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Friday, March 8, 2013

Why don't we have more good original screen plays?...

by Jamie Lutton

 Discerning moviegoers have been complaining for decades over the lack of good, original movies in the theaters.

Original screenplays that are brilliant, and not derived from a play or books are rare.  Groundhog Day comes to mind, that and so does The Sting and When Harry Met Sally or Citizen Kane.
        
The problem is that studios do not want to risk money on anything that is not a sure bet, and a pre-tested play or book is safer to bet money on.   In modern times the theaters are filled with remakes,mediocre sequels and films that remakes of remakes, as the studios are terrified of taking a chance on something new.
      
Consider the new prequel to The Wizard of Oz, which came out this week.  Instead of working from one of L. Frank Baum's other Oz books, this is a splashy 3-D attempt to capitalize on the popularity of a 54-year old movie. The studios did not want to risk failure, so they backed a film that  is unimaginative and weak, and took no creative chances.  The reviews of this film say it is tepid, or at best safe 'children's' fare.
     
Other recent films, like the  two Robert Downey Jr.  Sherlock Holmes films also bear little resemblance to their original material.  The scriptwriters, who I suppose were not sure that a movie going audience would enjoy the original stories, add a lot of violence, sex, and  special effects to plots that are wildly different  from the originals.  These two films are as close to the original Sherlock Holmes stories as The Life of Brian is to the Four Gospels.  Marginally enjoyable, but hardly recognizable as an adaption of these classic detective stories.
        
The best films historically often start out as successful stage plays or books. A good example is the 1942 movie classic Casablanca.
  
It started out as a  play called Everyone Comes to Ricks. This film became such a huge cult hit that, curiously, the actors and the studio denied it began as stage play for decades, jealously guarding the credit for it's success.    This is why the   snappy, witty dialog of this film, without a misplaced word, echos the limitations of the stage. Generally stage plays rely on good writing and believable characters for their success, not (only) special effects.   Most importantly, Casablanca is of ideas as well as being a war movie. Critics say it is one of the best films ever made.
      
I don't want to spoil it for you, but if you have not seen it, go, go go if there is a revival in a movie theater. Or, get it on Netflix, but gather a group of friends  who have not seen it, to see it with you. .
         
Sometimes a film that bombs in the theater the first time out. Harold and Maude, released 1971, took years to develop  an audience .  Harold and Maude was first a novel by Colin Higgins, who co-produced the film (a gay author and director of several films, who died in the Aids epidemic in 1988)  It later had a 7 year run as a stage play  in France.          

Sometimes musicals do not  translate very well to the movie screen. Rent, based on the opera La Boheme, was not a success as a movie.  Too much of it had had to be cut, and it was 'too big' for a movie screen. Very few musicals translate well to movies, esp. as many viewers only see them on TV, and do not get to experience the musical, which like good opera, is supposed to sweep over and overwhelm the audience..
   
The musicals made in the 1950's of, say,  South Pacific and West Side Story are good, but any decent stage production of these two musicals  is better than the admittedly well made  film productions. The same with Amadaeus, which was a stage production in London before it was filmed with American actors like Tom Hulse.
       
Another great films such as Educating Rita or Butterflies are Free started out as a plays; both plays ran for months on Broadway or in London before they became films.   Well made and successful movies of ideas, these films shape end up very like the original stage plays. .
 
Even light comedy classics, like the Marx Brothers movies, started out as stage productions. When you see several Marx Brothers films back to back, you see that they use the same jokes, recycled over and over. These films are just rehashing of their Vaudeville productions from the 1920's.
  
The track record of a play helps sell the film adaption.   There are powerful people who have to be have some hope that their investment will pay off,  before a film can be funded. When Harold and Maude was first pitched as a film idea, the studio heads were disgusted by the theme - a young man falling in love with an old woman - and could not see past their reaction to see what a brilliant ideas behind this anti-war movie.  This film had to been seen over and over, like Groundhog Day,  to catch on and become a cult favorite.
   
The modern film adaption of Les Miserables had the advantage that it had been tested onstage many, many times with many different productions before it made the jump to the stage.  The miracle this year was The Life of Pi, as it is a straight adaption from an 'unfilmable' book. Only through the use of  the trickery of CGI could the 'tiger in a lifeboat' be to life. The director was able to use that trickery, combined a decent adaption,  to tell his story onscreen. The Life of Pi got good reviews, and all agreed that the CGI augmented but did not dominate the plot.
  
Jaws, for example, made in 1974 straddles one era in film making and the next. A popular novel of the time,  it 'works' still as a good movie, and is still popular even though the bloody special effects are antiquated.
     
In the end, Jaws is about the relationship between people, not just a big fish showing up, who eats swimmers at random. This shark showing up off the coast   serves as a deus ex machina to throw people in the small town into conflict, then comradery , Their struggle with the shark, and the three main characters had with each other in the second half of the film, created a classic.   The actors, especially Robert Shaw, were excellent actors, and allowed to improvise some of their lines, another reason which why this is a great film - the writing and the characters in it.
           
But after Jaws made hundreds of millions of dollars, as people would go to see this movie over and over, the studios went nuts. This film and Start Wars damaged the film industry.   The studio heads only saw the big fish, and did not notice that the film was really about  people.  And the funding for films about people, not special effects dried up, and 'sure things' like science fiction movies, remakes and comic book movies have dominated the industry ever since. Films are then made for the lowest common denominator - the teen audience.
         
That is why movies made 30, 40 years ago - The Godfather, The Graduate,  and Harold and Maude, are considered to be classics for the ages, and modern films often fade  out of memory quickly..
   
The best way to appreciate what 'great' films have to offer, is to go to live theater.
      
See the hot new plays, and the classics (and Shakespeare!) if you can.  War Horse, first a kid's book, is now a huge hit onstage that I predict will eventually be made into a movie  - and it will not be as good as the stage play, with puppeteers creating the horse who is the lead.
    
A "real" horse, created with CGI will not be as poignant as the puppet horse on stage - that you have to suspend and 'believe' the horse is real is the point of the play. Part of the greatness of this play is that the horse IS a puppet; and a brilliantly done one.  Suspension of disbelief is part of the magic of the stage.
 
South Pacific, Rent and Amadeus, the musicals, are better to see live, if you can manage it.  They can capture you, and stay in your heart, if you let them, in a way few movies can, even with three-d and Suroundsound .
     
And remember to vote with your pocket.  Go to see the serious, 'small' films, in the theater and not just on Netfilx, so they do not die out completely, and we are left with bloated special affect driven films with no heart.

1 comment:

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