Monday, February 14, 2011

POST of the Week: Need to Focus on Visual Language

This post of the week was won be Hee-Lien Tan. I chose it due to its fluid prose, critical eye, and creative response to the question of filming Blood Meridian.:

The adaption of literary works onto the silver screen has perennially posed incredible obstacles to filmmakers past and present. James Franco’s attempts to adapt Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian is by all means an epic challenge, one that perhaps call upon all the talents he honed completing three persons’ worth of graduate degrees, and one that if executed well, would undoubtedly cast him as one of the most promising young acting directorial talents of this generation.

I find that the adaptation of novels into the filmic medium can be broken down into two types of challenges depending on the source material. The recent and still ongoing efforts to bring Rowling’s Harry Potter to the cinema have been plagued by the very quality that has endeared many to the her books – the impossibly intricate and detailed world that has a mythology so rich that it is encyclopedic. As the thoroughness of muggle-net or harrypotterwiki implies, the films have glossed over so many of the plot details that it’s hard to praise them. James Franco’s attempt to translate McCarthy’s Blood Meridian is an undertaking that falls in the other camp. While the issues that surround the need to include more plot detail may conceivably be alleviated by making the film longer, the imagery and the tone of Blood Meridian is difficult to reproduce and it isn’t completely obvious how to tackle these issues.

One thing that struck me when I began reading Blood Meridian was McCarthy’s seemingly effortless ability to formulate a world wrought with violence but yet beautiful. The imagery he creates makes it incredibly easy to be immersed in a Wild West bubble, allowing the reader to appreciate the desolation of the environment. The sky is portrayed as a canvas that is painted by god, an all-encompassing expanse of red, yellow and blue that floats above the dusty desolation of the desert landscape. Recreating the visual language McCarthy employs is not the only challenge. The dialogue lends a local color to the story as well; a faithful translation of the dialogue would no doubt result in something of a mash up, a sort of local slang meets bible meets national epic dialogue wrapped in an envelope of questionable grammar. The structure of the narrative itself does not lend itself easily to adaptation. At times it borders on a collection of related memories replayed with a stream of consciousness. This disjointed nature, coupled with the cinematographic and screenplay challenges may at least initially appear impossible to conquer; however, there are some models that Franco may borrow from to ease his burden.

Because the narrative is so disjointed, as if a recollection of short vignettes, Franco’s adaptation may employ a unique mise-en-scene to emphasize these dream-like qualities. This could be accomplished by adopting a visual motif akin to Richard Linklater’s 2006 film A Scanner Darkly. The rejection of gritty realism has certain clear advantages; adopting a painterly look may augment the creation of an atmosphere that remains faithful to the book’s imagery. Lessons on the emphasis on color and the natural beauty of the environment can be had from Zhang Yimou’s Wuxia films such as “Hero” or “The House of Flying Daggers,” which embodies through what I believe is unparalleled cinematography, that the medium can indeed be the message. No matter the eventual approach, focus on visual elements is of paramount importance. The screenplay and cinematography can also draw inspiration from the recent Rockstar video game Red Dead Redemption, which is perhaps the best contemporaneous reimagining of the Old West. In fact, upon reading the novel, I was constantly drawing comparisons, remarking to myself how closely the game’s voice acting and visual style matched my admittedly romantic visions of the time period. By rejecting the temptation to delve fully in a completely realistic portrayal and focusing instead of the aesthetics of McCarthy’s imagery, the violence, which Scott had cited as the key obstacle to his attempts at adaptation could be stylized and packaged into a package palatable to the average Jane and Joe, a la the retelling of the Battle of Thermopylae in 300.

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