Reading Quentin Tarantino

Saying Quentin Tarantino is a great screenwriter is like saying that Bach is a good composer or Wilt Chamberlain is a great basketball player – he may not be the best ever, but he’s a definitive and obvious master of the medium and he’s won two academy awards, which seems like too few. But because the only people who read screenplays other than screenwriting students and people who are actually in the films that the screenplays become, there’s something to be said about Tarantino’s craft that goes beyond how well it translates to the screen. Tarantino’s screenplay are reading experiences in a way that few are – they go beyond functionality and economy and into a totally unusual domain where what follows INT – JACKRABBIT SLIMS – NIGHT are eloquent and hilarious and even literary. For that reason, they’re terribly uninstructive for beginning screenwriters, who could never get away with this (aside: the most instructive and economic script I’ve ever read is The English Patient, which is less than a hundred pages even though the movie is about three hours long). Tarantino’s scripts read like novels – they are even broken up into chapters, which often make it into the movies. I haven’t seen a Tarantino movie fresh since Jackie Brown; I’ve read the script for every one through some kind of illegal downloading, most recently because of the leak of The Hateful Eight that made him threaten never to make it. I was delighted and read it within an hour of getting it.

The other reason you should read Tarantino’s scripts is because whole scenes or chapters end up on the cutting room floor for budget or for length. Most famously, this happened with Kill Bill, which ended up becoming two movies even as whole scenes are dropped. Sadly, the ending of Kill Bill involved an epic night-time sword fight on the beach between Bill and The Bride, which the film replaces with her much quicker sneak attack. Inglorious Basterds explains how the orphaned Jewish refugee Shoshanna becomes the owner of a movie theater in Vichy France, and also how Donnie became the Bear Jew. Django Unchained explains how Calvin Candie came to own Broomhilda. True Romance is a very different script, with a less linear structure that creates mystery and ends more tragically – but we have Tony Scott to thank for those changes.

Here’s a few examples of Tarantino’s descriptions at their most vivid, and also some stuff that’s been dropped (all of these scripts are available online; all you have to do is google them).

Kill Bill opens gloriously with the fight between Uma Thurman’s Bride and Vivica A. Fox’s Cobra. And the description realizes the domestic destruction they bring:

qt1

The film obviously (and maybe even wisely) cuts all the specifically observed domestic details, like the commemorative plates, but here we get that Cobra is now Vernita – an assassin who has thrived in the domestic life of a homemaker that the Bride has never known. And that’s precisely what the Bride is set on destroying. But the energy of the film is completely evident on the page. Tarantino apparently can’t type well, so he writes his scripts in spiral notebooks with red and black felt pens (hence the misspellings and typos: it’s “Crispus Attucks”). Reading this, you can see his visual imagination at work.

The early scripts – Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, and True Romance – are leaner and meaner. But one abandoned scene in Pulp Fiction deserves to be mentioned. It’s when Vincent Vega goes to pick up Mia Wallace and she talks to him over the intercom:

qt2

This is the classic early Tarantino that would be ripped off over the next few years – spot-on perfect pop culture references coming from unlikely sources as a way of establishing character quirks. And the undeniable fact is that it was wisely cut from the film because it doesn’t make sense: Vincent has just shot up and wouldn’t be this lucid. Mia is nervous yet mysterious and cool and this gives too much away. The film shows a stoned (and equally nervous) Travolta out of it and swaying to the dope, and that works perfectly. With the Jackrabbit Slim scene yet to come, it’s just too much chocolate syrup in your milk. But this exchange, particularly the Encyclopedia Brown reference, kills me. I wish it could exist in another movie.

Django Unchained is full of references to other Westerns, as is The Hateful Eight. But my favorite is the description of “Minnie’s Haberdashery” in The Hateful Eight, which is where (this is not a spoiler) about 70% of the story is set:

qt3Apart from the punchline, and the loving encyclopedic knowledge of Westerns, this seems like the closest thing you’re going to get to shooting the shit with Tarantino at a bar. And since the rest of the film is going to be set there, you can observe how much he makes the setting a character. I seriously doubt we’ll hear any of this in the movie, but if it works, you’ll see the spirit.

There are more, but I’ll return to Kill Bill because it’s one of my all-time favorite reading experiences. I bought it in  New York from a street vendor (they still do this) before the movie came out and read it in a sitting. In the script, Bill is introduced much differently. We never see him in the first film, but we do hear his voice – that’s not the case in the script. When Elle Driver goes to poison the comatose Bride in a hospital, and Bill calls at the last minute to tell her not to, we don’t hear Bill’s reasons – we just see this:

qt4There’s so much more mystery established here than what the finished film ends up showing: Bill from the neck down caressing a sword and adding what the script only hints at through the enigmatic pauses. It makes Bill – the guy in the title who needs to be killed – too cool for us even to listen to yet. He’s as persuasive as he is deadly, and this is something that I feel got lost in David Carradine’s stylized performance – here, you can see the part that was originally written for Warren Beatty, playing on his image as a master manipulator of woman, and making his ultimate demise more satisfying.

And finally, to show that Tarantino can do the whole brevity thing, I’ll close with the way he introduces Bill. This is my favorite thing that was ever cut from a Tarantino script. It’s in a chapter called “Can she bake a cherry pie,” and it takes place in an illegal casino. Bill has knocked at the door and we haven’t seen him yet, so we’re following the perspective of eyes through a slot in the door. And here’s what we finally see. Keep in mind that this is the guy from the title, who has been talked about but never seen or heard, so we’re expecting the same kind of intense and awesome details we get for Minnie’s Haberdashery. But instead:qt5

 

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Alexander Pope and Ed Champion

This article by Laura Miller is the first, and hopefully the last, thing I’ve read about this Ed Champion guy who verbally abuses female authors through various media. I hope the notoriety subdues, rather than enhances him. And this is coupled with the awful attacks on female gamers and game-makers. The internet is becoming an ugly place: in the seventeenth century women authors were snickered at, and it was pretty bad, but now they’re getting rape threats, and guys like Champion are making careers out of being misogynists.

I’m teaching Alexander Pope’s ESSAY ON CRITICISM tonight, which I argue is not so much about poetry or criticism as it is power. For Pope, the problem of criticism is a problem of power rooted in judgment and the way it is wielded against others. He sought to give that power back to the poet, and his “Ed Champion,” a guy named John Dennis, would spend his career bashing him. But living in a masculine milieu of authors, Pope still sensed that the antagonism was going to destroy a literary culture that had the chance of emulating or even equaling the ancients. (To make things more complicated, Pope also liked to make fun of women – they were “at best a contradiction still”). I’ll be passing this article out tonight and highlighting some of the sections, because its (sadly) timely.

Here’s the section from ESSAY ON CRITICISM that most jumps out to me as I read this:

Now, they who reached Parnassus’ lofty Crown,
Employ their Pains to spurn some others down;
And while Self-Love each jealous Writer rules,
Contending Wits becomes the Sport of Fools:
But still the Worst with most Regret commend,
For each Ill Author is as bad a Friend.
To what base Ends, and by what abject Ways,
Are Mortals urg’d thro’ Sacred Lust of praise!
Ah ne’er so dire a Thirst of Glory boast,
Nor in the Critick let the Man be lost!
Good-Nature and Good-Sense must ever join;
To err is Humane; to Forgive, Divine.

“Nor in the Critick let the Man be lost!”

Is Margo Roth Spiegelman a Manic Pixie Dream Girl?

Here’s a thoroughly ridiculous example of success:

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John Green has written four significant young adult novels in the last nine years, and all four of them are still in the YA Top 10 best-sellers list (An Abundance of Katherines is Number 9). The film version of The Fault in our Stars promises to be a runaway success even if it’s bad. Green is four months older than me. Only a fool would expect this kind of triumph. And Green isn’t writing about wizards or dystopian battle royales, he’s dealing with teenagers who can adequately be described as “real.”

I’ve now read two of his books, Fault and now Paper Towns. While the former has a more deeply moving subject matter (teenagers with terminal illness), the latter is the more complex and interesting: if Fault answers a bunch of questions, Towns – like its patron saint poet Walt Whitman – mainly asks them. And one of those questions is about whether or not its beautiful, mysterious protagonist can have an existence outside of our imaginations.

Margo Roth Spiegelman is the object of many stories within the world of the novel itself. In other words, her existence is filtered through others, primarily through the at-first milquetoast narrator Quentin Jacobsen. It’s not too much of a spoiler (it’s in the summary from the NYT above) to say that Margo enters Quentin’s life dramatically and leaves mysteriously, and that the brief experience liberates Quentin. Which puts her in the realm of “Manic-Pixie Dream Girl.”

The Manic-Pixie Dream Girl came to be out of this brilliant review of Elizabethtown by pop-culture guru Nathan Rabin. He uses it to describe the regressive, but very familiar stereotype of a quirky female character whose sole existence within a story is to liberate a male protagonist. Though she’s seemingly an eccentric iconoclast – usually conveyed through her insistence on wearing silly hats – she has no inner life, exists in no conceivable reality, and yet somehow ends up being domesticated by the very dullards she was created to liberate. Instead of subjectivity, she possesses an endless series of quirks, appetites, and elliptical quasi-profound fortune cookie proverbs. She’s such a fantasy that we’re surprised that the movie doesn’t end with her saying “My work here is done,” and then walking into a spaceship.*

On Facebook, friends pointed out that Green’s work often draws this critique. In short – that his books are centered around passive male characters who encounter brilliant females who turn them into the heroes they’re supposed to be. At first glance, Margo, who climbs in Quentin’s window dressed like a ninja and demands he sneak into Seaworld, seems not merely to be an MPDG, but the most egregious example of an MPDG of all time. If you’re looking for ammunition, here’s what Margot says when she and Quentin sneak into a building so they can see the best view in Orlando:

Here’s what’s not beautiful about it: from here, you can’t see the rust or the cracked paint or whatever, but you can tell what the place really is. You can see how fake it all is. It’s not even hard enough to be made out of plastic. It’s a paper town. I mean, look at it, Q: look at all those culs-de-sac, those streets that turn in on themselves, all the houses that were built to fall apart. All those paper people living in their paper houses, burning the future to stay warm. All the paper kids drinking beer some bum bought for them at the paper convenience store. Everyone demented with the mania of owning things. All the things paper-thin and paper-frail. And all the people, too. I’ve lived here for eighteen years and I have never once in my life come across anyone who cares about anything that matters.

This is exactly the kind of thing the MPDG says, in the hopes of unshackling “Q” from his droll, “paper” existence.
But wait. There’s a moment in the book where Quentin is over at his friend Radar’s house helping him prepare for a party by putting away Radar’s parents record-breaking collection of Black Santas (Green is brilliant with these kind of details). Q says, “You know, when you see them all together, it really does make you question the way we imagine our myths.” If you read the Goodreads quote page, you’ll see a lot of quotes like this. Here’s another: “What a treacherous thing to believe that a person is more than a person.”

I point this scene out in connection to what Green, who has mastered social media and uses it to engage his readers, says about this critique:

Margo is certainly presented by Q as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl at the beginning of PT. Absolutely. But that only acknowledges that some boys believe in Manic Pixie Dream Girls; it doesn’t argue that MPDGs actually exist, or that Margo is one . . . Paper Towns is a book about–at least in part–the MPDG lie, and the danger of the lie–the way it hurts both the observer and the observed. In order to uncover Margo’s fate, Q must imagine Margo as a person, and abandon his long-held MPDG fantasies.

This isn’t thematic retrofitting; it’s there throughout the novel. Quentin objectifies Margo, and by fitting her in this category so do we. When it turns out that Margo is full of darkness and a complexity that Quentin realizes is more complex than the complexity he’s imagined, Paper Towns reveals itself not as participating in the regressive trope, but examining, complicating, and critiquing it. Quentin is liberated, but it’s not because Margo is a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but because Margo is not the Manic Pixie Dream Girl designed for his emancipation that he wants her to be.

In Sonnet 75 of his Amoretti, Edmund Spenser does something rare for a sonnet – he lets the object of the love poem talk back. In the first stanza, the speaker says he going to immortalize his beloved, but he can’t.

One day I wrote her name upon the strand,
But came the waves and washed it away:
Again I wrote it with a second hand,
But came the tide, and made my pains his prey.

In other words, “I want to immortalize you but I can’t.” In the next stanza, “she” responds to this poetic activity.

Vain man, said she, that doest in vain assay
A mortal thing so to immortalize,
For I myself shall like to this decay,
And eek my name be wiped out likewise.

“You can’t immortalize me,” she says, and the underlying reason is that she’s too intricate, too exceptionally mortal, to be reduced to the aesthetic object of the poet’s “pains.” And of course, the poet goes on to say he’s just going to do it anyway. Quentin’s doing something remarkably similar to what the poet is doing, and often we are too – in trying to categorize this female figure, he creates boundaries and capture her within his own profoundly self-involved vision.

This is challenging, problem-posing stuff for young adults, and I hope that Green’s novel initiates a lot of conversations. I think they can handle it. I’m teaching this in my Fall English 105 class, and I plan to use the MPDG issue as a discussion starter, and as avenue of talking about representations of teenagers and women more broadly. As the novel ends, we’re denied some of the satisfactions we hope we’d get, just as the questions about Green’s female characters have no easy answers.

* – (If someone ever makes the case that E.T. is the ultimate MPDG, I want to be cited.)

Jonathan Franzen and the New Dunciad

 

With a few exceptions, Twitterers have taken issue with Jonathan Franzen’s screed against the “modern world” (links below):

Amidst his promotion for a new book of translations (or something) by an obscure German satirist, Franzen tries to balance his technophobia with an admiration for the “functionality” of the PC over the Mac. That’s the best part of this wide-ranging polemic, which also lays into Twitter and those “who should know better” like Salmon Rushdie. Rushdie has the audacity, I guess, to reach out to a curious audience in something besides expensive hard-back books.

But the part that gets me is his attack on Amazon. Now, Amazon might very well be gearing up for its “Sinister Phase Two.” But Franzen’s complaints center on a strange attack on the democratization and demystification of “literature” and the “writer.” Here’s the key passages:

  • Amazon wants a world in which books are either self-published or published by Amazon itself, with readers dependent on Amazon reviews in choosing books, and with authors responsible for their own promotion.
  • Maybe the internet experiment in consumer reviewing will result in such flagrant corruption (already one-third of all online product reviews are said to be bogus) that people will clamour for the return of professional reviewers
  • But so the physical book goes on the endangered-species list, so responsible book reviewers go extinct, so independent bookstores disappear, so literary novelists are conscripted into Jennifer-Weinerish self-promotion, so the Big Six publishers get killed and devoured by Amazon: this looks like an apocalypse only if most of your friends are writers, editors or booksellers.

Considering where it’s coming from – the most respected (and pretentious) literary novelist alive – Franzen is a weird vehicle for these arguments. Amazon promoted the hell out of his book in 2010; I know, because every day I went there to get something else, it reminded me when it was coming out. And since when have literary novelists not been “conscripted into . . .self-promotion” through book tours, TV appearances, or the cover of Time Magazine?

Further, the integrity of Amazon product reviews is worthy of investigation, but why shouldn’t customers look to their peers rather than “professional reviewers?” Franzen implies that those “responsible” professional reviewers don’t operate with similar prejudices. Think about all the high praises that appear on truly awful movies. When was this golden age of writing about books? Did they operate under the same standards of literary privilege of which Franzen continues to craft himself as the last remaining voice? Weren’t those “Big Six publishers” merely an analog version of what Amazon is trying to be? While we might nostalgic remember them as beholden to an idea of quality that Amazon is apparently not, that seems like a particularly selective reading of an profit-driven industry that continually published Harold Robbins yet rejected Dune 23 times.

If Franzen has a historical-literary parallel, it’s Alexander Pope and his Dunciad (The Dunciad, however, was funny). Like Franzen, Pope looked with horror at how easy it was to flood the market with bad books. Pope too was defending a particularly rigid version of literary discourse, seeing the proliferation of anything lesser as corrupting that which actually has value. And like Pope, Franzen is putting issues of technology and mediation as central to that corruption. But what exactly does Franzen want? I worry that the antidote is just as bad as the cure.

What’s So Great About The New Gatsby

The Great Gatsby is one of the most brazenly literary books ever written. It is not an unambitious novel, and it rejects a naturalism that many writers (like Hemingway) were taking in fascinating new directions. While its famous opening line (“Some years back, never mind how long . . .”) hints at the kind of self-fashioned modesty that Nick Carraway employs as narrator, that’s a kind of false foreshadowing. The real first line is the fake epigraph by the even faker “Thomas Parke D’Invilliers:”

Then wear the gold hat, if that will move her;
If you can bounce high, bounce for her too,
Till she cry ‘Lover, gold-hatted, high-bouncing lover,
I must have you!’

—THOMAS PARKE D’INVILLIERS

That is what the novel is about: not a guy being reminded of the values of the middle-west, but a man wearing a certain kind of hat, and a woman falling in love with him because he wears that hat so well.

Therefore, I’m not upset at all that Baz Luhrmann’s new film is brazenly cinematic: prizing spectacle over years of perhaps over-interpretation. If you hate this movie and love the book, then you’re probably overvaluing the book. But the book is itself a performance, a lot of kick-ass sentences that reframe familiar scenarios. I love the book and really enjoyed the movie – it’s not perfect and at times it’s a mess, but its overall aesthetic captures Gatsby better than any other filmed version. Much of this has to do with Leonardo DiCaprio, an actor we’re all probably getting tired of praising.

Robert Redford, the last notable screen Gatsby, was best at playing a guy who didn’t like wearing nice clothes. In one of his more iconic roles, The Sting, he cons his way into a tuxedo and takes it off as soon as he gets a chance. DiCaprio possesses some of this grittiness as well, but Titanic is a telling instance of why he was born to play Gatsby. Yes, he’s believable a sneaky kid who wins seats on the sinking ship in a card game, but when he puts on nice clothes he looks like he was born to wear them. When Fitzgerald imagined Gatsby imagining the “platonic conception of himself,” I have few doubts that he looked like Leo. It works, and Leo suggests both the submerged inner turmoil and commitment to surface that has made Gatsby the go-to archetype for failed American dreamer instead of other, better archetypes. Unlike Redford, DiCaprio sells the “grotesque and fantastic conceits [that] haunted him in his bed at night,” even when he’s calling you old sport and introducing you to famous gangsters. This isn’t the dangerous arrogance of Django Unchained‘s Calvin Candie or the kid president sneaky ingenuity of Catch Me If You Can‘s Frank Abagnale. DiCaprio is playing a tormented and remarkably successful dreamer, and  just because he’s spent quality time with Bar Rafaeli doesn’t mean we should dismiss him as the latest golden child.

I had my doubts about Carey Mulligan going in, but she’s tremendous here. Like Gatsby, unlike Tom and Jordan (who has an “urban distaste for the concrete), Daisy has a weird integrity and a rich, troubled inner life. We’ve seen Tom be one of the biggest assholes in western literature, but Daisy still can’t say she never loved this “hulking” meathead. Why? That’s what makes Daisy interesting, not shallow. Gatsby got part of the narrative wrong. And the predictably grand irony is that despite her surprising complexity, that’s not what Gatsby likes about her. As Jordan says,

The officer looked at Daisy while she was speaking, in a way that every young girl wants to be looked at sometime, and  because it seemed romantic to me I have remembered the incident ever since.

When Mulligan has to say, “I’ve never seen such beautiful shirts,” I understood why she was crying more than I did in the two times that I taught the book to tenth graders. Mia Farrow made Daisy ridiculous, but Mulligan makes her tragic – a wealthy child chiseled into a frivolous adult who was “popular in Chicago,” haunted by her honesty. I honestly can’t say if this is Fitzgerald’s conception or Baz Luhrmann’s (it certainly isn’t Gatsby’s), but it’s the way I’ll think about Daisy from now on.

The movie isn’t perfect. The rap music never works, not once. The book is obsessed with the music of its period, and I wish the movie were moreso. In a key scene in the book, Gatsby has Klipspringer play the piano (not an organ, as in the movie), and this is what he produces:

IN THE MORNING,
IN THE EVENING,
AIN’T WE GOT FUN——
ONE THING’S SURE AND NOTHING’S SURER
THE RICH GET RICHER AND THE POOR GET—
CHILDREN.

Frankly, I wish Baz got T-Bone Burnett or somebody to rethink those ditties, instead of Jay-Z to make up his own. Even George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue is anachronistic: Gatsby made his suicide dive in 1922, while Gershwin wrote his opus in 1924; that’s a quibble to end all quibbles, but some will make more of it than me. Also, I do wish they’d played the Myrtle and Tom scene straight. That scene makes Tom look like a fun guy, like a rock star trashing a hotel room. The ’74 version gets it right by making any Tom Buchanan party seem like a total drag in contrast to the fun that people seem to be having at Gatsby’s.

Here’s some dialogue from Tom’s party in the book:

 ‘What was the name of the woman?’ asked Mrs. McKee.

‘Mrs. Eberhardt. She goes around looking at people’s feet in their own homes.’

In the new movie, the worst part about the scene as filmed is that it doesn’t let us get to know Myrtle, which seems like the point of having it.

But I think the overall aesthetic works brilliantly, which is the point that everyone seems to disagree with and is the place where Luhrmann took the most creative chances. The consensus critical sentiment is captured in the fevered old man prose of David Denby: “Luhrmann whips Fitzgerald’s sordid debauch into a saturnalia—garish and violent, with tangled blasts of music, not all of it redolent of the Jazz Age.” But while Denby and others are complaining about having to wear 3-D glasses and that kids don’t watch old musicals any more, I’m willing to celebrate the Luhrmann for taking a chance to turn a beloved text into the cinematic version of what makes it beloved: a spectacle that constantly reminds you it’s a spectacle.

CHRISTMAS APE GOES BACK TO SUMMER CAMP: ON FAN FICTION

alf

Might it be more productive to think of filmed adaptations of literary works as “fan fiction”? Of course, by its most frequent definition, “fan fiction” exists in some of the weirdest, most disreputable corners of the internet, where Harry Potter fans imagine sexual encounters between wizards and muggles, or defiantly non-professional authors extend and deepen the mythology of ALF. Yet the impulse is the same: both writers of fan fiction and directors of expensive productions such as Cloud Atlas and The Hobbit make choices; they adapt, extend, or remove significant features of the original based on personal proclivities and by ignoring or adhering to the demands of audience of the texts course audiences.

On the Urban Dictionary, someone calling themselves Mistaki corrects other his fellow urban lexicographers by noting that “other definitions completely trash fan fiction.” The prior reviewer “Cherrie” offers a paradigmatic definition that you probably share: “Something really fun for extrenely [sic] bored people who like their favorite show/movie/video game too much.” In an effort to bring some much need  decency to this forum, Mistaki admits that a lot of fan fiction is awful (just like a lot of normal fiction is awful), he or she is more sympathetic to the genre:

It is true, however, that some fanfictions are rather poorly written and only a few hundred words, and it is also true that some people just write them so they can have their favorite characters have sex (lemon). But, if you take the time to find something decent, you can end up with a fanfiction story that is so close to the original piece of art, that you’d barely notice the difference.

So in other words, according to Mistaki’s distinction: good fan fiction is an act of mimesis rather than departure. If you want to write Encyclopedia Brown and Sally’s boudoir romance, you miss the point of the author’s original intentions, and you give over to your own weirdness, which violates the sanctity of the original.  I agree that fan fiction deserves more sympathy than it gets, but I’m not sure I agree with Mistaki that “lemons” aren’t just as interesting as those stories in which you’d “barely notice the difference.” Of course, this didn’t really matter until recently, when writing fan fiction had a similar impact to drawing a picture of Optimus Prime putting onlipstick one a piece of notebook paper that you then threw away. But Fifty Shades of Grey changed things.

optimus

Fifty Shades of Grey began as Twilight fan-fiction from “Snowqueen Icedragon.” An erotic adventure featuring characters from Twilight, it soon drew enough of a following to warrant its own website. It was published through a “virtual publisher.” Now it has sold a bazillion copies and created hours of cheap jokes for Jay Leno. No one is saying its good other than the bazillion people who have read it and its three sequels, and they saying it’s amazing. They are buying classical music anthologies “inspired” by the books. This could not have happened in 2004. What “Snowqueen Icedragon”  – now known as E.L. James – did was follow the deep fantasies that had emerged from the reading experience. And her new address is easy street.

What’s the difference, ultimately, between Fifty Shades of Grey, The Hobbit, and this story about the Kathy Bates character from Fried Green Tomatoes trying to lose weight, besides the medium of adaptation? The easy answer is authorization. (And money, I guess).Peter Jackson and New Line had the rights to transform Tolkien’s words into a visual form. And yet, is not on some level Jackson making the same kinds of choices that fan-fiction writers do? He’s bound by more expectations, of course, but he can choose to ignore them. In the first LOTR movie, he dropped Tom Bombadil – probably for economy and its intrusion of a uncinematic quaintness – and gave Arwen a more prominent role, probably because the studio was concerned women might not watch the movie otherwise. So there’s another distinction: the institution matters more for Jackson, while fan fiction writers operate with the blessing or curse of autonomy. Still, I think the point is not that Jackson made these choices because of the prominence of his adaptation, the point is that he made these choices at all. There are issues of fidelity and there are issues of departure, and Jackson got yelled at and celebrated for both of them from bookish kids who dressed up as Balrogs for their seventh grade costume day. But don’t fan fiction writers imagine themselves before the same kinds of audiences as Jackson? Much like Jackson sought inclusion and approval from a fervent and zealous tradition of Tolkien readers, fan fiction writers also have to think about the communities that they engage. And of course, in terms of what makes them different, the other answer is quality. As mediocre as Zak Snyder’s version of Watchmen was, it’s better than these.

By now I’ve completely conflated “adaptation” and “fan fiction,” and that’s the point. I hope to think about this later in terms of the fascinatingly flawed adaptation of Cloud Atlas by the Wachowskis, in which they revered the spirit of the book but (particularly in one instance) significantly changed its substance. But if we take away issues of authorization and quality, we’re left with some startling similarities rather than obvious differences.

THE LIFE OF PI

In terms of visual imagination, no active director can top Ang Lee. Even in his lesser efforts, Lee paradoxically unites his sense of childlike wonder with a belief in a deterministic nature. In Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, for instance, the leaves blow like sails in the wind while ninja warriors fight on them. The stark beauty of Brokeback Mountain foreshadows a doomed romance that can’t happen anywhere but that backdrop. Often, Lee’s passion for color and motion and detail consumes the story; yes, Brokeback is a haunting and iconoclastic love story, but I came away remembering the tableaus, even when it was the craggy surface of Heath Ledger’s face as he struggled to articulate something he (in the movie’s cruel world) shouldn’t feel. For my money, the key scene of Lee’s ouvre is the final one: when Jen evades paternalistic authority forever as she dives off a mountain. As Jen’s relaxed body vanishes into nature, this movie about dreams ends with a fantasy of immersion and tranquility that the world she escapes from can’t offer her. We can take this scene as metaphor, but I don’t think Lee does.

As the world closes in you, you fight back with your own rituals. Lee repeats this scene, with sea and rain replacing mountain and fog. It’s not an original moment, but Lee holds these scenes dear – they become the centerpiece of his films even when they aren’t the most memorable thing about them. That’s why Lee is a fitting choice to take on Yann Martel’s gripping novel Life of Pi. The first part of Martel’s book, and Lee’s movie (a section that he captures with masterful economy), captures the means by which belief and ritual have a power outside of orthodoxy. And the second, and most vivid, shows the way they’re necessary for survival, as young Pi is trapped at sea with a Bengal Tiger.

I would imagine Lee wanted to direct that move once he heard that high concept premise. It gave him a chance to play around with CGI, with 3d, with the ocean as a bottomless pit of translucent beauty. But while critics are quick to argue that Lee is only interested in a formal exercise attached to some hokey hoo-haa spirituality, [1] it sounds like they came up with the thesis when they saw the trailer. Lee simplifies (again, to good effect) an already simple story, one that Martel saw no need to muddy up with the complexity of an outside perspective. Pi is all about the simplicity – the way his name reflects the way an endless mathematical constant can be translated into a symbol. I think there’s a group of Mr. Spectator types who are angry that a certain class of reader is thinking that the book is more profound than it actually is, without ever talking to those people. And the movie draws out that same arrogant critique: here’s Slate Dana Stevens, resplendent in the authority of her detachment: “The movie’s energy peters out in a series of book-club conversations about divine will, the power of storytelling, and the resilience of the human spirit.”

Because, of course, there’s something wrong with “book-club conversations about . . . the resilience of the human spirit.” At those moments, there’s no critic around to correct you for finding storytelling powerful in an uncomplicated way. At book clubs, no one uses the word “meta-narrative” as a way to shut down what you might have liked about a particular story.This is coming from the same publication that argued that you need to stop binge-watching TV shows because the best viewing experience is to follow along with the indispenable commentary of TV recappers.

Lee’s Life of Pi doesn’t just put the cookies on the bottom shelf, it revels in its simplicity and its instincts, much like the animals who are the real stars of the movie. Martel refuses to give into anthropomorphism except for one of the weakest scenes in the book. [2] Tigers act like tigers; hyenas are terrifying, not conniving; if meerkats are adorable, its because meerkats are adorable, not because they act like cartoon kittens. There’s a remarkable detail  that suggests the authors know what they’re up to – whether its Lee the director, Martel the author, or Pi the storyteller. They forgo easy sentiment by understanding that tigers can’t become domesticated, but they still get seasick. And forgive me if I find a complexity in the “power of storytelling” that belies Stevens quick deflation of it: the power wouldn’t have any effect if this weren’t a well-told story, and it clearly is. Lots of publicists write “a ripping yarn” on the book cover, but few deserve it as well as this one. And rather than emphasize the “rip,” Lee brings along his canny patience, one of the trademarks that rarely gets commented on. Movies about kids on lifeboats with tigers shouldn’t be slow, but at moments this one is, and it works.

If the movie has a flaw, it’s that it’s so decidedly PG. This is also one of its strengths: because its content isn’t going to offend anyone, there are going to be ten year olds who are going to be allowed to see it and fall in love with the potential of movies. However, the book opens up itself more to the nasty side of being ship-wrecked, including a disgustingly potent section about the possibility of eating tiger shit [3] and the joy of a long-awaited bowel movement. But its a fable about something that movies rated PG rarely touch on: sadness and loss, even if its yoked with inspiration. And you can roll your eyes at the human spirit, laugh at the earnestness of its presentation, but I didn’t.

GK Chesterton wrote, “But we cannot say why an egg can turn into a chicken any more than we can say why a bear could turn into a fairy prince. As ideas, the egg and the chicken are further off from each other than the bear and the prince; for no egg in itself suggests a chicken, whereas some princes do suggest bears.”[4] He was talking, I think, about the fact that modernity had left us bored with creation, and that when children love fairy tales they do so because the logic makes more sense. It’s the reason a kid looks at a tiger and wonders what she’s thinking, and if she likes being a tiger. But it seems we don’t want to go to the zoo anymore. Maybe if we hang with Pi, we might just share his wonder.

1. That’s what Joe Morgenstern said in the Wall Street Journal, Paul Ryan’s go-to source for movie reviews.
2.I’m referring to the scene in the book when a blinded and perhaps delusional Pi thinks he is talking to Richard Parker, a scene Lee wisely cuts.
3. A waste of fresh water, apparently. Predictably unflavorful.
4. From Orthodoxy, read it free online.