A Series of Unfortunate Reviews: “The Reptile Room”

If you have come to this review hoping to see that my opinion of Netflix’ series has improved dramatically with The Reptile Room, then it is my solemn duty to tell you…

…CONGRATULATIONS, YOU’RE IN THE RIGHT PLACE!!!

(Beware the spoilers for Episodes 3 & 4.)

Wow.  WOW.  I loved both parts of “The Reptile Room” so very much!

Neil Patrick Harris’ performance as Count Olaf improved.  He strikes a better balance between menacing and humorous.  When he arrived at Uncle Monty’s house, confronted the Baudelaires, and wound up chasing them through the house with his knife, I could actually feel myself tensing up.  I’ve read the book, I knew he wasn’t going to kill them, and yet I found myself thinking, “Oh no, I really hope he doesn’t figure out the trick of how to get into the Reptile Room!  Get out of there, Baudelaires!  Get some place safe!”

I knew they’d be okay.  I knew that if the show just followed the book, nothing would happen until Uncle Monty returned home.  And yet, as Olaf banged on the door to the Reptile Room, I kept thinking, “He’s going to figure it out and turn the knob any second now!  He’s going to figure it out!

Although it’s not accurate to the book, I loved Jim Carrey’s performance as “Stephano,” so I didn’t Harris could possibly top it.  I don’t know if he topped it, but he did at least match Carrey with his equally hilarious accent.  That in itself is a feat.

Then there’s Uncle Monty.  Aasif Mandvi gives such a perfect performance and I love what Daniel Handler and the other writers did with Monty’s character.  I liked him well enough in the book.  He’s one of the only decent guardians that the Baudelaires ever meet.  In the show, however, he gets to be even more intelligent, courageous, and kind-hearted than before.  He knows that Stephano is evil from the get-go and does what he can to help the children feel safe.  He obviously loves the Baudelaires and completely understands why they don’t trust him at first.  He also gets to take down the two white-faced women when they try to kidnap him at the theater, and then stops Stephano from kidnapping the Baudelaires just in time.

Speaking of the Baudelaires, I like how they don’t completely warm up to Monty at first.  They’re still recovering from their horrific experiences at Count Olaf’s.  So when Mr. Poe sends them to live with a complete stranger again, it makes sense that they’d question once again why they’ve never heard of their parents’ friend, Dr. Montgomery.  He responds with a very sweet little speech about reptiles: that there are plenty of dangerous ones out there, but that you can learn to spot the signs that tell you which ones are friendly.

It really says something about an adaptation of a tragedy when you know exactly what’s going to happen, but you still find yourself wishing that maybe, just maybe, this time it’ll end happily.  Granted, Lemony spends the entire time reminding us that Uncle Monty will die.  I responded in a very appropriate manner:

(Gif taken from GIPHY)

Unlike the Bad Beginning episodes, I liked the additional ties to V.F.D. placed within the story.  Here, they do make a sincere attempt to help Monty and the Baudelaires by warning them about danger.  It’s just that Monty misinterprets just how dangerous “Stephano” is.  The scene where he uses the code to find the message in the subtitles for Zombies in the Snow is a lot of fun.  (S0 is Zombies in the Snow– now THAT is what I’m looking for when I want to see Stylistic Suck.)

In “Part 2,” there are a few more significant deviances from the book, but they don’t really hurt the story.  First, the Baudelaires quickly pick up on the fact that “Nurse Lucafont” and the “investigators” that come to the Reptile Room are actually Olaf’s troupe.  They just can’t prove it to Mr. Poe (of course).  There’s a seriously funny exchange between Mr. Poe and Klaus over why they couldn’t possibly be people in disguise.

Second, well, the entire troupe comes to Uncle Monty’s house under the pretense of investigating his death, instead of the hook-handed man by himself.  Again, I don’t mind, because they’re funny.  They continue to act not quite as evil as they act in the books.  I laughed watching them get absorbed in Violet’s summation of how “Stephano” killed Uncle Monty.  They know exactly who did it and why, but they’re still so intrigued by her deductions.

Third, because the entire troupe’s there, Olaf doesn’t panic when Mr. Poe realizes his true identity.  Why would he?  His troupe easily outnumbers Poe and the Baudelaires.  But then the reptiles come to the rescue of the children.  This is great partly because it’s heartwarming and partly because Handler took care of a plot hole before it became an issue.  That doesn’t always happen in adaptations.  It doesn’t even always happen in this adaptation.

Finally, there’s the role of the Incredibly Deadly Viper.  This one’s pretty interesting because the movie made the exact same story change.  In the book, Dr. Lucafont tells everyone that he found traces of the Mamba du Mal’s venom in Uncle Monty.  The children have to prove that Olaf injected the venom into Monty because the snake has different ways of killing its victims.  In the movie and the show, everyone except the Baudelaires believe that the Incredibly Deadly Viper killed Monty.  It’s the children’s job to prove that the Viper is friendly.  Although, in the movie, that’s all they had to do.  The show tries to add content from the book by also showing Violet searching Olaf’s suitcase for what did kill Monty- venom from the Mamba du Mal.

And last but not least, I think these episodes did a better job with Mr. Poe’s characterization.  I found him to be a little too clueless and insensitive in Bad Beginning.  Although he doesn’t see anything suspicious about Stephano or the “investigators” in the Reptile Room episodes, he’s a lot more skeptical of their findings.  That’s not too far from the book, where he actually apologized to the Baudelaires for not believing them about Olaf.  Yes, he’s mostly unhelpful throughout the series, but he does have his moments, such as some scenes in The Wide Window.  It’ll be interesting to see how those episodes play out.

Speaking of which, tune in next time for my thoughts on the episodes about The Wide Window…

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A Series of Unfortunate Reviews: “The Bad Beginning”

If you have come to this blog in the hopes of reading reviews that absolutely eviscerate the film version of A Series of Unfortunate Events and heap endless praise upon the new Netflix series because it is superior to the film in every way, then you have come to the wrong place and should stop reading immediately.

I regret to inform you that this next series of reviews contains dreadful things, including a discussion of the merits and drawbacks of the film and the show, critiques of the actors’ performances, and terrible attempts by the author to imitate Lemony Snicket’s writing style.

For you see, I personally found the movie to be “a decent adaptation,” a phrase which here means, “Jim Carrey was a decent Count Olaf, okay?”

Welcome to my next series of posts: reviewing several adaptations of A Series of Unfortunate Events, including the movie, the Netflix series, and the video game!  (Yes, there was a video game.  It was based on the movie.  I owned the GameCube version.)  Although Lemony Snicket would find this hard to believe, I think this is going to be much more pleasant than Dracula Month because I enjoyed these adaptations by and large.

I’ll be starting with the Netflix series, breaking it down by book.  The first two episodes of Season One adapt the plot of The Bad Beginning.  It’s decent, yet it does have some flaws.

Patrick Warburton really nails the character of Lemony Snicket with his somber, dry delivery of the many over-the-top tragic event that happen to the Baudelaires.  That said, there’s a big difference between the show version and the book version (which I didn’t notice until my friend, Alie pointed it out to me.  Thanks, Alie!).  We never see his face in the books or the movie; all pictures of Snicket show him in the shadows or with his back turned.  Not so with Netflix; he’s front and center throughout the show.  Does it matter?  Eh, it might have been better if we didn’t see him, but it’s not a decision that kills the show for me.

The Baudelaires themselves do a good job too.  My only issue is with Sunny.  I know that’s a little ridiculous since babies can’t really act, but she didn’t seem as expressive as Kara and Shelby Hoffman, who both played Sunny in the film.  She’s also voiced by Tara Strong in the show.  While I like Tara Strong and I got used to things after a while, I thought something felt off when I heard Sunny’s baby gibberish.  When I learned afterwards that an adult actress had made those noises, it explained everything.

In the books, there’s almost nothing funny about Count Olaf’s troupe.  (I say “almost” because they do have moments of dark humor, just like every other aspect of the books.)  Whereas in the show, they provide comic relief about 98% of the time that they’re on screen.  It actually works in their case because their lines are really funny.  It’s also an enormous improvement over their appearance in the movie.  See, in the movie, all they really get to do is show up, look menacing, and provide backup for Count Olaf, a phrase which here means “do absolutely nothing until Olaf needs an extra person to accomplish something.”

They have so much more personality in the show.  When they appear, you know exactly who they are; it doesn’t take a couple of seconds to think, “Oh.  Right.  He/She works for Olaf.”  They’re not just present during the dinner scene; they’re also seen throughout the second episode helping Olaf prepare for The Marvelous Marriage, fool Mr. Poe, and prevent the Baudelaires or V.F.D. from stopping their boss.  They always have a funny comment about the situation that helps them stay memorable.

Yet when the time comes for the hook-handed man to deliver a chilling threat to the Baudelaires, Usman Ally’s performance is scary in a believable way.  He’s fantastic at going back and forth between humorous and menacing.

Neil Patrick Harris’ performance, on the other hand, feels a little less believable in The Bad Beginning.  He also makes the constant switch between entertaining and scary, just not as successfully.  Maybe it’s because he’s the main villain, so there’s more pressure on him to be more of a threat.  He keeps having silly moments like the scene where Klaus reveals his evil plan and has to stop to inform the Count what “literally” and “figuratively” mean.

I guess this isn’t wrong, per se, because he does devolve more and more into comic relief later in the series.  It’s established that he’s not as well-read as the Baudelaires.  However, there’s a powerful moment in Chapter 9 when Olaf threatens to kill Sunny if Violet refuses to marry him:

Violet stared at him.  She had an odd feeling in her stomach, as if she were the one being thrown from a great height.  The really frightening thing about Olaf, she realized, was that he was very smart after all.  He wasn’t merely an unsavory drunken brute, but an unsavory, clever, drunken brute (pp. 113-114).

Although the show follows the plot of the book fairly well, I didn’t get that feeling about Olaf in the first two episodes.  It felt more like he came close to succeeding because of luck than cleverness.  He almost gets away with it because Mr. Poe and Justice Strauss don’t do enough to help the Baudelaires, not because he’s good at what he does.  Granted, the unhelpful nature of the other adults is a reoccurring theme in the books, so that’s not totally inaccurate either.

In the Netflix series, the biggest change to the story is the early inclusion of V.F.D.  There’s no explicit mention of V.F.D. in The Bad Beginning episodes, but we see volunteers working undercover to stop Olaf.  The book didn’t have so much as a hint of a secret organization, except for their symbol tattooed to Olaf’s ankle.  I don’t mind the idea that much.  This should allow the TV writers to keep a consistent tone in the television series instead of making a shift after The Austere Academy.  

Unfortunately, it wasn’t executed well in the first two episodes.  In “Part 2,” we meet a volunteer named Jacqueline who works as Mr. Poe’s secretary.  She tries to stop Olaf from adopting the children, gets captured by the troupe, escapes with some help from fellow volunteer Gustav, and then…not much else.  They attend The Marvelous Marriage to keep an eye on Olaf, but this has no impact on the plot.  The Baudelaires still have to rescue themselves and Olaf still escapes.  Although they do inform the Baudelaires that they’re supposed to go live with Uncle Monty instead of Olaf, that’s something Mr. Poe could have told them.  I want to like Jacqueline and it was nice to actually see Gustav, but there’s just no point to them being there.  It made the scene a bit awkward, at least for me.

Finally, there’s a positive change that must be noted: the increased diversity in the cast, especially compared to the movie.  The Poe family, the hook-handed man, Uncle Monty, and Aunt Josephine are all played by people of color.  There’s also a visible amount of people of color in the backgrounds, particularly in the audience for The Marvelous Marriage.  That’s awesome and I hope it continues into the next season.

So, while definitely not perfect, the first two episodes of the Netflix series made an okay first impression with me.  But as we Snicket fans all know, first impressions can be entirely incorrect.

Will the subsequent episodes change my opinion of the series overall?

“You haven’t the faintest idea…”

Dracula: Dead and Loving It

Wow.

It’s hard to believe, but at the end of the day, the most faithful version of Jonathan Harker came from the parody of the Dracula movies.  Can you explain zat?  I cannot explain zat.  NO ONE CAN EXPLAIN ZAT!

But yeah.  After watching two movies and a television series that portray Dracula as a sexy beast who just wants to be loved, I get to watch a movie that makes fun of that idea, and boy does that feel refreshing!  Unfortunately, Dracula: Dead and Loving It doesn’t take the opportunity to also do justice to Mina’s character.  But at this point, I will take whatever I can get.

Adaptation-wise, this one’s a unique entry because it’s an adaptation of Stoker’s novel but also an adaptation of the Dracula movies, in a way.  Do parodies count as adaptations?  Eh, I say they do. They’re certainly not original stories.  They’re just a different kind of adaptation- taking the story and making changes to it that kind of examine and poke fun of it.  Like A Very Potter Musical, this movie doesn’t come off as mean-spirited, which is good.  It’s not as funny as Team Starkid’s parodies (and oh, how I would love to see Team Starkid do a parody of Dracula), but I enjoyed it.

It starts out following the same story beats as the 1931 film: Renfield goes to Transylvania to help Dracula move to Carfax Abbey instead of Jonathan.  The villagers warn him not to go and he ignores them.  He meets Dracula, who creeps him out, they go over the purchase, Dracula gets excited when his guest gets a paper cut, the Brides visit Renfield at night, etc.

There are references to the Coppola version too, namely, Dracula’s ridiculous wig and his attempts to turn Mina into his bride.  Also, unlike the 1931 film, this movie draws out Lucy’s illness and includes the part of the plot where she dies, becomes a vampire, and gets staked.  After that, the plot reverts back to the 1931 movie except for a new scene at a ball.  But even the ball is just a version of the mirror scene on a bigger, funnier scale.

The climax happens in London, not Transylvania.  Luckily, it’s a lot more dramatic than the Lugosi one, involving a battle between Dracula, Van Helsing, Jonathan, and Dr. Seward.  And instead of fleeing every time Van Helsing holds up anything resembling garlic or a crucifix, Dracula actually fights back and almost wins!  Seriously.  How come the films that are trying to be dramatic and frightening let the heroes stomp all over him and the parody is the one that pits them against each other almost like equals?  How?

NO ONE CAN EXPLAIN ZAT.

Although the movie pokes fun at Jonathan’s chastity, he’s nothing like the 1931 or 1992 versions of his character.  Instead of challenging everything that Van Helsing says, he tells Dr. Seward that even if he’s not sure what he believes about vampires, he wants to watch over Lucy’s grave just in case the professor might be right.  Dr. Seward becomes the one who questions everything (and he’s back to being Mina’s father).  That’s actually more accurate to the book because Dr. Seward still had doubts after seeing Lucy disappear and reappear in her coffin.

I love the scene where Undead Lucy tries to seduce Jonathan in the graveyard.  It’s funny its own, but after watching the episode in the TV series where Lucy successfully cheated with Jonathan, it became so much more beautiful to watch her fail miserably in the movie.  She may be undead, but he’s “not un-engaged,” as he puts it.  That’s right, Mr. Harker, you aren’t!

Mel Brooks is very entertaining as Prof. Van Helsing.  He acts more like a parody of the movie versions of Van Helsing than the book version, since there’s nothing about him that comes exclusively from the book.  He’s zany, like you’d expect from a parody, but he’s also kind-hearted and passionate about defeating Dracula.

Peter MacNichol does a very impressive impersonation of Dwight Frye’s Renfield.  He has some funny scenes, i.e. trying to convince Dr. Seward that he doesn’t eat bugs as he’s eating them.  But unfortunately (probably because it’s a parody) we don’t get to see Renfield’s cunning here, the way we did in the book and a bit in the 1931 film.  Here, he’s just an “imbecile,” as Van Helsing puts it.

Leslie Nielsen would not be the person I’d imagine in the role of Dracula, but he does a great job.  His facial expressions when things don’t go his way are hilarious and I like all of the jokes where his attempts to hypnotize people go wrong.  He schemes to turn Mina and Lucy into vampires but also seems to genuinely enjoy the times when he socializes with regular people.  He’s a nice exaggerated form of Dracula.

Sadly, there’s not much to say about Mina and Lucy.  It’s a shame; Mel Brooks could have gone farther and poked fun at the differences between Mina in the movies and Mina in the books.  He could’ve had Mina constantly suggest the right thing to do, only for the men to talk over her and then decide to try her suggestion.  He could’ve shown her fighting back when Dracula kidnaps her and holding up just fine until the rest of the heroes showed up, to everyone’s shock (especially Dracula’s).  He could’ve gone the Blazing Saddles route to mock sexism the way he mocked racism.

Nonetheless, I appreciate what he did for poor Jonathan’s character and I think it’s a pretty funny movie.  I recommend checking it out.  However, I also recommend reading the book or watching one of the movies first.  Otherwise, it’s difficult to appreciate all of the jokes.

And so ends Dracula Month!  HUZZAH!  Thank you to those of you who read all of these posts!

 

Count Dracula (1977)

This BBC two-part series from 1977 was an unexpected detour in Dracula Month.  I’d seen just about every other movie on the list before, but not this one nor the BBC remake from 2006.  When I read the description of the 1977 version on Wikipedia, I got excited.  It was said to be considered one of the most faithful adaptations ever made and didn’t mention anything about a romantic liaison between Mina and the Count.

So, I got the DVD from the library and began to watch.  Count Dracula acted suave and often chilling.  His solicitor was Jonathan, not Renfield.  Mina acted like the kind, hardworking, intelligent character that Stoker created.  Lucy acted sweet and loving and didn’t flirt with anything that moved.  Quincey got to make an appearance!  Dr. Seward wasn’t Mina’s father!  Van Helsing was smart, witty, and kind!

Basically, this was my reaction as the first episode unfolded:

FINALLY!  A FAITHFUL ADAPTATION!  IT ONLY TOOK ALMOST A HUNDRED YEARS TO HAPPEN!!!

Well…almost faithful.  But I can’t jump too far ahead here.

First things first: despite its faithfulness overall, we still see character roles condensed and relationships switched around.  Mina and Lucy are sisters in this version and Lucy wants to marry Quincey.  Arthur doesn’t appear at all, although Dr. Seward does and Lucy mentions to Mina that he did propose to her.  Poor Quincey gets left out of these adaptations so often that I think it’s only fair that he got to play the love interest this time around.  Plus, his upbeat personality makes Lucy’s death sadder.  Even after it’s obvious that she won’t survive Dracula’s attack, he sits by her bed and tells her all about the house that he bought for them where they can live after the honeymoon that he knows will never happen.  That hurt to watch.

Meanwhile, it’s nice to see Jonathan act as Dracula’s solicitor.  Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy Bosco Hogan’s performance as Jonathan.  Most of the time, he sounds unemotional and uninvested in what’s happening to him.  Granted, in the book he tries to hide his fear from Count Dracula, but this Jonathan sounds detached regardless of whether he’s talking to Dracula or Mina.  When he sees the vampire in London and exclaims to Mina, “It’s the man himself!” I always imagined that he would’ve sounded terrified, but his tone in this production sounds mildly puzzled more than anything else.  Boo.

There’s a similar problem with Louis Jourdan’s performance as Count Dracula, where he sounds a little too calm at times.  Fortunately, this works in Jourdan’s favor for most of his scenes because it correctly suggests that Dracula is a powerful villain and it will take all of the heroes’ combined skills to challenge him.  My favorite scene involves Jonathan angrily accusing the Count of keeping him prisoner, demanding to know what was up with the brides, etc, etc.  Each time he makes an accusation, the Count provides a rational explanation, and it’s so creepy to watch.  We, the audience, know that Jonathan’s right about the Count, but the Count doesn’t care.  He’s one step ahead of Jonathan the whole time.  Anyone staying in this vampire’s house would definitely question his/her sanity after a week or two.

But then during the scene with Jonathan and the three Brides, Dracula walks in on their attempt to eat his solicitor.  In the book, he practically rips the blonde bride away from Jonathan and goes berserk on them.  In the miniseries, he kind of sweeps them back and doesn’t sound angry at all.  He’s so nonchalant that I’d expect him to say, “C’mon guys…you know better…just go away…go on now… shoo…”  That’s really not very scary.

I’d really love to see somebody portray Dracula the way that Tilda Swinton played the White Witch of Narnia in the live-action The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe from 2005.  She could’ve easily decided to go the hammy route, but she didn’t.  When she wanted Edmund to trust her, she treated him kindly.  When he failed to give her what she wanted, she would alternate between screaming at him and talking in a cold, calm voice.  It was effective because you knew that she could fly off the handle and turn people into stone, but you didn’t know when she might do it.

But, going back to Count Dracula, it is unnerving when Jonathan casually tells Dracula about Mina’s plans to vacation in Whitby and then sees Whitby circled on a map in a later scene.  Now, that’s an adaptation change that I can embrace.  Here, Mina’s first encounter with Dracula doesn’t feel like a coincidence anymore, without betraying their characterizations in the book by adding a reincarnated dead wife plot. (ARGH!!!)

Best of all, this adaptation showed me just how disturbing Stoker’s novel really is.  I’ve never had to look away from the screen as many times as I did with this one.  Viewers get to see the Brides lift the baby out of Dracula’s sack to eat it.  When Jonathan goes to the crypt, he sees Dracula sleeping in his coffin with a wide-open stare and eyes full of blood.  Dracula’s attack on Lucy, her illness, and her death, all look painful as she writhes and gasps for air.  It’s one thing to read about her pale face and her struggles to breathe, and another thing to see and hear it.

If only the movie could’ve maintained its fear factor for each scene.  Unfortunately, there are many cheesy and confusing moments as well.  When Dracula goes into vampire mode for several scenes, nothing about his costume or makeup changes.  Instead, the camera switches to a negative shot where the colors on his face reverse.  It doesn’t look scary; it just looks weird.  Other shots overlap images, i.e. Mina’s face during the scene with the Brides.  It’s confusing rather than unsettling or disturbing.

This adaptation also uses an inordinate amount of mysterious chimes in place of a full musical score.  Van Helsing and Jonathan are investigating one of Dracula’s lairs when the monster walks into the room- cue the chimes.  (It’s also unintentionally funny because they pay no attention at first, causing me to think, “They didn’t hear the chimes, Count, try again.”)  Jonathan cuts his face while shaving and the camera dramatically zooms in on the blood while the chimes play.  Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think chimes sound very dramatic or scary and they didn’t fit Count Dracula.

But as far as adaptations go, this is pretty good!  Everyone’s acting in-character, despite Jonathan being a little dull.  WHAT COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG?

“Dracula Seduces Mina”  Oh no.

“Do you know the significance of the kiss?”

No.  You can’t.

“…flesh of my flesh, blood of my blood, my beautiful winepress…”

He said “bountiful winepress” in the book, because he wants to suck her blood, not kiss her!

“We shall cross land and sea together!”

Don’t you dare, BBC.

“Come. Drink.”

So she comes.  And she drinks.

YOU HAD ONE JOB, BBC!

This was not a sexy, romantic scene in the book.  He grabbed her arms with one hand so that she couldn’t fight back, then he smashed her head into his chest so that she would either swallow his blood or suffocate.  She does not smile.  She screams and cries the whole time.  It is horrible and violating and disgusting.

But with that said, when the scene ends and Dracula leaves, Mina does scream that she is “unclean” and cries.  This version implies that she was hypnotized into drinking from Dracula’s chest.  To be completely fair, this happens to Jonathan in the book when the Brides appear.  Part of him wants to back away, but he can’t resist them as one of them draws closer and closer to his neck.  Lucy’s journal entries suggest something similar: she’s afraid to go to sleep, but once Dracula gets in her room, she’s powerless to stop him from sucking her blood.  And I don’t want anyone to get the wrong impression here: as far as sexual metaphors go, if you’re incapable of giving consent, then you’re still a victim and deserve as much love, support, and help as the victims who fight back.

My issue with the damsel version of Mina is that she did get to fight back in her own way.  She couldn’t completely resist Dracula’s control, but she found ways.  So why take that away from her in the adaptations?  Isn’t that an empowering message for women?

Still, compared to the other adaptations this isn’t too bad.  Mina does get to go with the group for the climactic battle and defends herself with a rifle.  I think I’d be a lot more accepting of the change in tone with that one scene if it weren’t for the fact that I know what’s to come between Dracula and Mina in future adaptations.

That’s going to start next week, as I cover the 1979 adaptation starring Frank Langella and the 1992 adaptation starring Gary Oldman!  What wonders and horrors await us?  Let’s take a look at the back of the DVD cover for the Frank Langella movie:

“Throughout history, Dracula has filled men’s hearts with fear- and women’s hearts with desire.”

(Gif taken from GIPHY)

Oh boy, it begins…the coming of Sexy Count…plug your ears, because I am going to be ranting and screaming next week.

Horror of Dracula (1958)

Ladies and gentlemen, Sir Christopher Lee:

I love him for understanding that the Dracula in the movies wasn’t Stoker’s character.

But with that said, I really enjoyed this movie more than I thought I would!

I’m noticing something bizarre as I watch all of the Dracula movies/shows/mini-series for this blog: when the title of the movie differs from the book, i.e. “Nosferatu,” “Horror of Dracula,” and even “Count Dracula,” it actually follows the story beats, the spirit of the book, and everyone’s characterizations better than its counterparts. But when it’s got Bram Stoker’s name in the title or otherwise associates with him, it screws up the characters and the plot almost beyond recognition. I think I will call this phenomenon “Stoker’s Law of Inverse Adaptations.”

This particular movie opens with the diary of Jonathan Harker, just like the book.  He narrates the early scenes in the movie as they happen.  Normally, I don’t think this is a great idea, but it works here because we find out afterwards that the diary was given to Van Helsing and he’s reading it.  After that reveal, the narration stops.

In this version, Jonathan isn’t a solicitor helping Dracula move to London.  He’s a librarian.  One of my favorite characters in the book has the same career as me!  YAY!

(Gif taken from GIPHY)

Dracula hires him to work in his library.  It’s never explained why the Count needs a librarian, but within a few scenes it becomes clear that Jonathan’s not just a librarian: he’s a vampire-hunting librarian!

This movie is hitting all of the right notes with me even if it’s not necessarily great adaptation-wise.

So, in this version, Jonathan and Van Helsing are colleagues who hunt vampires.  Jonathan went undercover to investigate the Count and meets a woman who claims to be his prisoner.  Maybe she is, but she’s also a vampire who tries to turn Jonathan.  Like the book version, Jon tries to kill Dracula while he sleeps in his coffin, but fails.  Unlike the book, he does stake the Bride, but then Dracula wakes up and turns him into a vampire.  Van Helsing finds him later and stakes him.

I guess a vampire-hunting librarian was just too cool to live.  Note to self: stick to the Reference Desk.

Even though Jonathan wasn’t a solicitor, the Count still goes to London because he wants revenge against Jonathan for killing the Bride.  I like this idea because it explains why he obsesses over Mina and Lucy while also maintaining his monstrous personality.  It’s similar to his motivation for attacking Mina in the book- to punish the men trying to hunt him down.  Also like the book, the Count doesn’t appear very much except for a few key scenes.  It’s a shame that we don’t get to hear Christopher Lee talk very much, but he does a good job with the scenes that he gets, as he always does.

So how does poor Madame Mina fair?  Well…better than other movies, but still not perfect.  She and Lucy swap love interests in this version: Lucy is engaged to Jonathan and Mina is married to Arthur Holmwood.  I’m not sure why, but I guess they wanted to keep Mina as the married protagonist and couldn’t do it with Jonathan because they’d already killed him off…?

The film has one of the few versions of Lucy who acts mostly in-character: an innocent, naive young woman who doesn’t flirt with everything that moves.  Mina acts more in-character too, although we don’t get to see her awesome secretary skills or deductive reasoning.  When she realizes that Lucy isn’t getting any better under Dr. Seward’s care, she is the one who goes to Van Helsing for help.  Throughout the film, she comes across as a sensible woman who’s willing to believe Van Helsing before her husband does.  But unlike the book version of her character, she doesn’t get to do anything to save herself when she gets attacked by Dracula next.  Boo!

Hammer’s version of Van Helsing combines his character with Dr. Seward’s: he uses a phonograph to create audio diaries, knows all about vampires, and doesn’t need help pronouncing English words because he’s English here.  Even though he’s not the most in-character version of Van Helsing, I think he might be my favorite.  He really feels like a formidable foe to Dracula without coming off as insensitive to his friends or unbearably smarter than them.

It helps that he’s played by Peter Cushing, aka Governor Tarkin.  That man could keep Darth Vader under control.  Dracula never stood a chance.

Arthur is a combination of his book character and that jerk version of Jonathan in the 1931 movie.  He blames Van Helsing for everything that goes wrong at first, but after they stake Lucy, he accepts that Van Helsing’s telling the truth and becomes a good ally.  There’s a really funny scene in this movie where they try to find Dracula’s location by interrogating a clerk that transported his coffin.  The man swears that his customers’ confidentiality is more important to him than anything else…while Arthur calmly keeps taking bills out of his wallet until the man admits that he can always make an exception when it’s an emergency.  That is in fact how the heroes get a lot of things done in the book: Arthur’s nobility and money gets them access to whatever they need.

As a film, I find Horror of Dracula very engaging.  While the 1931 version basically had Dr. Seward and Jonathan following Van Helsing around and either absorbing or arguing over everything he taught them, Arthur’s interactions with Van Helsing show steady character development.  The Bride gets to be a more ambiguous character.  We never really know for sure whether she wanted to bite Jonathan or if she struggled against Dracula for control over herself.  Her dialogue implies that she might’ve been like Mina once: an unwilling victim who can no longer leave the Count because of what she’s become.  I wish the movie showed more about her backstory.

The castle looks great and I love the surrounding scenery.  There’s something about the movie overall- maybe the set design, maybe the music, or maybe the mood- that makes me think of Halloween and that I’d like to add it to the list of movies that I watch around October.

It cuts a lot from the book and still doesn’t do Mina Harker justice.  But the rest of the movie makes up for the changes.  At least it successfully demonstrates the conflict of good vs. evil, a fantastic Van Helsing, a slightly stronger Mina, and a more complex Bride.  I’d happily watch it again.

The Kingdom Hearts Manga

Kingdom Hearts is my favorite series of video games.  It’s about a teenage boy named Sora who finds himself separated from his two best friends after his home gets destroyed by monsters known as the Heartless.  Little does he know, the Heartless are under the control of Disney villains like Maleficent and Captain Hook.  He ends up befriending Squall Leonhart and other Final Fantasy characters, who encourage him to team up with Donald Duck and Goofy on a quest to save the Disney universe.

Yes, I am absolutely serious, and yes, it works.  Although, if you’re familiar with Square-Enix video games, you probably knew that already.  The series started in 2002 and so far there are eight core games that make up the “Xehanort Saga” (not including the HD remakes).  While I still love Kingdom Hearts, lately the storytelling hasn’t impressed me as much as it did in the first game.  It has become increasingly convoluted, especially if you don’t play every single game in the series, and it killed the “Show, Don’t Tell” rule many, many times.

Fortunately, Shiro Amano improved just about every problem with the story for his manga adaptations.

Image found on Yen Press’s official website

Although I have to admit, I thought the first volume got off to a shaky start, particularly when the Heartless attack Destiny Islands and Sora first arrives in Traverse Town.  The pages feel crowded with a lot of things happening at once.  You can tell there are battles going on, but it’s not very clear where Sora is when he’s fighting gigantic Heartless.  Everything’s dark and made up of close shots of the Keyblade and Sora and the Heartless.  It’s hard to understand what’s happening if you haven’t played the game.

Also, if you’re not familiar with the style of manga, it can be an acquired taste.  Everything’s exaggerated and in the case of Kingdom Hearts, it’s often a lot sillier than the source material.  But if you think about it, Kingdom Hearts is already pretty weird.  Shiro Amano just embraces the weirdness and makes it his own.

Once Amano adapted Chain of Memories, that’s when he began to shine and the manga became something special on its own.  He took an early boss fight in the game between Sora and Axel and made it a lot funnier than it could have been.  In the manga, Axel completely takes advantage of the facts that A) Sora, Donald, and Goofy lost their memories of their best fighting skills, and B) he can teleport everywhere and they can’t.  It’s great and also an improvement over previous battle scenes in the manga.  In the first two volumes, Sora would struggle against his enemy, finally figure out that enemy’s weakness, and then bring him/her down with one stroke.  Every. Single. Time.

But to be fair, the details of a boss battle in a video game can’t get adapted directly from the source material.  The cutscenes always remain the same, but the details of the fight will change depending on what the player decides to do.  From Chain of Memories onward, Amano chose to go about it by keeping his version of these events consistent with the characters’ personalities while putting his own creative spin on them.

Meanwhile, the adaptations of Kingdom Hearts II and 358/2 Days aren’t just good; they improve the source material.

Amano does something that these games failed to do: take the struggles of the main characters and incorporate the minor characters into the action as well, so that we get to know them a little better.  He adds extra scenes or changes the way they interact so that we care about those characters more.  In 358/2 Days, the game mostly focuses on Roxas, Axel, Xion, and Saix, while the other members of Organization XIII don’t contribute much. The manga shows scenes like Roxas asking Demyx for advice about girls and confiding in Luxord about how he feels like he let Xion down.  The latter scene ends with Luxord offering to play a game of cards with him to cheer him up.

It’s the same with Kingdom Hearts II, where the game mostly focused on the wacky Disney adventures of Sora, Donald, and Goofy, with the main plot advancing every so often.  Shiro Amano devotes a whole chapter of the manga to Maleficent and Pete, shows Demyx worrying about Roxas a few times, and vastly improves a scene where Kairi got kidnapped by having Olette chase Axel down with a bat full of nails.

Here’s a Tumblr post that shows the game version, where she just kind of sits there and watches helplessly: http://kingdomxkey.tumblr.com/post/60090374870/remember-the-time-axel-came-to-kidnap-kairi-and

Here’s the manga version:

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Scans from the manga are taken from my own copies via my iPhone

GO OLETTE!

Even some of the bigger characters get some much needed development that they never received in the game.  The best example would be Kairi.  She’s supposed to be the best friend of Sora and Riku, the two primary heroes in this series. Yet she gets almost nothing to do in the games. She stays in a coma for most of the first Kingdom Hearts and gets kidnapped twice in Kingdom Hearts II when she tries to get out and have her own adventure. Once she gets sent to the dungeons of Organization XIII, she completely disappears from the story until Sora arrives to save her.

In the manga, Kairi still gets kidnapped, but she doesn’t go quietly. She bites Axel on the arm, punches Demyx and a random Dusk in their faces, wriggles through the bars of her cell and almost escapes from the Organization, and successfully dodges attacks from Saix when he tries to use her as bait against Sora. She doesn’t have a weapon, but she doesn’t let that hold her back. Even better, Kairi gets to fully interact with characters besides Sora in a way that she never got to do in the game. It’s wonderful.  It makes me wish that Square-Enix would put Shiro Amano in charge of writing Kairi’s character arc in the actual games.  This guy knows what he’s doing.

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As I said, Kairi disappears for most of the game, so when she gets a Keyblade at the end, it feels more like a consolation prize than a triumphant conclusion to her story.  But in the manga, she’s often seen trying to get out on her own and defend herself properly.  So, of course it ends with Kairi receiving her own magical weapon.

Then we have Kairi’s original kidnapper, Axel.  When I first played Kingdom Hearts II, I didn’t care about this character at all.  He’d show up randomly to mess with the heroes and then it’s explained in a couple of scenes that he’s got a pretty sad backstory.  Long, very complicated story short: he and his best friend, Roxas, were part of the evil Organization that’s antagonizing Sora and the Disney characters.  Roxas decided to quit, which didn’t sit well with the rest of the group, so they told Axel to either assassinate Roxas or he’d be labelled a traitor too and they’d both get killed.  Axel couldn’t bring himself to do it, but he ended up losing Roxas anyway.

The problem here is that Roxas left before the plot of KH2 starts, so we hear about it indirectly.  Even though Roxas is the playable character for the tutorial, we only get to see one flashback where he leaves the Organization, arguably the lowest point in the friendship between these two.  The game states that they used to be friends and just sort of expects us to go along with it and cry for them.  This marked the beginning of the series’ tendency to state that characters are best friends without following through and really showing that friendship.  Luckily, the remake added a cutscene where they spent some time chilling and actually being friends before saying goodbye to each other for the final time.

The manga shows the actual friendship through flashbacks: fighting Heartless together, goofing off, having serious discussions, etc:

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We see a lot more of Axel than the handful of scenes that appeared in the game, so his character arc works a lot better in the adaptation.  In the game, we hear second-hand that he kidnapped Kairi in a badly misguided attempt to bring Roxas back, that she got away and then got kidnapped again by another member of the Organization, and that Axel regretted what he’d done.  The manga gives this whole subplot a lot more attention through the course of several chapters.  He and Kairi have actual conversations with each other and he even tries to rescue her from the Organization later on.

Unfortunately, not every Disney world that appears in the game appears in the manga.  I don’t mind, because when Amano does include a world, he does his best to make it relevant to either the plot or the characters’ development.  For example, when Xion goes missing, there’s a cute montage where Roxas and Axel get some help looking for her from characters like the Genie and Hercules.  Belle gets to beat up Heartless with a mop.  Maleficent has an actual showdown with Saix instead of getting brought down in two seconds by some of the Organization’s grunts.  Xion gets to adopt Pluto:

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Amano even goes the extra mile to include Disney characters who didn’t appear in the games, such as the Caterpillar in Wonderland and Chi-Fu from Mulan.  They’re not important, but it’s fun to see them, if only to watch Sora try to bring feminism to Ancient China:

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Who knew it was that easy?

Apparently Shiro Amano has decided to end things with Kingdom Hearts 2 and will not adapt Birth by Sleep or Dream Drop Distance.  I can only hope he changes his mind.  Often, I find myself looking forward to the final English translation of the manga more than I’m looking forward to Kingdom Hearts 3!

Whether you’re a casual fan or a diehard fan of the series, definitely check out the manga.  It needs as much love and support as it can get.  If you’re not a fan of the series but you’re interested in checking it out, or you just like a good manga, I recommend giving it a try.  You don’t need to play the games to understand it, although you’ll probably have a better appreciation for it if you’re familiar with them.

What Makes an Adaptation Good?

Now that I’ve started writing posts for this blog, I think this is a question worth discussing.  Feel free to chime in with your own thoughts in the comments.

The saying goes: “Don’t judge a book by its movie.”  Everybody pretty much agrees that the original source material is always better than the adaptation, especially if it’s a book transitioning to a movie.  So, if a movie would only follow the book word-for-word, it would be perfect, wouldn’t it?

You would think so, but I found that wasn’t the case when I watched Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 version of The Great Gatsby.  The cast and the cinematography were great, and it was very faithful to the book.  It even showed scenes of Nick writing down his thoughts, with the words shown floating over the scene, words which came straight out of the book.  But something about the whole thing felt off.  I enjoyed the book, but not the movie.  At first, I couldn’t figure out why.

Lindsay Ellis, aka “the Nostalgia Chick,” addresses the issue in her review of The Lorax, saying that “…changes in adaptations aren’t just inevitable, they are necessary.  Film is a different medium.  It incorporates other elements such as sound, time, a billion people working on it, and most importantly, a different person with a different vision at the helm.”

In his book, How to Adapt Anything Into a Screenplay, Richard Krevolin gives readers very similar advice from the start.  He also goes further and advises future screenwriters: “You really don’t owe anything to the original source material” (p. 9).  As long as you’ve captured the spirit of the work, that’s all that really matters. The job of the screenwriter, he explains, is to figure out the heart of what they want to say, what drew them to the original work in the first place, and convey it to their audience in their own unique way.

For the most part, I agree with them.  Although I didn’t like reading that an adaptation doesn’t owe anything to the original work, I’m inclined to think that Krevolin was simply trying to impress on nervous screenwriters that they can’t worry about making changes to the story.  What works for a book won’t necessarily work for a movie, TV show or video game, because they have different ways of telling compelling stories.

For example, given that movies, television shows, and video games are visual mediums, they don’t generally require narration the way that books do.  Sometimes it’s done for comedic effect, but it shouldn’t be used to describe exactly what the audience can already see on the screen.  I think that’s part of the reason why I didn’t like Luhrmann’s version of The Great Gatsby.  We shouldn’t be looking at words from the book on screen or hear Nick narrating so much.  We should see the story playing out as Nick saw it and draw our own conclusions.

At the same time, I can’t fully agree that an adaptation owes nothing to the original work, because if it’s nothing like the original work, why adapt it at all?  NBC’s Dracula television series could have changed the names of the characters and easily passed it off as an original work.  They kept a grand total of two lines from the book, created an entirely different plot with a different message, and none of the characters behaved like they did in the book.  They just had the same names as the characters in the book and lived in London.  That’s it.  NBC…why?  Just…why???

There’s also the question of how much involvement the author of the original work should have.  Some get very involved, like Suzanne Collins, who got to co-write the first Hunger Games script.  Others don’t.  Rick Riordan, the author of the excellent Percy Jackson series, claimed that he wanted to stay away from the movies.  He compared it to selling a house: “Once you sell it, it isn’t yours anymore. You have to move out and let the new owners move in. If you insisted on a bunch of conditions before you sold it […] well, most people wouldn’t agree to buy a house with all those restrictions, would they?”  (He has since written a letter to American teachers everywhere begging them not to force their classes to watch the movies.)  Harper Lee allegedly visited the set for To Kill a Mockingbird, but left because she could see that it was already on its way to becoming a cinematic classic and she didn’t need to do anything.

Finally, it’s important to take personal biases into account.  Peter Jackson and his team rewrote Faramir’s character for The Two Towers so that he struggled heavily with the Ring of Power.  In the book, he rejected it and sent the hobbits on their way.  Since I saw the movies first, I accepted Jackson’s explanation for the change and left it at that.  It didn’t bother me the way it might have if I’d read the book first.

On the other hand, every time a screenwriter changes the personalities of Jonathan, Mina, and Dracula, I get…upset, to put it nicely.  Nobody messes with my Jonathan Harker and gets away with it!

So…if the qualities of a good adaptation are all very subjective, where does that leave us?

At the end of the day, every adaptation needs to be treated as a unique case, depending on the story being told, who’s telling it, the medium, its popularity, etc.

Each story brings its own set of challenges.  Fairy tales need expansion on the characters and story to fill the normal running time of a movie, whereas a series like Harry Potter needs to cut scenes to keep that running time.  The novelization of a movie or video game has the opportunity to elaborate on the thoughts in each character’s head.  In the case of video games, there also comes the challenge of how to interpret battles and other situations that occur based on the individual player’s actions.  I can’t wait to see how the TV series for “Life Is Strange” turns out.  In that game, almost everything that Max does or says depends on what the player wants her to say or do.  This is going to be the one adaptation where fans won’t know how it’s going to end because you get to pick how it ends in the game!

When the reverse happens and a story gets turned into a video game, it can’t just tell a good story and capture what made the original work so great.  It has to be fun to play.  That turned out to be a problem with Pirates of the Caribbean: The Legend of Jack Sparrow.  The premise was fantastic: an adventure game based on the first movie- except Captain Jack’s the one telling the story.  That meant that the developers could add additional levels that wouldn’t make sense in the movie, i.e. getting stuck on an iceberg and fighting undead Viking pirates, because Jack likes to make things up.  It’s hilarious, but the game itself wasn’t as fun.  Jack, Will, and Elizabeth have two different attacks they can use, and that’s it.  You can also find treasure to purchase upgrades, but there aren’t many upgrades to get.  It gets pretty boring after a while and the script is the only thing that makes it worth playing.

Comic books are a whole other beast.  Popular superheroes like Superman and Spiderman have been around for a long time, with different story arcs, villains, girlfriends, reboots that give them a whole new backstory, alternate universes, etc.  A writer wouldn’t just have to figure how to tell the character’s story, he/she would have to pick what story to tell in the first place.

But there is one thing that all good adaptations need: either a single writer or a team who knows and appreciates the original source material.  Can a person really “capture the truth of the original work and convey that onscreen,” as Krevolin puts it, if he or she doesn’t like it or never bothered to read/watch/play it?  Can he or she find what makes that story unique and sets it apart from others?  Adaptations can definitely make changes to the original work that make it better than before.  But if there’s no love there, fans will notice.  It’s like writing a parody: the best parodies come from writers who enjoy what they’re laughing at- they’re just poking fun at the ridiculous parts, so fans and haters can laugh together.  Otherwise, they come off as mean-spirited.

There are also various things that I believe most adaptations shouldn’t do, but I want to cover them in a different set of posts.

Good adaptations will always need changes in order to work.  The number and the nature of those changes depends on the story and the medium.  Although love for the original source material won’t guarantee a successful translation to book, movie, show, or video game, it is the foundation that is necessary in order to get started.