Fiction into Film: The Running Man (1982 / 1987)

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.

I grew up reading Stephen King. Many of you surely did as well. I’d blitz through an entire novel in a weekend, or a night. Hundreds of pages flying by like a few dozen. I liked them without loving them. Many of you surely did as well.

King is a fascinating writer, if not an especially good one. He’s arguably the ultimate publishing success story. He’s prolific, he’s rich, he has studios scrambling for the rights to his work before he’s even started writing it. Other writers either admire him or are jealous of him. I’m not sure there’s anything in between.

He fascinates me for two related reasons. Firstly, he’s an unstoppable fount of incredible, fertile, resonant ideas. A rabid dog attacks people trapped in their car. An alcoholic in the throes of cabin fever becomes a danger to his family. A mentally unsound fan holds her favorite author captive. These are writing prompts that could spawn thousands of works of fiction, and any one of them could be great. King turned each of these and so many more into enduring favorites. That’s amazing.

Secondly, though, he doesn’t seem to know what’s good about his own work.

This is remarkable to me. I find it difficult to accept the fact that somebody could be so successful an artist for so long and not understand his own strengths and weaknesses, but here we are. And so great moments are buried within meandering, tedious, clumsy passages. Fantastic characters jostle for space with unnecessary, functionless ones. Surprising flashes of human insight are diluted by clunky dialogue (often written in poorly considered dialect) that even when he was young seemed to have been written by an old man with an understanding of young people that was at least 20 years out of date.

The most visible example of this is his reaction to 1980’s The Shining. King was unquestionably blessed to have his not-all-that-great novel turned into what is arguably the finest horror film ever made. By Stanley Kubrick, one of the finest director’s we’ve ever had. Starring Jack Nicholson, one of the finest actors who’s ever lived.

Writers would sell their soul for an adaptation like that…one which improves upon the source material and enhances its legacy. But King felt ill-served by it and believed that it did his novel an injustice. In 1997, 20 years after the publication of The Shining, King got the chance to prove to his fans that Kubrick had gypped them.

He made his own adaptation of the book, a three-part miniseries, a six-hour epic directed by Mick Garris, whose Critters 2 and Psycho IV credentials evidently impressed him in a way that Kubrick’s filmography did not. And King absolutely made sure to set his version of the film apart from Kubrick’s in one key way: it was fucking terrible.

The arresting, immortal, chilling imagery Kubrick brought to The Shining left King cold, apparently, because it didn’t have poorly rendered topiary monsters and a cameo from King himself conducting an orchestra of ghouls. All King ended up proving was that he was the last person who should be given the final word on his own adaptations. He produces good material, but a smart director will trim an awful lot to find it, and rework even more to elevate it.

All of this is to recognize that King’s been largely served by solid adaptations. Not uniformly, no, but they tend to find the germ of King’s idea and present it in a way superior to the original, clumsy text.

I first read The Running Man in my late teens, and I learned there was already a film version soon after that. I tracked down a copy and rented it, looking forward to what I knew had the potential to be a great film.

It wasn’t.

Oh my Lord was it not.

King’s The Running Man was published under the name Richard Bachman, his pseudonym for a brief period. During that time King wrote one of his best novels (The Long Walk) and several of his worst.

The Running Man was…okay. It might be the only Bachman book that I’d position between those two extremes. Even as a teenager who shouldn’t have known better, I could tell it wasn’t living up to its own potential. I found it difficult to put down, don’t get me wrong, but it was a potboiler. An effective one, for sure, but also one that relied on moving the reader along quickly so that he or she wouldn’t have enough time to realize the novel wasn’t very good.

Its central concept, though, was great, and a half-decent adaptation could do a lot with it.

A half-decent adaptation was miles away from what we actually got.

Arnold Schwarzenegger stars as King’s hero, Ben Richards, but the connection between the two incarnations of the character doesn’t run much deeper than the name. The novel version is a desperate, unemployed everyman with a dying infant daughter who volunteers to participate in a game that will see him hunted and almost certainly killed, because every hour he survives means more money for his family.

The film version, by contrast, is Arnold Schwarzenegger.

We’ll get into the massive differences in the two versions of the story shortly, but, right now, I will say I understand the temptation — on the part of the director, the studio, the marketing team — to eschew the original plot entirely once they realized they had Schwarzenegger, reshaping it as a mindless, self-contained action spectacle.

At this stage in his career, Schwarzenegger had starred in two Conan movies, Commando, and The Terminator. Predator was released the same year as The Running Man. Schwarzenegger was fast becoming a star, and he was becoming a star for very specific things. To plug him into a movie in which he didn’t get to do those very specific things was to invite commercial failure.

The changes to the source material are severe to the point of almost complete detachment. Instead of a gripping story of a man surviving — barely — by his wiles as a team of skilled hunters pursues him relentlessly, we get Schwarzenegger working his way through an uninspired video game boss rush. The question King posits is something along the lines of, “How far can a man push himself when his family’s future is on the line?” Director Paul Michael Glaser’s question is more like, “Can the guy famous for beating people up beat some people up?”

It’s tempting to say that Schwarzenegger is miscast, and had anything beyond the title survived the process of adaptation that would certainly be the case. But the film version of The Running Man fails to do anything noteworthy with its star anyway. It was reimagined as something else that didn’t work.

Both versions of the story take place in a dystopian vision of the future. The novel puts the year at 2025, and the film rolls it back for no real reason to 2019. At the center of each is a television program called The Running Man, which is the most popular show on the planet.

That’s about where the overlap ends, and even though the Running Man TV show exists in both realities, they’re completely different.

King’s version is just one of many shows produced by the Games Network, a government-sanctioned entertainment outlet that puts voluntary contestants in dangerous situations for potential profit. King alludes to similar TV shows such as Run for Your Guns, Dig Your Grave, Swim the Crocodiles and How Hot Can You Take It, but the biggest payout is earned through The Running Man.

The Running Man is a game show, but isn’t quite presented like one. It takes the form of a nationwide manhunt, with the contestants trying to stay ahead of a group of mercenaries known as the Hunters, led by a man named Evan McCone.

The contestant’s family is given an advance, and the contestant himself gets a 12-hour head start. He can go wherever he likes and do whatever he likes, and every hour he survives nets his family 100 New Bucks (because this is The Future), but the Hunters are always in pursuit and will kill him if they find him. Viewers can play along at home by sending tips to the Network if they see the contestant, earning them some money as well. The contestant earns bonuses for every agent of law enforcement he takes out, and surviving a full 30 days means he wins and goes home with the grand prize of one billion New Bucks.

Two complications arise. First, for the contestant: nobody has ever survived anywhere near 30 days. Ben Richards knows this, though, and hopes only to survive long enough to leave his wife and daughter secure financially.

Second, for the reader: how the hell do you do a show where everyone involved is hidden somewhere? King…doesn’t quite know how to answer that. He outlines a rule requiring the contestant to send the Network two videotaped messages every day, which are then used as part of the episode that night. If the contestant fails to do so, they forfeit their winnings and are still hunted.

It’s difficult to imagine millions of people tuning in each night to see some prerecorded video of a man in a hotel room saying, “Yes, hello, I am still running for my life,” let alone the bloodthirsty, howling studio audience King describes. The episode in which that man is caught and gunned down, yes. But the umpteenth episode in which nothing happens and nobody’s around aside from the host? No.

There is one tantalizingly unanswered question this raises, though. Richards is promised that the Hunters will not be given access to any information obtained from the postmarks on the recordings he mails in, but the ease with which they find him (and everybody) makes it easy to believe this is a lie, and the game is indeed fixed. To King’s credit, he either chose not to resolve this definitively or forgot to. Either way, it’s nice that we don’t know. The Hunters are either just that good at their jobs, or they hang around waiting for the Network to tell them exactly where the contestant is hiding. (Or, at least, the zip code.)

Glaser’s version of The Running Man does at least operate the way we’d expect a game show to operate; that is to say, the audience can actually see what the hell is happening.

Here, The Running Man is a live broadcast in which convicted criminals (not volunteers) are loaded into shuttles and launched into a Game Zone — a walled-off, disused area of the city — below the studio. It’s still very large (400 square blocks, which seems like an odd unit of measurement when blocks are longer than they are wide but there you go), but it’s still, essentially, an enclosed combat arena.

The audience watches a video feed of the contestants squaring off against the Stalkers, who are gimmicky, themed athletes, something like a cross between WWF wrestlers and American Gladiators. The contestants don’t earn money, but if they survive for three hours they win their freedom.

That obviously works better as a television show than King’s version does, so it clears that rather significant hurdle, but this also leads to its own problems.

For instance, it’s never clear how often the contestants are in view of a camera. If they’re constantly being filmed, the Stalkers wouldn’t have to hunt them out and there would be no game. But for the audience to reliably see the fights unfold, there would have to be nowhere for them to hide from the cameras.

Of course, the answer should be that there is nowhere for them to hide from the cameras, and the “hunting” of the contestants is only dramatic flair. Should be. But there’s an unnecessary subplot about the contestants (four in total) tracking down and jamming “the uplink to the satellite,” essentially preventing the Network from broadcasting. If anyone saw them do that, all pretense about the contestants being able to hide would be dropped immediately and the Stalkers sent to kill them at once. Instead, the contestants are allowed to fiddle with it at their leisure, so I guess they really are able to hide.

Also, forgive me for asking because I know this is totally out of line, but…why, exactly, is the satellite uplink located within the Game Zone? Even if they never expected contestants to be able to hack it or sabotage it, isn’t the mere fact that massive gladiators with chainsaw motorcycles would be engaging in active combat around it a bit worrying? Shouldn’t the uplink be located…I don’t know…literally anywhere else on Earth?

At one point it’s revealed that the resistance group that we meet early in the film have a hideout that’s also within the Game Zone. How do they get in? How have they not been spotted? I guess they could have tunneled in from the outside, but the fact that they’re still alive and Richards and his buddies can meet up with them proves that the Network needs to do a much better job of paying attention to what, exactly, is in their own damned Game Zone.

These things feel like holdovers from a version of the script truer to King’s tale. If Schwarzenegger were indeed fleeing the Stalkers openly across America, he could certainly stumble upon uplinks and resistance camps and anything else Glaser would like him to find. But for him to stumble upon these things in what is essentially the show’s own studio is a profoundly idiotic contrivance.

There’s also the odd fact that the Stalkers seem to have their own dedicated entrances in the Game Zone, reflecting their gimmick and, I suppose, providing a bit of visual drama to their introduction. Which is fine. But since they don’t seem to show up until the contestants are exactly there, it should be pretty easy to survive just by keeping away from the elaborately lit entrances, no?

Also notable is the fact that Schwarzenegger is actually on the run early in the film, but is captured and brought to The Running Man‘s set. In King’s version, Richards starts on a sound stage and runs. In Glaser’s, Richards runs and then comes to a sound stage. One is clearly a less thrilling progression than the other, and it leads to the bizarre realization that in a film called The Running Man, the man was stopped from running so he could hide instead.

While the film was in production, Glaser was brought in to replace the original director, Andrew Davis, who had fallen behind schedule. I know nothing about what creative differences we’d find between the two versions of the film, but I almost get the sense that some of these things were holdovers from an earlier version of the script that actually did more clearly reflect King’s original.

This is seemingly supported by the fact that the version of The Running Man we did get feels like two different films badly stitched together. One of them is a mindless action movie in which Schwarzenegger beats up a guy and then beats up a guy and then beats up a guy and then the credits roll, and the other is a social satire. “Game show in which you fight for your life” is a concept that can certainly go in either direction, but this film wants it to go in both. One isn’t interesting, and the other isn’t given enough space to be interesting.

The social satire just barely surfaces at various points throughout the movie. Early on we catch a glimpse of a television show in which a man climbs a rope while vicious dogs leap up at him, bite at his legs, and eventually pull him down to his presumed grisly death. Words appear on the screen: “Climbing for Dollars will be right back!”

It’s funny. It’s also funny when a man meets with the captured Richards before the show and introduces himself by saying, “I’m your court-appointed theatrical agent.” As is the show’s announcer saying that members of the studio audience receive “procreation pills, both adult and kiddie sizes, and the latest edition of The Running Man home game.”

These are lines and details from a much better version of the movie, one that leans into the ridiculousness of the premise while still making its point. But they’re also rarities, moments of fleeting invention bowled over and smothered by brainless, uninteresting action set pieces designed to say precisely nothing.

The connective tissue between these two competing versions of The Running Man also, perhaps miraculously, is the film’s lone highlight: Richard Dawson.

Dawson plays Damon Killian, the host of The Running Man, with the oily charm and swagger only a man with decades of experience in the industry could bring to the role. He is eager to have fun with his own image and ends up being the most entertaining thing in the film by a country mile. In short, he knows how to work his audience…both his fictional one and his real one.

Again, I have no way of knowing this for sure, but I have to imagine Dawson brought his own ideas to the character. If that’s not the case, then he was written far, far better than any other character was, and I doubt that very much. More likely there were words on a page, and Dawson, the old pro, embellished them, enhanced them, gave them a life that wasn’t there.

Even as a teenager watching this film for the first time, I could tell Dawson was operating on a level well above the rest of the material. He was believable…an actual character among the caricatures.

I recognized him from Family Feud, of which he was the original host. (He came back to host it again in the 1990s.) Prior to that he served as a regular panelist on The Match Game, which I used to watch in reruns. My friends and I even singled him out as the reliably intelligent one; contestants who did not agree with Dawson’s answers sure seemed to pay the price.

In The Running Man, Dawson embodies his own legend, and the film is infinitely richer for it. He gladhands and compliments and makes people feel important before firing them behind their backs. He’s a cold, evil man who becomes warm and lovable the moment the cameras turn on. He hawks Cadre Cola at the same time he gives the impression he wouldn’t be caught dead drinking that shit. He even brings his habit of kissing old ladies on Family Feud into these darker environs. “The love of my life, my number one fan, Mrs. McArdle!” he says. “I want a kiss now, a big kiss, but remember, no tongues.”

Lives are at stake. Blood will be shed. People will die. And Dawson is all smiles and cheese.

It’s wonderful, and it feels like Dawson knowingly undercutting his own legacy. Since he plays the on-camera version of Killian so much like the game show host he actually once was, he’s inviting the public to question how different he might be when the cameras are off. Was he secretly villainous? I truly doubt it, but the man sure enjoys playing with the possibility.

Dawson fits into the both the social satire version of the film and the action movie that needs an entertaining villain. He’s the one and only aspect of The Running Man that succeeds, and that’s entirely down to Dawson himself.

There’s even a great moment that was nearly a terrible one, redeemed, of course, by Dawson. When Schwarzenegger is about to be sent to the Game Zone, the Austrian superstar says, “I’ll be back,” a nod to his already immortal catchphrase from The Terminator, only three years old at this point.

It’s jarring. We’re watching a crappy movie that has gone out of its way to remind us of a far better one. And though Dawson’s reply was certainly in the script, it’s fitting that he, the movie’s bright spot, was the one to deliver it.

He leans in to Schwarzenegger and says, “Only in a rerun.”

Everything about Dawson here is great, and I’d wager Killian’s signature mannerism — pointing with his fingers in a “devil horns” arrangement — was brought to this film by the actor himself. If I’m wrong and that was actually in the script, it’s the cleverest piece of business the script gave any actor by a landslide.

If The Running Man were a better film, I think Dawson’s performance would be remembered among the all-time great corny villains. Instead, it’s wasted on this, an oddly complicated framework for Schwarzenegger to dispatch some meatheads and spout one-liners.

Damon Killian is a composite character of several in the book. He’s assistant director of games Arthur M. Burns, director Fred Victor, host Bobby Thompson, and obviously Games Network head honcho Dan Killian. Rolling all of these characters into one unified face of the network is a wise decision on the film’s part, especially since, in the book, Dan Killian is the one Richards singles out for abuse and eventual revenge, which seems a bit odd when the others were far more responsible for his ordeal.

It’s less odd — but far more problematic — when you realize that Richards fixates on Killian because of the color of his skin. The other Games Network representatives are white, and Killian is black. Like, black black. So black you just know he’s a bad guy. Here’s how King introduces him:

The man behind the desk was of middle height and very black. So black, in fact, that for a moment Richards was struck with unreality. He might have stepped out of a minstrel show.

Jesus Christ, Stephen.

In the book, Richards endures a number of personality, intelligence, and psychological tests before taking part in The Running Man, and he demonstrates — and we are conclusively told — that he harbors racist sentiments. Dan Killian is certainly not a sympathetic character, but it’s more than a little uncomfortable that his skin color is what turns him into a punching bag.

Richard Dawson is about as black as a daffodil, so, thankfully, his casting sidesteps that entire, unnecessary minefield.

While many characters are condensed into Damon Killian, though, the Hunters are expanded. The only one named — and the only one we really get to meet — in the book is Evan McCone, who organizes and manages the team. In the film, the Stalkers have distinct identities of their own.

Distinct, but not very good.

The Stalkers in this movie have gimmicks and nicknames that make them sound like G.I. Joe characters. Fireball. Dynamo. Buzzsaw. Captain Freedom. One of them, Subzero, even had a name that would be used in 1992’s Mortal Kombat, which reveals just how video-game-ready these characters actually are.

In King’s original, the Hunters were unseen presences, shadowy threats without distinct identities, because it was important that Richards couldn’t trust anybody. A hobo. A jogger. A street vendor. A policeman. Anybody could be a Hunter, and anybody could report him to a Hunter.

There’s a great scene of masterful paranoia that unfolds after Richards, under an assumed identity, takes refuge in a YMCA in Boston. With nothing else to do, he stares out the window…and the normal behavior of passersby gradually makes him feel less and less safe.

Richards noted with a numb, distant terror that a good many of the newspaper bums were idling along much more slowly. Their clothes and styles of walking seemed oddly familiar, as if they had been around a great many times before and Richards was just becoming aware of it — in the tentative, uneasy way you recognize the voices of the dead in dreams.

A man waiting for a bus. Two friends going into a restaurant. A beat cop in casual conversation. Knowing he’s in danger, Richards convinces himself that everything is dangerous. It’s well handled and effectively frightening, because once you start to suspect the benign, there’s no escape from the horrors of your own imagination.

It’s undercut by the fact that Richards is correct — the Hunters are indeed surrounding the building and about to ransack it — but that’s just further evidence of King writing well and not realizing it.

In the film, there’s no such paranoia. Schwarzenegger doesn’t have to worry about who might possibly be a Stalker…it’s probably that guy with the flame thrower screaming and throwing flames everywhere. Or it’s the guy covered in Lite-Brite pegs shooting electricity out of his hands. The novel version of Richards has to rely on his wits alone, and the film version just needs his brawn. It will always be remarkable to me that in the transition from page to screen, one type of character will become, in the blink of an eye, that same type’s polar opposite.

King’s version of Richards relies on a combination of desperate resourcefulness and dumb luck to escape his various predicaments. Glaser’s version beats things up and delivers ostensibly witty one-liners.

After killing the first Stalker, Schwarzenegger turns to the camera and says, “Here is Subzero. Now plain zero.” After chainsawing Buzzsaw, Schwarzenegger quips, “He had to split.” Fireball gets the luxury of two puns about his horrifying death; Schwarzenegger says, “How about a light?” before setting him on fire, and “What a hothead” immediately after.

All of this would be fine in any other interchangeable action movie, but probably not one in which Schwarzenegger is supposed to be playing a man framed for a violent crime he didn’t commit. I understand that the circumstances are very different, but if this version of Richards wants to convince the world he didn’t open fire on unarmed civilians, he probably shouldn’t take such obvious delight in murdering people by chainsawing through their genitals.

Yes, unlike the downtrodden Richards of the novel who has no other way of providing for his family, this version of Richards was some kind of cop. He’s given the order to kill a group of defenseless civilians and refuses, but his fellow officers overpower him and obey the order. (Exhibit G that Schwarzenegger was miscast: The film opens with a bunch of wimps beating him up.)

Some doctored footage is all it takes to make the world think that Richards chose to defy orders by killing the civilians, and his fellow officers tried to stop him.

It’s a bit strange, though, that a policeman in this police state doesn’t actually realize that he lives in a dystopia until this moment. We’re shown that the world (or at least America) has long fallen into this shitty situation where the poor are repressed and criminals are executed for our entertainment on live television, but Richards is shocked to receive orders to do something untoward.

“I said the crowd is unarmed!” he barks over the radio after being told to kill them. “There are lots of women and children down there!” Did Richards somehow decide to become a police officer, complete all his training, and begin his career in law enforcement without ever realizing that he was working for Big Brother? Richards is painted as an uncommonly moral human being in this cruel, inhumane future, but if that’s the case, why did he knowingly sign up for the Schutzstaffel?

A great piece of media that understands this and serves as a nice counterpoint is The Last of Us. At the very beginning of that game, a soldier gets the order to execute a little girl and her father who are attempting to flee the city. He has a short, nervous exchange over his radio to confirm that this is actually the order…that this is actually what they want to do. The game then pushes us 20 years into the future, and soldiers aren’t asking questions anymore. If they’re told to kill someone, they kill them, because it’s no longer an unfamiliar order. Confused reluctance only has a home at the very beginning of this process…not years deep into it.

Perhaps Richards joined up knowing that the police were corrupt, but intended to be one of the good guys and maybe effect change from within…but he can’t have been surprised to receive an order he disagreed with in that case. How did this conflict never come up before? How did Richards never even anticipate the conflict? He comes across looking far less like the One Pure Soul than he does like David Mitchell asking, “…are we the baddies?”

The movie is oddly filled with moments like this, in which people who live in this society seem to be surprised and confused by it, as though, you know, they weren’t adults who watched it get to this point and have lived in it for at least two years, based on the opening text.

In the novel, flawed as it is, King’s characters react more appropriately. Memories of a freer, better past have been more or less completely lost, with loose fragments of history passed around like parables among people who can no longer understand it. Otherwise, this is what the world is, this is what the characters have known, and they don’t question it any more than we in reality question our own societies. We don’t ask why someone on TV spins a wheel and solves word puzzles for money, and they don’t ask why someone signs up to flee a squad of hitmen across the country. They’ve become equivalent. At that point, King knows, people stop questioning it. That’s the real horror.

Glaser, by contrast, doesn’t seem to realize that none of this is new to these characters, and so they shouldn’t comment upon it and question it as though it is. It’s as though all of his main characters recently suffered severe head injuries.

Late in King’s novel, Richards forces himself into a vehicle with a woman named Amelia Williams. She’s something of a hostage who Richards does indeed use as leverage, but King wants us to remember that Richards doesn’t steal her away because he’s a bad person; he does it because he’s a desperate person.

A desperate person who bullies her, browbeats her, makes her cry, ogles her tits, and eventually causes her to be sucked out of a moving airplane, but absolutely not a bad person, and I can’t possibly see how you might mistake him for one.

In the film, we meet her equivalent much sooner. Here she’s Amber Mendez, and she’s played by María Conchita Alonso, who you may remember from every other movie from the 1980s that wasn’t worth seeing.

I mean no disrespect to Alonso as a person. From what I understand she, like Schwarzenegger, has a large number of great qualities to offer the world. Also like Schwarzenegger, acting was never one of them.

In the film, Richards is incarcerated for his crime of disobeying orders. He shoots his way out of prison, killing dozens of guards as he does so. (Murder is perfectly fine in Glaser’s version, except for the one very specific time that it isn’t.) Once he’s out he flees to his brother’s apartment and finds it occupied by Amber Mendez instead.

In this scene, Schwarzenegger and Alonso carry on a long exchange that makes it sound like they’re both still learning English from flashcards. It’s atrociously acted, even in comparison to the writing which was already pretty darn poor. But, of course, we know that our two leads were not hired for their ability to inhabit a character.

Schwarzenegger was hired because he was a bankable name at the box office. Alonso was hired because…

Yeah. The first we see of Amber is her return from work. As all of us do, she removes her shoes when she gets home. As only she does, she takes everything else off and puts on sexy lingerie to work out in.

Alonso is an attractive woman, and The Running Man makes clear that that’s all they wanted from her. As soon as we see her, the filmmakers rush her out of her clothes. When we see her later, they rush her into a low-cut, skin-tight onesie. Between those two points we hear other characters complimenting her ass.

Richards — introduced to us as the lone virtuous soul in this ruined world — breaks into her apartment and immediately ties the half-naked woman up and starts going through her things. It’s actually pretty uncomfortable to watch, as I’m pretty sure this is any single woman’s actual nightmare.

The film tries to play them like a sort of mismatched romantic comedy team, with their bickering only barely masking the sexual tension they feel that indeed is resolved when the film ends. Only Richards destroys her belongings, steals from her, kidnaps her, and threatens multiple times to murder her in cold blood. Oh, and we’re supposed to see Amber as the bad guy when she turns him in so she can escape. What a bitch, eh guys?

Of course, problematic handling of female characters is something of a King trademark, along with every black character’s dialogue being rendered so that it sounds like it’s been transcribed from Song of the South, so maybe this was just Glaser’s loving nod to the source material.

My favorite bit of offputting King horniness comes during one of Richards’ pre-show exams:

On the table was a sharpened G-A/IBM pencil and a pile of unlined paper. Cheap grade, Richards noted. Standing beside all this was a dazzling computer-age priestess, a tall, Junoesque blonde wearing iridescent short shorts which cleanly outlined the delta-shaped rise of her pudenda. Rough nipples poked perkily through a silk fishnet blouselet.

Lifehack: If you’re in a kinky relationship and need a safe word, try “pudenda.” Not only will your partner stop what they’re doing immediately, but they won’t even want to think about sex for a week.

This is the description, I remind you, of a test proctor. Not that it would be any less disgusting if he were describing a prostitute that a character were about to have sex with, but at least such a description might serve a purpose there. Here it’s just ogling.

Admittedly, Richards seems to believe she was sent in as some kind of test herself…a sexed up babe to distract him or confuse him or actually he didn’t think this through any better than King did so forget it.

If that is her role, though, it doesn’t make sense that she’d bristle and quickly turn emotional when he called her on it. And if it’s not, then Richards has no right to belittle her the way he does and make her feel like a cheap piece of meat.

“You go out and have a nice six-course meal with whoever you’re sleeping with this week and think about my kid dying of flu in a shitty three-room Development apartment,” he tells her, immediately after groping her in a way that she makes clear is unwelcome.

It would be nice to say that the racism and misogyny (among other issues) are built into Richards as character flaws, problematic traits with an actual artistic or narrative purpose. But they aren’t; this is just the way King writes. To read his work is to grit your teeth in unhappy anticipation of the next time he plunges you into an unnecessary, detailed description of somebody’s penis or vagina. And there is always a next time.

Amber’s role here is a bit different from Amelia’s in the novel. In the novel, Amelia was just pulled along for the ride. (Twice, because King let her go at one point and forgot he needed her for a later scene so he dragged her back into the fray.) In the film, Amber gets Richards arrested again, but notices that the news coverage of the event doesn’t match up to what she actually witnessed.

She begins snooping around the network and finds the original, unedited footage of the exchange between Richards and his superiors that opened the film. Boy, it’s a good thing that this evil corporation clearly marks the evidence that will bring it down and keeps it in an unlocked drawer in an unguarded room.

Well, it’s probably better than keeping your satellite uplink in the middle of Thunderdome, but still.

Amber has access to the network building because she’s employed by them; she works as a composer for their shows. The fact that any movie could introduce this detail and then somehow not show us her process for composing the incidental music for a game show in which contestants get torn apart by dogs is outrageous.

Again, though, Amber shouldn’t have to (or even be able to) discover the fact that the network lies. If she didn’t work there, sure. But because she does work there — and is there every day, and has access to rooms such as this — it can’t be a revelation. Just as Richards shouldn’t be able to realize in the middle of a mission that his superiors aren’t making the most ethical decisions, Amber shouldn’t be able to realize in the middle of a workday that her organization lies. Her organization’s business is lies. That’s what they do. That’s all they do. They mislead and misinform.

As an employee, she shouldn’t be unaware of that fact. If the network truly tried to hide from everyone who works there that they spread untruths, it would crumble immediately. One leak, however minor, would bring the entire thing down. Instead, an organization like this has to convince its employees that lying is the best thing for them to do. That it’s a small transgression in exchange for some greater good. That it’s better, for any reason, to lie to the people who turn to them for information.

Consider O’Brien in Nineteen Eighty-Four. He knows The Party is lying to the people. He has to know that, because he’s employed by them. He doesn’t capture and torture and reprogram Winston because Winston was incorrect; he does it because he was correct, and O’Brien believed the lie was necessary.

If The Party attempted to hide from its own members what they were doing, we never would have had Nineteen Eighty-Four; The Party wouldn’t have survived long enough for there to be a story. Instead, it had to convince its members that wrong was right. The network in this film could learn a lot from Orwell.

Amber is caught and tossed into the Game Zone with Richards and two other runners. She does nothing, but much later in the film a Stalker tries to rape her, so I guess that’s nice. If only he would have first broken into her home and tied her to the furniture she might have ultimately warmed up to him.

When Richards strangles and kills Subzero (“He was a real pain in the neck”), much ado is made of the fact that a Stalker has died on the job. Evidently, this has never happened before. At least, that’s what we’re told.

But we know that two other contestants are said to have won The Running Man in the past. (This is in notable contrast to the novel, in which we are assured that nobody has ever won.) Of course, the freedom of those two winners is revealed to have been faked; they were executed behind the scenes instead. That’s fine, but how did those episodes play out for the viewers at home?

If those winners didn’t kill any of the Stalkers and also didn’t get killed themselves, I assume that means they just survived for three hours. So were those episodes just three-hour slapfights in which neither party fell over? It feels like a bizarre holdover from a different version of the script, as does Captain Freedom — Jesse “The Body” Ventura — being described as “undefeated.” Wouldn’t every Stalker be undefeated if none of them ever died in this bloodsport before tonight?

Eventually Schwarzenegger beats up enough people that the movie needs to end, so he makes his way onto the stage to confront Killian directly.

In a way, this is the climax of the novel as well. There, Richards hijacks a passenger plane and flies it into the massively tall headquarters of the Games Network, presumably killing everybody inside and huge numbers of innocent people all around it. “It rained fire twenty blocks away,” King assures us. He also assures us that good Ben Richards got to see a look of horror on Killian’s face through his office window as he gave him the finger and plowed the plane directly into him.

Richards died as he lived: disrespecting black people.

In the film, Schwarzenegger takes a more hands-on approach to dealing with Killian. And Killian gets a decent — though certainly not great — little speech to go out on.

“For Christ’s sake, Ben,” he says. “Don’t you understand? Americans love television. They ween their kids on it. Listen, they love game shows, they love wrestling, they love sports, and violence. So what do we do? We give ’em what they want. We’re number one, Ben, that’s all that counts.”

Any credit I could give the movie for this speech is negated by the sheer stupidity of Killian delivering it to Richards over the chute that leads to the Game Zone, as a shuttle is actively loaded into it, making it impossible to focus on anything other than the remarkable clumsiness with which the film is setting up its conclusion.

Sure enough, Richards stuffs Killian in the shuttle and fires him down the tube.

Which…shouldn’t really be a big deal. The Stalkers are all dead, so can’t Killian just get out of the shuttle and work his way back up through the backstage areas?

Oh, I guess Richards somehow knew that this time — like no other time — the shuttle would hit a wall and explode, raining bits of Killian twenty blocks away.

The shuttle even does Richards the courtesy of crashing directly through a Cadre Cola billboard with Killian’s face on it so that Schwarzenegger can say, “Well, that hit the spot.”

In both versions of the ending, the everyman takes down the network and kills its figurehead. In the film, though, all sense of personal sacrifice is lost. One version of Richards dies along with everyone else responsible for running the Games Network. The other wanders off to fuck María Conchita Alonso.

The Running Man is a terrible film based on a pretty lousy book, and it’s disappointing for just how mindlessly it squanders its potential.

King’s idea was fine. Swap in some better characters and do the concept justice, or at least play into the ridiculousness a little bit more. For a movie with a wisecracking action hero, The Running Man is rarely any fun. When it is, it feels for a fleeting moment like you’re watching a different film entirely.

Had Glaser done more along the lines of the Climbing for Dollars commercial and Captain Freedom’s workout video, putting together a grander, funnier, more cynical pastiche of entertainment culture, employing the exact same superficial glitz and unapologetic appeals to the viewer’s base instincts that it’s satirizing, we could have gotten a pretty good film. It wouldn’t have been The Running Man, no, but what we got wasn’t The Running Man, either.

Honestly, I have to wonder why they bothered paying for the rights to The Running Man at all, if it was to share so little with its source material. The central game is completely different, with its own rules, presentation, and rewards. Change the name of the main character and the name of the game show and it would be impossible for anyone to sue for copyright infringement. Actually, you could probably even keep the main character’s name. With literally nothing else taken from the novel, “Ben Richards” is common enough that you could argue it’s coincidence.

Of course, the answer is that they licensed the rights to the novel because Stephen King’s name is worth something to moviegoers, but King successfully lobbied to have his name withheld from the film and its promotional materials.

Watching The Running Man is a strange experience after having read the novel, if only because it seems unnaturally driven to squander even more potential than King did. It’s not an especially fun movie and it’s by no stretch of the imagination a good one.

And as much as I love (and I do love) Richard Dawson’s performance, I can’t say it’s worth watching even for that.

Maybe he should have directed the movie. He’s certainly the only one who understood what it was about.

The Running Man
(1982, Stephen King [as Richard Bachman]; 1987, Paul Michael Glaser)

Book or film? Book
Worth reading the story? Yes. It’s flawed but engaging.
Worth watching the film? No, with the notable exception of one great performance.
Is it the best possible adaptation? Not a chance.
Is it of merit in its own right? It gives the middle finger to and plows a plane right through merit.

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: This.

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.
RENFIELD: I am?
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.

Inherent Vice, 2014

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.

Twice.

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.

Inherent Vice, 2014

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.

Inherent Vice, 2014

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.

Inherent Vice, 2014

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.

Inherent Vice, 2014

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.

Inherent Vice, 2014

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.

Inherent Vice, 2014

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?
BORDERLINE: Please.
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.

Inherent Vice, 2014

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.

Inherent Vice, 2014

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.

Inherent Vice, 2014

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.

Inherent Vice, 2014

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.

Inherent Vice, 2014

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.

Inherent Vice, 2014

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.

Inherent Vice, 2014

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.

Inherent Vice, 2014

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.

Inherent Vice, 2014

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…

Inherent Vice, 2014

…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.

Inherent Vice, 2014

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.

Inherent Vice, 2014

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…

Inherent Vice, 2014

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.

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