Thursday, March 22, 2012

Han Shot First: An Open Letter to Screenwriters

The DVD of the Deathly Hallows, part 1, came out the other day. DVD releases mean deleted scenes. I checked out the deleted scenes over at YouTube. Why, may I ask were these scenes removed? They are fabulous, especially the goodbyes to the Dursleys.
I have often wondered what screenwriters could possibly be thinking when they make some of the edits they do. I accept that when turning books into movies, pleasant but tangential plot lines must fall away. I also except that movies need to devise other ways to express things often simply stated in the written work. I am also not one who wants to see a literal and direct translation from page to screen. But still, editing choices baffle me.
I offer a tip from a longtime geek: when we fans seem to want literal and detailed transcription to the screen, what we actually want is a product that is true to the nature of the book, the story, and the characters.  When we hate an adaption, it usually isn't because it wasn't a literal text translation but because it wasn't a true translation.

We will accept, and often love, additions and tweaks as long as they don't wreak havoc on some arc or character. Aunt Petunia's deleted scene is an excellent example.  The scene with Arthur and Ron is another. That scene could have gone further even. In the book, Ron tells Harry that he has discussed their impending hunt with his dad and brothers and that they helped him transform the ghoul in the attic. If the screenwriters had done the scene having a proud but worried Arthur give one of the radios to Ron to keep connected while risking his life with Harry--think of a parting farewell between a father whose son is going off to war--people might have needed hankies a mere five minutes in. No fan would have complained that the scene wasn’t in the book. We hunger for and feast upon such additions that give us a richer flavor in the story and characters.
Other movie adaptions bear this out. In Eclipse, for example, the screen writer went out of her way to show the movie audience that Bella's decision to become a vampire wasn't just about Edward but also about herself, about her recognizing that she belongs in the vampire world. That is a good edit. It merely pulls an element of Bella’s character forward. I think that Meyer leaving that revelation of Bella's until after marriage is what really happens these days, but we should realize it earlier. Our modern romantic versions of marriage--that marriage is about finding that certain someone--leave off that marriage is a life in itself. True, having a good husband or wife is essential for a happy marriage, but marriage is also about wanting that life, wanting to be a wife or husband; it is not just about the person you choose. [Sadly, that was a rogue good edit. The Twilight adaptions had many problems especially on the abortion issue.]
Page to screen changes fail when they alter or ignore some element of character or plot. The most egregious example I know of in the book to movie genre was in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Omission of the theme that Voldemort does not know that there are things worse than death omits one of the major themes of the series. 

 The makers of the Narnia movies learned their lesson with Prince Caspian when they changed Aslan’s dialogue about how he grows as his people grow.

That's a mistake we made with Prince Caspian, where we changed Aslan's dialogue with Lucy. [In the book, Lucy says: "You're bigger, Aslan." Aslan replies: "That's because you are older, little one." Lucy: "Not because you are?" Aslan: "I am not. But every year you grow, you will find me bigger." In the film, Aslan says to Lucy: "Every year you grow, so shall I," which carries quite a different meaning.] We didn't get that one right.
The Twilight films are loaded with screenwriting mischief.  Among other things, Edward doesn't have enough ‘Han shot first’* moments. They got so caught up on making Bella appear less passive--find any discussion on Twilight, and you will find women who think that Bella is a wimp--that they gutted Edward's character. The precious few moments he is given some line or action that isn't centered on devotion to Bella, Robert Pattinson does just fine. (On those Twilight discussions, you will also find plenty of crappy acting comments.) I think the problem is the material he's been given. The character is a mind reader, normally a gift to a screenwriter as he can explain anything with relative ease.  (That’s why Rowling made Hermione so bookish. Anytime she needed to explain something, Hermione had read about it.). Yet onscreen, Edward is nothing but a Bella worshiper. It is worse that that even. In the gutting, Edward drastically changes from a guy who tries to give what little privacy he can to his family to a guy who might be worried about appearances. (I haven’t re-watched the movie. I just see my notes that Edward was worried about Alice looking like a freak and that they changed Rose’s speech so nothing is mentioned about how Edward kept her thoughts private.   Small changes can be significant.)
* In case you aren’t a geek, ‘Han shot first’ is a reference to changes, very unpopular changes, that George Lucas made to the original Star Wars film. In the original film, Han is cornered at gunpoint by a bounty hunter who tells Han he is going to kill him and collect the bounty on his head from Jabba the Hutt. Han manages to sneak out his blaster while his hands are hidden under the table and shoots the bounty hunter before he has a chance to fire on Han. Years later, Lucas decided this was too harsh, that Han was a good guy who would never shoot first, so he digitally altered the scene to have the bounty hunter fire and miss (at a range of about 10 inches if you’d believe that) before Han blasts him. It is perhaps the worst character smashing of all time.
Lucas though that the fans wailed because they did not want things from childhood to change. It wasn’t that. When writing characters for film, it is the small moments, often the ones that pass without comment that allow us to define a character. Lucas used to understand that. The original scene in the cantina told us volumes about Han’s character. First it said that he wasn’t a straight up nice guy. Furthermore, we learned that he that he wasn’t wimpy or stupid. What idiot would let the baddie take the first shot at close range? The change tuned Han into an idiot. More importantly, it killed his character arc. He is the redeemed rouge. The more you make him warm in fuzzy at the beginning, the less it pulls at your emotions when he comes barreling in to shoot Vader off Luke’s tail. The transformation no longer exists. One can’t be redeemed if one wasn’t a rouge to start.  Plus, this guy is right. (about the 7 minute mark) Defining Han’s character is easy. Try it for Queen Amidala. It is the little, subtle clues that give a good character arc. Manipulating those details to make the character fit into some PC mold falls flat.
This is, I think, what authors like Rowling mean when they say that a character writes its self. The myth stories are powerful because they use archetypes, the Hero, the Rebel, the Rouge with a Heart of Gold. (See anything by Joseph Campbell.) These reflect elements of human nature. If the author strays too far from the archetype, then the character loses the power to propel the story forward.

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