’ authors whose work comes with a near guarantee of box-office success. 

film audience and film adaptation audience demographics

As readers, 15-24s are almost twice as likely to choose fantasy and adventure novels and 59% more likely to choose sci-fi. The film industry recognises the preferences of its primary market and this is reflected in its spending. In 2018, while 46% of film adaptations (of novels or short stories) were dramas, only two – Fifty Shades Freed and 12 Strong – ranked in the top twenty for production budgets. They cost significantly less (at $55 million and $35 million respectively) than action adaptations of The Meg ($178 million), Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom ($170 million) and adventure Ready Player One ($150 million). It comes as no surprise then, that these genres brought home a bigger share of the worldwide box office (34% and 31% respectively) than the 11% share of drama.

Film adaptation box office earnings by genre

The action, adventure and thriller genres play to cinema’s strengths; to the unique selling point of cinema as an experience. It is perhaps unsurprising then, that it was blockbuster films with big budget special effects and a star cast that 49% of participants in the BFI’s Opening Our Eyes survey stated that they watched ‘most often’. ‘The spectacular visual and audio experience’ was an important factor in deciding whether to watch a film at the cinema for 39% of people, a preference that was strongest among younger audiences.

This no doubt contributes to the reimagining of classic literary characters in genres favoured by the youth market. In the last ten years, Sherlock Holmes, for instance, has respawned in an action franchise starring Robert Downey Jr and a comedy starring Will Ferrell. Adaptations that can be sold as 3D, 4DX or IMAX present studios with another opportunity to entice young audiences into the multiplex. Why wait for a film to become available online if this means missing out on one of its key draws?

The Importance of Story

Readers and cinema-goers are a diverse bunch, but there is much correlation between what individuals read and what they watch. Perhaps most importantly, readers and film-goers share a common interest in the arts. ‘A strong interest in film correlates with a stronger than average interest in many other forms of leisure and cultural pursuit,’ says the Opening Our Eyes report, ‘This seems to place film enthusiasts amongst the group in society most culturally and socially engaged’. 

Story, of course, is the lifeblood of both film and literature. Indeed, it is cinema’s biggest attraction. 56% of the survey’s participants said ‘story’ played an important part in their decision to visit. This makes film adaptations of the novel an extremely attractive proposition for producers. The Publishing Association uses academic research to claim that ‘films adapted from books tend to have a richer more fully-developed story to draw on, thus increasing the probability that the plot of the film is captivating for audiences’.

Whether or not you agree with their conclusions, the ability to capitalise on an existing fan-base can only be a boon for the film industry. In Part Two we explore both how the novel is used in film marketing to ‘bait’ audiences and how the desire for mass-market appeal can impact upon the content of adaptations themselves.

* Budgets and box office statistics from The Numbers

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Alejandro G. Iñárritu: Understanding Amores Perros

What does Amores Perros mean? And how does writer-director Alejandro González Iñárritu use this debut to establish his filmmaking style and themes?

There are few filmmakers whose work I revere more that of Alejandro González Iñárritu. It was his second film, 21 Grams that first opened my eyes to cinema as an art. Prior to Oscars sensations Birdman and The Revenant, Iñárritu dealt unflinchingly with some of the most distressing aspects of humanity. From Mexican dog fighters to victims of human trafficking, his characters come from some of the most deprived communities. Sometimes battling terminal illnesses (which  Iñárritu viscerally depicts) they experience the cruelty and violence of life and death. Each of his first four films – Amores Perros (2001), 21 Grams (2004), Babel (2007) and Biutiful (2011) – elicits a very personal response from the viewer.

Now Amores Perros has returned to MUBI as part of their Cannes Takeover and, if you haven’t seen it before, I highly recommend you tune in and watch before reading what’s next.

Death Versus Survival

Amores Perros opens with a frenetic car chase. A dog is dying on the back seat while the driver desperately tries to evade those pursuing him through the busy streets of Mexico. The chase ends in a cataclysmic crash that ties together three separate stories in the past, present and the future. As we flashback to the past, the driver seduces his brothers wife. The crash is the crisis point of his story. From here, the film propels us into the present where one of the crash  victims, a model, copes with her disfigurement. In the future, a former hit-man rescues the dog from the wreckage and is set on a redemptive path.  

Car chase in Amores Perros

Amores Perros is the first film in what has become known as Iñárritu’s ‘death trilogy’ but the term is a loose one. The characters of these films are exposed, not only to the physical deaths of family, friends and animals, but the metaphorical deaths of hopes, dreams and ideals. Iñárritu has himself questioned the accuracy of the label ‘death trilogy’, the films dealing as much with dying as surviving; with the desperate struggle to live. He would go on to explore survival very literally in The Revenant – which treks through the snowy wilderness with a frontiersman left for dead after a bear attack – and metaphorically, through the attempts of a washed up actor trying to cement his artistic legacy, in Birdman.

It is interesting that Biutiful, Iñárritu’s fourth offering and, arguably, his most distressing film, sits outside of the so-called ‘death trilogy’. Like 21 Grams, it follows a dying man but tells the story in a straight line (Iñárritu was so committed to this that he actually filmed it chronologically). Biutiful also establishes a more concentrated perspective – telling not three stories but one – resulting in a more intimate atmosphere. “Biutiful is a tough film,” says Iñárritu in conversation with The Telegraph, “It doesn’t make concessions to the vulgarity of light entertainment. It’s not the kind of film that you see, every day, in the Cineplex”. And yet the film is “about life,”  he says, “It’s a hymn to life,”. Speaking to Collider in 2010, he argued that by “observing life through death, from the last point of it,” we are able to perceive that “the life has more meaning”. Death enables us to perceive life differently.

Indeed, Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel are also films about love and living, exploring family ties and passionate affairs. Iñárritu describes Amores Perros (in the film’s behind the scenes documentary) as being about “love”: the suffering that comes with love’s loss; with dependency; with the need to be desired; and with loneliness in a city of 20 million people. Even 21 Grams – which explores the interconnected stories of a dying heart patient, a grieving wife and an ex-convict tied together by (another) tragic car accident – reminds us that life goes on, not always as we might expect and often in spite of our anguish. By focussing too heavily on the films as a ‘death trilogy’, it easy to overlook their finer, humanistic elements.

The Spanish title of Amores Perros, for instance, has many meanings. The English title is offered up as ‘Love’s A Bitch’ but the title has also been described as an oxymoron that suggests both ‘that which is good and desirable in life’ and ‘that which is miserable’. While ‘perros’ directly translates to ‘dogs’ it has also been translated pejoratively as ‘an unworthy person’, ‘a hired killer’, ‘a prostitute’ and ‘an unfaithful person’, all labels that appear in the film. This ambiguity, this openness to interpretation is characteristic of Iñárritu’s work. Amores Perros, in particular, is opaque and multi-layered, raising questions about fate and love with a lightness of touch, with metaphor and gentle, visual suggestion. The closer you watch Amores Perros, the more it reveals. Let’s take a look at some of the motifs Iñárritu uses in Amores Perros and what they might mean.  

1. Dogs: Instincts & Emotions

In the first segment, a young woman, Susana (Vanessa Bauche), struggles to raise her young child in a violent relationship with her husband Ramiro (Marco Pérez). Ramiro’s brother, Octavio (Gael García Bernal), treats Susana with warmth and kindness but bad feelings towards his abusive brother twist into a desire to run away with his wife. Taken over by lust, Octavio becomes sexually aggressive towards the woman he covets and increasingly violent towards his own brother. Octavio’s battle against his own animal instincts are encapsulated in the shot below. He holds back a fighting dog – the symbol of his own aggression – reigning it in and restraining it, its teeth bared and rearing up, until he no longer can, until the count is up. It is in these fighting pits, through these savage animals, that violent male rivalries play out.

Gael Garcia in Amores Perros

The journey of Octavio’s dog, Cofi, mirrors his own. Cofi begins life as a pet but becomes a fierce, bloodthirsty animal when Octavio enters him into the fighting ring for cash. The fights are bloody and brutal, emphasised by rapid cuts and a shaky camera. The blood becomes a motif that connects the violence of aggression to that of Ramiro (against his wife), Octavio (against his brother) and the assassin. In the film’s behind the scenes documentary, actor Gael García Bernal describes Octavio’s desire as “an uncontrollable animal force that makes him do terrible things”. Both Octavio and Cofi are left seriously wounded as their third act begins.

Dog fighting in Amores Perros

Cofi is rescued from the wreckage by El Chivo (Emilio Echevarría), a former assassin, grieving for the happy family life has given up. El Chivo now spends his life with dogs; walking the streets with strays. In what is arguably the film’s most devastating scene, El Chivo returns home to discover Cofi has attacked and killed all the other animals he’s rescued. El Chivo points a gun at him, but he cannot shoot. Cofi represents El Chivo himself: a killer. The complex relationships we have with our dogs come to represent those we have with ourselves. “Masters take after their dogs you know,” says El Chivo who, awakened to his crimes, embarks on a path of redemption. In the closing lines of the film, Cofi is renamed ‘Blackie’, becoming a pet once again as El Chivo steps out into a wide open expanse (the first such shot in a claustrophobic film) in search of absolution.

While the present day story – of model Valeria (Goya Toledo) and her lover Daniel (Álvaro Guerrero) – is the least integrated in terms of its plot, dogs remain a vital device in the storytelling. Like Valeria, lap-dog Richie is beautiful and pampered. When Valeria becomes housebound, returning from the hospital in a wheelchair, Richie falls into a hole in the floor and becomes trapped. Valeria believes the rats are eating him. Over the next two weeks her mental health spirals and, just like Richie, she becomes lost in the darkness. Richie will not return to his owner’s calls; Valeria has lost control of him and her own life. 

There are echoes of the ferocious dog fights in the couple’s viscous arguments as Valeria copes with the loss of her former life. But it is the sound of Richie whimpering beneath the floor that puts an end this hostility: he becomes Valeria’s hope.

2. Photographs: Parents & Brothers

El Chivo is similarly grappling with the loss of the life he could have had. He carries around an old photograph album and returns time and again to a picture of his daughter’s graduation, pasting a photo of his own face over that of her step father. At the moment of his awakening, El Chivo puts on his glasses and looks up at the photograph of his daughter perched above his bed.

El Chivo photograph Amores Perros

Iñárritu uses photographs throughout Amores Perros to communicate the importance of family which is disintegrating around the characters. El Chivo takes Octavio’s wallet from the crash and, perusing it, finds photographs of Octavio with his brother Ramiro. They are smiling. Revealed here, in the final act, the image is particularly tragic. Any return to these happy times seems impossible.    

By pulling Octavio and Ramiro into El Chivo’s story in this way, Iñárritu is able to further deepen his exploration of brotherly rivalries. Indeed, El Chivo’s first redemptive act is to bring two more feuding brothers face to face: one has paid him to kill the other. These two brothers appear in one of the film’s final images, each in their corners reaching to the centre of the room for a gun. Has El Chivo set up a reconciliation? Or will it be a fight to the death? The composition of the shot echoes the very dog fights with which Amores Perros began. 

Iñárritu revisited this theme in his next film Babel. The final instalment in the ‘death trilogy’ opens in Morocco. Two boys, Ahmed (Said Tarchani) and Yussef (Boubker Ait El Caid), are left in charge of a rifle. Their father instructs them to ward off jackals while the family’s goats graze on the mountains. But the boys become distracted and start shooting at targets. The youngest aims at a coach on the road below and accidentally shoots an American tourist. These actions have repercussions for a Mexican nanny in San Diego and the daughter of a Japanese hunter in Tokyo. The brothers’ rivalry sets the tragic accident in motion. Yussef is jealous of his brother’s masculinity: his success with women and ability to shoot. The accident happens as he tries to prove himself. 

The horrified father of Yussef and Ahmed in Babel is forced to contemplate his own role in the fate of his children. Fatherhood, too, is a recurring theme in Iñárritu’s work. A daughter becomes a valuable part of her father’s legacy in Birdman; a dying father passes on his family history to his children in Buitiful. Both of these fathers are able to remain in their children’s lives in ways that El Chivo cannot.

Absent parents are a tragic reality in Amores Perros. Susana remains dependent on an abusive husband because her mother is an alcoholic and her father an absentee. Valeria, meanwhile, is estranged from her parents who disapprove of her modelling career. Iñárritu flirts with this conflict as Valeria leafs through photo albums and glossy magazines.

3. Advertising: Desire & Disposability

Valeria is the face of ‘Enchant’ perfume and her image appears plastered onto buildings across Mexico City. She is standing in a suggestive pose, teasing up her short dress to reveal long elegant legs. The image is a provocative one and it elicits lustful reactions from the film’s male characters. In its hyper-masculine environment, lust and sexual aggression work to disintegrate family: as the film’s title tells us, ‘love’s a bitch’. Desire is a corrupting force that can lead to violence. Octavio sleeps with his brother’s wife; Daniel leaves his wife and children to be with Valeria.

Enchant advert Amores Perros

The selfishness of men permeates the film’s plot: Susana labels Ramiro ‘selfish’ when he wakes the baby she has taken so long to settle; and Valeria accuses Daniel of selfishness when he refuses to take up the floor to find Richie. Yet the relationship between Valeria and Daniel – arising from an affair – outlasts our expectations of it.   

As Valeria comes to terms with the loss of her physical beauty (as it is defined by the modelling industry), the Enchant billboards remind us of love’s tests and the fragility of lust. They are also Valeria’s torment. A billboard hangs across the street from her apartment providing a cruel reminder of her former life. Eventually the billboard is taken down and replaced with a sign, ‘space available’. It’s a crushing moment. Valeria has been discarded; she is as disposable as the dead dogs in Octavio’s fighting ring. Just as the dogs were not loved by their owners, neither has Valeria’s beauty and fame brought her love from her employers or fans. It’s amongst the worst of human traits, to dispose so carelessly of what we no longer believe we need. Valeria now faces an identity crisis; one that is shared by El Chivo who describes himself as “a living ghost”.

The hollow, vacuous nature of advertising and glossy magazines is revealed in the juxtaposition of the advert and the struggles of the film’s working class characters. The remoteness of this ideal for Octavio and Susana is particularly cutting. Octavio’s bedroom is adorned with images of cars cut from magazines and adverts. When he finally obtains the car of his dreams, the montage compares his aggressive sexuality with the now relatively subdued behaviour of his brother. He has been corrupted, bewitched by desire and greed.  

Iñárritu would go on to explore the hollow state of Hollywood ambition in the Oscar winning Birdman and it’s hard to think of a director who could do this kind of self-analysing, industry-scrutinising film better. Iñárritu’s early films were short lived at the multiplexes despite reaping widespread critical acclaim. In Birdman he peels back the layers of conflict between the artistic, the worthwhile and the popular. “People, they love blood. They love action. Not this talky, depressing, philosophical bullshit,” says Birdman in one of the many metaphorical conversations that happen inside the washed-up actor’s head. The scenes play out in an absurd, surrealist style, feeding a piercing, relevant debate about cinema’s current obsession with comic book films. It could be Iñárritu himself talking, as Edward Norton has intimated about his own lines in the film.

The success of Iñárritu’s trilogy lies in the creativity of its storytelling. All three films saw Iñárritu collaborate with screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga whose screenplays share complex non-linear narrative structures, intricately connecting the disparate lives of three sets of characters. The result is a single thematic story about family, love, fate, hope and survival. “To make God laugh,” says Susana in Amores Perros, “tell him your plans”. Sadly, Babel marked the end of this relationship. In 2006, Iñárritu reportedly banned Arriaga from the film’s Cannes screening. Arriaga, a fierce advocate for the role of screenwriters had, apparently, been too vociferous about his role in 21 Grams.

Terrence Rafferty for (The New Yorker) recognised the irony in this quarrel:

In the behind the scenes documentary for the Blu-Ray release of Amores Perros, Iñárritu said “it was as if all the departments stepped back, allowing the characters’ stories to run their course, and I hope my direction won’t be noticeable”. Arriaga’s claim, that films should be perceived, not as the work of a single auteur, but auteurs, seems to be born out in Iñárritu’s filmography. The director’s first three films feel markedly different from the next. While Iñárritu has gone on to prove his dexterity with comedy Birdman and IMAX epic The Revenant, the feud is a devastating one for cinema. Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel are in a class of their own.

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Home Comforts & Guilty Consciences in The Sisters Brothers & The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs

The Sisters Brothers and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Companion Pieces is a new series of 10-15 minute reads exploring cinematic and literary parallels. In this first instalment, I explore the links between Patrick deWitt’s novel The Sisters Brothers, Jacques Audiard’s recent film adaptation of the same name and the Coen brothers’ The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs. Taken together, these three journeys through the American west reveal how greed, grief and a guilty conscience can be soothed by the simple comforts of family, friendship and home. But the question of what lies beyond their collection of ironic deaths can only be answered by the Coens.

Patrick deWitt’s 2011 Booker shortlisted novel The Sisters Brothers is both a western adventure and a crime caper. Two accomplished killers, the Sisters brothers, travel from Oregon to California with instructions to murder a red-bearded prospector and supposed thief named Hermann Kermit Warm. 

Their journey involves many chance encounters with strange and tragic figures, setting up mysteries that are never resolved. In a landscape soaked in killing and death, the first of these characters, the ‘weeping man’, seems to embody the grief of the entire American west. The precise source of his suffering is never revealed but the book’s narrator, Eli Sisters, believes it has ‘made him insane’. 

Reading the novel’s peculiar chance encounters, my mind turned to the cruel and strange western landscapes of the Coen brothers’ True Grit. The minds behind Fargo and The Big Lebowski have often incorporated western tropes in their work but True Grit marked an overt and uncharacteristically straight foray into the genre. The film’s plot is remarkably faithful to the simple revenge story of Charles Portis’ source novel, but the addition of a scavenging medicine man – donned in a bear skin and emerging like an absurd predatory animal from the snowy vista with the decomposing body of an unknown man – underlines the distorted values of the west. “I will entertain an offer for the rest of him” says the wanderer. The human body is a commodity and one man’s loss is another’s gain.

Like the films of the Coens, The Sisters Brothers is soaked in a bleak, tragicomic sensibility. The novel’s brief encounters are injected with irony and wry observations; its supporting characters are often the victims of simple bad luck. When the Sisters brothers, Eli and Charlie, spend the night in a witch’s cabin Eli dreams that the old woman is pouring a ‘heavy black liquid’ into the mouth of his brother, Charlie. The next morning, the witch is gone but a strange string of beads is left hanging above the door. Fearing a curse, the brothers refuse to pass beneath it. This choice results in the slaughter of five men when Charlie Sisters climbs out of the cabin’s small window and attempts to steal their axe to make a larger opening for his brother. For these dead men it is a simple case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. 

The Coens would make their own ruthless journey across the American west in the 2018 film, The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs. This, a collection of six unrelated stories tied together by the turning pages of a western adventure book, feels like an accidental, spiritual relative of The Sisters Brothers sharing not only its tone and atmosphere but many of its themes.

Both share a similar cast of ne’er-do-wells. There are robbers and swindlers and bounty hunters; trappers and chancers and prospectors. Each of the film’s six stories gives us just enough to satisfy our curiosity and build a potent impression of grief, anguish and (sometimes) hope. Like deWitt, the Coens encourage us to sympathise with their eclectic characters before fate often deals them a cruel blow. The absence of obvious connections and ‘back stories’ conjures the spirit of a journey filled with such fleeting encounters and, added together, the stories are much bigger than the sum of their parts.

“People are like ferrets or a beaver, all pretty much alike” says the loquacious trapper in the Ballad’s final segment The Mortal Remains. But the trapper’s listeners do not agree and instead set about a process of binary categorisation: “lucky and unlucky,” “hale and frail,” “townsman and trapper,” “upright and sinning”.

The chance encounters in Patrick deWitt’s novel add up to a bleak and tragic picture of the American west but this is drawn out and embodied in the characterisation of the contrasting brothers. While Eli can be hot tempered, he is also kind and generous, desiring little more than intimacy and home comforts. Charlie, by comparison, is trigger happy, impressed by power and money and ‘too lazy to be good’. ‘Our blood is the same,’ says Eli, ‘we just use it differently’.

While Charlie is out finding the axe to help Eli escape the witches cabin, Eli actually passes beneath the witches beads to save his horse from a bear attack. ‘It occurred to me,’ admits Eli later, ‘that I had crossed the threshold for a horse I did not want to save but Charlie had not done the same for his own flesh and blood’. The mysterious encounter is echoed in two otherworldly ‘Intermissions’ later in the novel, that suggest Eli’s good deed has left him ‘protected’ and Charlie cursed.

In his 2019 adaptation of deWitt’s novel, Jaques Audiard omits these peculiar supernatural events but homes in on the tangible differences between the brothers. Each scene works to compare and contrast them, exploring the fraternal bond that ties them together. Audiard’s is an affectionate take on the men, a warm tale of brotherly love overcoming all obstacles.

Audiard opens by establishing the brothers’ confused morality, setting up a redemptive journey. After shooting their way through a house full of men Eli (John C. Reilly) runs into a burning stable to rescue his horse but returns empty handed. When he asks Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix), rather remorsefully, “How many do you think we killed?”, it is unclear whether he’s referring to the men or the horses.

We first meet the novel’s Eli similarly tormented by the death of his horse in a barn fire at the end of their previous job:

“I was very fond of my previous horse and lately had been experiencing visions while I slept of his death, his kicking, burning legs, his hot popping eyeballs.”

Eli is given a replacement horse, a slow and overweight animal already named Tub, in partial payment for this work. This ‘trouble with the horses’ cleverly sets up Eli’s emotional journey – his reluctant but burgeoning relationship with Tub echoes his moral growth – and establishes a power imbalance between the brothers. Charlie takes the better horse and, along with his recent promotion to ‘lead man’, this threatens to fracture the brothers’ relationship.

That this ‘adventure’ arrives at the end of the brothers’ career amplifies its melancholy and allows deWitt to consider the role of choice, genetics and upbringing in the brothers’ current lifestyle. In drawing this out, Audiard makes much of the brothers’ relationship with their father. Charlie asks Eli if he is worried about “passing it on”, by which he means their father’s violence. This thread is echoed in newly invented conversations between Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed) and the brothers’ scout, Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), about their own fathers. 

Both the novel and its film adaptation are a journey home. It is their violence that prevents the brothers from returning to their mother, who will not have them until they have given up their grisly careers. Instead Eli searches for home comforts in the arms of women, refusing to pay for their company and instead winning their affection with kindness. He tries to change his appearance by brushing his teeth and losing weight. In Audiard’s film this sophistication ties him to the reformed and altruistic Morris. 

The comfort provided by human intimacy is also a recurring theme in the Coen’s The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs. In the segment Near Algodones a bank robber who has already cheated death once before looks upon a pretty girl before he is hanged. Later, in The Gal Who Got Rattled, marriage and companionship offer an escape from a life of hardship, loneliness and fear. That these comforts are snatched away from the characters in ironic twists of fate and luck, makes Ballad a near agonising experience. ‘Here is another miserable mental image I will have to catalogue and make room for,’ says the novel’s Eli on abandoning a malnourished urchin in a dead prospectors tent. Viewers of The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs may be inclined to agree with him. Many of the images it presents are truly wretched, the very worst of humanity and cruel fate.

But the Coens’ twists are more than mere stylistic inflections, revealing truths about the human experience. The Gal Who Got Rattled explores the old adage that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”, while the inscrutable traveller in Meal Ticket exposes our reluctance to accept and face human suffering. In this, the film’s most troubling segment, a quadriplegic orator (Harry Melling) is thrown over a ravine by his coachman and carer (Liam Neeson) when the audiences for his gloomy performances start to wane. He is replaced by the popular but intellectually bankrupt animal act, the ‘chicken pythagorean’. Both of these segments explore the struggles of dependents, one that similarly emerges through the women and children of deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers.

Much can be gleaned by the Coens’ choice of songs and poems. The material of the quadriplegic orator, which includes Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29 and Shelley’s Ozymandias, drags us deep into his despair:

“When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,

I all alone beweep my outcast state,

And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,

And look upon myself and curse my fate,

Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,

Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,

Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope”

His nightly performances are repeated in montage but their delivery becomes more impassioned when the orator is denied the intimacy of a female companion. In the cruel American west, such a connection is a rare and exquisite comfort.

If Eli Sisters has accepted the nourishing value of human intimacy, Charlie is still on a quest for gold and glory. The plot of The Sisters Brothers is caught up in the avarice of the gold rush, something the Coens’ similarly explore in the Ballads’ prospector segment All Gold Canyon. Here man plunders nature for financial gain, bringing violence and brutality into the calm and tranquil natural world; the ‘mighty sweep of earth’ where there was no trace of man. The ageing prospector is one of the film’s few characters to escape a cruel twist of fate, but it spells disaster for the natural landscape. The Sisters brothers own experiment with prospecting has devastating consequences for wildlife and the slaughter of a red-backed bear for the price placed on its pelt establishes a poignant connection with their red-bearded bounty, Hermann Kermit Warm.   

From the outset of his film adaptation, Audiard intercuts the action of the Sisters brothers with the action of Warm and their scout Morris. This solves a potential problem with the novel’s structure and point of view, which holds back the action relating to Warm and Morris until the final third (where the discovery of a journal illuminates it in flashback). This restructuring allows Audiard (who writes with long-time collaborator Thomas Bidegain) to expand the story of Morris and Warm and they use it to develop the novel’s subplot in which they embark on a prospecting gambit of their own. Audiard even invents a new motivation for this scheme: part of a much greater plan to start an ‘ideal society’. It is a romantic, near communist response to the west’s cruel and violent capitalism. 

In Audiard’s adaptation, the randomness of the novel’s chance encounters are rather weakly fashioned into a cause and effect plot that is, at times, hard to follow. Yet the film’s additions also work to highlight the novel’s essential themes, pushing the brothers homeward. This final act, in which the brothers join forces with Morris and Warm, is infused with the friendship, kindness and intimacy they have been searching for. Audiard conjures a final image so pure in its emotional truth that any fears we might have about their future dissolves into their embrace.

The Coens leave their six stories, and their thematic connections, open to audience interpretation. The film becomes our journey through the American west and, like Eli Sisters, we must reluctantly accept the cruelty of circumstance. There are many kinds of death says Eli: 

‘Quick death, slow death. Early death, late death. Brave death, cowardly death.’ 

We find all of them in The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs. Likewise, ‘True Grit,’ says Adam Nayman in his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties The Film Together, ‘is filled with corpses in various states of decay’. The religious (and litigious) motivations of 14 year old Mattie Ross pervade that earlier western. But, perhaps too afraid to consider the prospect of heaven and hell – or too guilty to consider their victims’ fates – the Sisters brothers attempt to stave off their own mortality with superstition. In their final segment of The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs, the Coens take us beyond death’s final curtain revealing what happens after the lethal pressing of the trigger.  

Ballad is bookended by transitions into the afterlife. Singing cowboy Buster Scruggs gains his wings, ascending to the heavens in the film’s first segment. Its last, titled The Mortal Remains, works both literally as a philosophical conversation between stagecoach passengers and metaphorically, as purgatory. This latter interpretation is underlined by the advancing sunset; the darkness bringing with it a sense of claustrophobia and dread borrowed from the horror genre. The coach driver, who will not “slow”, is eerily reminiscent of the grim reaper; death of course waits for no man.

In this light, the passengers’ conversation is particularly poignant. A bounty hunter describes his fondness for witnessing the moment of death, watching as the dying man tries to ‘make sense of it’. ‘Do they ever?’ asks one of the passengers, ironically unaware they are already dead. As the coach stops and the passengers disembark in the darkness, their reluctance to cross the threshold suggests they may finally understand their fate. The visual and tonal contrast with Scrugg’s slapstick comedy, clichéd ascent and upbeat song, When A Cowboy Trades His Spurs For Wings, is formidable. The film has taken us on a journey through the cruel American west and heaven is a distant memory.