Books vs Films – A Dystopian Tussle Between Page & Screen

A book is a commitment, a film is a brief fling. I can cram several films into one week, even between hefty work & play commitments, whereas even short novels take me at least a fortnight to digest. I take a very deep breath when opening a chunky & complex volume (such as my current three-months-and-counting marriage to Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon).

*I know this seems rich from someone who debuts their writing career with a 700 page beast, but…*

Despite beginning as a novelist, it is well-documented that I’m a huge film geek. For some reason I feel more confident blogging about films. While there are still hundreds of key titles I’ve not yet seen, I feel pretty film-literate. I’m happy to argue til the cows come home over which directors I think are a bit overrated & which I’d gnaw through my own paw to work with (Park Chan Wook? How about it? Gwan, gwan, gwan…)

*Yes I did just couple a Father Ted catchphrase with patois. You’re welcome.*

On the subject of dystopia, there is much meat on the cinema chicken. I would argue, however, that a truly authentic dystopia requires the depth, development & complexity usually only birthed through the art form that is The Novel (or its graphic relations). So, here’s a few favourites…

1. The Road

Based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy (who also wrote the brilliantly brutal Coen-Bros-return-to-form No Country for Old Men) & directed by John Hillcock, The Road gives little indication of what brutal apocalypse created the living hell described. Yet the atmosphere of dread crawls into your veins & stays beyond the end credits. Despite only having one really frightening scene (in terms of an audience numbed by modern cinema), it has a visceral horror than runs throughout. Could such a subtly cruel skeleton of a story be written straight as a screenplay? Possibly. Could such a premise have been funded for filming without an incredible novel behind it? Doubtful.

2. Battle Royale

Before that other book/movie franchise with a similar premise brought the word ‘dystopian’ to the cinema-going masses (I don’t need to name it, it gets enough attention), there was the great cult hit Battle Royale. It was only recently I discovered this had its origins in a Japanese novel of the same name by Koushun Takimi. Battle Royale depicts a future in which as bizarre ‘punishment’, a group of school children are taken to an island & forced to play a game in which the only way to finally survive is to kill everyone else. It is the layers of understanding in young human relationships & behaviour that set this apart & add validity to its exploration of controversial subject matter.

3. Bladerunner, A Scanner Darkly, Minority Report & Total Recall

That’s not even the full list of films adapted from novels or short stories by Philip K. Dick, the godfather of metaphysical Sci Fi. And these are just the stories attributed to him. Arguably, (like George Orwell & H.G Wells) most dystopian cinema owes him something in terms of the complex exploration of speculative ideas.

4. Brazil

I include Terry Gilliam’s Brazil as a counter argument. It was written as a screenplay & is up there in the ‘best of dystopian cinema’ list. It owes a great deal to the novelists listed above though (& a few not mentioned).

5. Never Let Me Go

By Kazuo Ishiguro. While I know the dark premise, I’ve neither read the book or seen the film. This is because I have the book & I want to read it first, but going back to my opening paragraph, I’m a slow reader. Checking details on the IMDb though has led me to notice the screenplay was adapted by Alex Garland, who I can geek about until my hair falls out. Garland is an auteur of both novel & film. His first two novels, The Beach & The Tesseract, were adapted into films (despite great subject matter, both are watchable rammel) before turning his hand to writing screenplays (mostly for The Beach’s director Danny Boyle). Both 28 Days Later & Sunshine are Alex Garland creations.

6. Children of Men

I passed this by on its release, it just seemed like one of those heavy-initial-context films (a future in which humanity have proved infertile for 18 odd years resulting in many bad things), which was likely just an excuse to shove a chiselled face in front of the camera (step up Clive Owen), and play out a bunch of action set-pieces which result in said-chiselled-face saving the world. It’s actually based on a novel by P.D. James (good gosh, a woman) & while beautifully shot, also holds a gritty Britishness (Gritishness, thanks Layts). It feels very unsettlingly authentic – from the mundanity of turning-a-blind eye to the illegal immigrants caged outside tube stations, to the creepily self-righteous agenda of the anarchist ‘Fishes’, to Peter Mullan’s bent copper. (Michael Caine’s hippy character refers to him as a fascist, but really this assumes he believes in something.)

7. Metropolis

Out of curiosity I looked up one of cinemas greatest & earliest explorations of dystopia, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927). Turns out it was written originally as a novel & translated to screenplay by his wife & long-time collaborator Thea von Harbou. In fact it looks like she wrote most of his best work & some of F.W. Murnau’s too.

8. Casshern

A little known & much underrated film in my humbles. This is a live action film based on an Anime from the 1970s. It’s of the post-nuclear war, dead-hero-reincarnated-to-battle-a-race-of-mutant-androids variety. I’m not sure if the complex plot holds water, but mainly this is a sumptuous feast for your eyeballs. It calls up aspects of graphic novels, but at the same time also the visions of Romanticist painters. It’s beautiful. Really. And this brings to light the other great birthpool of cinematic dystopias – comics, anime & graphic novels.

9. A Clockwork Orange

The funny thing about A Clockwork Orange is that the film was very much Stanley Kubrick’s version of the novel by Anthony Burgess. I read an article recently which suggested the humour that comes about from the so very bizarre, disturbing character (& characters) of the film was not Burgess’ intention. He was deadly serious. He was actually quite conservative. He wrote it possibly more as a fantasy of revenge after his pregnant wife was violently beaten by American servicemen & later miscarried. It was an exploration of juvenile delinquency & free will, rather than a comment on how ridiculous & horrible it is to try to ‘cure’ the deviant mind in this way. Apparently he wasn’t too impressed with Kubrick’s creation.

10. Twelve Monkeys

Another Terry Gilliam chink in my poorly armoured argument. But it brings me to raise another of my great heroes to the light, Chris Marker. Chris Marker was a French filmmaker who made the original short film Le Jetee, which the clever premise of Twelve Monkeys is loosely based on. It is largely agreed (by me & whoever else in the pub whose seen it) to be one of the greatest film shorts ever made. He also made the brilliant San Soleil, you can buy the two together on compilation, something I urge you to do if you have even the slightest interest in filmmaking, philosophy or art. Twelve Monkeys is also pretty damn good.


2 responses to “Books vs Films – A Dystopian Tussle Between Page & Screen

  1. What’s interesting about Never Let Me Go is that Ishiguro and Garland are good friends. They’ve both got fascinating views on the role of film adaptation in comparison to the original work as well. Some fantastic interviews with the two of them about Never Let Me Go out there.

    Out of interest, have you read The Running Man? It has a similar vibe to Battle Royale/Hunger Games, although the novel is a lot more grim than the silly (yet excellent) Schwarzenegger movie.

  2. No, I’ve neither read nor seen that one. I’ll look it up… I’ll have a look for those interviews.

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