December 20, 2004

It's All In The Tone

Last week, Cinecultist alluded to the geeked out children's lit conversations between ourselves and our friend Lisa Graff, a student in the New School graduate writing children's lit program. Now we bring to you, in lieu of a straight up review, our continuing chat with Lisa about Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events wherein we discuss adaptation issues, how Klaus should have been fat with glasses and our favorite children's movies when we were kids. BTW: The Neverending Story scared the bejeebers out of Lisa as a child, in case you were wondering.

elysecritic: The more advertisements I see [for Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events], the more I'm struck by how they're touting it as a Jim Carrey movie, like the Mask or something. Odd, don't you think?

lisa: YES. It really bugs. Even the covers of the new books have Jim's face plastered all over them. Like the books didn't sell enough copies before he showed up to promote them.

elysecritic : Do you think that's to spread out the market -- appeal to Lemony Snicket fans and Jim Carrey fans, or do you think it comes from a misunderstanding of the "point" of the books, as you see them?

lisa: hmm. Excellent question. Maybe a mixture of both. I think you could be right about trying to appeal to JC fans who wouldn't otherwise see a kiddy Snicket movie, but then the movie itself really revolved around Count Olaf, which I don't feel like the books did. Olaf's present in every book, and he's certainly the most colorful character, but the story's really all about the kids and how their cleverness gets them out of these tough spots.

elysecritic: I caught a few minutes this morning of "Roeper and Ebert" and that idiothead Roeper was saying, he thought it was boring how the structure revolved around the three kids meeting a new guardian, Olaf shows up, then they have to escape. He thought they could have varied the plot more! He also wanted it to be more upbeat. That's the point when I just turned it off so I wouldn't have to spit at the TV, but I think it's always interesting to see how someone like Roeper who does zero research on the movies he sees, in my opinion can like any ordinary viewer misunderstand a movie. In otherwords, would the movie have been perhaps less misunderstood if it were darker? Less sunny at the end, as a sop?

lisa: You should have spit on Roeper.

elysecritic: Someday, I'll get my chance.
elysecritic: He's not an adaptations man.
elysecritic: I don't think he reads, actually. That's my personal theory.

lisa: There were parts I thought that were WAY too cheerful. Vomit-inducing, even. But I think the tone of the books was so hard to carry through to the big screen. Some of the parts that were so funny in the books didn't carry through completely, and maybe that's because they came off a lot darker than they did in the book. I'm trying to think of examples, you'll have to give me a sec.

elysecritic: So, is Snicket unadaptable? Or was it a case of the wrong director, or producers who didn't deliver on the promise of the book? (Side note, I don't think anything is unadaptable actually. But I'd like to see a book that could stump a really visionary director, just to see if it's possible. as I said last night, books and movies are different things, but I think most books can be translated to the screen.)

lisa: I've been debating over that since yesterday, and I think maybe it was unadaptable to some extent. It's like if someone tried to make a movie out of Tristram Shandy, say. It would suck. And that's because the story is not really in the events or the "plot," but rather in the narration. It's like that in Snicket, because all of the humor is in the narration. Because Roeper's right, to some extent. The story is really repetitive. And that's only fun to read when you have this crazy narrator cracking you up every other line. I thought they did a pretty good job with Mr. Law on that front, but still, narration's just hard to pull off in a movie.

elysecritic: Entertainment Weekly thought Law was spot on as the narrator. And I'll say I liked him as well, in particular that it was his voice but not his sillouete at the typewriter. That might have been distracting. Instead, we just get his perfect voice and some other person's hands and profile. I found that quite smart on the filmmaker's part.

lisa: I agree. And I thought of an example of where the movie was much darker than the books (it helped that I pulled them off my shelf...). I think a really great example is when the kids find out their parents have died. It's a sad moment, obviously, but still somehow in the book there's humor there. For instance, right after Mr. Poe tells them their parents "have perished in a terrible fire," he explains, "Perished means 'killed.'" And then Klaus gets mad because Mr. Poe thinks he's an idiot who doesn't know what "perished" means. See? Darkness and humor at the same time.

elysecritic: That's a great bit. But do you think your love of the book ruined your movie going experience? As a person who hasn't read them, though I've heard lots about them from you, I didn't know that moment could have been there, so I didn't miss it. Does a slavish devotion to a books details (ie. Harry Potter I & II) hamper a movie's ability to tell it's own kind of story?

lisa: Hmm. Another interesting point. I don't know. I think loving a book can mess up what you think of a movie, because as you pointed out, you know what's missing or added and you're constantly comparing. But I didn't really feel that way with the Harry Potter movies. I think I noticed most of the changes, but they were all so true to the story (and I could see how they were necessary to make the movie better) that none of them bothered me. I think with Snicket the changes upset me because they didn't seem to represent the books. The tone was off, and I'm a huge fan of the tone. It's what makes these books so great. So even the things I thought were really funny in the movie (like Sunny's subtitled witticisms) still kind of perturbed me because they wouldn't have been in the book.

elysecritic: That makes sense. Do you want to say some words about the casting? I know you felt strongly about that. Generally, I found the kids amiable and I enjoyed the adults in minor roles like Meryl Streep, Cedric ("Whatchyou doin' here Olaf, man?") the Entertainer, Luis Guzman, Jane tk her last name, etc.

lisa: Meryl Streep was perfect. Can't say enough great things about her as Aunt Josephine (or in general). Baby Sunny was the cutest thing on earth, and even though that goes against my perception of her as this ornery biting-machine from the books, I think that worked for the movie. I was SO not digging that Liam kid who played Klaus. Not that his acting was bad, but it just wasn't the Klaus I've come to love. In the books, he's not a moody kid. Or emotional and weepy. None of them are. When things go wrong, they're all business about fixing things, and Klaus fixes things by reading. None of this oh weepy me, my parents don't love me, let me soliloquize by the window now. No. It's all about the READING, and that's what's funny -- that we know they're in terrible danger and yet here's this kid who's going to read his way out of it.

elysecritic: You mentioned earlier, your love of the book's tone. Did you find the production design compelling, in terms of delivering on tone? If nothing else, I liked the way the thing looked. In particular, I found the closing credits quite arresting. It almost made me wish the whole thing had been done in Edward Gorey-esque cut outs, although maybe an animated Lemony Snicket would have been too precious, now that I think about it. But I did like the faux-Victorian English look of the sets and costumes, though the movie seems to not be placing the story in any particular place or time, despite the distinctive look.

lisa: You're right about the end credits. I think they were my favorite part, which is slightly sad, but kind of not, because they were seriously fantastic. I was taken aback by the slightly goth look of the movie at first, but I think it did do a lot to set the tone as being kind of out-there weird. The books aren't set in any real time or place, and that would definitely be a difficult thing to work with in making a movie. I think their decisions were probably good ones. But I felt like they let the sets and costumes run the show a lot of the time, and down-played the wackiness of the situations the kids were in. Like, don't they notice that Aunt Josephine's house is built on freakin' stilts?? Let them have a moment of reflection on that one, so the "look" and the story can interact a bit, you know?

elysecritic: Yes, I see that. Though, all of those odd details are taken in stride by these kids, which I thought you were implying was their modus operundi?

lisa: Hmm. Yet another good point. I must think upon that.

elysecritic: You didn't realize I don't dwell in the "dude that was awesome" reaction when I get down to it, eh?

lisa: Having had nothing to base your opinion of the movie on, did you think it was more funny, or more dark? I remember you said you liked the movie but you felt like it wasn't truly spectacular. What do you think it was missing?

elysecritic: Overall? I'm not sure what was missing. It just wasn't inspired, I guess. I expected more magic coming from the screen. Not hocus pocus exactly, just movie magic like the third Harry Potter. I feel that Alfonso Cuaron raised the bar on kiddie movies this year. Him and Brad Bird, of the Incredibles.

lisa: Excellent movies, both of them. AND kid-friendly. That's hard to do.

elysecritic: Children's films can be thrilling entertainment, even for adults. I remember how jazzed I was as a kid by certain movies, Dark Crystal, Mary Poppins, The Neverending Story, the Muppet movies when I was little. I don't know that all of those examples still hold up, advances in technology etc, but I think they are what could be.

lisa: Okay, The Neverending Story scared the bejeebers out of me as a child, but other than that I'm with you. And I think kid's don't need the technology. They're getting way more sophisticated, sure, but still it's all about the story. I think it's just like grown-up movies. We're willing to forgive some hokey fake punches here and there, or UFOs on strings, if the story is really intriguing. Of course, having technology AND a good story is even better.

elysecritic: True. Any final thoughts?

lisa: Excellent end credits.

elysecritic: Indeed. I don't know that I would recommend the movie per se, especially to discerning kid viewers, but there were parts I liked well enough. Not a complete disappointment. Faint praise, I know but hey, at least it didn't suck as much as the Fat Albert movie looks like it's going to. Talk about trampling on my childhood... How could Cosby? How could he? Well. That's a rant for another time.

lisa: Word.

Posted by karen at December 20, 2004 10:10 PM