Fiction into Film: Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1897 / 1995)

Fiction into Film is a series devoted to page-to-screen adaptations. The process of translating prose to the visual medium is a tricky and only intermittently successful one, but even the fumbles provide a great platform for understanding stories, and why they affect us the way they do.

Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)Dracula, I feel, has a damned good case for being the single most famous literary character of all time.

Is there competition? Sure. There’s Sherlock Holmes. Ebenezer Scrooge. Ulysses or Odysseus. (You can’t have both.) Merlin. Hamlet. The list, of course, goes on.

Dracula’s creative lineage is so vast, so varied, so deeply ingrained in our cultural DNA that it seems like he was always there. He wasn’t an invention; he was a force that was eventually set to paper.

Even today, long after the novel’s initial rush of popularity, there are important echoes. He is the driving force behind the events of the Castlevania video games. He is hawking boxes of chocolatey breakfast cereal. A numerically obsessive clone of his is teaching children to count.

He’s lamenting the death of his beloved Transylvania Twist while everyone else does the Monster Mash. He’s offering batty counsel to Herman Munster. He’s inspiring a series of blaxploitation films.

And all of this is to say nothing of the straight adaptations of and sequels to his original story, across all media. Stage shows, radio dramas, films. And, as you might imagine by the very nature of this article, parodies.

Dracula, like its title character, endures. It lives forever. It adapts now and then to suit the times, and it’s surprisingly resilient.

Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)

You know Dracula. You can make a list of all of the things that make the character what he is. There’s an accepted canon of features and accoutrements that define him. You know his fangs, his cape, his ability to turn into a bat, his taste for blood…you can continue the list yourself, because if I keep going I’ll eat up most of the article.

Whatever the power of Stoker’s original, though, it was the 1931 film version of Dracula that permanently fixed the character in our minds. Actually, that’s not entirely true: Bela Lugosi’s starring turn in that film fixed the character in our minds.

When we think of Dracula, we think — directly or not — of what Lugosi brought to the role. (A role he perfected on stage before playing the part on film.) It’s Lugosi’s take on the Transylvanian accent that Count Von Count, Count Chocula, and nearly every other portrayal of Dracula in popular culture imitates.

And that’s for good reason; Stoker invented the character, but Lugosi, three and a half decades later, gave it life.

Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)

With that film Dracula (like Frankenstein’s monster the same year) instantly became a classic movie villain, with his literary origins feeling now like a footnote. Certainly when we hear the name “Dracula” we have a very clear image in our minds, and it’s an image that we saw on film…not one that we independently conjured up while reading a book.

Stoker explained who Dracula was in his novel, and Lugosi fleshed it out with his performance. Deviations don’t feel like alternate interpretations…they feel wrong.

Which is perhaps why Mel Brooks — zany satirist, manic showman, incomparable comic mastermind — was remarkably respectful with his (ostensible) parody, Dracula: Dead and Loving It.

Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)

Brooks opens his film with a slow zoom in on a copy of the novel. Not an actual copy, as Brooks has to superimpose the title, but the intention is clear.

As the word Dracula gets larger and larger on our screen, Brooks appends his subtitle, “Dead and Loving It.”

Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)

That small moment is a perfect metaphor for the film’s entire approach to the source material; present it faithfully, and tack on some fun original material where we can.

If this sounds critical, it is…but only partially. People setting money aside for a Mel Brooks film wanted to laugh. Constantly. Brooks’ then-recent parodies — Spaceballs and Robin Hood: Men in Tights — set a gag-a-second precedent, and audiences wanted waves of dumb jokes to fill the space between the great ones. They wanted copious visual jokes and a thoroughly irreverent spirit. They wanted comedy first and foremost, and on that front Dracula: Dead and Loving It largely fails.

But that failure becomes a different kind of success, as Brooks actually made a legitimate (and sometimes legitimately good) Dracula film instead.

Critics weren’t kind, as they had largely the same expectations that audiences had, and shared in their disappointment. The trailers understandably spotlighted the gags alone, which baffled viewers who wished for them during the long — and not infrequent — stretches of drama. People, frankly, didn’t know what to make of it, and I can’t entirely blame them.

Sadly, the film’s toxic reception (it lost around $20 million dollars) either convinced Brooks to stop making movies or served as a very convenient excuse.

To this day, Dracula: Dead and Loving It is Brooks’ final film…a fittingly thematic final nail in the director’s coffin.

Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)

But by no means is it anywhere near as bad as its reputation suggests. It wasn’t the movie anyone wanted, and it may not even have been the film Brooks wanted to make, but twenty years on we are able to appraise Dracula: Dead and Loving It on its own merits, and we should, because it’s actually pretty good.

It’s obvious that Brooks did not return to the Stoker original when he gathered up source material for his film. His visual and narrative touchpoints span the entirety of the character’s history on film, rather than in literature. In fact, two early gags, nearly back to back, feature the shadow from 1922’s Nosferatu and the absurd hairpiece from 1992’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Those represented, at the time, both ends of Dracula’s cinematic legacy.

Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)

Brooks relied on previous adaptations for at least two reasons. Firstly, and primarily, it’s because audiences are vastly more familiar with Dracula as a movie monster than they are as a character in a book, and Brooks’ comedy relies on familiarity. Secondly, though: it’s damned difficult to do a film that’s true to the original novel.

Here’s a big surprise for modern day readers of Dracula: Dracula is barely in the thing.

For Stoker, Dracula was less a character than he was a presence. We meet him at the beginning, spend a lot of distressing time in his company, and then he vanishes. For the overwhelming bulk of the novel, he’s not even there. Other characters talk about him and his horrific deeds — usually without connecting one to the other — but the vampire himself is pointedly absent.

This is almost unimaginable today. Dracula is a showman! He’s theatrical! He’s a major name, and filming a version close to Stoker’s original means he’d only appear at the very beginning and, perhaps, prostrate at the end. The rest of the runtime would be taken up by characters speaking about their romantic entanglements, a runaway wolf, the behavior of patients at the sanitarium…and this simply wouldn’t do.

It wouldn’t do because of Lugosi, whose iconic performance showed how much fun we could have by actually keeping Dracula around. He could bare his fangs, flourish his cape, suavely manipulate women and deflect the suspicions of men. He became perhaps the very first film character that audiences could love to hate, and a Dracula film that doesn’t take advantage of that opportunity would feel hollow and misjudged, however true to the original text it may be.

Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)

Lugosi, theatrical showman himself, sunk his teeth deeply enough into the role that he is still the standard by which Draculas (indeed, vampires in general) are judged. He arrived fully formed on the screen, and defined the character for generations to follow. Which is good, because the brief material that actually features Dracula is by far the best stuff in the novel, and films expanding on that are only richer for it.

Another issue that directors of a faithful adaptation would face is the fact that Dracula isn’t a traditional narrative. Rather, it’s a collection of documentation that, when taken together, forms a rough story. For a few pages you may be reading from one character’s journal. Then you’ll find yourself reading an exchange of letters between two other characters. Then you might find a ship’s log, a newspaper clipping, a telegram.

All of this helps Stoker to sustain the suggestion that this really happened.

It’s entirely a work of fiction, of course, but this scrapbook approach implies non-fiction, just as somebody might piece together real world evidence of a similar kind in order to form a rough narrative about Jack the Ripper.

In fact, the Whitechapel murders would have been fresh in Stoker’s mind, having occurred only about ten years before he published Dracula, and indeed he would have glimpsed that sequence of horrors in similarly oblique ways…through correspondence, through discussion, through newspaper coverage.

Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)

In structuring his tale this way, Stoker was an extremely early pioneer of a genre that would become quite popular a hundred years or so later: the found-footage horror film. Dracula, of course, would make his home on the screen long before The Blair Witch Project and its ilk prepared audiences (and Hollywood) for such an approach, so we’ve instead gotten to know him through much more traditional narratives.

There must have been something about that distance from the action that appealed to Stoker. Perhaps he thought it made the story scarier, or perhaps he thought that it created a buffer for his readers, helping them to not feel too scared. I’m not sure of the reason, personally, but it’s interesting to return to the source text and find an unexpectedly unique and fragmented approach to a story that almost every time since then had been told through basic, straight-forward plot progression.

All of which, of course, is to discuss the general interplay between the original novel and the many filmed versions of Dracula to follow. This background, though, is helpful before we dig into Brooks, and the approach he took.

Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)

Brooks made a film that was, by design, a few degrees removed from the original. His film is already filtered through the films of others, and that’s clear from the opening sequence, in which poor Renfield visits the Castle Dracula in order to finalize the sale of Carfax Abbey.

That’s a cinematic invention of the classic 1931 Dracula. In the novel, Renfield never visits the Castle Dracula; he is always a patient in Dr. Seward’s sanitarium, and it’s Jonathan Harker who visits Dracula.

Brooks’ interest in previous Dracula adaptations is further emphasized by the character’s appearance here, which hews very closely to that of Dwight Frye, who played the character opposite Lugosi.

Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)

Brooks tapped Peter MacNicol (Ghostbusters 2, Ally McBeal) to play Renfield, and it has to be said that he does a fantastic job.

MacNicol is a gifted actor, and his pivots between serious victim and comic lackey serve very effectively as a metaphor for the entire film. He’s tasked with playing both extremes in a movie that’s a bit tonally confused, and he handles them both very well.

He has the most thankless and the most difficult part in the entire production, and he’s still great.

Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)

He actually steals the film from Leslie Nielsen several times, which is no mean feat, as Nielsen does impressive work as both a comedy version of Dracula, and as a proper portrayal.

It’s difficult to think of Nielsen now as anything other than a comic actor, but he appeared in more than 50 films before he first flexed his comic muscles in Airplane! In fact, part of what made him such a great comic actor was the fact the was already a good actor in general.

He understood emotion, character, motivation. He knew how to sell an idea subtly, and if that seemed to get lost in his later films, it’s undoubtedly due to the roles he was hired to play, and the directors making specific demands of him. Moments of legitimately great acting find their way into Dracula: Dead and Loving It, as Brooks is a kindred spirit who knows that the best comic actors are actors first and foremost.

Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)

There’s a scene early in the film during which Count Dracula meets four of the other main characters in a theater. He is immediately taken with the fetching Lucy Westenra, and she’s clearly taken with him as well.

She catches him staring at her.

LUCY: Count Dracula?
DRACULA: I’m sorry, my dear…but you have such a lovely ucipital mapilary.
LUCY: What’s that?

Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)

It doesn’t play like a joke. It doesn’t have the cadence of a joke, it’s not performed like a joke, and it’s not shot like a joke. There is an element of dark comedy here, but it’s chilling more than it’s funny. It’s probably the best of this particular Dracula’s moments, and it’s a perfect distillation of the seductive menace that defines the character in general.

Nielsen, sadly, didn’t do much of merit after this film. He starred in a few children’s movies and limp parodies that aimed to capture the Naked Gun audience without understanding why those films worked at all. It was all downhill from here until his eventual death in 2010. That makes it even more disappointing that Dracula: Dead and Loving It is so often overlooked. It’s not just our last chance to experience the directing talent of Mel Brooks; it’s the last chance to see a truly solid performance from Leslie Nielsen.

The ucipital mapilary moment is also an example of Brooks making a proper vampire film, something which, indeed, he does for unexpectedly long stretches. Dracula: Dead and Loving It as such feels less like a sendup of Dracula adaptations than it does like one that happens to veer now and then into self-contained comedy sketches.

Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)

What’s interesting about this is that the story of Dracula seems to be as seductive and powerful as the character itself. Even the restless comic mind of Mel Brooks can’t help but revere it, sectioning off his own (largely very funny) comic interludes from the actual narrative of the film itself.

These include a scene of Renfield trying to secretly consume bugs during his meeting with Dr. Seward, an effectively silly stretch that allows both MacNicol and an underutilized Harvey Korman to have a great deal of fun while still both attempting to act the straight man.

Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)

There’s also a self-contained scene introducing Dr. Van Helsing, played by Brooks himself, who delights in being able to get an entire class of students to faint during his especially gory autopsy lesson.

“I’ve still got it,” Brooks says, in a film that with sad irony had a lot of critics disagreeing.

Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)

Most notably, though, there’s the scene in which Steven Weber, as Jonathan Harker, drives a stake through the heart of an undead Lucy Westenra. Watching it is the only way to understand the full comic impact of the absurdly powerful gushes of blood that follow.

They exist for no reason except that it’s funny to see such large amounts of obviously fake blood absolutely drench an actor, and in a relatively subtle gag (to be fair, anything would be subtle next to that), Brooks’ Van Helsing hides behind a column in order to stay dry.

It’s a great scene, and the film’s funniest, and it actually uses its own predictability as a punchline by subverting the rule of three. After the second staking and jet of blood, Harker is dripping with Lucy’s vital fluid. Brooks steps over to encourage him. “She’s almost dead!” he says.

Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)

Jonathan Harker replies, “She’s dead enough.”

It’s a great comic sequence, but it also, by design, stands apart from the rest of the film, and also stands apart from the arc of poor, doomed Lucy Westenra.

Lucy’s demise in the book is also exaggerated to almost comic lengths, but, obviously, humor was not Stoker’s intention, so much as a profound and prolonged despair.

Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)

In Stoker’s original, Lucy is slowly drained of her essence by the repeated visitations of Count Dracula. Van Helsing and Dr. Seward manage to keep her alive for a couple of uneasy weeks with transfusion after transfusion, but she slowly, inexorably, dies. Hers is not a peaceful death nor rest by any means; she suffers thoroughly, and this is not a new emotion for her.

Prior to being targeted by Dracula, Lucy had to deal with her own erratic romantic attentions from three men, her jealousy of her friend Mina Murray, her rapid engagement to a man for the seeming sake of upstaging (or at least keeping up with) Mina, and the encroaching death of her sickly mother.

Brooks — like most directors — eschews these entanglements, and positions Lucy not as a woman facing the latest in a long line of misfortunes (and bad decisions), but as a target solely. She is tragic not by nature, but by virtue of having been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Brooks has Dracula meet her and become infatuated (or his vampiric equivalent) at the theater, and he visits her at night, slowly drinking of her blood until she is dead.

The truly funny thing? Brooks handles this seriously.

Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)

There are very few jokes related to the slow death of Lucy Westenra, and those that do occur are tangential (Van Helsing repeating “she will become one herself” in a mock-dramatic stage whisper) or occur after her death (prudish Jonathan’s mixed reactions to her sexualized vampiric advances).

As she dies, Brooks treats it seriously. He films it as any director of a serious adaptation would. His performers are serious and subdued. If it weren’t for Weber’s (excusably, for a comedy) poor British accent, it would be easy to stumble upon these scenes and not realize at all that you’re watching a parody.

This works, in some ways, against the comedy. In other ways it enhances it, as it reduces the expectation of a laugh every few seconds. This both makes the big comedy setpiece scenes stand out in sharper relief, and allows smaller jokes to feel bigger than they really are, simply because they’re less expected.

Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)

There’s a scene in which Nielsen dreams he is cured of his condition. He walks through a park in the brilliant sunlight, appreciating the warmth, the colors, the people. Somebody offers him some wine, and he hesitates. And then he takes it, saying warmly, “What the hell!”

It’s a perfect line reading with a great deal of innate comedy, but it registers, I feel, mainly because the rest of the film isn’t so manic as to drown it out. Later in the dream Renfield shows up to caution him against being out in the daylight, but Dracula assuages his concern. “Renfield, look at me. I’m drinking wine and eating chicken!”

These aren’t jokes, but they’re humorous. They’re funny because it’s innately funny for Leslie Nielsen to be dressed as Dracula in the middle of the park eating a chicken drumstick. It’s certainly not setup / punchline, but it’s affectingly absurd.

This film is packed with moments like this, and I love them. They’re funny in a passively light-hearted way that would get lost in a film that aimed exclusively for the bigger laughs, or at least the bigger clusters of laughs, and it makes me appreciate the more general, quieter comic approach Brooks took with this one. (The scene ends with Dracula realizing he had a “daymare,” so it’s not as though those expecting sillier, more obvious comedy left completely disappointed.)

Dracula: Dead and Loving It is more a humorous vampire film than it is a parody of one. Brooks has his cake and eats it, as he legitimately made an adaptation of Dracula as he spoofed it.

Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)

This certainly works in favor of the film overall. It’s easy to get caught up in the story before an unexpected gag — or the sight of Leslie Nielsen’s head on a bat — reminds you of which version of Dracula it is that you’re watching.

This is especially true in a scene toward the end of the film, when Harker, Seward, and Van Helsing arrange to expose Dracula at a gala event.

Dracula and Mina dance together, and a wall-length mirror is unveiled as they do. While the narrative purpose of this moment is to prove to the crowd that the count casts no reflection, what we get in the audience is a long, artful sequence in which Mina, played by a very game and quite lovely Amy Yasbeck, dances both with Dracula and by herself.

Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)

The camera pans elegantly from scenes of Nielsen and Yasbeck together to the reflection, in which Yasbeck dances alone.

Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)

While it’s by no means a perfect effect, it’s impressive from both a directorial and an acting standpoint. It mixes both practical effects (Yasbeck dancing with an imaginary partner) and special effects (the invisible count spinning her so quickly that she leaves the floor).

It’s a great sequence, one that’s fun to watch without containing jokes or even being funny, exactly. It’s Brooks relishing the vampire film he’s making, and falling into rhythm with the beats and opportunities for flourish that come along with that.

That’s not the only flourish of his, either. Early in the film he establishes a running gag of Dracula’s shadow having a mind — if not a life — of its own. From lunging unprovoked at Renfield to rigorously humping Mina, the count’s shadow seems to be a manifestation of the character’s darker background.

It hearkens back to the more overtly villainous character that Stoker created, the one that springs forth only to take what it wants, before once again retreating to the darkness.

Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)

Nielsen’s Dracula, on the other hand, behaves more like his cinematic predecessors. Suave, charming, romantic. He’s seductive rather than forceful. He beckons rather than seizes. He coerces rather than insists.

The separation between this Dracula and his shadow is the separation between the Dracula we’ve come to know and the Dracula that was originally intended. It’s always there, rarely acknowledged, and able to shock devastatingly when given its chance.

It also, funnily enough, survives the film where Dracula does not, as the shadow is smart enough to flee the scene when Van Helsing storms Carfax Abbey.

Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)

Brooks never had any difficulty stuffing his films with actors who could bring more to their roles than sheer comedy, and Dracula: Dead and Loving It is no exception.

Nielsen, MacNicol, and Yasbeck we’ve spoken about already, but they’re not the end of the strong performances. Harvey Korman and Lysette Anthony (as Lucy Westenra) both deliver their material very well, as odd as it must have been for them to be asked to sell far more tragedy than comedy in a Mel Brooks film.

Korman, at the very least, makes up for this by setting up the great final punchline of the entire movie:

SEWARD: Your master is gone forever, Mr. Renfield. You are your own man now.
SEWARD: Yes. No one will ever control you again.
RENFIELD: You’re right!
SEWARD: Come, Renfield.
RENFIELD: Yes, master.

Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)

The biggest surprise for me was Mark Blankfield, who turns a nothing role of Martin, a sanitarium security guard, into one of the genuine comic highlights of the film.

Blankfield makes the most of his small amount of screentime, and also gets a great exchange with MacNicol, who I’m seeing more and more is this film’s real comic MVP:

MARTIN: You’re free to go.
RENFIELD: Free to go? Why? How?
MARTIN: Good behavior.
RENFIELD: But I’ve only been in here for a moment.
MARTIN: Well, for that moment your behavior was very good!

Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)

Brooks has long been in the habit of giving himself memorable bit parts in the films he makes, and surely few bit parts are more memorable than Van Helsing.

That’s naturally who he plays here, and of course he inhabits the learned Dutchman with the sprightly Yiddish heart that he brings to all of his characters. As in Stoker’s original, Brooks’ Van Helsing is the one character who knows what’s going on and how to stop it. Unlike the original this Van Helsing is a bit prideful and petty, getting dragged into a war of “last words” with Count Dracula that serves as a great running joke, as well as a comically minor symbol of their mutual antagonism.

Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)

Steven Weber gets a bit less to do from both a dramatic and comic standpoint, and he’s probably the weakest of the cast as a result. There’s no real spotlight for his talents and nothing that pushes him to be especially memorable, aside from taking two gushes of blood to the face. He’s meant to be prudish and proper, but he also comes across — probably intentionally — as a bit dim.

Which actually leads to some accidental resonance. The popularity of Dracula as a character — and the immediate recognition of his traits, abilities, and weaknesses — works against a straight adaptation of the novel.

In the original text, Jonathan Harker is holed up in the Castle Dracula for roughly the first quarter of the book, with only a vague idea that something is amiss. During the second quarter of the book — in which Lucy Westenra fights in vain for her life — Seward, Van Helsing, and others are confused for a long time before they understand what they’re up against.

Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)

But for us, we who have grown up watching the count, dressing as the count for Halloween, watching cartoon characters square off against the count, eating the count’s breakfast cereal, learning to count with the count…well, it’s hard for us not to see the characters in the book, and therefore in a faithful adaptation, as slow learners having trouble keeping up.

So ingrained in our consciousness is Dracula, and so well-versed are we in his mythology whether or not we’ve even seen the movies, that it seems odd and foreign that somebody wouldn’t immediately put the dual incisions on the neck together with the loss of blood together with the mysterious flapping at the window and conclude “vampire.”

And yet these characters don’t, with the unintentional effect being that they don’t seem especially smart by our standards. It feels like the equivalent of a hypothetical Christmas film in which characters stand around for three quarters of the runtime trying to figure out who the fat guy in red is who flies in on a sleigh and leaves gifts for everyone.

For the characters in a universe without that knowledge, it’s understandable. But in our universe we have that knowledge, and watching characters try to figure out what we already know can be unreasonably frustrating.

Fortunately, adaptations of Dracula don’t treat the characters that way. Directors assume we can piece enough of it together in the audience, which relieves Van Helsing of a lot of exposition and frees up the count to be what he never had any interest in being in the book: social.

Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)

The popular portrayals of Dracula are much more interested in socialization than the original, who could be seen as an extreme, cautionary introvert. That cannot possibly be said about Lugosi, who recontextualized the character as one who wished to integrate himself into high English culture. Sure, he did so for his own selfish interests, but…well, who doesn’t? His interests happened to be supernatural, is all.

And that’s the Dracula we remember. The one who steps into the room with a flourish of his cape. The one who smiles disarmingly and tries to be friendly until somebody gets a bit too curious. The one who gets to know his victims face to face, eye to eye, shoulder to shoulder, charming them to keep them off guard, pretending to be the grand and cultured noble that he once actually was…just to get closer…

Just to get…close enough.

Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)

It’s not Stoker who gave Dracula such an incredible, irresistible presence; it was Lugosi, who fought tooth and nail, against the wishes of the studio, to play the character on film.

Lugosi understood — consciously or not — that there was one way to play the count, one way that would resonate, one way that would take a character people thought they knew and turn it into something nobody would ever forget. In some alternate universe, he failed in his overtures, and the part went to somebody else.

I’m glad we live in this one, where the role was built so firmly into what we know today. So firmly, in fact, that even cinema’s greatest parodist couldn’t resist treating it reverently.

Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)

But maybe that’s Brooks’ best joke, after all. Dracula was a monster that had already lost his monstrousness. He was already a joke, as any monster must be by the time he’s reimagined as a cartoon mascot. Lugosi cemented him so strongly and effectively and indelibly in our minds that he became familiar. Safe. Forgive the pun: toothless.

Brooks, in very large part, presented the story straight. Not entirely straight, but straight enough to make a point.

And his point was that Dracula could be both silly and frightening. Brooks bridged the gap between the character as we know it, and its original shadow. Between the non-threatening likenesses that we’ve all grown up with, and the genuinely dangerous original. Between modern sensibilities, and the simple stories that so long ago terrified generations of readers.

And it’s a good joke. It’s the joke that sneaks up on us when we all think it’s safe to laugh.

Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)

Dracula: Dead and Loving It
(1897, Bram Stoker [as Dracula]; 1995, Mel Brooks)

Book or film? Book
Worth reading the book? Yes. It’s not great, but it’s deeply fascinating to encounter one of literature’s most famous characters in his first incarnation.
Worth watching the film? Yes. It’s both funnier and better than its reputation suggests.
Is it the best possible adaptation? Of course not.
Is it of merit in its own right? Definitely. Ignore everything you’ve heard against Dracula: Dead and Loving It. Brooks neither made a riotous satire nor a proper Dracula film, but he split the difference in a fascinating way. It wasn’t the movie anyone was expecting it to be, but it’s a lot of fun, and, at times, a surprisingly effective film in its own right.

Fiction into Film: Inherent Vice (2009 / 2014)

Fiction into Film is a series devoted to page-to-screen adaptations. The process of translating prose to the visual medium is a tricky and only intermittently successful one, but even the fumbles provide a great platform for understanding stories, and why they affect us the way they do.

Inherent Vice poster, 2014There’s an extra layer of scrutiny that gets applied to literary adaptations. In addition to the things we judge in all films — the script, the acting, the directing, the editing, etc. — we ask what a director did, or failed to do, with the source material.

A film might be great and still be a poor adaptation, which leads to a kind of ancillary disappointment that a wholly original film wouldn’t have to worry about. And directors know this. How much they let it shape or inform their approach is up to them, but they know — and have always known — that fans of the original text will watch an adaptation with certain expectations in mind.

I’m not saying that it is a director’s duty to meet those expectations. (In fact, read on to hear me say the opposite!) But the expectations will be there, and the director will be aware of them.

So we can imagine the absolutely crushing weight that Paul Thomas Anderson must have felt when he directed Inherent Vice. Not only was he adapting a novel, but he was adapting a novel by the notoriously unfilmable (in both senses of the word) Thomas Pynchon. What’s more, the film was likely to be — and is still likely to be — the only authorized adaptation of anything Pynchon will ever write.

No pressure, there, Paul.

Inherent Vice, 2014

Inherent Vice, the novel, is about Larry “Doc” Sportello, a private eye in Southern California who faces the dawn of the 1970s — and the inevitable end of the Summer of Love — only because he has no other choice. As American society takes its first, deliberate steps toward forgetting whatever lessons it might have learned from the hippie movement, Doc’s focus is demanded suddenly by a new case: the reappearance of his ex-lover, and the disappearance of her current lover.

By Pynchon standards, it’s a pretty simple plot, and was something of an exception for the author, who was mainly known for his massive, meandering tangles of historical fiction. Inherent Vice has historical merit, but it’s also a silly detective novel, full of pot jokes and identifiable character types. It was good, but it also felt just a bit different from what we expected of Pynchon.

And the novel wasn’t the only thing he did unexpectedly.

Thomas Pynchon had always been a deliberate enigma. Rarely photographed. Less rarely identified. Never went on book tours. Never accepted awards in person. Never gave interviews. Never said much of anything, really…at least not outside of his novels.

Pynchon was silent. Distant. Content to while his time away behind a typewriter, somewhere, letting his works speak — and rewardingly baffle — for themselves.

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Until, all at once, he wasn’t. He made these strange little excursions into the life of…a different author, basically. It’s not that he wasn’t Pynchon anymore…it’s that Pynchon was becoming, incrementally, perhaps temporarily, more comfortable with some other version of himself. One that was more…vocal?

In 2004, with no fanfare to speak of, the man who uniformly refused public communication of any kind appeared on The Simpsons.


He played himself with a bag over his head, the exciting news here being that “Thomas Pynchon” was now a viable Halloween costume. Because nobody had heard his voice before, there were debates about whether or not this really was Pynchon.

But don’t worry; we’d be hearing his voice again. In advance of Inherent Vice, Pynchon lent his own voice (and likely his own script) to a video promoting the novel. He also built a playlist on Amazon spotlighting music from the novel — both real and invented.

Oh, and, he offered up the film rights.

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That’s a huge deal. The man who had never officially sanctioned any adaptations of his work of any kind, and had actually squashed numerous unofficial adaptations, was now openly asking somebody to make a movie based on his book.

Is it a coincidence that this surge of un-Pynchonlike behavior surrounds a novel in which characters are rewired, against their wills, to think and behave differently than they naturally would? Yes, of course it very likely is. But it’s an intriguing one.

Whatever the great recluse hoped to accomplish by flitting so quickly through the spotlight, he apparently accomplished it through The Simpsons, Amazon, and however many documents he had to sign in order to let Paul Thomas Anderson make an Inherent Vice of his own.

Pynchon kept writing and publishing, but the next time Penguin needed a promo video, he wasn’t in it. He had retreated back into silence, and left Anderson carrying a torch he was destined to have trouble keeping lit.

That’s not Anderson’s fault, though. The list of Pynchon’s releases cements him easily as one of our best authors, but the list of Anderson’s films cements him just as easily as one of our best directors. It’s not a case of mismatched talent; in fact, it was probably the best pairing we could have hoped for.

And yet the film feels…lifeless. Little of Pynchon’s oblique wit and less of Anderson’s many cinematic gifts make it to the screen. Perhaps when Anderson had the chance to work with Pynchon’s voice, he forgot how to speak in his own.

Inherent Vice obviously tries to be a faithful adaptation, and that’s what holds it back. Film and literature are different languages, and Anderson did not provide a translation; he provided a transliteration. What worked on the page no longer works on the screen, and what the screen could have brought to the experience is discarded in favor of fidelity.

He tried to make a direct adaptation, and we’re all poorer for it.

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Pynchon was kind to offer up Inherent Vice for adaptation, rather than something genuinely unfilmable — but more recognizable and with a greater built-in audience — such as Gravity’s Rainbow. That book (like his other historical comic epics, V., Mason & Dixon, and Against the Day) sees hundreds of characters weaving in and out of various plot threads, some of whom disappear for long stretches and reappear half the novel later, with the threads themselves often left deliberately unresolved. What’s more, the narration is not always clear about what’s actually happening versus what’s being imagined, dreamed, or hallucinated.

Inherent Vice is much easier, and it’s one of Pynchon’s more concise works. Less exciting as a prospect for adaptation, perhaps, but certainly one more likely to survive the transition.

Even among his other short novels, this one did seem to be the most likely to succeed. The Crying of Lot 49 relies almost completely on its protagonist’s internal journey…an issue that could potentially be resolved through copious voiceover, though that would also rob the story of its affecting (and defining) vagueness. Vineland, I think, could work with a bit of effort, especially since another Anderson used a similar nested-flashbacks approach to great effect in The Grand Budapest Hotel. Bleeding Edge came after Inherent Vice, so it wasn’t up for consideration, but it does seem to be pretty filmable, provided you can find some way to make interesting the many scenes of characters staring at computer screens.

Inherent Vice is the only one of Pynchon’s short novels to feature a male lead. The others — Oedipa Maas, Prairie Wheeler, Maxine Tarnow — are all female. Perhaps notable, likely not; I just found it interesting.

Doc’s journey, like that of any good detective figure, gets complicated fast. While investigating the disappearance of hotshot real-estate developer Mickey Wolfmann, Shasta Fay Hepworth, Doc’s ex, also vanishes. He learns that they both took a trip — some kind of trip, only some degree of willingly — aboard a schooner known as the Golden Fang. Which also turns out to be the name of a drug cartel, a rehab facility, a tax-dodge for shady dentists, or some combination of the above.

Tossed into the mix is surf sax player Coy Harlingen, who ostensibly died of a heroin overdose but seems to keep popping up on television and at rallies as a political agitator. Doc is first hired by Coy’s wife to do some checking into his dubious death…and then hired by Coy to check up on his wife. All the while Doc is pursued — sometimes assisted, usually manipulated — by “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, a humorless cop still reeling from the murder of his partner.

Of course, as Doc untangles his caseload he’s also forced — sentimental bastard that he is — to untangle his emotions.

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For Shasta, yes, who came back just to stir up feelings in him that he wished he’d already forgotten, but also for Penny, the Deputy D.A. he’s been seeing off and on, and, oddly enough, for Bigfoot.

In fact, it could be argued that the rivalry (one of thematic siblings) between Doc and Bigfoot is the emotional cornerstone of the book in general, each of them trying desperately to connect with the other, to set aside their pride, to bond in some way without losing respect for themselves, to help each other forward through the dawn of a new decade that isn’t going to be especially cordial to either of them.

It’s a great read, and one that had a lot of potential for a strong adaptation.

Unfortunately, Anderson’s vision feels too much like it’s trying to mimic Pynchon’s. The film feels beholden to the original, as though cramming as many of the book’s details and characters and Pynchon’s actual words into it is the only way Anderson can think of to respect it.

Sometimes the fidelity leads to nice little Easter eggs for fans of the novel. Early in the film Doc and his friend Denis head out for pizza, and without comment we can see — more or less faithfully recreated — the nightmarish combination of toppings Denis orders in the novel. Also presented without comment: Doc’s Princess phone, writing a wish on a rolling paper before smoking it, Bigfoot’s addiction to frozen bananas, and lots more. Freeze-frame viewers can even read a document summarizing the death of Bigfoot’s partner, using Pynchon’s original language.

These are all great, and unobtrusive, ways to provide winking resonance between the two versions of the story.

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Other times, though, that crippling fidelity leads to characters that appear, provide some fragment of exposition, and disappear forever. Tariq Khalil. Petunia Leeway. Buddy Tubeside. Sloane Wolfmann. Riggs Warbling. Luz. Aunt Reet. Clancy Charlock. That’s just a partial list of characters who play a much larger role in the book than they do on the screen, where they turn in little more than cameos.

They each served some function of their own in the book, but don’t serve much of one here, and they just seem to pop up because Anderson thinks they have to. The movie clocks in at around two and a half hours, and it still feels like the characters are fighting for time.

In order to accommodate so many one-off faces, we cut much of Doc’s actual detective work. His entire fact-finding trip to Vegas is gone. His visit to Coy’s dealer is gone. His followups with Mickey Wolfmann’s hired hands is gone. In the film, then, we don’t see Doc doing much of anything; we simply cut to the next time a character connects two hanging threads for him, essentially doing the detective work themselves.

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This makes Doc seem a lot less competent. Here he really does come across like the lazy, zoned-out, worthless hippie scum that, in the book, characters like Bigfoot liked to pretend he was. Anderson, knowingly or not, ends up coming down on Bigfoot’s side, seeing Doc as something like a lucky idiot at best, and losing much of what made the character who he actually was.

Joaquin Phoenix, a good enough casting choice on the whole, doesn’t always seem to know who Doc is, either. He shifts between playing him as a cartoon character and as a tormented soul. It’s as though he wasn’t told if the film would be a knockabout period comedy in the Austin Powers vein or a dryly comic meditation on aging and loss, so he figured he’d treat it as both.

“Comic boob” is definitely the wrong place to take the character, but every so often that’s exactly what Phoenix gives us, with his exaggerated reactions to pretty girls, his lunging after drugs, his Three Stooges reaction to being hit with a sap.

When Phoenix is more restrained he’s much better, and so is the film. We see this when Doc is at his lowest — flirting with a post-betrayal Penny on the phone, for instance — it’s just that Phoenix seems to believe that when Doc isn’t at his lowest he must be at his silliest, and, tonally, that just doesn’t work.

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Anderson must have been aware that there was a limit to the level of cartoonishness he could get away with, as he sometimes rewrites Pynchon’s scenes to be more subtle. Compare the scene in which Doc is interrogated by the FBI.

In the novel:

“Tell Penny how groovy it was of her to set up this little get-together, oh, and hey–can I be frank for a minute?”

“Of course,” said Agents Flatweed and Borderline.

Snapping his fingers, Doc sang himself out the door with four bars of “Fly Me to the Moon,” more or less on pitch.

In the film:

DOC: Can I be frank a minute?
FLATWEED: Why stop now?
DOC: Alright, you be Dean-o, you be the other guy, and tell Penny Davis Jr. what a lovely day we had. Thank you.

Same joke in each version, executed differently, each of which best suits its respective format. Doc crooning clownishly is something funnier to imagine than it would be to actually see, so Anderson, wisely, reworks the punchline just enough to avoid breaking the reality of his film.

That’s an impulse he could have heeded more often.

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Speaking of reworking, one character finds herself with a much different role in the film than she had in the book: Sortilège, an ex-employee and sometime spiritual advisor of Doc’s, acts here as the narrator.

I do wonder what Anderson’s motivation was for promoting this character to central storyteller. Sortilège is only physically present for a handful of scenes, none of them especially important, and I’m not entirely sure what her motivation would be for telling this story at a later time. Or to whom. Or what it even means to her. It’s a nice thought, and Anderson adds a cute little flourish of having Sortilège’s astrological interests color her interpretations of what’s happening, but it also feels a bit clunky.

To be honest, I had to watch the film twice to realize that the narrator even was Sortilège. I originally thought it had been Shasta.

Joanna Newsom (Sortilège) and Katherine Waterston (Shasta) don’t look or sound exactly alike, but they’re close enough to cause confusion. This is compounded by the fact that Sortilège doesn’t even get named until most of the film is already over, making the characters even more difficult to differentiate.

That’s a quirk that authors don’t have to worry about, while film-makers do. It’s nearly impossible to confuse two characters for the entire duration of a novel (unless that confusion is artfully intended). In a novel, our imaginations do the differentiating for us. In a film, it’s up to the film-maker, and if that film-maker happens to cast two actors with similar characteristics, confusion sets in.

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Of course, Inherent Vice, the novel, wasn’t really about Doc’s investigations, or about Doc at all; it was about the end of an era, which is illustrated both by the unfolding of the Manson family trials in the background and by the forcible rewiring of Mickey Wolfmann’s brain to keep him from turning philanthropic. The first clues us in to the fact that the hippie lifestyle will no longer be welcome in the new decade, and the second that hippie ideals won’t be, either.

Anderson’s Inherent Vice, however, loses the greater narrative about the era to focus only on Doc’s actual detective work…which is what makes it especially frustrating that his version of the character does so little of it.

In fact, in Eric Roberts’ only scene as Mickey Wolfmann, he explains the entire conspiracy for Doc, both because our detective hasn’t done much detecting and our director hasn’t filmed enough of the story for us to fit the puzzle together on our own. This may make Inherent Vice the first whodunit in history to be solved by its victim.

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One mark on the positive side of the ledger is the casting, which is uniformly quite great. Phoenix may have made some choices I emphatically disagree with, but he could have made a great Doc. Josh Brolin as Bigfoot is fantastic, finding a much better balance of humor and pathos than Phoenix does, and managing to feel — if not look — every bit as large as Pynchon initially described him. He’s massively imposing, as opposed to being simply massive.

Katherine Waterston is easily the best casting choice, though; she is thoroughly perfect as Shasta Fay Hepworth, telling us everything we need to know about what she means to Doc — and why he’d still miss her after all this time — before she even opens her mouth.

She appears in her first frame fully formed. Waterston understands Shasta perhaps even better than Pynchon did, giving herself over entirely to a role that could have been so easily mishandled, and genuinely making it her own.

Shasta contains multitudes, even if Doc sees few of them and understands fewer.

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Of the minor characters, the highlight is Martin Short as Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd. While many of the characters from the novel get significantly less time on the screen than they had on the page, just about all of Blatnoyd’s antics make it to the screen, and I’m glad they do.

Short plays Blatnoyd the way Pynchon’s characters often seem to readers. Broad. Manic. Impossibly animated. Pynchon’s characters are all spinning eyeballs and flailing limbs and funny faces. Sometimes they will literally shoot steam out of their ears, or run away leaving a dust-cloud in their image behind. They operate on a different kind of logic, and the worst possible idea would be to bring this to the screen untempered, without concern for tone.

Martin Short brings it to the screen untempered, without concern for tone, and it works. But he’s a zany character in an otherwise (for the most part) sedate film, and that’s why it works.

His performance achieves something by fixing Blatnoyd as an exception to the movie’s larger tonal rule. When another character has him killed, it makes sense; we’ve already seen that he didn’t fit.

Short brings a Pynchon character note for note, detail for detail, word for word to the screen, and in doing so makes it clear why no other characters should behave that way. The zaniness needs to be regulated.

Blatnoyd can behave that way, because we need to understand that he’s a nuisance, and an unwelcome presence to the other occupants of that universe. Doc, however, can’t behave that way, because we shouldn’t be able to side with those who find him pesky.

Seeing Phoenix have such difficulty moderating his performance — or at least finding a groove he can stay in — is made all the more disappointing by performances like Short’s, and especially by performances like Waterston’s.

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Waterston provides the perfect face of regret. Both Shasta’s, and Doc’s. Her presence is meaningful. We learn everything about their relationship not from the flashbacks that show them happy together, but from the times that they cross paths now, in the present day, unable to connect the way they know they need to, unable to be themselves, to just be there for each other.

They’re defensive. They’re damaged. They’re in pain. I don’t know that she and Phoenix have chemistry, exactly, but they have an affecting misalignment. The kind of love that doesn’t work, never worked, can never work, and yet won’t die. They’ll spin into each other’s orbits every so often. They’ll kick up all the old feelings. And then they’ll spin apart again. Older, sure, but certainly no wiser.

Anderson’s opening scene is the same as Pynchon’s, at least superficially. Shasta visits Doc out of the blue to ask for his help with the Mickey Wolfmann situation. Their dialogue is largely intact. The same expositional beats are hit. And then she leaves him to his investigation, and disappears into the next branch of her own fate.

But that’s where the similarities end, as Anderson’s Shasta is nakedly emotional. She’s hurting. She’s only just delaying the breakdown Doc must also know is coming. In the book she comes across as a bit reserved…perhaps strategically so. Is she hiding something? Is she trying to ignore whatever feelings still exist between them? Is she…lying?

In the film, though, she genuinely can’t contain her emotions, which means that Mickey really does mean something to her, and that she’s actually worried for his safety. Perhaps also her own. In Anderson’s version, it’s not an act. It’s not a manipulation. It’s not a game in any way.

It’s a plea, and a sincere one, for help, which she delivers to somebody who she knows has every right to deny her. It says something that in Pynchon’s version, Shasta is a struggling actress. Anderson excises that. His Shasta isn’t acting.

And neither is his Doc. There’s a great moment when she drives away, and he holds on to the side of her car as long as he can. It’s evocative both of their relationship, and of a much better adaptation than the one we actually got.

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Their best scene together comes toward the end of the movie. If you’ve seen it, you know the one I mean. If you haven’t, there’s little I can do to describe it that wouldn’t cheapen what really happens here.

But she comes to Doc’s apartment. She undresses. She sits beside him on the couch. Places her bare foot on his thigh. And she talks.

She talks.

Alone. Without interruption.

She talks.

About Mickey. About herself. About what’s happened.

She only talks. No…not only. She does something else, too: she shows us what this relationship is really like. The scene fills us with the kind of emotions Doc feels as well. It’s painful, sexy, awful, awkward, scary, damaging, real. She seduces him by preying on his anger. She raises the heat of his jealousy so that they can use it as lust. She hurts him for the sake of bringing them closer together, however briefly, however few smacks or thrusts it takes.

And then, when they’re finished, she turns to him. And she says, “This doesn’t mean we’re back together.”

It may be the longest scene in the film. It’s certainly the longest monologue. And it’s a smart, insightful way of presenting Pynchon’s material in a way that entirely belongs to Anderson. And, in fairness, to Waterston.

It’s the one time the film feels like a truly artistic vision. The film may fail to comment on the changing of the era, but what does this scene say about us? Our relationships? How we act, react, and get what we want?

And I’m not just talking about Shasta. Doc gets what he wants, too. He gets hurt. He gets to keep playing this game, and that’s necessary…because the moment one of them stops, for good…

Well…then she’s gone. For real this time.

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But for every instance of a scene or moment being handled exactly right, there’s at least one scene or moment being handled exactly wrong.

The biggest misfire, I think, is the scene in which Doc meets Hope Harlingen, Coy’s widow who has reason to believe she isn’t one. Jena Malone is great in this scene, but then she hands a photo to Doc, and Joaquin Phoenix suddenly isn’t.

It’s a photo of her infant daughter, ravaged by the effects of Hope’s chronic heroin usage. The heroin came through Hope’s breast milk, and their daughter, Amethyst, was sickly to the point of being near death. Not exactly the best place for a comedy scream, but that, for whatever reason, is what Phoenix gives us.

It’s a far cry — and a massive trade downward — from Doc’s painfully sober reaction in the book. This couple of junkies not only ruined their lives, but the life of their infant child. It hurts him. If he does scream, he does it inwardly, and with a lot of pain.

In the book when Amethyst appears, asking her mother for juice, Doc is overcome with relief.

The child made it. She’s healthy now. She’s okay after all. Whatever she’d been through, there was hope (ahem…) for the future.

And Doc needs that. He needs to see that with all the substance abuse, the murder, the lying, the stealing, the conniving that he faces every day, he needs to see that there’s a chance for someone, some innocent little girl, to make it out okay. To believe in a better day he finds it increasingly difficult to convince himself is coming.

He needs that. And Amethyst gives him that. That’s enough.

In the film we do see a now-healthy Amethyst, but Doc doesn’t seem to clock this, which makes sense, because he didn’t feel any kind of concern for her in the first place. He was just callously, comically horrified.

It’s a tone-deaf moment that cripples our ability to see Doc as what he really is — or, at least, was. Anderson and Phoenix lose what made that character real, and relatable, and sympathetic, for the sake of a quick (and objectively cheap) laugh.

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Other issues with the film are less about how they’re handled and more about the fact that they aren’t handled. Sauncho Smilax, Doc’s marine lawyer, is played by a perfectly cast Benicio del Toro, who gets to do almost nothing.

There’s little of the sad friendship that developed between the two otherwise lonely men in the book, and none of Sauncho’s delightful, stoned meditation on pop culture. An entire subplot about his own interest in the Golden Fang (schooner edition) is also missing, though a barely glimpsed scene at the very end of the film is meant to, I assume, suggest that all the stuff we remember from the novel did happen; Anderson just didn’t bother showing it to us.

Sauncho’s function in the finished film is massively unclear. He serves as comic relief, but then so does Dr. Blatnoyd. And Doc’s friend Denis. And apparently Hope Harlingen’s dying heroin baby. A-and Doc himself!

There was no need for another character just to deliver a few funny lines, and for my money, Sauncho should have absorbed Denis and become a composite character, accompanying Doc on a few errands and actually getting the chance to do something meaningful.

The strangest thing about Sauncho’s presence in the film is his failure to deliver one very specific line: the definition of “inherent vice.”

Being a marine lawyer, and all, and inherent vice being a consideration for marine insurance policies, you’d think he’d be the one Doc would hear it from. And, indeed, that’s exactly what happens in the book. Here, though, it’s defined by Sortilège, which is odd, as she has no reason to understand — or to care about — something so specialized, and so far out of her own field of expertise.

Then again, Anderson made her the narrator and promoted her to periodic omniscience, so that’s probably just an unintentionally silly symptom of her upgrade.

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Sauncho isn’t even the most significant character who fails to fulfill his own function on screen. No, that honor goes to Adrian Prussia, a loan shark whose name recurs in Doc’s investigations throughout the novel. By the time we get to meet him we know all about his tendency toward violence, his history with the LAPD as contract killer, and the fact that he iced Bigfoot’s partner.

Adrian Prussia is bad news, and Pynchon makes sure we know it. We feel him coming like a gathering storm, so that by the time Doc arrives in his office we don’t just have an idea of the danger he’s in; we understand that this could well be where the detective’s story ends.

In the film, however, Prussia essentially appears out of nowhere. A name overheard once or twice, sure, but when Doc is sitting across a desk from a senior citizen with a baseball bat, we’re more liable to be confused than worried for anyone’s safety.

Peter McRobbie does his best to sell the menace, but he has very little to work with, and aging Prussia up so significantly from the book makes him feel like an immediate non-threat. Surely if Doc could handle beatings from the much younger and more virile Bigfoot he wouldn’t have trouble surviving an encounter with a man in his 70s.

There’s simply no tension in what’s meant to be the big scene in which Doc directly confronts the villain. Pynchon handled it well, but Anderson, oddly, doesn’t even seem interested in trying.

In both the book and the film we learn a bit about Prussia’s trusty baseball bat, and the difference is telling.

From the narration in the film:

[…] Adrian Prussia, who had not only shot at him once but threatened him with a Carl Yastrzemski special baseball bat.

Here’s what is said to Doc, by Prussia, in the book:

“I lent you my special edition Carl Yastrzemski bat once, to collect from that child-support deadbeat you chased down the Greyhound and pulled him off of, and then you wouldn’t use it. […] No place for that shit in this business.”

Anderson’s version says that Prussia once attacked Doc. Fine. Evil vs. good and all that.

But Pynchon’s says much more, specifically that Prussia and Doc have a shared history. They were, strictly speaking, on the same side, differentiated only by their methods. Prussia went one way — embracing the violence — and Doc went the other, seeking peaceful resolution. One became muscle for the capitalists, and the other protection for the hippies. Started in the same place, and circled around to be at loggerheads.

Of course, it’s unfair to focus only on Prussia’s introduction. Certainly the next time we see him he’ll…

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…oh. The next time we see him he’s dead.

So, that was odd. Little buildup and no payoff for the main villain of the entire film.

He comes out of nowhere, is meant to register as a big threat, and then is instantly killed. Anderson took a lot of time to weave his tale, and seemed to get to the end before he realized he hadn’t said anything important. It’s as though he’s trying to cram in as much as he can, as quickly as possible.

The shootout that kills Prussia is reduced here to a single volley of gunfire, whereas in the novel it’s comically protracted, spanning much of Prussia’s house and then the surrounding neighborhood as well. Doc can never be sure Prussia’s been, as his henchman Puck would put it, “neutralized as a threat,” and the novel’s shootout is a masterpiece of tense comic narrative. Anderson seems to have no interest in it, and skips it entirely…and I have to admit that a climactic shootout is a strange thing to take no interest in.

And, hey, speaking of Puck, we also run into the same issue with his character. In the book, much of Doc’s investigation involved neo-Nazi thug Puck Beaverton. Doc even trails him to Vegas for an extended secondary investigation, and unwittingly helps him reconnect with an old lover, who Puck then marries. If Anderson dodges Doc’s shared history with Prussia, he outright ignores his shared history with Puck.

In the novel, Puck enters Prussia’s office and Doc greets him. Puck replies, “I know you? I don’t think I do.” And, of course, this is chilling, because we understand exactly what this denial implies.

In the film Puck says the same thing, and it’s not chilling at all, because…well…he and Doc haven’t interacted. It’s less icy foreshadowing than it is a man wondering why he’s being addressed by a stranger.

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Anderson does improve on Pynchon’s original in one detail, however. In the book Doc frees himself from a set of handcuffs with a fairly cheap resolution: a never-before-mentioned sliver of credit card he keeps on his person for just such an occasion. It’s clumsy writing, which Anderson redeems, at least thematically, by showing us that the credit card was Shasta’s…and Doc’s reason for having it is sentimental as well as practical.

But that’s about the only area in which the ending is improved. Doc savagely beating Puck registers here only as self-preservation, whereas in the book it’s retribution for all of the awful things Doc has seen Puck do.

Puck had been a force of destruction in many lives, and Doc is doing more than neutralizing a threat; he’s venting a lifetime’s worth of seething frustration against the powerful — any kind of power — crushing the powerless. In the book Doc later checks up on Puck’s wife — who it’s implied he wasted no time in abusing terribly — to make sure she’s alive.

And she is. Like Amethyst, she made it out. Another small bit of reassurance that somebody, somewhere, might be okay.

Also like Amethyst, Doc in the film isn’t even paying attention to her.

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And Bigfoot’s ending? Uh, Bigfoot’s ending…

If you have any idea what Anderson was going for with that — having Bigfoot come into Doc’s apartment and eat all of his pot — you’re a better man than I am, though I suspect it was just Anderson’s temptation to have a big laugh toward the end of his film. Which is a shame, because Bigfoot’s ending in the novel is both lovely and sad.

Pynchon’s version of the character is last glimpsed driving off into the night, tailing yet another vehicle which he hopes will bring him yet another opportunity to avenge his murdered partner. Whatever form that might take. Whatever it might mean.

The Bigfoot of the novel has a heart, and a tormented one. He may not be a great human being — or even, necessarily, a good one — but he’s loyal to his partner, even in death. And Pynchon lets us imagine that that’s exactly where this obsession might take him.

Josh Brolin, by contrast, eats some drugs.

You know, I really do want to like this movie…

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Coy’s story, at least, has both an effective and artful resolution. Doc pulls some strings to guarantee the man’s safety, and then returns the legally resurrected saxophonist to his wife and daughter.

Jonny Greenwood’s score for the entire film is great, but it’s especially beautiful here (in a song called, it has to be noted, “Amethyst”), and it perfectly captures the pulsing emotion Coy must be feeling, on the verge of seeing his family again, as he tries so hard to find the words to thank Doc for doing the impossible.

Doc shrugs it off, as he does in the book. It was nothing. It’s Coy’s life, and now Coy gets to live it.

Then Anderson lets us watch Coy get out of the car. Walk over to his house. Return to his wife, who stands speechless in the doorway.

We don’t hear what gets said, but we feel what gets felt. We see them embrace. We see a life — several lives — restored. Redeemed. Bought back from the darkness, and given the chance to face another day, to choose a little more wisely, to be now what they wished they could have been before.

It’s beautiful.

But the camera lets them work through this in the distance. In the foreground, Doc is all alone.

Inherent Vice, 2014

It’s one of the film’s better moments. It’s well-acted. It’s subtle. It has meaning. And it feels like an evolution of one of the novel’s ideas, reimagined for the screen in a way that perfectly suits the viewing experience.

At the very end of the book, Doc drives along a highway through thick fog, with other motorists crowding together, sharing their headlights to make it easier for everyone to see, each isolated, alone in their vehicles, but experiencing a vague (literally hazy) sort of connection through the shared experience.

Which is really all Doc has to hope for. A general connection. A sense of belonging, in some way, to a greater whole. Helping, and being helped by, anonymous strangers whose faces he may never see again.

There’s too much sadness in the day to day. Too much danger and misery. But if you pull back far enough from the details, and focus on people in a general sense, without worrying about who they are, what they look like, what they are doing, their sad histories or the people they’ve hurt, you can find something beautiful in the larger pattern. Something reassuring. Some reason to believe that no matter how thick the fog gets or how dark the night…that it’s worth pushing through.

Doc sitting alone in the car here, facilitating a reconciliation but not having one of his own, is powerful. The film, for one of only a handful of times, achieves perfection.

And that’s what makes Inherent Vice so inherently frustrating. It had every potential to be great. Stellar cast. Masterful director. Source material ripe for interpretation.

But Anderson buckled under the challenge. He tried to give us something true to the original and, in the process, forgot to give us something true to himself.

As much as I wish the film turned out better, I really can’t blame him for stumbling.

It can’t have been easy knowing that this would be the only time anyone would use the words “Based on the novel by Thomas Pynchon.”

Inherent Vice, 2014

Inherent Vice
(2009, Thomas Pynchon; 2014, Paul Thomas Anderson)

Book or film? Book
Worth reading the book? Yes. It’s not the best introduction to Thomas Pynchon, but it’s a great (and very funny) read in its own right.
Worth watching the film? Yes, if you’re willing to sit through the disappointing scenes to get to the great ones.
Is it the best possible adaptation? No. Anderson hits many of the notes, but largely misses the power, the charm, and the heart of the novel.
Is it of merit in its own right? To some degree. Inherent Vice might be a good film, but if it is, it’s just barely one. If the film existed on its own, without Pynchon’s source material, I can’t imagine I would have gotten much out of it at all. I think I would have still glimpsed the ghost of a great film beneath all the clutter, though. As one amateur philosopher once put it: “Under the paving-stones, the beach!”

Fiction into Film: The Grinch (1957 / 2000)

Fiction into Film is a series devoted to page-to-screen adaptations. The process of translating prose to the visual medium is a tricky and only intermittently successful one, but even the fumbles provide a great platform for understanding stories, and why they affect us the way they do.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (2000)Imagine being a parent in 1966. An adaptation of Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, directed by living legend Chuck Jones, is about to debut. This story, which your kids are likely already familiar with, is a Christmas classic, and this seems like a great opportunity to relive the experience with your family. Together you watch as a new holiday tradition is born, the resonant simplicity of the original tale feeding perfectly into the deep charm and visual wit of one of animation’s greatest minds.

Imagine being a parent in 2000. An adaptation of Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, directed by living legend Ron Howard, is about to debut. This story, which your kids are likely already familiar with, is a Christmas classic, and this seems like a great opportunity to relive the experience with your family. Together you watch as an old holiday tradition dies before your eyes, your family powerless to save it. The resonant simplicity of the original tale is smothered tragically by nonsensical padding and soulless physical comedy from a director you’re starting to realize isn’t very good.

That’s the thing about Ron Howard. He’s such a nice guy, so effortlessly winning, so personable and sweet, such a champion of young talent, that it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that he’s not really much of a director.

I mean no disrespect by this. I have nothing against him as a person, and I’ve never heard a negative word spoken about the man. From the moment he first stole America’s hearts as Opie on The Andy Griffith Show, Howard has been revered as a minor national treasure. Which is wonderful…even if that goodwill does render his films disappointingly immune to wide-scale criticism.

We like Ron Howard. Hell, it’s hard not to. But liking the man does not mean we need to like (or even respect) his films, which range from passable to profoundly embarrassing. To my knowledge, Howard has never directed a great — or even particularly good — film.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (2000)

At his best, Ron Howard achieves gentle mediocrity. And while there’s nothing wrong with gentle mediocrity, it’s not much of a justification for his continuing directorial cachet.

Of course, “mediocre” is not “bad,” and I don’t mean to suggest that it is. There are many (many) mediocre films, songs, and novels that I enjoy greatly, if not deeply. My point isn’t that Howard is lousy; more that his films don’t seem like products of a coherent artistic vision. At their best, they tick the boxes that need to be ticked. His best work, that is to say, achieves what we expect every film to achieve at the bare minimum. He scrapes by, deserving neither damnation nor praise. He knows how to make a film work, but not how to make a film artistically succeed.

The archetypal Ron Howard film, in my estimation, is Apollo 13. Whether you like the film or not, it’s difficult to argue that it does much wrong. It’s equally difficult to argue that it does much right, with few shots, sequences, or edits bearing the mark of anyone who has something to say. I saw the film multiple times as a child, but today I’d be hard pressed to tell you much about it. It was there, I have a vague memory of not hating it, and life went on. If I were to watch it again tonight I’d likely forget just as much about it tomorrow.

Howard directs white bread. It’s filling enough, but anyone who thinks about what they’re about to consume would likely choose just about anything else.

The closest Howard has ever come to shocking America into reconsidering its love for him was with 2000’s The Grinch, the very existence of which seems almost like a dare. “You like me so much,” he seemed to say, “that I could urinate all over something you treasure, and you’d still think I’m great.”

How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (2000)

He was wrong. The film made its money — coasting on Howard’s reputation far more than reinforcing it — but the critical response was not kind. And while the Dr. Seuss book and the Chuck Jones special are still holiday staples of households everywhere, it’s rare that Howard’s The Grinch makes an appearance outside of discount bins and Blockbuster closeouts.

Part of the problem with adapting How the Grinch Stole Christmas! is overcoming the fact that there already exists a very popular, very good, and very important adaptation that yours will inevitably be measured against. (See also: Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.) In fact, one might argue that the existence of an already great and timeless adaptation completely negates the need for another attempt, which, in a best-case scenario, would ruin only 3/5 of America’s childhoods.

For reasons known only to him and anyone who’s ever used money, though, Ron Howard gave it a whirl, and in doing so he managed the impossible: he made the magic of Dr. Seuss feel dreary, dull, and dour. It turns out that marrying a lively and inventive source text to a director whose approach has never exceeded workmanlike would dampen the material rather than elevate it. Who could have guessed?

Before we get too far into things, a quick note on the title. The film was originally called The Grinch, but at some point prior to its home video release it became Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas. (There’s also a regional element at play here, as — so far as I can tell — the film was still called The Grinch for UK home release.) This change is unfortunate for several reasons, not least because it now shares its title with the Chuck Jones animated masterpiece — inviting unfavorable comparison, to say the least — and because the addition of Seuss’ name implies a degree of fidelity to his original…a move as deliberately and frustratingly misleading as it was when Bram Stoker’s Dracula pulled the same trick.

I’m going to refer to this film as The Grinch, which should make this both easier to write and easier to read. After all, if we’re dealing with the original book, the Jones adaptation, and the Howard adaptation, and we refer to all of them by the same title, there’s bound to be some confusion.

Of course, that confusion couldn’t possibly exist on any level beyond the title, as Howard’s film is inept in just about every conceivable way.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (2000)

I’m not exaggerating. It’s wall-to-wall maddening, and to even begin discussing its crimes would require a piece so long and frustrated that nobody in their right mind would attempt to write such a thing during the busiest time of year.

So, here you go!

Part of Howard’s problem in adapting How the Grinch Stole Christmas! comes, of course, from the limited scope of the source material. It’s only 50 pages long, and those are 50 pages by children’s storybook standards; each page is dominated by illustration (Seuss’ own), and text is deliberately sparse. In order to fill a feature film, Howard would have to invent a great deal of material wholecloth.

As such, we can’t exactly begrudge him for limited fidelity. (And, as readers of this series know, “limited fidelity” is often a boon to adaptations.) But we can begrudge him for the quality of this new material, which is uniformly quite low. To take Seuss’ lean, potent original and bog it down with flabby, uninventive nonsense is bad enough. But to bog it down for two interminable hours is downright criminal. That easily overshoots narrative necessity and lands squarely in the realm of excess.

The impact of Seuss’ original cannot be overstated. The Grinch is, quite simply, an important part of modern Christmas mythology. The fact that he’s existed for a mere 60 years or so is incredible, as he’s only slightly less recognizable in the public consciousness than Ebenezer Scrooge, and in some households is as recognizable as Santa Claus.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (2000)

He’s an important part of our understanding of the holiday, and the Scrooge comparison is an apt one: the Grinch was not a revelatory character; he exists alongside a famous Christmas grump that we already had. Scrooge gave a name and a face to a character type everybody knew well, and cemented him in a work of enduring fiction that we could all read, appreciate, and revisit through the years, learning his lesson along with him every time.

The endurance of Scrooge is not surprising. The Grinch, however, serves an almost identical purpose, and the level of his utility doesn’t compare to Scrooge’s. He didn’t give a name or a face to anything; he gave something another name and face. The fact that the Grinch endures is not a testament to our need of a character to represent yuletide sourness; it’s a testament, simply, to the fact that we love the Grinch.

Seuss’ tale could actually be seen as an adaptation of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The Grinch, like Scrooge, begins the story as a curmudgeon who hates Christmas and deliberately tries to rob it of the joy it brings others…and he ends it, like Scrooge, an enthusiastic celebrant. His transformation is more abrupt, however, as the Grinch seems to skirt visits from the ghosts of Christmas Past and Yet to Come, receiving all the perspective he needs from a single vision of Christmas Present.

It’s a lean — and only barely modernized — retelling of an already lean holiday classic, but it amounts to more than an echo of its predecessor; it’s an old story told in a new, wholly charming, inimitable way. That is to say, it’s told in Seuss’ voice.

The rhymes and rhythm carry us through the story in a bounding way that’s about as far removed from Dickens’ wordy, winding prose as possible. Both stories are playful, but Seuss crafts a playful universe. Scrooge may crack cruelly wise or employ a brainy turn of phrase, but the Grinch exists in a whole reality built on quirk. The world he occupies is not our own, even though the lesson he learns unquestionably is.

Dickens wanted us to understand that Scrooge’s journey applied — potentially — to every one of us. The Grinch, on the contrary, is a product of clear and unapologetic fabrication. He’s the sugar coating on a bitter pill. Both stories give us the same holiday nourishment, but children get the sweeter vitamin.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (2000)

When Chuck Jones adapted the story, he didn’t so much deviate from the source material as he did weave his spirit of visual invention into it. The brief parable fit easily into a half-hour time slot, and we ended up with a retelling that was at least as sharp and memorable as the original. In fact, it’s become an enduring holiday classic in its own right, with many of us being more familiar with the animated version than we are with the original static pages.

The existence of Jones’ masterful, beloved adaptation means that every ounce of fat on Howard’s version feels that much more unnecessary, and unwelcome. How the Grinch Stole Christmas! doesn’t need to be two hours long. Heck, we know empirically that it doesn’t even need to be one hour long. When Jones accomplished so much in 20 minutes, an audience is right to be disappointed when Howard accomplishes exponentially less in 120 minutes.

Comparing Howard’s adaptation to Jones’ might seem unfair, but it’s a comparison that Howard himself unwisely invites. Stealing its title (How Ron Howard Stole the Title!) was just the last in a string of overt nods; for instance, The Grinch helps itself to both songs written for the Jones special (“You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” and “Welcome Christmas,” the latter of which Jim Carrey exaggeratedly mocks for its nonsense lyrics…a poor decision for a film dedicated to coasting on its own nonsense), and lifts the sight gag of the Grinch’s heart growing a literal three sizes. (In Seuss’ original text the growth remains figurative.)

On top of all that, though, The Grinch is indebted to the Jones special in a way that it might not even realize: it’s Jones who made the Grinch green.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (2000)

In Seuss’ book — which he illustrated himself — the only color employed is a sparing red. It’s used in a few different shades, but aside from that singular chromatic flourish, everything is rendered in black and white. It was Jones’ special that turned the Grinch green, and gave him those sickly yellow eyes. (They were, as you might guess, originally red.)

These are physical details that we take for granted, but they weren’t there until Jones put them there. The fact that so few people remember the fact that the Grinch was white (and the fact that many of you are learning this here for the first time) speaks to just how much of an impact Jones’ special had, and how much it achieved.

Seuss wrote the story and Jones defined its presentation. Two works of enduring invention, functioning together. Howard had big shoes to fill if he wanted to follow that double punch, but he didn’t just fail to live up to his predecessors; he failed to find anything interesting to do with the property at all.

In order to pad out the story, we get some needless (and artless) exploration of the Grinch’s childhood. (See, again, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which also believes that if you need to kill time and don’t feel like being creative, you can slap a sad childhood in there and move along.)

The most superficial concern with the film is also, sadly, one of the steepest barriers to enjoying it: the fact that everybody is absolutely hideous.

This is a relevant comment to make while we talk about the Grinch’s weepy backstory, what with the nightmare-inducing abomination that is the Grinch-baby at its center — a creature that I happen to know was rejected from a David Cronenberg film for being “needlessly disgusting” — but it’s a problem that blankets the film in general, and it’s one that The Grinch never manages to overcome.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (2000)

This is absolutely one of those times that fidelity to the source material should be a minor concern at best; a much more important concern would be, are each of these characters an affront to God? But, strangely, physical appearance is the one aspect of the adaptation in which Howard seems to believe fidelity is key, as though the reason everyone enjoyed How the Grinch Stole Christmas! is that they had fun imagining themselves thronged by a crowd of swollen, distended freaks.

Seuss, of course, famously populated his stories with characters that didn’t necessarily look human, but what works in illustration can’t always be expected to translate to live action. For instance, we have no problem watching The Simpsons or South Park without being repulsed by the odd physical appearances of the characters, but that’s because their appearances aren’t odd for their universes; they’re part of a larger artistic style. Translate those characters to live-action though — that is to say, use makeup and prosthetics to shape an actual human being into those exact proportions, with those colors and those oddly arranged features — and you’d end up with something horrifying.

Why? Because once you stick them in a live action setting, we start comparing them to our universe. And if you see in our universe a human male with Homer’s yellow skin, gigantic eyeballs, and impossibly round frame, your first impulse would be to put him out of his misery.

Seuss’ characters were works of visual invention. Jones’ retelling used a style similar to Suess, but was also unmistakably the work of Jones, slotting comfortably alongside his Looney Tunes output. It’s the work of one great artist filtered through the sensibilities of another, and we ended up with something greater than the sum of its already impressive parts.

In order to successfully translate a static image to another form of presentation — be it animation, live-action film, or anything else — some effort needs to be made to actually translate it, as opposed to copy it.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (2000)

Howard doesn’t understand this, and so he populates his film with characters who simply don’t work in the live-action medium. He remains true to the letter of Seuss’ design, without understanding the spirit. Seuss’ artwork was charming and unique because he was aware of his medium, and what worked within it. Had Seuss instead worked in television or film, he likely would have taken a different approach to best suit those media. His concern wasn’t that his characters look like this…it was that what he was creating was unique, effective, and memorable. Those are three things that change from medium to medium, and Seuss understood that.

Howard doesn’t, and so he films Lovecraftian nightmare creatures because they look — superficially — like what Seuss drew. (And maybe it’s just me, but I think if you’re filming a Dr. Seuss adaptation full of Lovecraftian nightmare creatures, you need to step back and reconsider your artistic choices.)

In fairness, Howard may not be entirely to blame for this. Three years after The Grinch we got an equally hideous adaptation of The Cat in the Hat, and both that film and this one were produced by Howard’s longtime collaborator Brian Grazer, seemingly not content with having just one misguided and hated Dr. Seuss adaptation on his resume.

The worst part of how creepy and unsettling the characters look is the fact that, at some early stage of production, Howard and his team recognized this…and they chose not to change their approach.

How do I know they were aware that their characters were visually unpalatable? Easy: they reacted to it in their design of Cindy-Lou Who, played here by a very young Taylor Momsen.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (2000)

In the original work and the Jones adaptation, Cindy-Lou Who is the briefly glimpsed ray of innocence that (arguably) provides the initial spark for the Grinch’s eventual change of heart.

She serves a similar purpose in this film, which posed a significant problem for Howard: how can a creature so bloated and malformed symbolize sweetness and innocence? Or anything other than fear and torment?

His answer, ultimately, what that he didn’t have an answer, and so Momsen’s makeup is noticeably sparse, and not at all like the monstrous cosmetic surgery performed on the other actors. In fact, aside from a silly haircut and a set of false upper teeth, she’s just a regular cute kid.

And I don’t mean cute by Whoville standards; I mean cute by our standards, proving that Howard knows that that’s how viewers in our reality will see her.

In short, he knew these creations were hideous, and he knew they’d actively work against the impact of the story, but he left them in there anyway. Lucky us.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (2000)

Momsen, as long as we’re on the subject, is easily the best casting decision in the film, but that’s mainly because she manages to be the least annoying thing on the screen at any given time.

As long as she’s not given unfortunate child-actor stuff to do (such as screaming or singing, though, of course, she is required to do both), she’s perfectly fine, and deserves to be in a much better, much less troubling Christmas film.

Elsewhere the casting is a bit less interesting. Jeffrey Tambor as the mayor at least gets to look appropriately miserable for the crap he’s stuck in, and Anthony Hopkins does a predictably passable job narrating, even if you can hear the joins between Seuss’ original lines and the filler slapped together for this bloated mess.

But the biggest problem with the casting was also, clearly, the film’s biggest draw: Jim Carrey.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (2000)

Carry’s Grinch is in line with the film’s approach to the source material as a whole: visually similar, while completely missing the point.

A huge reason for this is the fact that Jim Carrey — with one or two exceptions in his entire career — only knows how to play Jim Carrey. We aren’t watching the Grinch; we’re watching Carrey wrapped in a moldy bathmat. And that’s disappointing, because the film takes one of the holiday’s most identifiable, rigidly established characters, and reduces him to an interchangeable Jim Carrey routine. The Grinch gets robbed of all identity, and you have to wonder if Howard actually wanted to adapt How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, or really wanted to direct A Very Carrey Christmas. Even now, 15 years removed from the film’s release, I don’t know the answer.

You may remember that one of the Grinch’s prime complaints about Christmas was the noise. Oh, the Noise! Noise! Noise! Noise! (The NOISE! NOISE! NOISE! NOISE!) But if you do remember that it’s certainly not due to Carrey’s take on the character, who seems to cherish noise above all else.

It’s downright jarring to see a character so deeply associated with silent scheming prancing and braying his way through every scene of the film, but that’s because neither Carrey nor Howard have any idea of what made the character work, or why people liked him, or why he’s so fondly remembered. (Unless everyone really did love the Grinch for his improvised comedy routines, old-time Hollywood impressions, and incessant pop culture references to things that don’t even exist in his universe, and I just missed that fact.)

How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (2000)

Howard and Carrey both seem to believe that the best way to adapt How the Grinch Stole Christmas! is to treat its title character as an extended cameo from Fire Marshall Bill. And as a result, we lose the dark, brooding joys of the original Grinch, overwriting his methodical personality with that of a clowning buffoon.

The Grinch in this film seems to sustain himself on noise. His cave is full of clanking machinery, and he’s constantly shouting to himself (or to his echo), as though he can’t bear even four seconds of silence.

He’s also a much more active agent of chaos. Whereas his interference in Whoville’s celebrations is one sequence in the book (and the Jones adaptation), here the Grinch dilutes his own impact by visiting Whoville multiple times to perform his irritating prop comedy and pratfalls. Even in his cave he’s prank calling Whoville residents. For a character who just wants solitude, he sure can’t bear to be alone.

The real Grinch was gently sinister; Carrey’s knockoff is some imbecile you see slip on a banana peel and immediately hope that he died.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (2000)

In the film we spend much more time in Whoville than we do in the book, and when we do we are not seeing it through the grumpy perspective of the Grinch; we’re just there, which sounds nice…until we see what Whoville is like in this adaptation, and immediately wish the Grinch would hurry up and burn it to the ground already.

Everything is gaudy and forcefully quirky without actually being any fun. Clashing colors and exaggerated shapes don’t in themselves make for visual inventiveness, but it’s enough for The Grinch, and all of Whoville looks like it was designed by a committee told to have fun without being allowed to actually have any.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (2000)

Howard shoots it with bizarre Dutch angles as well, filming nearly everything in unnecessary diagonal, as if he’s afraid that a traditional shot will reveal just how soulless the entire production is.

The angled shots are so prevalent that there was one scene in which I genuinely couldn’t tell if someone was exaggeratedly leaning for the purposes of a joke, or standing normally upright as human beings often do. When the simple act of framing an actor is confusing to the point of unknowability (Schrödinger’s Grinch), you know you’re not in very artful hands.

Even the film’s internal rules of dialogue are inconsistent. Characters lapse in an out of speaking in rhyme, making it feel like a half-assed way to acknowledge Seuss without actually having learned anything from him.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (2000)

In Howard’s Whoville, we see the genetically deficient Whos worrying endlessly about presents, decorations, social status, and everything else that the Grinch learned in the book has nothing to do with the actual holiday. Here, they are the ones who have to learn the lesson, which muddies the moral somewhat.

The Grinch, in order to work, needs to be able to overlook the most important aspects of the holiday until he has his eyes opened and sees what was there all along. But here the Whos don’t seem to understand Christmas either. It’s like a truly misguided version of A Christmas Carol in which Bob Cratchit beats his wife. Sure, he might still have a healthier appreciation for the holiday than Scrooge does, but it’s impossible to side with him.

The morality of the film is so confused that at one point the Grinch actually gives a big speech to the town, condemning their avarice. Let me make that as clear as possible: the Grinch, pre-conversion, gives a speech to Whoville about the true meaning of Christmas.

As a subversion of expectations, that could be very interesting. As one element in a shoddy, brainless adaptation, it’s just your mid-film reminder that nobody involved in the production really knew what they were doing.

This particular Christmas — the one that gets Stolen! by the Grinch — happens to coincide with “the 1000th Whobilation.” Yes, the Whos have a Smurf-like ability to make as many tortured puns on the name of their species as possible.

While butting the Grinch’s interference up against the 1000th Grand Whocares gives the film — in theory — some stakes it wouldn’t otherwise have, it’s interesting that it’s not enough for Howard to have the Grinch steal Christmas; his Grinch must steal a really important Christmas, otherwise it’d hardly be a story worth telling.

It’s impossible to read anything into the “1000th” figure (aside from it being a suitably large number), which is disappointing, because there is some subtle significance to the original’s choice to make it the Grinch’s 53rd Christmas: Dr. Seuss himself was 53 when the book was published.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (2000)

The odd weightlessness (and pointlessness) of the film extends all the way into the backstory for the Grinch, who doesn’t hate the Noise! Noise! Noise! Noise! so much as he hates that time some kids made fun of him in grade school.

That’s right, Mr. Grinch isn’t A Mean One; he’s a sad sack who grew up to become a slapstick comedian. The origin story they selected for the Grinch is definitely one with which we can identify, but that’s sort of the problem. The Grinch is not some sad, interchangeable everyman, and he shouldn’t be. He’s a very specific character meant to represent a very specific mindset. Giving him a weepy backstory and a broken heart means we know where he’s coming from, but it also robs him of his identity, and he now shares his biographical history with any given protagonist from the Hallmark Christmas film of your choice.

It’s also problematic that the Grinch has a clear emotional hangup, which he must overcome in order to love Christmas again, or whatever. It ends up changing the story substantially, and into something far less interesting. A simple tale of someone discovering the true meaning of Christmas becomes a backhanded reminder that kids are dicks and you need to get on with your life.

Why are you sad around the holidays? Get over it! We all have problems. Open your presents and be happy, you ungrateful little beast.

It’s easy to imagine Ron Howard’s live-action adaptation of A Charlie Brown Christmas in which all of the other kids surround Chuck and chant “Get over yourself,” for two hours before the credits roll.

The whole thing makes it difficult to care about the Grinch’s eventual redemption. Does it even matter if he discovers the true meaning of Christmas if what he really cares about is the fact that he made an ass out of himself in front of a girl in the third grade? He knows full well what Christmas is; he just spitefully chooses to dislike it because that’s how emotions work. (Right? I’m taking the film’s word for it, here…)

It is, however, a bit of a simplification to say that the Grinch’s hatred of Christmas is the result of a broken heart. It’s also the result of a time he cut himself shaving.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (2000)

Yes, the Grinch is emotionally scarred by shaving, and Whoville shall pay!

Of course there will be a lot of padding before anyone pays, and Howard decides to fill that time in his family Christmas film with jokes about sleeping with one’s boss, the Grinch burying his face between Christine Baranski’s tits, and having Jeffrey Tambor into stick his tongue up a dog’s anus.

It’s not enough to direct a disappointing version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas!; it’s important to Howard that his version is abhorrent.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (2000)

It does, however, make the sweetness of Cindy-Lou Who stand out that much more. If you’ve ever wondered how to get your audience to embrace a child actor, The Grinch has the answer: make everything else a thousand times more obnoxious than she could ever be.

Momsen is definitely the closest thing to a salvageable element of the film. She’s nowhere near good enough to redeem it, but one does hope that if Whoville were to go up in a blaze of red and green napalm, she’d at least claw her way out of the crater to start again.

The Grinch elevates Cindy-Lou Who to second lead status, which is in no way a bad thing. Kubrick did something similar with Quilty in Lolita; sometimes the difficulties of adaptation can be overcome by giving minor characters an increased utility.

In How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, Cindy-Lou Who stands out as the obvious candidate for such a promotion, what with her being one of only three named characters in the original story. (The Grinch’s dog, Max, is demoted here from the sad-eyed indignities of Jones’ animation to a cringe inducing dance sequence set to “Christmas is Going to the Dogs,” and, again, a scene in which he’s rectally violated by another character’s tongue.)

How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (2000)

Cindy-Lou Who’s increased role makes sense, and I’ll even concede its structural necessity, but it does mean that her original presence in the book (a single scene, not counting background appearances) loses its impact here. After all, her meeting with the Grinch in the book is taut and devastating:

The Grinch had been caught by this tiny Who daughter
Who’d got out of bed for a cup of cold water.
She stared at the Grinch and said, “Santy Claus, why,
“Why are you taking our Christmas tree? WHY?”

But, you know, that old Grinch was so smart and so slick
He thought up a lie, and he thought it up quick!
“Why, my sweet little tot,” the fake Santy Claus lied,
“There’s a light on this tree that won’t light on one side.
“So I’m taking it home to my workshop, my dear.
“I’ll fix it up there. Then I’ll bring it back here.”

And his fib fooled the child. Then he patted her head
And he got her a drink and he sent her to bed.
And when Cindy-Lou Who went to bed with her cup,
He went to the chimney and stuffed the tree up!

It’s a simple scene, but one very sinister. Not only does Cindy-Lou Who stumble upon the Grinch that is stealing Christmas, but she wants to believe in Santy Claus so badly that she suppresses her suspicions. The magic of Christmas is so important to her that she wouldn’t dare puncture it with logic or reason…and, as a result, he gets away with it.

It’s easy to imagine how she must feel the next morning, finding that the tree — along with everything else — is truly gone. The Grinch may have stolen Christmas, but the trusting little heart of Cindy-Lou Who was his crucial and unwitting accomplice.

That’s pitch black.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (2000)

The impact of that scene is necessarily dulled when Cindy-Lou Who has two hours of screen time to gobble up, and, in fact, it doesn’t even work once we get to it.

Cindy-Lou Who in the book had no way of knowing what the Grinch looked like, but in the film she’s spent a hell of a lot of time talking to him, thinking about him, and trying to change his heart, so that when she catches him stealing her Christmas tree and believes it’s Santy Claus, she comes across less as naive and innocent than she does learning disabled.

It also means that the Grinch has to demonstrate that he has a heart much too soon. Whereas his small moment with Cindy-Lou Who in the book has a touch of tenderness (he indeed gets her the cup of cold water, which is genuinely adorable), it’s offset by the fact that he still does steal her tree, and doesn’t demonstrate any remorse until the story is over. In The Grinch, by contrast, he’s forced regularly into these “Aw, shucks” moments that telegraph his change of heart too clearly.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (2000)

It’s one thing to hint early on that the Grinch isn’t irredeemable, but Howard reassures us so constantly that the Grinch is redeemable that we just want him to hurry up and be redeemed so that we can stop hearing about it.

The film ends in (again) a superficially familiar way: the Grinch feels compelled to return the gifts and baubles and roast beasts, and ends up a guest of honor at the celebrations.

But it’s shot through with the same problems that riddle the film as a whole. Cindy-Lou Who materializes aboard an out-of-control sleigh to inject some last-minute tension into the film, the Grinch’s conversion sees him thrashing and screaming in the snow like he’s passing a difficult kidney stone (seriously…whatever happened to the Grinch wanting peace and quiet?), and we get a resolution to the tacked-on romantic subplot we were trying to forget existed.

That latter aspect is particularly confusing, not only because How the Grinch Stole Christmas! is the least natural story into which to cram a love interest, but because it ends with the Grinch triumphing over his rival and really rubbing the guy’s nose in it. So far removed from the morality of Seuss’ original, Howard’s lesson seems to be, “It’s okay to be an asshole, as long as it’s toward people you don’t like.”

How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (2000)

Merry Christmas?

Like I said, it’s a muddy morality. The Whos awaken on Christmas day and — unlike their textual counterparts — they don’t start singing; they amble out into the streets and bitch about their missing gifts. They don’t celebrate in spite of their loss; they very clearly articulate that they hate Christmas without gifts, which flies in the face of Seuss’ main (arguably only) point, and doesn’t do anything interesting with it from there.

I had a good friend years ago who observed that there are a number of famous Christmas stories that involve a lack of material goods or money — A Christmas Carol, It’s a Wonderful Life, How the Grinch Stole Christmas! — in which the lesson is that you don’t need those things, yet the poor characters still find themselves swimming in gifts at the end. Her point wasn’t that the moral rang false; more that the writers or filmmakers involved couldn’t bring themselves to leave the characters in that state; they had to end up with a material Christmas, because it would have felt wrong not to give them one…even if the story itself promises that that’s not what’s important.

I never got her thoughts on Ron Howard’s The Grinch, but I assume she must have appreciated that it didn’t even try to pretend otherwise; this film makes it very clear that Christmas without a shitload of presents is a dismal waste of time.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (2000)

I’d love to read this film as being subversively designed to turn every viewer into a real-life Grinch, showing them a holiday and a Whoville so gaudy, so mindless, so monumentally misguided that we’d understand exactly what would make the Grinch — the actual Grinch, not Jim Carrey’s gurning approximation — want to reach out and tear it to pieces.

Ideally this would have screened in a secret double feature, followed by It’s a Wonderful Life (or at the very least The Night of the Hunter), to remind us what Christmas really is all about.

We could each take our own Grinchian journeys, initially mistaking outer posturing for inner peace, igniting our own personal rebellions, and then learning that Christmas…perhaps…means a little bit more.

Howard’s version of The Grinch came and went. I’m certain that it has its fans, but at no point will it achieve the perennial stature of Seuss’ original book or Jones’ immortal special. It isn’t spoken of in the same reverent terms, and it’s unlikely to receive a cultural reappraisal, because in spite of its inflated running time, there’s not much in there to reappraise.

It’s there, and it exists, but Howard was unable to replace the visions of sugar-plums dancing in our heads with visions of the Grinch passionately fucking Christine Baranski. Filmgoers turned over a lot of money to The Grinch, but almost none of their memories or fondness.

And for that, we all have something to celebrate.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (2000)

The Grinch
(1957, Dr. Seuss [as How the Grinch Stole Christmas!]; 2000, Ron Howard)

Book or film? For the sake of Christ, come on.
Worth reading the story? Definitely.
Worth watching the film? Definitely not.
Is it the best possible adaptation? No. Chuck Jones already gave us the best possible adaptation.
Is it of merit in its own right? I’d argue that it’s not. Even removed from the source material and the shadow of Jones’s masterpiece, The Grinch is a muddled, confused, and ultimately joyless film. The holiday spirit often helps us forgive concerns of simplistic characterization, sappy plot points, and contrived endings, but The Grinch does so little right and has so little to offer that the best we can do is forgive ourselves for watching it.

Fiction into Film: Blade Runner (1968 / 1982)

Fiction into Film is a series devoted to page-to-screen adaptations. The process of translating prose to the visual medium is a tricky and only intermittently successful one, but even the fumbles provide a great platform for understanding stories, and why they affect us the way they do. This month’s piece was graciously provided by reader Viktor Tsankov.

Blade Runner, 1982It is difficult to deny Blade Runner. A cult classic from the director of Alien that stars Han Solo/Indiana Jones in his prime, selected for preservation by the Library of Congress, one of the first cyberpunk works that arguably defined the aesthetic of the genre, consistently voted one of the best sci-fi films by critics and sci-fi fans alike, and influencer of works from the Battlestar Galactica re-imagining to the Ghost in the Shell films, Blade Runner is an aesthetic cultural touchstone that pales in comparison to the work it is based on and the works that came after it.

Before going any further, I don’t want to give the impression I think it is a bad film. On the contrary, Blade Runner is a beautiful, empty mess. A more faithful adaptation of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? might have had a difficult time inspiring the way Blade Runner has. What the film did is create a stylistic foundation, it teased a larger, more intricate, world that it never capitalized on, and it let its fans’ imaginations run wild.

Its narrative emptiness, its multiple versions, and its messy architecture all came together to create a uniquely subjective experience of a narrative. A viewer is largely free to choose the truth of the film in ways that would not be possible with other films, and that would be even more difficult with the singular novel.

Blade Runner, 1982

For this piece I have watched five versions of Blade Runner: 1) the original US Theatrical Cut (1982), 2) the prototype Workprint (1982), 3) the International Theatrical Cut (1982), 4) the Director’s Cut (1992), and 5) the Final Cut (2007). The differences between these versions are smaller than one might expect considering how many releases there were, but when there are significant differences I will point them out.

One of the first ways in which there is an important difference is the messy architecture that I referred to earlier. Blade Runner seems to be purposefully made to mess with an audience’s sense of place. The story is told over at least three nights and three days, although time is really indeterminate. It rains every night except for the first night and is sunny every day. The first image we are greeted with is fire shooting up from skyscrapers into the night sky. There is fire in front of Taffey’s place as Deckard runs out to chase Zhora.

Blade Runner, 1982

And there is fire outside of Sebastian’s place as Pris is walking there.

Blade Runner, 1982

When Pris walks to Sebastian’s, we see her pass by a fire truck and a police vehicle, and yet they do not see, or do not care about, the fire in the street.

Blade Runner, 1982

In general, people seem to care very little about what is going on around them. Deckard chases after Zhora brandishing a gun in his hand, and people hardly notice. No one screams, no one gets down, people just seem annoyed that he is pushing them out of his way. At a later point in the film when Deckard has parked on the street, a group of people climb onto his car while he is still in it and start trying to take it apart. The people are as blasé as about life as they are about death.

Some of the more interesting elements seem to be due to error. The scene that introduces Roy Batty has a stray finger on his coat that belongs to no one.

Blade Runner, 1982

This finger exists in every version but the Final Cut.

Blade Runner, 1982

Not only that, but it is mirrored in the scene where Roy is talking to Tyrell, only this time the finger actually belongs to someone.

Blade Runner, 1982

Similarly, at Roy’s death in the rain at the end of the film, he lets go of a dove that then flies into a clear, blue sky.

Blade Runner, 1982

This is then corrected in the Final Cut to show the rain that should have been there.

Blade Runner, 1982

Although these two scenes were corrected in the Final Cut to remove the stray finger and to add in the rainy sky, it should be noted that the Final Cut wasn’t released until 25 years after the original. For 25 years, no matter which version of Blade Runner one saw, they would have experienced these weird moments of things not lining up.

And those are just the obvious visual inconsistencies. Blade Runner is also chock full of film techniques meant to give the feeling of otherness.

The film begins with flashes to a mysterious man with his back turned, who we later learn is Dave Holden, the other Blade Runner. In his interview with Leon, the replicant, we get a brief moment of audio echo or overlap. When Deckard does his interview with Rachael, we get two quick dissolves and more audio overlap.

Blade Runner, 1982

Roy gets a dissolve after he has killed Tyrell and Sebastian as a transition to Deckard.

Blade Runner, 1982

When Roy dies he gets a final dissolve with Deckard so that both are in the same shot.

Blade Runner, 1982

Rachael is completely washed away by light when she is at Deckard’s place after killing Leon.

Blade Runner, 1982

Blade Runner, 1982

You can barely see the outline of her face when comparing the two, but it happens a couple of times in the scene. Light from outside flashes towards her and washes out Rachael and the background. When Deckard plays the piano in every version but the Workprint, it starts out seeming like non-diegetic music until we see him pressing the keys and we get diegetic and non-diegetic music in the same scene.

These techniques create a sense of distance. Some of them have a simple purpose, like the dissolves in the Rachael interview being a shorthand for time passing. But most of them are there just to keep the audience active. There is a lot of information being given and a viewer has to pay attention to be able to take it in. Put another way, it makes the setting not only seem alien, but untrustworthy. The camera lets us see the seams of the world. This has the benefit of making everything seem all the more fantastical, but the drawback of putting off people who need a more concrete setting to suspend their disbelief.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? has a less fantastic setting. The world of Androids is mostly colorless and nondescript. The radioactive dust in the air is causing the world to crumble, and most of humanity has either died out or left the planet for the colonies. Where Blade Runner had busy streets filled with people who didn’t care about the fantastical things happening around them, Androids has a few people living desolate existences trying desperately to connect and feel something.

The crushing loneliness that Deckard and other characters feel is reflected in the decaying world, the empty silences. Silence “flashed from the woodwork and the walls; it smote [Isidore] with an awful, total power…it oozed out, meshing with the empty and wordless descent of itself from the fly-specked ceiling.” Isidore “experienced the silence as visible and, in its own way, alive.”

People feel the death of their infrastructure and the world so acutely, that they try to live as close to other people as possible. The very notion of emptiness and silence is utterly terrifying to them and messes with their minds. The world of Androids is abstract, psychological, and terrifying.

This is where the religion of Mercerism becomes important. Using an empathy box a person is able to become one with Mercer and connect to every other person using the emapthy box. The name half-explains itself; it engenders empathy for other people by having everyone that connects to it feel the feelings of every other person connected.

When someone is happy or sad, they share that feeling with the rest of the empathy box users. This feeling, when all physical evidence is to the contrary, is what keeps people connected, what keeps people wanting to stay alive despite their depressing surroundings. And it manifests itself in other ways.

This is where the emphasis on animals comes from as well. Blade Runner has a few allusions to this, as with the artificial owl at the Rosen Association and the artificial snake that Zhora says is much cheaper than a real snake. There are ostriches and ponies and birds on the street that people walk around, but it has no particular meaning to Deckard or anyone else. It is just another part of the fantastical, futuristic setting. In Blade Runner‘s future artificial animals are as or more common than real ones.

Blade Runner, 1982

In Androids, one has to have an animal, not just from an empathic standpoint of having living things around you, but from a social standpoint, too. And since animals are rare and expensive, it is often the case that people have electric animals. But owning an electric animal, like Deckard’s sheep, is demoralizing. His neighbor feels sorry for him and everyone assumes that others will look down on him. It’s difficult for owners to even pretend it’s alive.

It doesn’t matter how good the animal looks or if it acts exactly like a real one; the knowledge that it is fake taints the affection they might have for it. After Deckard has produced three of the six android corpses he has enough money to put a down payment on a real goat, and Rachael says outright that he loves the goat more than he loves her or his wife. The one thing keeping him going through the ordeal of hunting the androids is the thought that he will get to be with his goat later. For Mercer all life is sacred and he loves all animals, and this translates down to all of the people connecting with him through the empathy boxes.

This is also a defining difference between humans and androids for the novel. Androids in both the novel and film have killed people before they come down to Earth. In the film this is suggested of the six particular replicants that Deckard is chasing, and the rest are ambiguous. In the novel, this is explicitly stated to be the case for any android found on Earth. Androids are given as servants to humans going off to the colonies as an incentive for them to leave the planet, and so any android found on Earth could only have gotten there by killing their human master. Murder committed by androids is similar to murder committed by actual people, but a defining difference is that the androids in the novel are solitary. They care about themselves individually. They do not care about animals or humans or other androids. Humans, on the other hand, have empathy for other creatures, emphasized by Deckard as a group animal trait.

Humans in the novel are closely associated with animals and they empathize with them to a high degree. Pris’ snipping of a spider’s legs upsets Isidore so much that he abandons the androids even after he had decided to protect them. Androids cannot take care of animals. Even if they wanted to, which they do not, they lack the warmth and empathy necessary to keep animals alive, which humans have instinctively. It’s what suggests the humor in the title. The answer to “Do androids dream of electric sheep?” is an obvious no. It seems like a deep question before you’ve read the novel, but since androids care only about themselves, and no further than an individual level, they couldn’t possibly care about artificial animals of a lower intelligence the way humans do.

The title is a joke on human empathy towards anything and everything, including those for whom it would be impossible to reciprocate that empathy.

The replicants in Blade Runner are indistinguishable from humans. Bryant tells Deckard that though they do not begin with emotions, over time they can develop them fully the way a person could, and Eldon Tyrell tells the bounty hunter that they also implant false memories into some replicants so that they more fully believe that they are human. And this is borne out in the film. Roy and Pris kiss.

Blade Runner, 1982

Leon seems devastated watching Zhora die.

Blade Runner, 1982

Roy in general goes through all manner of different emotions like anger, contempt, joy, etc.

Blade Runner, 1982

Blade Runner, 1982

The opening crawl of the film suggests what a person is meant to feel about androids. They are used for slave labor, they are virtually identical to humans, and killing them is not referred to as execution but retirement.

The words are meant to engender the audience’s sympathy to their plight. Although they have killed 23 people to get to Earth and a bunch more throughout the film, their main goal is to live longer. They have been artificially given four years to live, and they are dying. In his death scene Roy suggests that he has witnessed beautiful and wondrous things that no human will ever witness, and that this has some value. There is poetry in his words and thoughts that can’t be denied.

Even if you consider them ruthless killers, the film also gives you Rachael. Rachael is an innocent. She kills Leon to save Deckard, and is mortified by her actions. She cries when Deckard confirms she is a replicant.

Blade Runner, 1982

As if our sympathies weren’t with her enough when she finds out her whole life has been a sham, she is also completely alone.

Being a replicant and running away from the Tyrell Corporation means that she is now wanted by bounty hunters; this makes Deckard an enemy, and yet she saves him. It isn’t until after she kills Leon that Deckard says he wouldn’t hunt her; she had no guarantees going into it.

Although it gives mixed messages about the other replicants, Blade Runner wants you to care about Rachael at least. Instead of having her seduce Deckard the way a femme fatale might in any other noir, he forces himself on her. Rachael remains an innocent in the relationship that springs up between them too.

Blade Runner, 1982

Our feelings on Rachael, at least, are clear. Similarly, Sebastian is an innocent human in the film. He does not kill anyone, and in fact helps the replicants. He takes Roy to meet his maker, and is then mortified when Roy kills Tyrell. Sebastian also has no problems empathizing with the replicants, because he creates his own friends that are not human.

It’s difficult to know what to think about the rest of the replicants. Zhora isn’t in the film long enough to have a defined personality, Leon is violent and cruel, Pris seems to take some joy in making Sebastian feel uncomfortable, and Roy kills Sebastian, our innocent human.

The other humans don’t come off any better either since Bryant doesn’t care about Rachael and bullies Deckard into working for him, Tyrell treats all of his replicants like fun experiments, and Holden in his interview had a mocking, sneering attitude toward Leon. Gaff is a bit more ambiguous since he lets Rachael live with the knowledge that she has only a four-year lifespan, but is otherwise not much of a presence. He speaks only one understandable thing and is otherwise absent for most of the film.

Deckard is the real mystery, and your conception of him changes depending on which version you see.

In all versions he kills the androids, forces himself on Rachael, and vows to protect her later. The two theatrical versions have some short narration. There, Deckard looks down on Gaff and thinks Bryant is a racist. He is surprised at his own feelings since Blade Runners are not supposed to have feelings, similar to how replicants are not supposed to have them. He more and more feels like a killer, and even feels bad for shooting a woman, Zhora, in the back, but these internal moments don’t stop him from killing the replicants. In the versions without narration, it doesn’t even seem like he minds killing them.

In general, the Deckard in the film doesn’t make sense.

Bryant says he is the best bounty hunter he has ever had, and certainly better than Holden, but every kill is a lucky one. If Zhora had taken his gun or not been interrupted when chocking him, then he wouldn’t have been able to kill her. Leon is killed by Rachael, and Rick had lost the fight before that with him. Pris similarly doesn’t take his gun after beating him up, and then decides the best thing to do is walk to the far side of the room so she can attack him with a somersault, ensuring he has time to get his gun and shoot her. Roy is Deckard’s worst showing, as he gets as many free shots as he likes and still manages to lose. In fact, Roy saves his life, the first life that he hasn’t taken in the entire run of the film.

Deckard is extremely lucky rather than skilled.

Blade Runner, 1982

So what are we meant to think of him? Except for his acceptance and protection of Rachael, what does he offer? Even that he isn’t particularly successful at, since Gaff still found her and he himself took advantage of her.

Does Rachael’s seeming acceptance of him at the end of the film (and that is somewhat ambiguous seeing as she has no one else) supposed to mirror the audience’s acceptance? There is no clear indication.

Blade Runner, 1982

These types of unsatisfying ambiguities are part of the enormous difference between Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Blade Runner.

Just looking at the plot elements of the book and film it might be tempting to say that they are very similar. Character names overlap, and the basic premise of a bounty hunter looking for androids on Earth is the same. Some of the dialogue is taken word for word from the novel, as in Deckard’s interview with Rachael early in the film. But even when it does overlap, the meaning behind the words is different, and the meaning for the respective works is different.

Rachael’s interview in Blade Runner establishes Rachael and Tyrell’s characters, as well as giving us key information about replicants, namely that their memories can be manipulated. Rachael’s interview in Androids sets up the first scenario of mind games being played, and presents to Deckard just how difficult his task his. Although he succeeds in finding out that Rachael is an android, he nearly loses the only method for detecting them because he too easily believed that she could be human.

Blade Runner, 1982

The Deckard in Androids is also someone we want to root for. He begins the novel an underdog. Bryant establishes that Holden was the top bounty hunter and Deckard had never had to deal with the tough cases that Holden had.

After his interview with Rachael, Deckard realizes how outmatched he is. He feels that he barely made it through an interview with a Nexus-6 type, and he still has to put down six of them, which feels like an overwhelming amount. Another bounty hunter, Phil Resch, puts down 2 of the 6, but Deckard gets the other four due to quick reflexes, intuition, and general skill.

The Deckard in Androids is not only good at his job, but he is contemplative and regretful. After the death of Luba Luft, the android acting as an opera singer, he is the only one to ask what the harm is in letting a beautiful voice like hers remain in the world. He finds Resch’s cold attitude towards the androids disgusting, even as he knows that it is necessary to survive them.

A big deal has been made of whether the Deckard in Blade Runner is a replicant or not, but I have to say the question isn’t particularly interesting because of the forced perspective. If Deckard is a replicant then there is no moral quandary in his actions, and Gaff becomes our de facto hero for letting them go. If Deckard isn’t a replicant, it still doesn’t matter because Blade Runner has been clear on what the right and wrong things to do are. The film has a clear moral scheme, and his decision to save Rachael is correct regardless of what he does.

The question of his humanity obfuscates the real philosophical point, which is this: how do we define that which is human, and how do we treat things that are not?

This is where the Deckard in the book is really important. He is definitively human, and the androids are definitively amoral. Their goal for the book is to see humanity lowered, to see them fall into despair when they show Mercer to be a lie and empathy to be a pointless emotion. They fail because of a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to be human, but regardless of their success or failure, their goal is a petty one. Rather than trying to lift themselves up, they try to corrupt humanity.

And still, Isidore and Deckard find themselves empathizing and caring about specific androids, even if in the latter case it is only for brief moments. The end of Androids has Rachael killing Deckard’s goat, and he is left with his electric sheep and an electric toad, tired and somewhat devastated, but happy to be done with his task. His wife orders electric flies for the toad and says that her husband is devoted to it. Despite their problems throughout the novel, and despite how demoralizing it is to own an electric animal, both husband and wife are just glad to have each other, to be together. As the world around them crumbles and they are mentally accosted by the petty androids of Buster Friendly and dead animals, they find some sense of warmth in each other’s arms.

This isn’t to say that Blade Runner doesn’t have corresponding visual motifs, because it does. The most prominent is the focus on eyes. The general darkness of the film makes eye glare much more apparent, but the replicants, and the artificial owl, also have glowing irises in certain scenes.

Blade Runner, 1982

Blade Runner, 1982

It’s a visual way to tell that they are artificial. The first scientist that the androids visit, Chew, is the one that works on eyes.

Blade Runner, 1982

One of the first shots of the film is the fiery cityscape reflected in Dave Holden’s eye as he watches from the Tyrell Corporation.

Blade Runner, 1982

Roy kills Tyrell in some versions of the film by poking through his eyes, although this was considered too violent for the US Theatrical Cut and the Director’s Cut.

Blade Runner, 1982

Leon was also going to kill Deckard by poking through his eyes.

Blade Runner, 1982

Eyes are important for the film, not just in that they represent our weaknesses, but also in that they reflect who we are.

Roy defines himself to Deckard not by his relationships or his actions, but by what he has seen; he is unique and indispensable because no one will see what he has seen. Blade Runner seems to argue for uniqueness by experience. The replicants are important and deserve to be treated as individuals because there is nothing else like them. They have the same potential to do good or bad as the humans do, but they live differently, more fleetingly and desperately.

Like a fingerprint, an iris uniquely identifies a person, and so for Blade Runner the most prevalent theme must be individuality. Whether that be Gaff’s decision to let Rachael go, Roy’s decision to save Deckard despite all of the other replicants trying to kill him, or Deckard falling in love with a replicant, the characters define themselves by their individuality.

Blade Runner, 1982

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is the complete opposite. It values our group mentality above all. Our ability to empathize is the most important trait, and it is what we use to test whether someone is an android or human.

This is best established by Isidore’s decision to connect with Mercer after finding out that Mercer isn’t real. Mercer is supposed to be one of the things that separates the humans from the machines, since they empathize with him whereas the machines cannot. He turns out to be a program, but that just reaffirms the difference between the humans and the machines even more. People just don’t care if Mercer is real because the feeling he provides them is authentic. The book suggests that to be human is to despair, and they all want the feeling of community and unity that they get through his suffering, even if he isn’t a real person.

And yet, authenticity is still very important. No one can tell the difference between a real sheep and a machine sheep, but the owner knows and that is stressful. It’s stressful that their animals aren’t authentic. People desire authenticity even though they can’t get it and they know no one else can either.

In many ways, empathy is a weakness. It allows our protagonist to come dangerously close to sympathizing with the machines and to almost be killed for it, while they couldn’t give less of a damn about him or each other. The androids define themselves in opposition to people, even as people try to make them as human as possible. The Rosen Association’s goal is to make androids indistinguishable from humans, even as the bounty hunters’ goal is to draw a firm line between the two. Humans crave authenticity even as they destroy it.

So Androids defines humanity in its empathy and in its striving for something real which doesn’t exist. The knowledge that it doesn’t exist while continuing to strive for it would suggest existentialism. It’s still individualistic, like the film, as each person has to come to terms with the absurdity of their existence, but that coming to terms manifests itself in Mercerism, in coming together and sharing their feelings and empathy with each other.

Blade Runner is beautiful, and beauty always has value. But that beauty lies in its aesthetics, not its narrative or its characters.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? has a beauty of soul, a desperate yearning for connection and truth in a miserable universe. Living in Blade Runner‘s universe seems fun and expansive with its myriad of different languages jumbled together, its vibrant night life, and fantastic technology. Living in Androids‘ universe is a slog, with every day beating on you and the slow encroachment of entropy visible all around. Its hopefulness and love of its characters are thus all the more cathartic.

Blade Runner
(1968, Philip K. Dick [as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?]; 1982, Ridley Scott)

Book or film? Book.
Worth reading the book? The book is a psychological dystopia that slowly eats at the fabric of humanism as it makes a virtue of nihilistic hope. It is one of the few sci-fi works that dares to make robots unsympathetic and it asks the right questions about what that means. It is uniquely anti-climactic. If you like sci-fi for the questions it asks, then it is a must read.
Worth watching the film? Possibly. It undoubtedly has historical value, and its cinematography is beautiful. Don’t watch it for the narrative, though.
Is it the best possible adaptation? No. Except for some dialogue and character names, they have very little in common.
Is it of merit in its own right? The Final Cut is stunning, especially on Blu-Ray, and it is always a different experience watching something as opposed to reading about it. But I would say that some of the works it has inspired manage to meld the aesthetic with the narrative better than it has, so I don’t consider it unique anymore.

Note: If you’d like a more detailed look at the differences between versions, this site will do nicely.

Fiction into Film: The Raven (1845 / 1990)

Fiction into Film is a series devoted to page-to-screen adaptations. The process of translating prose to the visual medium is a tricky and only intermittently successful one, but even the fumbles provide a great platform for understanding stories, and why they affect us the way they do.

The Raven, 1990Am I breaking the rules by covering a TV show? In a word: no, because I make the rules. But in a few slightly more respectful words: maybe, but I think it raises an interesting discussion.

The mere fact that I’ve chosen to spotlight a segment of The Simpsons‘ first Halloween special should tell you that I think it’s as worthy of consideration as anything else I’ve covered here. Then again, the mere fact that I feel the need to open with an explanation says something about the comparatively smaller merit we assign to television.

Had The Raven — this version, this length, this exact cut — aired as a short film in theaters, there’d be no question. But instead it’s a segment of an episode of a long-running television show. A revered television show, but, hey, it’s still just TV.

And I find that interesting. To this day a made-for-TV movie gets less attention and respect than anything released to theaters, and while it’s easy to find examples of TV movies that are downright terrible (hello, Lifetime!), it’s really no less difficult to find terrible theatrical releases.

Yet theatrical films (tellingly, what everyone thinks of when they hear the word “movie”) get some baseline level of consideration that TV isn’t afforded.

Every so often you’ll hear Breaking Bad or Mad Men or some other piece of prestige TV get spoken of in reverent tones — often being openly compared to film, as though that is an inherent compliment — but they’re the exceptions. Bad films don’t tarnish the reputation of theatrical releases, but whenever a great TV show comes around its praise is couched in apology for all of the crap that surrounds it.

The Simpsons is probably the first example of a show that I remember being spoken of in those reverent tones. Perhaps if I were older that show would be M*A*S*H, but, as it stands, it was The Simpsons that I first saw reach out of the television and make the world pay attention.

Those who praised the show still did it apologetically — it was on FOX, after all, which was already known for carrying disreputable programming — but there was a level of seductive danger to it that made us see clearly that it wasn’t just “good for TV,” and wasn’t even just “good.” It was great, and however long it lasted (surely it couldn’t last long…) we’d be talking about it in 10 years, 20 years, 50 years, wondering how we were lucky enough to witness something of such undeniable cultural significance.

The Raven, 1990

Those last two words there can’t be over-emphasized. Even if you dislike the show, its cultural significance is not up for debate. The Simpsons, even by the time of this episode, early in its second season, was everywhere.

Bart especially was on magazine covers, t-shirts, and shaved into the back of people’s haircuts. The show was a phenomenon of such significance that people felt the need to fight it. I remember the priest at my church warning families about it. I remember teachers hearing us talking about the show and saying that we were too young to watch things like that. Even President Bush (the much less horrible one) spoke out about how the show was rotting American minds.

The Simpsons wasn’t just some thing on TV that you either watched or you didn’t. It was a show that had power, which is why those in positions of authority were so keen to condemn it. Time deals with fads and fancies quickly enough…but power needs to be defeated.

“Treehouse of Horror” — which contains The Raven — was only the show’s 16th episode, but it was already event television. That’s why Marge, the show’s ethical center, needs to introduce it, and to warn us. She’s not quite out of character, but she’s definitely out of her element. She stands before a red curtain and implores us with seeming sincerity, before the opening credits even roll, not to let the children watch. This wasn’t part of the show…at least, not as far as I could tell. I knew Marge wasn’t real, but it also felt like she meant this.

The Raven, 1990

I was a child watching. And I distinctly remember glancing around the room to see if my parents were going to switch the TV off. Or — horror of horrors! — make me go to bed while they kept watching. I recognize in Marge’s monologue now some dryly funny moments, but to a child this feels serious. It’s a cartoon mom, but it’s still a mom. And she’s warning you. If you go forward you’ll have no-one to blame but yourself.

This is scary, dangerous territory you’re about to enter, and you’re being warned not to do it. Clearly, that only made me want to do it more. And my parents stayed where they were. I wonder still if they were silently figuring out how quickly they could hustle me out of the room if things actually did get too scary or gory.

She ends her monologue with a defensive comment about angry letters — something the show had clearly received a lot of, and something which it would lampoon thoroughly a few episodes later with “Itchy & Scratchy & Marge” — and that’s it. You’ve been warned. You made your own decision.

You’re on your own, kids.

For those who feared the power of The Simpsons, this must have been a true Halloween nightmare spilling into the real world. This show that was already so dangerous — so (for the time) violent, profane, distrusting, and disrespectful — was telling you outright that you’re about to watch the most dangerous fucking thing that could ever possibly be aired on television.

If The Simpsons itself was warning you…what in the world was it going to show kids? What godless stretch of carnage and brutality could ever be in store? What in hell are teachers going to have to put up with the next day in school?

Well, if they were good teachers, they’d be delighted, because their students were about to be exposed to an unforgettable blast of classic American literature.

The Raven, 1990

The Simpsons version of The Raven is a true adaptation. It’s not a parody, though there are jokes in it, and it’s far too comprehensive to be an homage. It’s an adaptation, and that’s why it belongs here. For its trueness to its subject, and also for its sheer novelty. After all, how many shows do you know of that actually did straight adaptations?

Typically when a TV show would mine literature for ideas it would result in something like the endless versions of A Christmas Carol that sitcom characters have endured over the years. The central conceit is there, a few necessarily plot beats are struck, and that’s it. It’s not an adaptation so much as it is the borrowing of a framework. Characters from one universe live out — temporarily — the barest sketch of events from another, and the next week we forget it completely.

Other times you’ll have a more general genre pastiche, such as the war fiction sendup that is Spaced‘s paintball episode, or the noir tinge of The Venture Bros.‘ “Everybody Comes to Hank’s.”

In none of these cases are we dealing with true adaptation. Instead we’re borrowing (or winking toward) recognizable elements.

And that makes sense; airtime is valuable. 30 minutes of somebody’s attention had better be worth it, or they’ll change the channel. That’s why shows undercut or play loose with the material they do borrow. You can tune in to Gilligan’s Island and see the castaways staging a musical version of Hamlet, but you won’t ever see the cast do a straight recreation of The Tempest from Shakespeare’s original script. (However appropriate that might have been.)

And yet The Simpsons does a straight adaptation here, and though they’ve done a new “Treehouse of Horror” special every year since, and have regularly mined the works of others in order to do so, this is the only time they haven’t undercut the original. It’s the only time they presented — rather than parodied — the actual substance of the source material.

And it’s still one of the best things the show’s ever done.

The Raven, 1990

The oddness of getting a straight literary adaptation embedded in The Simpsons is definitely noteworthy. Looney Tunes beat this show well to the literary parody punch with its own animated takes on classic stories (Robinson Crusoe, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Of Mice and Men all spring instantly to mind), but, again, those weren’t adaptations. Aside from anthology series like The Twilight Zone or Masterpiece Theater, in which every episode was a one-off case, straight adaptation simply didn’t happen.

But here was a show that wasn’t afraid of turning its runtime — and its audience’s attention — over to a work of poetry that had been written a century and a half earlier. What did The Simpsons do when it held the youth of America rapt? It did what Lisa does here: it pulled out a schoolbook, and it read to them.

And that’s why The Simpsons was so dangerous: it wanted its audience to think.

It was unconventional TV, but not in the way it was accused of being. It’s not that it contained adult content so much as the fact that it wanted viewers to think for themselves. Its most dangerous idea wasn’t “there is no God” or “don’t trust your leaders.” It was this: we trust you to think for yourself.

It wasn’t an assault on Christian values; it was an assault on intellectual laziness.

That’s what made the show so many powerful enemies.

The Raven, 1990

I’m probably doing the segment a disservice by calling it a straight adaptation. It is, but it’s more than that. It’s thoroughly Edgar Allan Poe’s work, but it’s just as thoroughly The Simpsons.

The latter’s stamp, necessarily, is all over it. The Simpsons had a clear visual style and The Raven must, of course, be filtered through that. Additionally, the voice cast are too recognizable to overlook, with Dan Castellaneta getting a well-earned and well-handled spotlight. (His dual delivery of “Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!” — first in theatrical anger and then in seething frustration — is particularly brilliant.)

But aside from a few cameos and background gags (Forgotten Lore, Vol. II is my easy favorite), the universe we occupy isn’t that of The Simpsons, or even some fantasy variant of The Simpsons. It’s the universe of Poe…the confined, claustrophobic, oppressive, inescapable universe of Poe. No, the Simpsons‘ stamp isn’t the bleeding-through of the show’s comic sensibilities, but of its artistic ones.

David Silverman, who is probably more responsible for the visual direction of the show than anyone else (he honed its style way back when it was a series of skits on The Tracey Ullman Show), had the unenviable task of entertaining children who tuned in to watch their favorite cartoon and found themselves sitting through a poetry recital. It was a no-win proposition that he easily, unquestionably won.

Silverman directed The Raven, and the fact that he could focus on only his five-or-so minute segment meant he could devote more of his attention to making it visually and artistically inventive…an opportunity he clearly took to heart.

The Raven, 1990

The Raven represents the most impressive animation the show had seen yet, and it’s clear that a great deal of time was spent arranging the scene, blocking the shots, and finding interesting angles from which to watch the story unfold.

Poe’s original poem — yes, poem, but I’d argue it’s just as much fiction as any prose I’ve read — takes place in a single environment. One room. A door is opened, a window is opened, but our protagonist never leaves. There are strong thematic reasons for that, but it’s the kind of thing you can more easily make interesting on the page, where you can spend time in your protagonist’s mind, than you can on screen, where viewers (especially those tuning in to watch a 90s cartoon show) expect visual variety.

Silverman’s environment is a drab and sad room. Deliberately so. Volumes of books line the wall. Atmosphere is thick but decoration is sparse. There’s a fireplace, a chair, and a bust of Pallas. Visually, it’s hard to imagine anything less exciting, and that’s by design. Poe’s source material isn’t the story of external adventure; it’s a dark meditation on inner emptiness. Our unnamed protagonist spends a lonely, torturous night with his memories of “this lost Lenore.” His solitude turns to madness, and that madness ravages him further. He is his own victim in an endless, unbreakable cycle of abusive despair.

So empty is his life that when he hears a tapping, a rapping at his chamber door, he ignores it. “’Tis some visitor,” he mutters, “tapping at my chamber door. Only this and nothing more.” He waits, quietly, for the visitor to leave.

Who is it? He doesn’t care. He’s not interested in company. He waits it out, or attempts to, and only gives in to answering the door when it’s clear that the visitor won’t go away. And so our protagonist spins a limp apology about having been asleep, while we know he was instead hoping that he wouldn’t have to face another human being.

That much of his wish is granted, because, when he opens the door, there is nobody waiting. If he’s relieved he won’t be for long; he’ll receive another kind of visitor soon enough.

And that’s the visual premise of the story. A man is in a room and doesn’t wish to speak with anyone. Making that compelling television seems difficult at best, but Silverman was up to the challenge, all while staying true to Poe’s dreary, lonesome setting, and at no point betraying it.

As we see with the very loose interpretation of The Twilight Zone‘s “To Serve Man” that precedes The Raven — and as we’ll see in every “Treehouse of Horror” to follow — the show is willing to be pliant with its source material. It can take a small, simple story and expand upon it to create something larger, with a more universal impact, for the sake of including more characters or visual and comic variety. A perfect example of this is the “Monkey’s Paw” send-up that they’d do the following year; the original story took place between two characters in their home, whereas The Simpsons ignored those limitations and expanded the premise immensely.

The Raven, 1990

The show’s adherence to the original’s confined setting is a self-imposed challenge. The Raven could have been anything; it’s an adaptation, after all. The only rules are the ones set by those adapting it.

Instead, Silverman and writer Sam Simon (credited alongside Poe) lock themselves in the same room that drove our protagonist insane. Why? Because they believed they could do something incredible with that limitation.

And they did.

In art, limitation is often conducive to inventiveness. If you can create anything and do anything, you often end up at a loss. Infinite possibility is too much possibility. There’s little to cling to. Nowhere to start. No definitive end. That’s why so many stories adhere to so few basic structures (star-crossed lovers, fish out of water, the quest, whodunit, coming of age, and so on). An artist can do anything, but “doing anything” is often ill-advised.

Within a structure, with confines, with rules and restrictions, an artist can narrow his or her focus. When boundaries are set, artists know where they must focus their attention. And when their attentions are focused, they can find unexpected treasures.

That’s why Silverman is all exaggerated angles, all aggressive framing. He’s finding a new melody in somebody else’s tune. He’s using his voice to recite somebody else’s work. He’s finding that treasure.

Silverman’s camera haunts Homer as much as the memories of Lenore haunt him. It seeks him out when he cowers. It stares into his face when he wishes to hide. It looms overhead, out of reach and refusing to blink. It hems him in as effectively as the walls of his chamber, and it casts judgment on him as well. It observes him. It refuses to let him out of sight, where he can actually be alone.

Its behavior is very much in line with that of the raven itself…it’s visual foreshadowing — and enhancing — of the hopelessness and frustration that the titular bird comes to represent.

The Raven, 1990

Reading Poe’s original on its own can feel daunting. While it’s not a difficult poem, exactly, it’s still a complex one. The rhymes are shifty. The repetition is potentially confusing. The dialogue is especially left open to interpretive intonation.

In short, it’s not the kind of thing a child — or even many adults in 1990 — would have understood on their own, even if they had cared to dig it out. It’s a masterful piece of unnerving and insightful writing, but what good is insight that an audience doesn’t experience?

By bringing this poem to life, The Simpsons granted it not only a renewed cultural relevance, but it provided its own frame of reference. These words written 145 years prior suddenly meant something to an entire generation that didn’t know they existed.

And I’m not exaggerating. I ran a quick poll on Facebook to see if I was being unfairly generous to the legacy of this adaptation, but a good number of people indeed said that The Simpsons‘ version of The Raven was their first experience of the poem.

That is to say, I wasn’t alone.

There were kids out there like me who sat down to watch their favorite show and ended up discovering a masterful work of literature that nobody had shown them before.

What’s more, it was no passing lesson. This version of The Raven resonates, probably because it was made easier to understand for an audience that might not have otherwise sat through it.

In addition to the simple fact that it’s being acted out as opposed to being read as static text on a page, The Simpsons provides the cross-generational tones of James Earl Jones as our narrator. Jones’s voice is familiar from contexts as varied as Star Wars and the CNN bumpers, and the length of breadth of his career means that we recognize his voice as both comforting and chilling, soothing and serious, profound and deadly. His was — and is — a voice that doesn’t so much command attention as surround it. Your favorite cartoon may be playing out safely before you, but his is a voice you can’t escape.

Jones’s reading is respectful to the source material. He appears in this episode’s other two segments to tell jokes, but for The Raven he’s all business. He’s reading a great poem, and you’re going to listen while he does so.

Which is good, because Poe’s original can be difficult to parse. The sneaky rhymes are easy to trip over…at least they are when you don’t know how to read them. When it’s being recited for you, by somebody who understands the poem’s meter, it’s a very different experience…a winding, binding, inescapable spiral of madness in the mundane.

The Raven, 1990

Jones gives it breath and helps us to work around the language no child would have understood. He’s not dumbing it down, and at no point does his narration stray from the original text; he’s showing us instead that we can understand the poem even if we don’t understand every word of it. And that’s a valuable lesson: literature is more about how it makes you feel and what it does to you than it is about what it says.

It doesn’t matter if a child knows who Pallas was, or what Poe meant by “the Night’s Plutonian shore,” or what obeisance is. Jones treats every stanza with equal gravity, leveling the field. Word choice is undeniably important, but not as important as a poem’s (or a story’s, or a novel’s) impact. Jones reads on, too dauntless to let anyone in the audience realize that they just heard something they don’t fully understand. And the reason is this: by the end of the vignette, they will understand.

But Jones can’t take full credit for making the poem easier to parse. No, Silverman deserves kudos for that as well. For starters, I believe fully that a non-English speaker could watch this segment and come away feeling exactly what they should feel, in spite of understanding nothing that they’ve heard. This is due to the atmosphere masterfully conjured and sustained by the direction. The darkened colors…the careful shadow-work…the alternately distant and aggressive blocking. Silverman tells the same tale Jones is telling, and he tells it with a different kind of language: the language of visual cinema.

With his language, he chooses to emphasize certain aspects of Poe’s original. Most significant is the presence of Lenore.

Lenore serves the same purpose in both the original text and on The Simpsons: she’s an urgent, painful absence. But in the text, that’s all you get. Granted, even a careless reader would register her name simply by virtue of the fact that it’s the only character’s name we learn, but beyond that it’s up to us to interpret our protagonist’s feelings for her.

We don’t learn her fate. (She’s “lost,” but that can mean — especially in horror — several things.) We know only that she isn’t present, and that our protagonist does not expect to see her again. Does he feel sorrow, or is it actually something closer to guilt? Was he helpless to save her, or was she never his in the first place? Poe’s work does a great job of leaving these questions — and many others — open, which helps it to resonate among so many. (My Lenore, I am sure, is distinct from yours, dear reader.)

But The Simpsons gives us an answer, and it does it in two major ways. One of them is entirely down to Silverman: whereas the name Lenore appears only a handful of times throughout Poe’s poem, the animated Lenore is a constant presence…a reminder upon the wall, often glimpsed, sometimes dwelt upon, during our protagonist’s lonesome, eternal nightmare. She’s always a presence for him in both versions, but in the animated version she’s a presence for us as well…framed on the wall, an image from a time when she was yet reachable. A reminder not of what once was, but of what will never be again.

The Raven, 1990

The other way Lenore’s role is defined comes not from Silverman, but from the show itself: it’s Marge.

By this early stage in its life, The Simpsons already had strong character development behind it. Lisa’s character was heartbreakingly defined by “Moaning Lisa.” Bart’s struggle for identity and acceptance was solidified by “The Telltale Head.” (Another Poe reference, coincidentally.) And Homer and Marge’s marriage had been explored and tested by “Life on the Fast Lane.”

While characterization certainly fluctuated, we quickly saw these characters become the ones we’d always remember them being. By the time season two came along, we knew and understood them. They were established. They were people. That’s why Lisa has a textbook with her in the treehouse. That’s why Homer goes trick-or-treating and relishes his haul. That’s while Bart restlessly goofs around while Lisa reads her poem, and adds a bratty twist at her expense to the end of his alien story.

And all of this is why Marge is the perfect Lenore; she, like the others, is an established character. We know her, and we know how others feel about her. That is to say, we know exactly how painful her absence would be to Homer.

The Raven might exist outside of the day-to-day Simpsons universe, but its central emotion sure doesn’t. Should Marge ever be “lost,” you can rest assured this would be Homer. Broken. Tormented. Frightened.

A single glimpse of Lenore is all we need to get the picture, but instead we see her frequently. We see her on the wall as the woman Homer loves, the woman Homer doesn’t always quite deserve, the woman who holds his heart and his place in the world. When she’s gone — immediately, unexpectedly — so is his mind.

The arrival of the raven is the final blow to the man’s sanity. He begins amused by the arrival of this silly little bird, but becomes increasingly frustrated by its singular, callous message.


The helplessness of our protagonist is thus externalized. The Raven isn’t a story about a man having to process the consequence of his actions. It’s the opposite; it’s a man who’s done nothing but process that consequence, and now has to face it externally, outside of his own mind.

The Raven, 1990

The bird isn’t here to mess around. Its “flirt and flutter” through the window is no mere quirk of circumstance. Its arrival is purposeful, judgmental, and damning.

Silverman’s direction respects this; as comical as it is to see a bird with Bart’s haircut, it’s behaving in a very serious way. (Its ascension by steps to the bust of Pallas is especially well animated.) It’s here for a reason. It has something to say. And it’s the worst thing our protagonist could ever hope to hear: “Your worst fears?” the raven indirectly articulates. “They’re correct. You’re right to feel as awful as you do.”

The realization is a stubborn one. Our protagonist in both media fails to shake the bird. He fails to elicit any other response. He fails to alter, even slightly, the judgment upon him reflecting the one he’s already visited upon himself.

The original builds to the same ending, in which the raven still is sitting — still is sitting! — on the pallid bust of Pallas just above the chamber door. But immediately before that we get the biggest difference between the two versions: whereas the protagonist of the poem pleads relentlessly, and unsuccessfully, with the bird to leave him in peace, Homer resorts to violence.

This is obviously in keeping with the Simpsons aspect of the telling; we know Homer’s feelings for Marge, and we know just as well (perhaps even better at this point) his feelings toward Bart. The mounting frustration is no less natural here than it ever is when he deals with his (typically not avian) son, and the attack is even preceded by his pre-strangulation catch phrase, “Why you little…!”

But there’s more to the violence than the echo of the main show. Poe’s poem, after all, is simply too long to fit the confines of the act. With commercial breaks and time-slots to be respected, almost half of the poem goes missing. It’s a testament to the quality and the power of the final segment that it still feels so full, but a short burst of violence replaces the long, repetitious, rolling climax of the poem.

Homer might not be the kind of character who will have the patience for a long argument, but his show doesn’t have the time for one, either. As a result, eight of Poe’s 18 stanzas are gone. Another, oddly, survives with only half of its lines intact…presumably a last-minute edit for time.

The Raven, 1990

The children watching at home won’t notice any of the verse missing, but they will notice something they understand: lashing out.

While Poe’s original hinges upon the lengthy, circular nature of a maddened man’s argument with a bird, The Simpsons gave its audience something more tactile. It was a more efficient use of screentime, for sure, but it also made the poem that much easier to understand.

Had Homer — as in the original — simply pleaded with the bird until time ran out (…so to speak…), there would have been a lot of children scratching their heads as a result. That’s not something they understand this character doing.

But they do understand his anger. They’re used to seeing it. They know the effect Bart has on him, and whether or not they comprehend the poem’s ideas of lost love and insanity, they know that the raven — whatever he is, whatever he represents — is this character’s antagonist. And the brief flurry of violence, which leaves Homer broken on the floor, shall be forgotten nevermore.

So what would school teachers have to deal with the next day?

Well, I remember what my teacher had to deal with: her own excitement.

The Simpsons — this social nightmare of a show — had just exposed every one of her students to a masterpiece of American literature. I remember her telling us about Poe as a result. I remember her reading us “The Pit and the Pendulum” soon afterward, probably due to an enthusiastically revised lesson plan.

She took advantage of this opportunity; how many times could you tap into your students’ love of something, and leverage it to develop a love of something else? (I recall a similar thing happening a few years earlier, when A Claymation Christmas Celebration featured “Carol of the Bells,” and my music teacher was able to — for the first and only time — teach a song to a thoroughly engaged classroom.)

The Raven, 1990

I’m a literary nerd now. (Did you already know that?) Not everybody who experienced The Raven that night became one, but does that matter?

For children like me, who would grow to develop a passion for writing of all kinds, it was an early seed planted…one that couldn’t bloom on its own power alone, but which would grow ultimately into a defining aspect of my life, my personality, and my ambitions. For others, who still have no interest in reading, it was an indelible experience of something they might never have otherwise encountered.

In either case, the viewer is enriched. There’s a kind of education at work…a swell of knowledge and cultural experience that may have been larger in some than in others, but which was important to all of them.

Lisa reading that textbook during a seemingly inappropriate time is part of what normalized things like that for me. Sure, you were a bit of a dork if you enjoyed reading, but there’s a place for dorks. There’s a reward for study, and self-betterment.

Bart had fun, but Lisa had a brain. And in The Simpsons, as in the real world, there’s a need for both. Each requires the other to exist. Together, you end up in something like a family.

And I have to admit I love the small touch that Bart — with whom so many young viewers identified — is seen at the end of the segment, sitting and listening to a dusty old poem…just as the kids in the audience were.

He might have said it was dull and wasn’t frightening, but he gave it a chance.

He heard it.

And he’s enriched in some small way because of it.

The Raven, 1990

I miss this. The “Treehouse of Horror” episodes are ones folks tend to enjoy. Personally, I like them less than standard episodes, but I’ve always looked back fondly at The Raven.

It was from a time when The Simpsons was so brave it was willing to sub out its standard fare to introduce a generation to some forgotten lore, choosing to spark interest in the works of Edgar Allan Poe rather than focusing on itself. It was an odd move, and one The Simpsons never repeated, but it’s also one of my fondest memories of the show.

And it’s a reminder of the fact that The Simpsons wasn’t just brainy…it was educational. I learned things from watching that show. Sometimes useful things, other times trivial, but the fact is that I was learning, and learning was fun.

I know I wasn’t alone. Just as many discovered The Raven that night, I’m sure The Simpsons is the way many of us learned about Grover Cleveland’s non-consecutive terms. And the meaning of schadenfreude. And which amendment introduced prohibition.

The Simpsons was dangerous television, alright. It was dangerous because it encouraged people to learn…to want to learn. It was a smart show that always seemed slightly more intelligent than its audience, and made you want to catch up with it. “You think these jokes are funny?” it asked. “Just imagine all the ones you don’t get.”

And, sure enough, as I grew up and watched the same old episodes again, I spotted some of those jokes. I understood them. I laughed for the first time at something that flew over my head a dozen times. Why? Because in the years that passed, I continued to learn.

That was the real horror story…the reason so many people were afraid of The Simpsons.

It wasn’t a fad. It wasn’t temporary. It was the kind of thing people would be thinking about and talking about for a lifetime. And, worst of all, it would continuously reward them for doing so. It provided encouragement and a reason for them to educate themselves, to find their own answers, and to forge ahead in unexpected directions with knowledge not that they were given, but which they found on their own.

A nation of TV-watchers who would grow up to think for themselves.

What could be more scary to those in power?

The Raven, 1990

The Raven
(1845, Edgar Allan Poe; 1990, David Silverman)

Book or film? Book. An easy win that speaks far more to the power of the original than any shortcomings in the adaptation.
Worth reading the poem? Yes. It’s The Raven.
Is it the best possible adaptation? If not for the missing stanzas, I’d say yes. Even with the missing stanzas I’ll say yes.
Is it of merit in its own right? It did a great job of positioning The Simpsons as one of the smartest, most cultured shows on television, and it did so at the perfect point in the life of the series: just as concerns arose about its content, and just as more people were tuning in to see what all the fuss was about. 25 years later it remains one of the show’s most accomplished sequences.

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