"Unfilmable"

>> Monday, September 28, 2009

Some friends and I had a bit of an argument over Watchmen over whether the graphic novel was even filmable or not. I tended to say it wasn't, though I'm not absolutely settled on that, to which my friends retorted "bullshit," leading to a larger argument over whether there was any such thing as an unfilmable book.

I suppose that I should point out that we're not necessarily talking about whether a book might make a good movie, or whether a particular movie adaptation was better than or worse than its source material. I think the more interesting question might be whether or not there are some books that just couldn't be translated into another medium at all.

One of the reasons I'm thinking about this again is Alan Moore again. I'm finally getting around to From Hell after all this time, and as I read it I'm thinking that it may make the case for an unfilmable property in an interesting way. And yes, I know that there's a movie called From Hell and that it's billed as an adaptation of the graphic novel. And that movie isn't particularly good (tho' it is slightly better than most of the reviews might lead you to believe), but that has surprisingly little to do with anything.

To explain why From Hell is unfilmable in an interesting way, we have to go through some first-things-first, and forgive me if you already know all of this. The first obvious thing that has to be pointed out is that in the fall of 1888, in the seedy slums district of Whitechapel in London, the murders of five women (Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly) were all attributed to one person or entity, dubbed "Jack The Ripper" by the tabloid press of the time. These so-called "canonical five" victims were the ones attributed to the Ripper by the Metropolitan Police, but other probable estimates range from four victims to eleven. And less-probable estimates actually range from zero (i.e. the murders were unrelated--assaults and murders were appallingly commonplace in Whitechapel, and its possible that unrelated crimes were linked by public hysteria, media sensationalism and primitive policework) to essentially infinite (in the sense of an unknowable number--some theories of the case have the Ripper relocating to another country and committing murders there, or suggest that he was a sailor who might have committed unidentified Ripper crimes in every port-of-call British ships ever visited).

The point of this being that From Hell is based on something essentially true. That is, it's not like Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell said, "What if there was a Victorian serial killer murdering prostitutes in a London slum"; this actually happened or is reasonably believed to have happened (again, there's a slim possibility some or all of the murders were actually unrelated). From Hell is thoroughly researched. Much of the dialogue is drawn from official records or memoirs of participants, and while Moore settles on the "canonical five" for story-related reasons, five is the official number used by police of the time and historically accepted. (There's a relatively recent push to add a sixth victim, Martha Tabram, to the list, though some contemporary investigators also seem to have included her as a possible Ripper victim.)

There's another first-things-first item that has to be touched on. As I mentioned, From Hell is fairly thoroughly researched, and one of the major influences or bases for the work is the theory of one Stephen Knight, who in the mid-1970s wrote a book called Jack The Ripper: The Final Solution that presented the theory that the Ripper murders were part of a Royal Family conspiracy with Masonic overtones: Royal surgeon Sir William Gull was assigned with the task of covering up an ill-advised marriage of Queen Victoria's grandson to a commoner and did so in the fashion of Masonic rituals. Knight's book wasn't the first time Sir William or the Royals were implicated in the Ripper murders, and Moore varies from Knight in some particulars, but in From Hell's extensive appendix Knight's work is cited again and again. Indeed, if one wanted to fault Moore, one might suggest that Knight nearly deserves a writing credit for From Hell, and--ironically enough--I think if Knight had published Final Solution as fiction he might well have a legal claim to one. (As it stands, you can't copyright "facts"--even erroneous one--and I think Moore is appropriately generous in crediting Knight as a source and inspiration.) Knight's work isn't that well-regarded and one of his major sources apparently later admitted to being a hoaxer: you might even say it is fiction, regardless of the label it was published under, but there you are.

The point of this being that From Hell doesn't present an original theory of the case, either. Just as the premise is historical fact, the plot is adapted from a prior theory. If you describe From Hell in those terms, it's not an original work at all. So why treat it as one?

Because, as it happens, From Hell is indeed an original work as Eddie Campbell's graphic presentation of Alan Moore's creative interpretation of his own research (including Stephen Knight's work and the historical record). What's original in From Hell is Moore and Campbell choosing to relate this established tale in a particular way, drawing a certain panel in a certain way or putting a particular phrase in a particular character's mouth. In sum, what's creative, original and unique to From Hell (even the title is unoriginal, being lifted from a letter received by George Lusk, the head of the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee, allegedly sent by the killer) is the graphic novel-ness of the project.

And this is why I say that maybe From Hell might be unfilmable. If you make a movie using the graphic novel's premise, you've simply made a movie based on a true story. If you do a movie using the graphic novel's plot, you've simply adapted Stephen Knight's Jack The Ripper: The Final Solution to film. I suppose you might try to do what Zack Snyder did with Watchmen and try to do a panel-by-panel conversion of the graphic novel's visuals to film frame-by-frame, and copy Moore's assignment of historic words or contribution of original words, but the problem you run into there is that this isn't likely to work all that well, witness Watchmen. In short, anything you film and call From Hell is likely to be something else. And I find that interesting.

Indeed, it leads to some interesting thoughts about adapting nineteenth-century novels--which provide the distinctive model for Alan Moore's writing--and whether any of them can be truly adapted to other media. I happen to prefer John Huston and Ray Bradbury's 1956 Moby Dick to Herman Melville's interminable novel, but I think maybe there's a good case to be made that the movie version isn't really an adaptation of the novel at all, merely being loosely based on the "good parts" of the novel's plot. But that, methinks, might be another blog entry entirely.


3 comments:

mattw Monday, September 28, 2009 at 3:49:00 PM EDT  

I would argue that Alan Moore's work is unfilmable because it's long-winded, boring, and often convoluted, but that's just me. I still haven't gotten through reading Watchmen yet, and I'm in no rush to see the movie.

Anywho, I think your argument might beg the question is any work of fiction filmable? Because, ultimately, wouldn't it be the director's interpretation of the work?

Take Jurassic Park, for instance. There was plenty in the book that wasn't in the movie or even hinted at in the movie. As well, there were plot points that were changed/eliminated in the movie that were present in the book.

And speaking of Alan Moore and unfilmable, the first title that springs to mind as being unfilmable would be Alan Moore's novel Voice of the Fire, which I somehow managed to slog through. The book is 12ish chapters of different characters, each in their own time period, that has some tale involving fire. It's told in such a way as it's hard to believe/trust some of the characters, and sometimes the connections are so loose you have to stretch to put two chapters together. I read it in chapter order, but the forward says you can read the chapters in any order and it won't matter. Had I done that, I think I would have struggled more to see the book as a cohesive whole.

In the broader sense, I think there's also a translation issue from one individual to another, and from one medium to another. If you take the first line to King's Dark Tower epic: "The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed." (or something there abouts) The desert that I see in the mind's eye is going to be different from the desert you saw, is going to be different from the desert King saw. A film will make everyone see the same thing, more or less.

It's an interesting question, and I don't know that there would ever be any real answer.

mattw Monday, September 28, 2009 at 4:48:00 PM EDT  

I feel that I should also say that I saw From Hell and was not impressed, and that I have not read the graphic novel.

showcase Jase Tuesday, September 29, 2009 at 3:01:00 AM EDT  

The film version had lovely sets but as soon as they cast Johnny Depp it was going to fail.

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