Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Boys From Brazil

(1978) *

This is really just shooting fish in a barrel, since this movie is such complete garbage, but I have to do it anyway because I’m puzzled and troubled by a surrounding set of phenomena that seem to have some bearing on the broader questions concerning literary vs. cinematic horror, adaptations, suspense plotting, and the evolving styles and techniques of Hollywood moviemaking. Or maybe not; maybe this is just a bad ‘seventies movie and I’m over-thinking it; I can’t tell. Let me attempt herewith to explain where I’m coming from:

I’ve just finished co-writing a supernatural thriller with a reasonably intricate structure. Although I’d encountered the elements of suspense writing in a few other instances, this was my first time really going for the scares and the suspenseful tricks and gimmicks necessary to create that particular “can’t put it down” addictive effect that we all enjoy from this kind of story. While working (endlessly) on the book’s plotting, my co-author and I found ourselves constantly referring to other books we both liked, as examples of what does and doesn’t work. Stephen King was mentioned very often, as was Michael Crichton (by me; I have a particular lifelong admiration for Crichton which I admit is excessive and a bit delusional). But probably the most frequently-invoked suspense author was Ira Levin, the author of Rosemary’s Baby, The Stepford Wives and The Boys From Brazil. Levin (like King, and Crichton) is not a particularly gifted literary writer; his workmanlike style is less obtrusively classless and coarse than King’s (and less coldly, inhumanly clinical than Crichton’s), but it’s not what anyone would call good writing. However, as the my three examples illustrate, Levin is an absolute master of suspense.

All three of these books were made into movies, of which only one (Rosemary’s Baby) is any good. In Stephen King’s (highly recommended) book-length essay on the horror genre, Danse Macabre (1981), King spends a chapter analyzing his favorite horror novels and bringing his particular insights to bear in understanding why those books are so scary; why they’re so good. (He spends another chapter on his favorite movies, and another on television shows -- the whole thing is definitely worth reading.) Rosemary’s Baby is one of King’s favorite horror novels and he intersperses his analysis with a lengthy interview he conducted with Ira Levin. In that interview, Levin reveals his suspicion that Roman Polanski, the writer/director of Rosemary’s Baby (1968), was so new to the ways of Hollywood that he may not have even grasped that he was allowed to change the book while filming it. For this reason (Levin speculates) the movie is almost neurotically faithful to its source, down to the specific issues of magazines being read by the characters, the colors of the walls in certain rooms, and, of course, nearly all of the dialogue and other scenic material.

The novels The Stepford Wives and The Boys From Brazil are every inch Rosemary’s Baby’s equals in terms of ingenuity, quality, and the number and intensity of scares and chills. But the movies made from those two books are just awful, and the movie of The Boys From Brazil is uniquely dismal (which is why we’re here). The difference, of course, is that those two movies don’t really bother to follow their source material with any real care. (It doesn’t help that Franklin J. Schaffner, the director of The Boys From Brazil, is such a hopelessly talentless hack.) What is it about screenwriters who adapt novels by acknowledged masters of suspense that makes them change the plotting around? It must be ego-driven, or there must be some kind of pathological need involved. The same thing happens to Stephen King: Pet Sematary and Misery are two of the most terrifying, flawlessly-plotted horror stories I’ve ever encountered, and they both inspired absolutely dreadful movies, in which the anonymous, mediocre screenwriters (okay, Misery was William Goldman, but he’s got his own problems) have to prove their mettle by making bizarre, ill-advised changes to King’s plots in order to prove some personal point, and, in so doing, totally wreck the idea.

Obviously there are exceptions to what I’m describing, and probably the best counter-example is another Stephen King novel, The Shining, which got completely altered into a nearly unrecognizable form with a new plot when it was made into a movie. The movie, however, is brilliant, stunning, unforgettable…because the re-write was done by Stanley Kubrick (and his deputy Diane Johnson) and that’s really all you need to say in order to silence the opposition. There are very few people so good that merely invoking their names rebuts all objections, but Kubrick is one of them.

But Franklin J. Schaffner is no Stanley Kubrick (nor is Boys From Brazil screenwriter Heywood Gould). I don’t want to dwell on the painful trainwreck of this movie more than I have to, but suffice it to say that Laurence Olivier delivers a dismal, eye-rolling performance as an aging Nazi hunter loosely based on Simon Wiesenthal; that Gregory Peck (my favorite guy) staggers woodenly through the film like a grotesque effigy in his feeble attempt to portray real-life Nazi war criminal Josef Mengele; that Steve Guttenberg makes an appearance; that the actual movie film is badly exposed and barely in focus throughout; that Shaffner does not seem to understand that his job description includes selecting an appropriate place to affix the camera in order to capture a pleasing (or at least intelligible) composition (or that there are alternatives to using a 50mm lens for every single shot); that the musical score might as well be leaking through a thin wall from an adjacent theater playing a different movie; that Ira Levin’s devilishly clever and brilliant story is reduced to a slow-moving, dull, barely-comprehensible ordeal with an inconclusive ending and a vague feeling of pointlessness and ennui overhanging the entire production.

And yet: seven out of ten stars on IMBD! A “classic”! Nominated for three Oscars! How can this happen? There are people out there whose only exposure to this exquisite story is through this movie (just as there are people who only know about Annie Wilkes and her “cockadoodie car” from Rob Reiner’s miserable film of Misery). And this is what I’m so frustrated by: these genre novels, while admittedly not very strong reads from a literary standpoint, actually contain stories so good that the worst Hollywood adaptations possible can’t ruin them. The basic concept of The Boys From Brazil is just such a crackerjack idea that even this lugubrious, out-of-focus funeral pageant of a movie conveys enough of that idea to excite audiences for decades. No wonder people think horror (and sci-fi) are crap genres: most of their exposure to the stuff (until recently) has come in the form of these terrible, condescendingly made, inept movies. But the alcohol is so potent that the audience gets drunk, even from the few drops that survive into the diluted cocktail they’re so often served.


Johnny Sweatpants said...

Note to self: read Misery. And Rosemary's Baby, The Boys From Brazil and the Stepford Wives before Jordan's book is released.

Jordan said...

If you do that, you won't regret it! Each of them is amazing.

DCD said...

I have read both Misery and Boys from Brazil - loved both. Bummer the movie was crappy.

Octopunk said...

Wow, I don't think I knew you felt that way about Misery the movie. I read it and saw it, but so many years apart I only noticed the difference in how many feet everybody still had at the end. And I dug Kathy Bates.

I know the basic plot of Stepford Wives because the concept is fairly iconic, but I haven't read or seen it. And you could have told me Boys From Brazil was about a mariachi band and I would've nodded my head trustingly.

Anyway, I like your point about stories so good they defy their own ruining. I'll avoid BFB.

Jordan said...

Misery: it's not that it's soo bad, but it's just basic by-the-numbers late-eighties Hollywood crap, you know? There's no artistry to it at all. It's shot like television and written like most movies were written back then; i.e. super-obvious explaino of everything interspersed with bad jokes and patter.'

Whereas the novel Misery has that windswept, ice-blue atmosphere that Sam Raimi conjured up for One False Move, and is one of those great stories that never leaves a single room for most of its duration. (The minute the movie starts showing you what's going on "back in town," where those funny cops are making cute flirty jokes, I was disgusted.)

But the main difference is much more central and abstract: the entire theme of King's novel is basically scuttled by the movie. In the novel, Paul Sheldon (the main character) hates his "Misery" series and celebrates killing the character so that he can move on to more highbrow work. But the events of King's novel get him to realize not just that he should respect "Misery" but that "Misery" is really the essence of who he is; his gift to the world, the apex of his artistic vision. He discovers this while writing the "Misery" resurrection novel, which we get to read as he writes it, and it's one of the best examples of "book within a book" (in exactly the "Tales of the Black Freighter" sense) that I've ever come across. Paul's story is re-told as "Misery's" story, and the two concepts are tied together in a fashion that creates a deep well of metaphorical meaning and a lot of anguished, thinly-veiled soul-searching on King's part about what it means to be trapped in the role of a popular entertainer. It's quite clear that "Misery" saves Paul's life, not just because of the power he has over his captor as a storyteller but because the heroine's courage and, essentially, refusal to be killed is transferred to her creator. It's a beautiful, powerful idea; one of the best and most sophisticated King has ever come up with.

But William Goldman and Rob Reiner don't care about any of that. As far as they're concerned, "Misery" means bad books that Paul is tired of writing, and that's the end of that. Paul does no soul-searching whatsoever; we don't know or care what happens in the book he writes over the course of his imprisonment (even though it's Rob Reiner and I was expecting some Princess Bride-style "book within the book" exerpts from Misery's Return as he writes it). The whole thing is reduced to a simple thriller; an escape story -- and the audience, who never knew there was more to Misery to begin with can't tell the difference and celebrate the leftover fumes of King's story.

Octopunk said...

Oh yeah! I remember wondering when Misery first came out who they got to play the character Misery -- a complete mistake on my part and one I forgot completely by the time I saw it.

That just reminded me of something I learned from the book. There's a scene early on in which a small fire is lit inside a house and gets just a little out of control for just a moment or two. Despite the innocuous threat, King observes how people tend to lose their shit when even a little fire is present -- I can't recall if he uses the phrase "fire dance" or if that's just how I remember it.

I was at a party once and a candle had gotten knocked over, and while my friend freaked out and tore out of the room to get something, I remembered the fire dance and decided to just take a half second to assess the situation before doing something. In that half second I realized I had a drink in my hand and I poured it out on the small flame and put it out.

Of course, had I been drinking brandy I would've made a much bigger fire, which I would have contemplated for a moment before fleeing.

Jordan said...

Yeah, good move.

You see what I mean? When you take out "Misery's Return" you basically gut the novel; it's reduced to a shell of its true self. That was during that horrible late '80s/early '90s period when everything sucked (the Bush I era), but it still pissed me off. And then the movie was acclaimed, and I got even angrier. I was like, "Don't rewardthem!"

Catfreeek said...

Oh yay! I've read all but the Stepford Wives.

I found the Boys from Brazil film to be confusing and weak as well. They did not carry forth the air of the book at all.

HandsomeStan said...

This blog should be a college course. I feel like the review and the subsequent comments of TBFB have made me smarter, and I have an inexplicable urge to write a term paper on what I've learned from Jordan. Not just about movies, but about the art of writing.

Weirdly, with Boys, I always loved the book and never sought out the movie. The bit about the audience getting drunk is the glistening maraschino cherry on top of the delicious sundae of this review.

Misery was an ehh movie, and I never sought out the book.

Stepford Wives I worked on, and I can only say this: I'll take a hot blonde robot wife that dispenses cash out of her mouth. (Original movie: so-so. Remake that I worked on: pretty much crap. But MAN we had some hot fucking extras.)

I'm dizzy with stimulation - excellent review, sir.