Monday, March 06, 2006

Conflict on Screen

My feelings about the movie Crash (I'm against it) are already well known. I could have agreed, though, with it winning some acting Oscars; it's well-acted. But Best Original Sreenplay, that might have pained me more than it winning Best Picture. John Gardner has a bit in Art of Fiction about how compelling it is to read/write a character who does the wrong thing for an understandable reason. I absolutely agree. That's conflict. For example, when Sethe tries to kill her children rather than have them returned to slavery in Beloved, that's a conflict that shreds me. It's an unbearable thing to do, yet I can imagine why she might. And you might note, that Beloved is one percent about that moment and 99 percent about the effects of that moment. So, for me, conflict in story-telling is often at its best when a character is conflicted and then the consequences of his/her actions form the plot.

The problem with a movie like Crash is there isn't actually any conflict. You have characters who are good in one moment and bad in the next. There is no narrative structure to that--no growth, no sense of being conflicted, and no real revelation about character (bad people do good things--duh). So Crash is dependent on multiple storylines and clever cutting (the one Oscar it did deserve was Editing) to keep the viewer interested. Now readers of this blog know that I like original narrative structures--I like collages, I like cuts and juxtapositions--but Crash fails to do anything with the structure that hasn't been done better in movies like Amores Perros. So for me it lacks style and content.

Brokeback Mountain, on the other hand, is interesting precisely because the conflict is NOT that Ennis and Jack betray their wives but rather that they betray each other (largely Ennis betrays Jack) by marrying their wives. So the bad choice for an understandable reason is to marry a woman when you are in love with another man. And therefore when Ennis/Jack betray their wives the viewer/reader is remarkably sympathetic to all involved--the men and the women. It's much better character-oriented storytelling (which to the Academy's credit did win its own Adapted Screenplay award). For those of you who are interested in story to film adaptations, I highly recommend you check out Annie Proulx's short story--which is lovely in its own right, but quite different in scope.

The problem with conflict isn't limited to the movies. Reality tv (which I was a big fan of when it began) has ceased to believe that conflict in storytelling is anything beyond fighting. The reason American Idol remains on top, while other shows are fading, is not because of the bickering of dear old Simon and Paula, but because there is a storyline (whose life will be changed) that viewers can project themselves into. I'm not against external conflicts (man vs man, man vs nature, man vs society ... remember those?) but literature lately has done very well with man vs self, something that's hard to depict on screen. But screenwriters/directors are failing to recognize that man vs man isn't bickering and finger-wagging.


Su said...

Out of curiosity, do you think that Proulx's "Brokeback Mountain" was written with the 'reel' in mind? I got that impression as I read it: it cuts and moves a lot like the cinematic experience. It would seem to be a fairly easy adaptation as-is.

So I'm torn on the fact that I really like Proulx's story, yet I'm not sure I can commend the screenwriters' awards for BM when I consider how tough the adaptation for The Constant Gardener must have been in comparison.

Often, I am perplexed by the decision of writers to allow others to pen the adaptations of their work. Do you suppose they do it to keep their initial intention separate from the adaptation's product, or is it simply a matter of not wanting to get into that task?

A. Papatya Bucak said...

Hi Su-- I'm not sure anyone would write a short story expecting it to be adapted into a film--the leap in terms of scope is too large. But a lot of contemporary literature, especially if the narrative is spare, has unquestionably been influenced by the editing of films.

I haven't read Le Carre's novel so I can't compare the adaptations, but I imagine Brokeback was in part rewarded for how it had to be expanded, and in part because it was the better movie than Constant Gardner (which I also enjoyed).

My guess about writers adapting their own work is that only a few get the option to do so. A lot of filmmakers don't want the original writer involved precisely because they might hold too much to their own work. I've heard of a number of authors who don't want to get involved--they don't want to reinvision their work or they don't want to take the time from their other writing projects, as well as others who try and find it too difficult. But then there are some--Michael Ondaatje and The English Patient, Russell Banks and The Sweet Hereafter and Adaptation, who get closely involved, and the results are great.