Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Adventure classics: Book to Film - Part 1

As others have often pointed out, I was born in the wrong century. A hundred years earlier would have been pretty much perfect for me. The smart fashions, the eloquent, proper English, the still-thriving romance of adventure, the reserved social modes: late-Victorian England, on the whole, would have suited me to a tee. Many of my favourite writers are from that era: H.G. Wells, H. Rider Haggard, Jules Verne, Rudyard Kipling, and Edgar Rice Burroughs. They blended eloquence with clarity in a way that hasn't really survived to today's abbreviated world. I personally think the written word reached its apogee in those decades approaching and just beyond 1900.

One thing I would definitely miss, though, if I went back in a time machine, would be films. Let's take a look at the adaptations those classic novelists did not live to see (for better or worse), courtesy of Hollywood:

H.G. Wells

The grandfather of modern science fiction, Wells wrote prolifically, socio-politically, and in his day was without peer as a speculative fiction writer. His daring novels inspired some of the most successful screen adaptations of all time. Of the writers in this list, Wells arguably comes off best in terms of his relevance; his themes and scenarios are still pertinent today.

He made no secret of the dark parallels between British Imperialism and the role of his Martian invaders in War of the Worlds. In 1953, George Pal and Byron Haskin updated the story to mirror Cold War paranoia, while in 2005, Steven Spielberg tapped into our post 9/11 fears. Of the two, I think the older version will always be regarded as the classic. It's such a taut, brilliantly realised vision of unstoppable destruction, and while the recent movie echoes Wells' book as a first person experiential journey, its predecessor, a childhood favourite of Spielberg's, projects armageddon onto a (seemingly) more innocent age. Critics often cite Haskin's 1953 original in their lists of Top Ten sci-fi films. The new version is impressive, though, full of bravura filmmaking and nightmare imagery. Gene Barry and Ann Robinson gave strong performances in the original, while Tom Cruise and young Dakota Fanning excelled in 2005.

The Time Machine, Wells' breakthrough, was the first major novel about time travel. Its intriguing vision of two-caste human future was brought vividly to life in George Pal's charming 1960 adaptation. Less successful was Dreamworks' 2002 attempt to update the concept; the Eloi's tribal civilization didn't create a stark enough visual contrast with that of the underground, cannibalistic Morlocks. In the original, they were almost a literal heaven and hell, whereas the update depicts a bedraggled human community besieged by a bedraggled, monstrous enemy. The first thirty minutes of Simon Wells' remake, though, with the hero building his machine to try and alter fate, to save the life of his fiancee, are inarguably more powerful than either Pal's or Well's original openings. It is at the far future break off point, the second act, when the 1960 film trumps the 2002, by sticking close to the novel. And on balance, the older adaptation is by far the most successful.

Only one version of The Invisible Man is worthy of note--James Whale's 1933 film of the same name. It stars the brilliant Claude Rains as a scientist who tries his formula out on himself, quickly succumbing to the omnipotence of invisibility. Power corrupts where there's no accountability. The special effects are great even now, and it's really one of the absolute best horror films of that golden age.

First Men in the Moon remains a quaint story in book and film. It's a kind of flipside to War of the Worlds, with intrepid earthlings travelling to the moon (by way of an anti-gravity paste!!) and inadvertently destroying an ancient lunar civilization. They didn't invite us, and it's our germs that do the trick again.

I'm still waiting for a terrific adaptation of The Island of Dr. Moreau. It's such a topical, cautionary horror tale for our genetics age. A genius scientist manages to splice human DNA with those of various creatures, engineering a horrific hybrid community on his island. A hierarchy soon develops, with its own set of social codes and laws. But which half will prevail: the human or animal? Lord of the Flies meets The Jungle Book, by way of someone's (Wells'?) worst nightmare. Apparently, the 1933 film Island of Lost Souls is a brilliant movie based on this story, but it's tough to get hold of. The only versions I've seen are a bland '70's effort starring Burt Lancaster, and a dire 1996 film starring Marlon Brando.

Jules Verne

Another renowned sci-fi author whose work has enjoyed mostly great Hollywood success is the Frenchman, Jules Verne. His novels were much more adventure-oriented than Wells', and less interested in socio-political analogies.

I think the best of these (adaptations) is Walt Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, starring Kirk Douglas and James Mason as Captain Nemo and Ned Land, respectively. It's a brilliant distillation of the themes, and, more importantly, it expands the scope beyond the confines of Nemo's fortress submarine, the Nautilus, in which the three survivors are held captive. It's also a lavish production, the like of which wasn't afforded Edgar Rice Burroughs film projects of the 1970's. More than anything, though, it's a lot of fun, much more than the book. Who can forget a drunken Kirk Douglas singing "It's a whale of a tale", and then being applauded by a sealion? James Mason gives the first of two definitive performances of Verne characters; his Nemo is borderline insane, yet sympathetic as well.

His second, and arguably even better, Verne role was that of Professor Lindenbrook in 1959's Journey to the Centre of the Earth. A Scot in the movie, a German in the book, Li(n)den bro(o)k is determined and eccentric in both guises, and it suits Mason the actor perfectly. He has an extraordinary range. The adventure of the book is very much a variation on the treasure hunt, with the ultimate prize being to reach the centre of the earth--no mean feat if you consider that we now know it to be molten, but never mind. The film stands up really well today (even with Pat Boone's crooning), and I think it captures that "spirit of adventure" better than almost any other movie. The new 3D version starring Brendan Fraser is a travesty of an adaptation, but as an experience, it's like nothing else--the 3D effect transports you to world as impressive as anything Verne described.

Around the World in 80 Days is a loooong movie, and it feels it. I haven't read the book, but I'm guessing it won't vary much in terms of plot and the locales visited. I love Niven as Phileas Fogg, any scene set in London, and quite a few of the various exotic sights. It's ultimately too much of a good thing though, and could happily lose the lengthy bullfighting and much of the footage shot from trains.

Mysterious Island (1963) is one of my favourite classic novels, and one of my favourite adventure films. The two are almost nothing alike, but that's alright. For starters, Bernard Herrman's score is so good it evokes all the exoticism and excitement needed to fill a dozen adventures. Inspired casting of the lead, too, with Michael Craig embodying the macho Cyrus Harding perfectly. The oversized monsters (not in the novel) are all fun, courtesy of Ray Harryhausen's magic, but really this is about capturing that elusive spirit of adventure on a wonderfully tropical island. It succeeds in the best possible way. It makes you feel young again.

Next time...Edgar Rice Burroughs and H Rider Haggard.

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