Friday, 5 March 2010

The Lack of Good Stories in Hollywood Movies

This posting began as a posting on the discussion board of the Smoking Lounge steampunk group.  However, it seemed to be worthwhile bringing here too.  The discussion on the board was around the recent movie 'The Wolfman', which with its Gothic stylings and theme was liable to appeal at least to some steampunks.  People felt the atmosphere was good but that the story was weak.  This is a criticism which has been levelled at a number of recent movies and I began thinking about why it was the case that with all the effort that goes into the special effects, why the story, which forms the foundation of any movie, is often so poor, especially when I know that every year just in the UK thousands of novels are being written, and at least some of these should be good enough to provide decent stories for movies, let alone if we start thinking about all the fiction that must be written each year in the USA.  Anyway, below are my thoughts on this issue.

In thinking about why good plot is missing from so many Hollywood movies these days I came across a number of reasons that I feel offer some kind of explanation. Of course, sometimes even if there is a decent novel, the adaptation is poor. I have neither seen 'Percy Jackson & the Lightning Thief' (2010) nor read the source novel, but all I hear in reviews is that the screenplay is far weaker than the book. Perhaps one reason why the Harry Potters have less a mismatch is because the author has exerted pretty strong control and the British element has been forcefully retained.

It is ironic if you think back to the Hollywood movies, say of the 1940s, when even B-movies often had a better, more engaging plot than many of the blockbusters put out today. I think especially of film noir movies which often have intricate (sometimes too much so, e.g. 'The Big Sleep' (1946)) plot. They had the funds in their day, but if you think that say, 'Casablanca' (1942) is shot on a Californian backlot masquerading as Morocco and it is a romance, there is far more engaging in the characters and the story than many far more visually rich movies of today.

I believe that there are two reasons why Hollywood has a real difficulty these days in getting good stories to the screen. One is an unwillingness to take risks. I remember comments of 'Fatherland' (1994) which ended up going straight to DVD when it was found too few of the audience knew the real outcome of the Second World War to recognise a counter-factual. The ending of the movie is in fact far better than the novel.

One reason why so many comic book characters now feature in movies is because there is no risk with them. They are known to be successful, people know what to expect when they go and see a Spiderman movie, and even with all the reinvention, a Batman one. When steps are taken away from such comfortable norms, even when toned down as with 'Watchmen' (2009) then the movie is not commercially successful.

Another factor is how movies are 'pitched' to get funding. Generally this has to be done in a sentence and so it is far easier to get money for movies which can be explained simply, e.g., "remake of 'The Italian Job'"; "'The Hulk' as a movie"; "Harry Potter as an American kid who's a  half Greek god" and, what in my mind must have been the funniest: 'Casablanca' but with Rick Blaine as a motorbike-riding prostitute with guns [i.e. 'Barb Wire' (1996)], and so on. The system in place predicates against movies which need involved explanation or that come from outside the admittedly extensive US popular cultural references.

Another aspect is the expectations of what happens in a story designed initially for a US audience. I always point to the US movie 'The Vanishing' (1993) compared to the Dutch original, 'Spoorloos' (1988). Hollywood now regularly looks abroad for successes it can bring across especially from France and Japan and in fact has been doing this for decades, e.g. 'Shichinin no samurai' ['The Seven Samurai'] (1954) and 'The Magnificent Seven' (1960). However, bringing it into the US context requires adjustment to make it palatable for the core audience, so with 'The Vanishing' the hero is saved at the last moment rather than slowly asphixiating when buried alive as in the original.

The assumptions of the restoration of status quo ante, the good guys winning over the bad and so on keeps on channeling stories down restricted paths. Why is 'The Empire Strikes Back' (1980) seen as the best 'Star Wars' movie? Because it violates many of these principles. Why is 'The Phantom Menace' (1999) so poor? Because rather than subtly challenging corporate manipulation of government and international relations, it simply presents us with goodie vs. baddie with no doubt about the outcome.

Why did Sherlock Holmes stand out among the numerous contemporary detective stories and is still so popular almost a century later when most have forgotten the rivals (which to my knowledge filled at least five anthologies in the 1970s and 1980s). The reason is the outcome is uncertain. Sometimes Holmes lets the criminal go, sometimes he hands them over to the police, sometimes the criminal escapes either to safety or to face someone else's retribution, sometimes (okay, once) Holmes is killed while killing his opponent. That uncertainty means you enter a Holmes story with so much more up for grabs than with the current batch of movie stories.

There is another factor here, the bulk of the Holmes stories were short stories. As the Harry Potter movies show there is a real difficulty in adapting a full-length novel, let alone the door stops of today's world, into a successful movie. Yet, short story writing has almost died as a published format.

There is a huge pile of good writing out there. Any national novel writing competition in the UK now attracts 40-45,000 entries. Now, not all of these are any good, but in the Amazon competition they short list first to 5000 novels, and I am sure amongst these are decent stories that could form the basis for a good movie. However, none of these stories will ever make it to the big screen because of the structures and demands in place. Hence, to summarise a long argument, despite all that it could draw upon, 'The Wolfman' (2010) was always going to have a poor storyline, in the current context it could have nothing else.

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