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Fans vs Money: The “They made it for US” argument.

Full disclosure, I have not read nor watched The Hunger Games. I am basing this entry purely on my feelings about what was said in this review of the movie and this comment on the review:

The problem for Bob is it’s a movie adaptation for a book which he’s never read. The stuff about the arena is explained in the books. Much of the stuff is explained in the books. They made the movie targeting people who have already read the book, so they know the details.

Mind, I do intend on reading the book at some stage. I’m just not too sure about watching the movie.

Okay, getting back to it. This is something that I have been wondering about. Is it really a smart move to make a movie adaptation of a property for the sake of the audience that the property already has while locking out potentially untapped demographics because of the level of assumed knowledge required to appreciate the story?

Or perhaps, is it a smart defence of a movie adaptation that does this very thing?

I suppose it is indicative of the times when a $78 million production budget (not including marketing expenditure) can be considered a “low” budget for a film that is ostensibly an action/adventure/sci-fi flick, and a major release at that (sourced from box office mojo.). It is, at the same time, not a small budget. Sucker Punch was a movie with a $82 million budget (large for a personal project!) and really still managed to flop horribly, with a worldwide gross of $89,792,502. So movies in this price range still represent a decent financial risk.

That’s not to say that The Hunger Games will not perform well. With an estimated $68 million back as of March 23rd Domestically (read as: IN AMERICA!) the film is well on its way to making back its production budget. I do not have numbers on drop off, but that’s a fairly decent opening weekend for a movie that seems to cater to people who have read the book and be somewhat distancing for those who haven’t.

Of course, not everyone is going to get hung up on the ins and outs of the universe being built in a film. Just look at the Star Wars prequel trilogy and its many inconsistencies and utterly stupid decisions made by characters for no other reason than the sequel trilogy demanded that things end up going a specific way. You may even cast your eyes towards the Bayformers movies and how they did not care for crafting good action sequences with consistency, continuity, a sense of space, or a sense of orientation. They didn’t even care about creating a consistent plot! Hell, they even threw pacing out the window too!!! They are massively successful.

However, Transformers, despite what fans may say, isn’t really a property that has that much to go off of. There is meat in a novel, or one would hope. It is not easy to translate everything from the page to the screen.

I would like to talk about a specific example of a book to film translation that lost lot of the material from the source text, but still managed to be entertaining without having read the book. I am, of course, talking about Jurassic Park. This is a movie that is considered a cultural milestone. It was a movie of great significance, being the first movie to have DTS sound in Theatres and the home video markets. It was a high water mark for visual effects. It was also a damn good film.

The movie is missing a huge amount of content to be found in the book, some of which made it into the third movie. An example of something that was left out was an explanation as to why park staff never noticed the dinosaurs were breeding. In the book, it is explained that the population sensors stopped counting after the population reached a specific target population. Let us call this X. If the population rose above X, the computers wouldn’t bother counting. However, if the population fell significantly below X, the computers would let staff know. This is a seemingly small detail, but it ties into the theme of the arrogance of man in the face of unknown technology. The staff never programmed the counters to count for populations greater than X because they assumed they had control over the population, saw no need to code it in, and decided to cut that corner to save time and money.

In the movie, this scene is is instead replaced by the characters berating John Hammond about his lack of care in developing the park and a small scene later in the movie where one character finds a nest of dinosaur eggs. It is not the same sequence of events in the book. A number of scenes were cut, and as such a chunk of dialogue was missing. However, the point that Hammond was arrogant enough to not consider the possibility that his creations were already out of his control before Nedry did what he did is still driven home with the discovery of the nest. Point still made.

Things need to be changed in order to reflect the medium. With books, you have a lot of space to work with. In movies, not so much. Thus it is understandable that there will be missing elements. However, there are ways to work said elements into the movie without having them explicitly take away from huge bits of screen time. In other words, they can be implied. This does take a bit of creativity on the part of the cast and crew. Non-specific examples include set dressing, such as movies where space ships have love letters stuck to a crew member’s walls, adding a little texture to the character and the setting. I do believe Sunshine did this very thing, making the isolation and remoteness of the crew more evident on a subconscious level. Of course they are lonely and far from safety, they’re on a space ship where they have to plaster their walls with letters from loved ones to remember they still have something to return to! By the way, watch the movie. Regardless of what you think of the end, it is an interesting film.

As I said, I have not seen, nor read The Hunger Games, and as such I can only go by what is being said in the review. This is very unprofessional of me and I apologise. However, I am not a professional, so there is that. In any case, from the reviewer’s point of view, there were elements of the film that seemed to be lacking. The commenter pointed out that they were covered in the book, the specific example being the area in which the contestants have to fight. The reviewer believed, not having read the book, that the arena was not clearly enough explained in the the movie.

I can see this as being a problem for some people, especially if the people running the game are able to conjure up disasters at will. How do they do this? Especially after the arena seems to be mostly normal looking vegetated areas?

Judging by how the film is tracking, it is not a problem for all people. I have a few friends who have seen the film without reading the book who enjoyed the movie. Then again, I also have friends who recommended I watch Transformers, because it would be the most awesome movie I saw that year. How I have not murdered them yet probably speaks to my self control…

There is probably something a little more interesting at play, where people are willing to forgive inconsistencies as long as the movie is engaging enough. Returning to Jurassic Park, where the hell did that massive drop come from? You know the one I am talking about, the one which the T.rex drops the car down after its initial rampage? It was not there in the previous scenes. In the moment, people do not care because it is that well done.

This is becoming less and less the case in modern films where frenetic cutting and bloated “special” effects sequences try to take the place of genuine suspense and engaging action. Hands up who of you could really tell which robot was punching which robot in the Transformers movies? The busy character designs do have something to do with it, but it’s the way the scenes are constructed that are most to blame. I saw the movie with someone who didn’t even realise Jazz had died until the end of the Mission City sequence! This is an indicator of a badly made movie.

Unfortunately, it is in vogue to construct action sequences like this these days and with the increase in films being shot with jittery cameras and split second cuts in the action, there is less for the film to hide behind. If someone can’t invest in what’s going on because they can’t tell what’s going on, they may wander to other things. Things such as what the point of a specific arc in the movie’s plot is. Or things such as what rules the universe is playing by. And if these things are found to be lacking, well then, you have a pretty disappointing product. (Although studies have shown that the more someone suffers to get something, the more they appreciate it, even if it is something utterly worthless. Unfortunately, I have forgotten the citations for this D: ).

So could it be that people defending film adaptations because the book explains things and the film is really just made for them and no one else are really just trying to justify the “suffering” they have gone through by inflating the film’s worth? I mean, surely you wouldn’t have sat through it if you hadn’t enjoyed it, right?

And if they are not inflating the film’s worth, is it a good argument to make? Would a studio really allow a director to make a film to cater to a specific audience rather than go for wide appeal? This is where the $78 million budget comes back into play. As I have said, it is simultaneously small and not small. Sucker Punch proved that even a budget considered small by block buster standards (the first live action Transformers movie had a production budget of $150 million), the consequences of an unsatisfying film can be financially dire. Sucker Punch was a film with niche appeal, what with combat mechs and demonic samurai packing chain guns, and it suffered for it. A film based on a book that assumes intimate knowledge of the source material for a budget that can result in a reasonably big loss is a risky proposition. It is unlikely, in “normal” circumstances, for a studio to green light a project like this.

I said “normal” circumstances because a few interesting things have happened, namely Harry Potter and Twilight. These are two franchises based on young adult books that have seen amazing box office performance. If not for the performance of these francises, I am sure The Hunger Games would have been passed on, and if it was not passed on, more time would have been spent on exposition. So if a franchise based on YA lit is a licence to print money, why should a film maker really care about the quality of their film as a stand alone product? Is it really that the film was made specifically for fans of the book, not holding their hands because they have the knowledge required to make things make sense? Or could it be that they couldn’t bother with weaving detail into the world because YA lit film adaptations seem to be a guaranteed hit and quality doesn’t really matter?

I speak not to the actual quality of the film (even though my last sentence may have implied that) but to the quality of the argument. It is kind of naive, or maybe a little bit egocentric to think money minded people developing LUXURY products with huge initial investment could possibly make a product specifically for you, and not Joe or Jane Everybody just because the product they made cut some corners in order to get out within budget.

Seriously (and I do apologise for the all caps), this is the argument you are making:

IT DOESN’T MATTER THAT THE FILM DOESN’T EXPLAIN SOMETHING WHICH MAKES THE FILM SEEM FLIMSY AS A RESULT BECAUSE THE BOOK EXPLAINED IT AND IT IS A FILM MADE SPECIFICALLY FOR US PEOPLE WHO READ THE BOOK AND WE KNOW WHAT HAPPENED BECAUSE WE READ THE BOOK AND THUS THE FILM IS ENJOYABLE BECAUSE OF OUR RELATIONSHIP WITH A PRODUCT THAT IS NOT THE PRODUCT IN QUESTION!!! IT IS ACTUALLY TO THE FILM’S BENEFIT THAT IT CANNOT STAND UP AS A PRODUCT IN ITS OWN RIGHT!!

Films are rarely, if ever, made for the fans. Take a look at video game adaptations. DOOM for example had almost nothing to do with the video game franchise in question. It didn’t go for the over the top lone man battles demons in hell approach of the first few games, nor did it really go for the atmospheric and sometimes terrifying Lone Man fights for survival against demons from hell after some idiot stuffed something up approach. It is a generic sci-fi action flick that tries too hard to be scary to be campy fun like the first few games, and tries too hard to be campy to be scary like DOOM 3, the game it cribbed most of its artistic design from. Also it completely drops the Demons from Hell angle because it would be too offensive to the general public. That’s right, the general public, not fans!

Also what the heck is Street Fighter and what does it have to do with the games?

Franchises are picked up because an executive or two think the idea can make money. More money is made the more people the film can reach out to. If a film is made specifically for the fans of an already existing property, how will that draw in new customers and by extension their new money?

Remember these two words should remind you of the errors of your thinking and of the dangers of niche products with large-ish budgets:

SUCKER PUNCH

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