curiouser and curiouser

Adaptation Paper

Alice in Wonderland : Lost in Adaptation

 Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland is not meant to be a faithful adaptation but rather a furthering of Lewis Carroll’s original story, but the film attempts to do too much and succeeds too little.  The childlike, insatiably curious Alice is reimagined as a young woman whose story is neither entertaining nor particularly inspiring despite the film’s apparent insistence that this is a story of heroism and fulfilling one’s destiny, two themes that neither Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland nor Through the Looking Glass ever forced upon their readers.  Alice’s story is, ultimately, a children’s story, and although a number of directors, songwriters, authors and other adults have gleaned deeper meanings from her nonsensical escapades, Burton’s attempt to reconcile his own unique storytelling and thematic style with Carroll’s original is a wide miss despite the prevalence of Burtonesque visual effects.

There is a way to adapt a children’s story with a more grownup feel, such as is achieved in Jan Svankmajer’s stop-motion and vaguely disturbing Alice, but such adaptations work because the naiveté of childhood is juxtaposed with the perils of the adult world – simply making the titular character older and sticking her back in Wonderland is not enough unless Alice has never been there before and is essentially experiencing the quintessential nonsense of human chess and mad tea parties through older eyes.  Even the much more adult retellings such as Alan Moore’s graphic novel “Lost Girls” or Simon Fellows’ film Malice in Wonderland succeed in presenting a different Alice because they are not marketed to children, unlike this PG-rated Disney production. Where Tim Burton’s film fails is the fact that his Alice has been to Wonderland before and spends more than half the film believing that she is having a recurring dream from her childhood, casting her lethargic, jaded gaze over the amazingly striking scenery and cast of anthropomorphic, borderline psychotic characters.  Everything is fuzzily familiar to her but not in a way that endears “Underland” to her teenaged self, and when she discovers that she is expected to serve as a savior, Alice balks rather than playing along with what she believes is still a dream.  In her defense, Underland has become a much more sinister, harrowing place in her absence, but this too is a peculiar decision for a children’s film.

J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan and its animated Disney adaptation present Neverland as a fantasy haven in which no one ever grows up – in a similar vein, Lewis Carroll designed Wonderland as a silly, upside-down world where nothing quite makes sense but works out nevertheless.  For Tim Burton to have crafted Underland as more of a war-torn, divided landscape is almost unthinkable in the tradition of childhood escapist fantasies, and much of Wonderland’s original appeal is derived from the fact that this is a place where one can be safe from either the burdens or the banalities of reality – in the original Alice’s case, it is a place to escape boredom and the structure of a Victorian childhood.  Where Carroll’s books strengthen themselves as children’s stories with universal appeal is the reminder that we cannot remain in our fantasy lands forever – just as Alice’s courtroom cast turns back into a deck of cards, so too does Burton’s Alice need a way back to the real world.  Burton-Alice’s way home is by drinking the blood of the vanquished Jabberwocky, which is neither a satisfactory crossover between fantasy and reality nor an effective escape route since we are left wondering how exactly the blood transported her home.

This theme of blending fantasy and reality and paralleling the escapist world with the real world is prevalent in the books as a way to do one of two things : either to present the idea that Wonderland is entirely a construct of Alice’s imagination or to leave Wonderland as its own separate world where Alice can take what she’s learned and experienced back to her own universe.  Burton’s film opts for the latter, but where Carroll’s books had frequent crossovers such as the chess pieces coming to life and the mad tea party parodying a polite Victorian affair, the film makes a halfhearted attempt by superimposing Alice’s fiancée’s face onto Tweedledum and Tweedledee before Burton and his graphic designers seemingly forgot their initial concept and devoted the rest of their time to inflating Helena Bonham Carter’s head.  Because Underland is arguably a real place within the context of the film, evidenced not least of all by Alan Rickman’s heavily drugged caterpillar returning as a butterfly in the real world, there is little room for Alice to act upon her own whims or relieve the frustrations of her real life.  As Ed Gonzalez writes in his review of the film, “because Burton scarcely even makes superficial parallels between the creatures of Underland and Alice’s family and friends, the character’s dream life never deeply reflects her real-life anxieties” (Gonzalez).  Underland is not quite Alice’s dream life, as the characters and her own injuries eventually convince her that she is in a waking world, but it is true that her experiences down the rabbit hole are less an extension of her actual issues and more a side-trip that gives her the confidence to take charge of her life when she returns home.

This confidence is an ironic and almost mystifying outcome because of the film’s heavy emphasis on preordained destiny and swallowing your objections for the sake of others – such a lesson should have taught Burton’s Alice to accept Hamish’s proposal since the marriage had already been arranged for her and would have put her mother’s mind at ease.  Slaying the Jabberwocky imbues Alice with a renewed sense of independence and determination, and as Phillip French notes, “the pay-off back in the real high Victorian world is that Alice has achieved the right to become a high-ranking imperial adventurer, establishing major trade links with China” (French).  However, Alice’s decision to finally face off against this fearsome monster (who, in the original books, is nothing more than an unseen character in a poem), is already foretold on the Oraculum and really no great feat of her own.  The Jabberwocky even comments that his true opponent is not Alice herself but the Vorpal Sword, “my old foe,” as he refers to it. 

The difficulty in adapting a timeless story that has already seen its share of adaptations and reboots lies in the decision of whether to remain faithful to the source or to attempt a revision that uniquely differs from its predecessors – Tim Burton has built his career on films that embody the gothic and the ghostly, featuring ashen characters and striking landscapes in more shades of grey than should rightly exist on the color spectrum.  These cinematic characteristics could have worked, probably should have worked in his retelling of Lewis Carroll’s classic if he had kept to the greys and a uniformly Burtonesque setting – 3D notwithstanding, there is an inordinate amount of fake color and special effects that speak less of Beetlejuice and more of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Burton’s other atrocious adaptation of a beloved childhood classic.  Some critics chose to ignore the plot and feast on the digital eye candy : Mark Monahan gushes that “Wonderland, as Alice calls it, is gloriously realised: not entirely unlike Avatar’s world, in fact. It is just as beautiful, but more sombre (in that oh-so-distinctive knotted, gnarly Burton manner), and somehow rather more charming” (Monahan).  “Somber” is not the best word to describe the scene in which a ten-inch high Alice must climb over a moat full of severed heads, and there is nothing “charming” about colorful foliage being mowed down by the frumious Bandersnatch, another creature whose literary existence was limited to the Jabberwocky poem.  Visual effects aside, Burton is also known for giving established literary characters a new backstory, such as Willy Wonka’s daddy issues in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but as is the case with poor Mr. Wonka, Alice and her companions are demystified to an unnecessary and completely unsatisfactory result.  The madness of the Hatter is no longer in his hat, no, now he is the schizophrenic victim of post-traumatic stress disorder.  But to what end?  Making fictitious, fantastical characters more relatable should not be the aim of a director who wants to retain Carroll’s original otherworldly charm, as Burton’s eye-popping CG and sweeping landscapes would suggest.

Taking Alice out of her childhood self and giving her a backstory is risky but not necessarily a doomed concept if her former curiosity and adorable pompousness has matured into an equally satisfying set of teenage flaws – Burton’s Alice could have been endearingly awkward, but instead she is sullen and monotone, her imagination understated and limited to imagining men in dresses during the quadrille.  Alice is allowed to grow up and keep the audience on board, but in the unofficial, universally accepted parameters of “other” worlds (think of Robin Williams in Hook), time is not allowed to pass in Wonderland.  Time itself is featured in several of the books’ jokes as a ‘him’ and an entity that can be manipulated – during a discussion at the tea party, Alice admits that she has never spoken to Time but that she knows she must beat it when she learns music, to which the Hatter replies “Ah! That accounts for it… He wo’n’t stand beating” (Carroll, 71).   This is an example of the silly logic and matter-of-fact humor that Burton has translated into weird, off-putting characters who are rarely funny and virtually unlovable until Anne Hathaway’s White Queen finally makes her appearance, swishy and kindhearted and blessedly free of CG mutation. 

Ultimately, the heavy reliance on aesthetics and visual splendor is marketable, modern, and not where Burton’s film fails – it is Alice herself and her universally-known story that are sacrificed to this adaptation.  Burton seems unable to strike the right balance between the original sources and how he would have written the books, usurping Alice’s past, present and future rather than incorporating a more respectful nod to Lewis Carroll’s tale.  An adaptation that does not acknowledge this particular source is less an adaptation and more an arrogant reworking of a classic that fans can recite from memory, suggesting that Tim Burton should have written and directed his own story of a young woman who falls into a mysterious world and allowed himself the liberty to create rather than adapt. 

 Works Cited

Carroll, Lewis. The Complete Works of Lewis Carroll. Barnes & Noble Publishing, 2005. Print.

French, Phillip. “Alice in Wonderland.” Observer (2010): n. pag. Web. 7 Jul 2011.


Gonzalez, Ed. “Alice in Wonderland.” Slant Magazine (2010): n. pag. Web. 7 Jul 2011.


Monahan, Mark. “Tim Burton’s Magical Alice in Wonderland in 3D.” Telegraph (2010): n. pag.

Web. 7 Jul 2011. <;.

1)     Watchmen as a film only touches upon the history behind the Minutemen and the fates they eventually meet, stories that are quickly concluded in the opening credit montage and several flashbacks but constitute much more of the original graphic novel.  The story has also been transported to modern times to perhaps be more relatable for the audience, who are no longer concerned (hopefully) about all-out nuclear war with Russia.   This relatibility is one of the attempts that the film makes to be more emotionally evocative than the graphic novel, which is drawn in true superhero style and exaggerated enough to free the reader from any lasting attachment to the characters – this can be observed when Nite Owl has to watch his former partner, Rorshach, be killed rather than being in another location as he was in the comic. It’s also an obviously emotional moment when Dr. Manhattan’s former lover rips off her wig and reveals she has terminal cancer at a television studio, in front of a live audience. In the comic, this scene never occurs and the moment of Dr. Manhattan finding out he may be a walking carcinogen is far less dramatic.  Rorschach’s narration is not quite enough to solve the dilemma of adapting character’s thoughts and voices on screen, especially given the fact that graphic novels in the superhero tradition are full of inner monologues and essential third-person narration.

2) Watchmen as a graphic novel is a blend of strict superhero-style panels, excerpts of fictional non-fiction texts, and a comic-within-a-comic that serves as a parallel for what is happening in the primary comic, all mediums that are very difficult to adapt into a film without making some major sacrifices.  Moore’s comic is unique in the way that it incorporates a fair amount of straight textual passages such as pages from Hollis Mason’s autobiography and newspaper articles profiling the megalomaniac and supposed philanthropist Adrian Veidt, a.k.a. Ozymandias.  Reading the whole thing through requires more effort than would a more straightforward superhero comic, or even a less conventional graphic novel such as Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, but the multiple plots and seeming non sequiturs all tie together for a very powerful conclusion. 

3)   Watchmen Wiki  Official film blog site  Not sure how to describe this one, but it’s interactive

I have a great fondness for wikis, so the first link was the most interesting and the only one of the three run by fans rather than official sources – just the fact that regular people unaffiliated with the film or the comics devote their time to this is fascinating to me, and wikis in general are pretty helpful, if not always 100% accurate.

4) After viewing the “unfilmable” films in our class (Tristram Shandy, Adaptation, A Scanner Darkly, Watchmen), which do you think is the most unfilmable? Why?

Tristram Shandy is still far and away the most unfilmable film from this class just because there is too much of Shandy’s introspection to properly convey on screen unless it is done the way Steve Coogan did it – Tristram Shandy as Tristram Shandy, narrating his life and interacting with his past selves as he breaks the fourth wall to address his audience.  These scenes were few and far between, so an entire film shot this way would have been a nightmare to watch – in the context of Michael Winterbottom’s film, this technique works because it is not the sole framing device.  Watchmen is a close second, however, because it is not a straightforward graphic novel – the multiple plots, time skips, flashbacks, inner monologues, Rorschach’s journal entires, and the meta-comic framing of Tales of the Black Freighter make a film adaptation extremely difficult, presenting the question of whether or not it is worth it to compromise the integrity of the original source for the sake of introducing a new audience to the story and earning big Hollywood bucks in the process.  I’m sure Hollywood would argue that I just answered my own question.

1) Fantastic Mr. Fox is unlike other Roald Dahl adaptations not only because it is animated (something of a necessity since the main characters are animals) but because it stretches a short story into a feature length film and constructs certain themes that never appeared in the original book.  James and the Giant Peach is another animated Dahl adaptation, mixing live-action and claymation as a way to emphasize the changes that the characters undergo after ingesting magic tongues – Mr. Fox is filmed in stop-motion with very hairy, anthropomorphic animal figures who undergo personal changes after running into some theft-related snafus.  The former is magical and wondrous, the latter somewhat dry and lacking in charm.  Mr. Fox is a character who, along with the rest of his family and friends, acts very human in the film, his personality easily relatable to anyone with a negligent father figure putting his job before his relationships – this type of protagonist is perhaps not ideal for a children’s movie, and neither is the muttered, monotone banter between Mr. Fox and his wife.  The film’s humor is meant to be derived from the fact that these are animals living as humans do, going to school and playing sports, getting married and buying houses that just happen to be located beneath tree roots.  This emphasis on the human side of the animal characters is seriously contradicted by the presence of actual humans who view the foxes and assorted woodland critters as regular animals.  The addition of Cousin Kristofferson is meant to further the characterization of Mr. Fox as a father who is less than subtly disappointed with his own son, and the heist tones of certain scenes make Mr. Fox seem like an irresponsible thrill-seeker rather than a loving provider for his family.  Some of Roald Dahl’s children’s books contain darker tones, but “Fantastic Mr. Fox” is not one of these – Wes Anderson seems to have chosen the wrong source material for the dysfunctional family formula.

2) These excerpts from Roald Dahl’s original story are useful in comparing the tone of the book to the tone of the film, and in noticing the great differences between them.  Dahl’s prose is short and simple, clean and matter-of-fact but not childish or awkward despite the brevity of the story.  The book opens with profiles of the three farmers and then introduces Mr. and Mrs. Fox as a happily married couple of… foxes, without delving much deeper into their life than that.  The film gives the Foxes a history and introduces their family, expanding their circle of friends and neighbors much farther than the book does.  Dahl’s Mr. Fox is endearing and uncomplicated, he and his fellow foxes much less human and trapped by human concerns. 

3)  Official featurette  Review  Facebook page

The first link is a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the film, bringing it into perspective as a major undertaking even as the spirit of the book is lost in the blockbuster elements of production.

4) How does Fantastic Mr. Fox compare/contrast with Alfonson Cuaron’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, in terms of the way it adapts a book for children into a film?

Prisoner of Azkaban is darker than the Harry Potter films that preceded it, but the book itself confronts adult themes such as death, great fear, and responsibility – Cuaron was justified, therefore, in setting a darker, perhaps more adult tone that kept the curiosity and mistakes of childhood.  Fantastic Mr. Fox seems to be marketed not so much to young children as to teenagers and even adults who might be drawn in by the A-list actors lending their voices and the subtle humor that young children are likely to either miss or simply ignore in favor of waiting for something exciting to happen.  PoA is also a significantly longer text that Cuaron had to condense into a film – conversely, Mr. Fox is a very short book that Anderson had to stretch into a film, and the themes that are typically associated with his work (negligent/screwy father figure, dysfunctional families, off-kilter characters who find themselves in humorous and unconventional mishaps) are not appropriate for a children’s book in the Roald Dahl tradition.  Children are usually the main characters in Roald Dahl’s books, with several exceptions, and since “Fantastic Mr. Fox” differs from this set-up it is essential that an adaptation maintains the child’s perspective.  Wes Anderson’s film fails to do this.

1) Prisoner of Azkaban is dark in a good way, in a children-have-to-grow-up-sometime way but also a they-don’t-have-to-lose-the-joy-and-wonder-of-childhood way.  The world of Harry Potter is a world of magic, but perhaps more important in a thematic sense is that it is also a world of students – the characters and the readers are learning together, so even though the story becomes progressively more complicated we are able to keep pace, only ever as lost or confused as the main characters themselves are.  This pacing is more difficult to convey in a film that must condense hundreds of pages into a few hours, and consequently PoA glosses over some crucial details – Cuaron has taken the liberty of assuming, perhaps rightly so, that his audience is already quite familiar with the story.  Hermione’s impossible schedule and sudden appearance in class is not as emphasized in the film besides a few idle comments from Ron, so when she whips out the time-turner it seems like a very sudden, very convenient bit of ‘godmoding’, or deus ex machina for the literary crowd… unless you have read the story, of course.  Similarly, Remus Lupin’s existence as a werewolf is foreshadowed much more heavily or at least frequently in the book rather than the film – Hermione somehow knowing that their professor was a werewolf ever since Snape assigned the essay also comes across as a rather abrupt revelation.  Sacrifices are inevitable in a film adaptation of such a lengthy source novel, but Cuaron chose some major plot points to hurry us through.  PoA is mainly about conquering one’s fears in order to find the truth amidst the wickedness of deception, but some of this is unfortunately lost to the time constraints.  If you can get past the spectacularly poor acting from most everyone under eighteen, the story and the setting still make for a very entertaining adaptation.

2) The “Owl Post” and “Grim Defeat” chapters present the full version of events that are missing from the film adaptation, and in addition to certain missing details the book presents a more endearing Harry Potter than Daniel Radcliffe is able to convey on the big screen.  In the first chapter, we are reminded that Harry is a skinny, almost goofy looking adolescent who works hard at his studies and cherishes his owl, his friends, and his magical life, amazingly optimistic and resilient to the horrible relatives who made his childhood a nightmare completely devoid of love.  He is cheered by the birthday messages from his friends and happy for the Weasleys’ sudden good fortune, looking forward to the beginning of the school term.  The film, however, opens with a frustrated Harry trying to keep his wand lit and completely cuts out the humorous memory of Ron’s failed attempt with a Muggle telephone as well as any mention that it is Harry’s birthday at all.  The “Grim Defeat” chapter introduces Cedric Diggory, an important character in the next book but entirely left out of the third film.  The only Quidditch scene in the film is cut short, cropping out the team dynamic and the sense of how much the sport means to Harry, both of which are emphasized in “Grim Defeat”.  The book relies not only on the spectacular magical world or the dramatic events in the wake of the Boy Who Lived, rather being more character-driven and intimately connected to the readers.  In a film adaptation of such a popular series, there is always the risk of disappointing the fans who have already formed a mental picture of the characters and scenery – to balance out this risk, the film seems to rely on the action and making the picture as visually striking as possible, notably through the darker settings and continuously grey skies.

3)  Not even remotely related to either the book or film version of PoA but one of my favorite Harry Potter links nonetheless.  An example of the extent to which fans have expanded the Harry Potter-verse and a more affectionately humorous tribute to a series that becomes devastatingly dark for some of us who began reading them as children – I was actually Harry Potter’s age in the first book when it came out.  Sirus Black’s page on the Harry Potter Lexicon   List of tropes in the book and film

All three links are interesting, the last two being the most informative and the third link the most beneficial in seeing how much effort people have taken to dissect PoA, not only on blogs and in reviews but on pages that serve as a sort of unofficial wiki.  Diehard fans often like to consider themselves experts, and certain aspects of fanon have almost become canon by virtue of how popular and widely accepted they are amongst these fans. 

4) Perhaps more so than other Harry Potter films, in Prisoner of Azkaban Harry seems to be having “daddy issues.” What are they and how does this relate to the theme of growing up and learning to be a man? How does the feminine fit into this process?

Harry’s “daddy issues” are triggered when he learns (or thinks he learns) that Sirius Black is the one who betrayed his parents and led Lord Voldemort to their home, and from then on his main goal while Black is on the loose is to confront his godfather and get revenge for his parents’ murders.  Professor Lupin’s presence is a comfort to Harry since Remus was good friends with James and Lily in school, and Lupin starts to adopt a fatherly role when he teaches Harry the Patronus charm and looks out for him even against the wary watch of Professor Snape.  When the crowd of dementors surrounding himself and an unconscious Sirius are dispelled, Harry at first believes that his father was the one to save them – later he realizes that it was future-Harry’s Patronus (the form of which is never explained in the movie but has definite connections to his father in the book), and finally having been able to save himself as well as others seems to be a huge step for the teenager who must grow up rather quickly from here on out.  Growing up without a mother and finding few female mentors in the wizarding world apart from Mrs. Weasley and Professor McGonagall, Harry’s feminine influences come chiefly from Hermione, who does frequently play a motherly role to both Harry and Ron when her friends are either on the verge of doing something stupid or recovering from a previous stunt.

1) Watching A Scanner Darkly for the first time, without having read any of the original novel and being completely unaware of the source, is a labor not unlike running as fast as you can through a field of molasses.  This is not to say that the film is unwatchable or that the story is unrecognizable amidst the twisted plot, but there are periods of lazy, drug-fueled contemplation juxtaposed with an increasing paranoia that begins to consume the characters’ lives until the audience is left quite far out of the loop and beginning to feel just a bit paranoid themselves.  There are big reveals without the dramatic tension one might expect leading up to such major plot twists, and consequently these reveals – that ‘Hank’ is actually Donna, that the government is behind Substance D and New Path – create an effect of stopping short, of blinking in confusion and trying to process what we’ve just seen even while the story has gotten up and moved on without us.  The rotoscoping is an apt technique for the scramble suit but can be hard to watch for an extended length of time as the animated characters seem to be in constant motion, melting in and out of the scenery and almost, infuriatingly real.  The human faces are the ‘realest’ of the animation, as their clothes and the settings often appear cartoonish – this is a startling visual effect, an uncomfortable existence that we are forced to accept for the duration of the film.  Optical complaints aside, this is effective in portraying a story of extreme drug use and justified paranoia that leaves us questioning the motivation of the government and the police but never the addicts – we don’t expect anything like clarity or moral fiber from drug addicts, but with Substance D so deeply woven throughout all branches of society we come to realize that we can’t expect much honesty or virtue from anyone in the film at all.

2) The first and last chapter of the novel are pretty faithfully adapted in the film, but what is missing in the latter is Jerry’s extended thoughts and research as well as a better representation of how long the bugs have been plaguing him and how long he spends trying to rid himself of what he has convinced himself are aphids.   As for the last chapter, Bruce’s thoughts are vocalized in the film and he actually says aloud that he has seen death growing out of the ground.  Linklater could have chosen to incorporate Keanu Reeves saying these lines as a voiceover while the actual character remains silent, a common cinematic device to express a character’s unspoken thoughts – the fact that he deliberately chose not to is puzzling unless we are meant to infer that Bob/Bruce is no longer capable of internal monologue or perhaps Linklater wanted his audience to be certain that Bob/Bruce is having these thoughts now, and not looking back in retrospect.  It is a small detail but it causes the last chapter of the novel and the final scene of the movie to be out of sync in a way that is slightly dissatisfying – the film does not give us Bob/Bruce’s religious experience as “time ceased as the eyes gazed and the universe jelled along with him”.  Reeves speaking aloud at the end of the film is perhaps Linklater’s way of assuring us that Bob/Bruce is still in there somewhere, that he is not completely lost to Substance D just as Philip K. Dick assures us through this spiritual, harmonizing experience in writing.

3)  Forum arguing against the rotoscoping animation  Wall of the film’s facebook page reviews

I liked the first link best because I waffled back and forth on whether or not I liked the rotoscoping when I first saw the film in theatres – I saw Waking Life later, and liked it much less than A Scanner Darkly.  Some people I’ve spoken to have argued that it shouldn’t matter, that I should focus on the story and stop overthinking the animation, but since there is an extra effort in rotoscoping rather than live action, I want to believe that Linklater did it for a good reason besides the fact that he had done it with some success before.  The IMDB forum was therefore pretty interesting to me.

4) The film A Scanner Darkly, directed by Richard Linklater, can be described as an example of the stoner picaresque genre, in that it derives humor from watching people act out after taking drugs. How does Scanner Darkly compare to other stoner picaresque films such as the Cheech and Chong films, the Harold and Kumar films, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Dazed and Confused (also directed by Richard Linklater), or other examples of the genre you can think of?

A Scanner Darkly differs from other stoner picaresque films in that while its humor is similarly derived from the actions and dialogue of tweaked-out characters, this humor is set amongst paranoia and fear that is justified and appropriate to the situation rather than a simple irrational belief held by drug addicts.  The story is not purposefully humorous or light-hearted in the vein of Cheech and Chong or Dazed and Confused, and the film does not take the effects and hallucinations of drug use to the same extremes as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – Jerry’s life with aphids is nothing compared to Raoul’s bats or the hotel lizard orgy, after all.  A Scanner Darkly is instead a more serious film with humorous elements, perhaps not intended as an anti-drug message but a what-if sci-fi premise that is much closer to home than the usual implication of science fiction.

1) No Country for Old Men is more disturbing for what it lacks rather than what has been included – the absence of a proper soundtrack is a major factor in creating a suspenseful tone as the viewer is rarely prepared for what’s coming (much like the unsuspecting victims of Chigurh’s coin tosses), and the violence is almost understated despite the number of casualties racked up by the end of the film.  Anton Chigurh’s own weapon is less explosive than a shotgun, less obvious than a knife and, appearance-wise, not a weapon at all.  His kills are quick and clean, dry and muted where we might expect a noisy bloodbath – similarly, the film is ‘clean’ in the sense that only the aftermath of the worst violence is shown and most of the scenes are neatly packaged and sequenced without lengthy dialogue or complicated exposition.  There is an underlying theme of age and generation gaps, with Sheriff Bell (and briefly, his uncle and a fellow sheriff) representing the oldest generation in the film, Llewelyn and Chigurh on the next tier down, and the nameless teenagers and young boys from whom Llewelyn and Chigurh buy their respective clothes serving as the third generation.  During a conversation about how the young people of today are more or less a lost cause, Sheriff Bell comments that “as soon as you stop hearing Sir and Ma’am, it’s all over” – this lack of respect is the least of the sheriff’s concerns, but it is indicative of the idea that times are changing and something like basic humanity is being watered down through the generations.  The teenagers who run into Llewelyn when he is cut up and bloody demand to see the $500 he has promised before one of them will give him their coat, a heartless gesture even by criminal standards.  The two young boys who witness Chigurh’s car crash towards the very end of the film are different, as one boy intially refuses to take the money Chigurh is offering him for his shirt – however, he does accept it eventually and even after they have just witnessed a terrific crash and spoken with a man who has a bone sticking out of his arm, as soon as Chigurh limps away the second boy begins bantering with his friend about deserving half of the money.  The film ends on a deeply unsatisfying note, although the final scene is one of the most thought-provoking of the entire movie – the now-retired Sheriff Bell’s dream about his deceased father waiting for him with a fire in the “dark and the cold” ahead is somewhat comforting after so many senseless deaths and the emotionless logic of Anton Chigurh, but as feeling human beings we might still be wishing that Chigurh had just died in the crash and finally received his karmic retribution. 

2)  The excerpts of Cormac McCarthy’s novel should be difficult to read due to the lack of certain punctuation and the dialogue that is hardly discernible from the narration, but despite these stylistic quirks there is something almost comfortable about the text – nothing is overstated or unnecessarily complex, and rather than being choppy and awkward the dialogue is instead seamlessly incorporated into the action.  The descriptions are minimal and basic, which translates well into the film’s lonely landscape and quiet violence.  One of the most obvious and perhaps most significant difference between the original text and the film is what the Cohen brothers decided not to reveal, namely the extended conversation between Carla Jean and Chigurh and the fact that Chigurh ultimately kills her.  In the film, Carla Jean’s fate is implied rather than made explicit, and she is never shown agreeing to the coin toss the way she eventually does in the novel.  This could be taken as either a trivial matter or a huge plot point, depending on the viewer/reader’s perspective, but the fact remains that there is a definite disparity between the two mediums regarding this scene.  Chigurh comes across as much more ‘human’ in the novel during his exchange with Carla Jean, sympathizing with her and expressing a desire to do things differently if he could.  As with his cinematic adaptation, however, McCarthy’s Chigurh believes that everything is up to fate and that he is merely an instrument of destiny armed with a coin and an airgun.

3)  A fan site (more or less) for the character Anton Chigurh with links to the script, trivia, interviews, etc  Blog post about Chigurh’s coin toss with a thread of comments   Discussion about the end of the film

I liked all three of these links and found them pretty equally entertaining/enlightening, but the third link was the most helpful for me – NCfOM is the type of film that I need to watch more than once since it’s inevitable that I missed something the first time.  Before I watched it, I asked my father (who had already seen it) what he thought of the movie – “It’s dark,” he said, “and Tommy Lee Jones is excellent.  You’ll have to watch it twice, though.”  I haven’t watched it twice yet, so reading what other people had to say about the film served to fill in some of the little details I had either missed or not given much initial thought to. 

4) What is the title No Country for Old Men supposed to signify? Is the “country” the land of the American Southwest, the United States as a whole, or both? And why do the “old men” no longer belong there?

The United States as a whole is no country for old men because there will always be the next generation and the changes these younger men bring, along with a lack of respect for the old school and a willful ignorance of how things used to be.  The American Southwest is a more apparent example that McCarthy and the Cohens use to emphasize what is lost from one generation to the next as well as what is created – the dusty, endless landscape of this area is almost a throwback to the Wild West with the sheriff and his deputy on horseback and the failed drug deal resembling a stagecoach robbery.   Sheriff Bell comments that maybe there is a “new kind” of person out there when he remembers a boy he arrested for murdering his young girlfriend, and his ultimate decision to retire is a testament to the fact that he believes there is no place for him in law enforcement anymore, that his time and the time of the older generation is over.  The two scenes with Llewelyn buying a coat from teenagers and Chigurh buying a shirt from young boys implies that not only will their generation be old men someday but they will also, inevitably, become obsolete even for all their violence and unusual cruelty.  The teenagers will not relinquish the coat without seeing the promised $500 first, and the boys are sympathetic but quickly recover from the horror of seeing a man with bone sticking out of his arm.

1) American Splendor is dirty and real, and at times real dirty in its depiction of working-class Cleveland through the 1970’s and 1980’s – Paul Giamatti as Harvey Pekar confesses at one point that he has a “problem with cleanliness,” and never is there much of an attempt to clean himself up, to clean up the setting or to present a prettier version of reality for the viewer’s sake.  This is what makes the film so interesting despite the fact that Harvey Pekar himself is not, perhaps, the most interesting man who’s ever had his story told on the big screen.  Pekar is forever unapologetic about his life and how he has lived it, and with his voiceover and scenes of his interview woven throughout the film version of his life, there emerges a theme of being comfortable with yourself and secure in the knowledge of who you are – there are other Harvey Pekars in Cleveland and millions of hard-working, kvetching curmudgeons throughout the country, but our Harvey Pekar decided to share his scratchy voice and his life rather than keep his head down and his opinions to himself.  There is a scene in the movie where the real Harvey Pekar and Toby Radloff are talking to each other on the interview set while Paul Giamatti and Judah Friedlander are sitting behind them – Giamatti cannot help laughing at Toby’s distinctive speech pattern, and we can laugh as well because Toby is well aware of how he sounds and how he comes across to other people.  There are no illusions in this film, and it is the undeniable realness that draws us in even while nothing of spectacular import might be happening.

2) Robert Crumb’s introduction to the American Splendor anthology as well as the three brief comics are a presentation of Harvey Pekar that make the man seem like someone important even when Crumb’s reminiscing and Pekar’s own stories insist that he is not a particularly rare breed – in Crumb’s words, these stories are “staggeringly mundane” to the point of exoticism.  The subject matter is neither groundbreaking nor even terribly exciting, but in this medium of graphic novels it is original and unexpected, one ordinary man’s thoughts and experiences over several decades minus any element of fantasy, superpowers, or even simple fiction.  Pekar is capeless, saggy where he should be bulging with muscles, laid bare where he should be masked and acerbic where he should be goofy.  Harvey Pekar is not a comic book hero, not even a comic book character in the tradition of Tintin or Asterix, not a nerd’s fantasy in the modern market alongside Scott Pilgrim or an autobiography with the significance of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis or Will Eisner’s A Contract With God.  Harvey Pekar is somebody because he is nobody in particular, an “ego-maniac” according to Crumb and a man so driven to make his voice heard that the end result is one man illustrated in multiple portrayals and brief non sequiturs that are somehow satisfying in the reader’s ability to identify either in sympathy or pity, to laugh at the simple absurdity that these comics even exist.  Harvey Pekar wonders about the other men in the phone book who share his name, and as we read we begin to wonder why we should care – then we begin thinking about people in the phone book who share our names and how many of us exist within such a small vicinity, and before we realize it, Pekar has made us examine ourselves even for such a trivial matter, even for such a limited amount of panels and the sixty seconds it took to read this comic.  How arrogant it is, for one nobody to believe that his opinions are worth the time, effort, and expense of a comic book!  And yet how intrigued we are by the fact that Pekar has actually done it.

3)  Video interview with the directors, Paul Giamatti and Harvey Pekar Site with reviews of both the anthology and the film by various commenters Harvey Pekar facebook page with posts by fans and comic book industry officials with news about posthumously-published Pekar comics

The first link is the most directly related to the film, and I liked having Giamatti and Pekar share the screen again.  Rarely do we (or maybe just I) get to see actors and the real-life people they are playing together, and some of my favorite moments in American Splendor were when Pekar was on screen talking about himself before it cut to Giamatti and his dead-on portrayal.  The scene that I mentioned before, with Pekar and Toby talking while Giamatti and Friedlander sit behind them made me laugh, properly laugh out loud while our dogs gave me a strange look. 

4) Consider the paradox of an ordinary man creating an extraordinary work of art based on his ordinariness. Based on American Splendor, would you say Pekar is an ordinary or extraordinary man, or somehow both?

Pekar is an ordinary man who made himself extraordinary by thrusting his ordinariness upon the American public, creating a comic that defied the very definitions of the medium and presenting reality in such a way that it seems like super-reality, a world that we know but have never examined so closely before.  Ordinary people living ordinary lives may not be stepping back to look at who they are and where they are going, if they are going anywhere at all or simply treading the same path day after day with no spectacular change in sight.  Harvey Pekar started looking, at old Jewish ladies in the grocery line, at names in the phone book, at the implausability of ordinary nerds taking their sweet revenge.  Harvey looked, and then he decided to show everyone else what he saw and what he thought, the jaded observations and the surly wit that gave voice to Thoreau’s masses of men leading lives of quiet desperation.  Harvey Pekar wasn’t quiet about it, though, a pioneer in the comics medium who showed ordinary people that they had something to say and that there was nothing wrong with just saying it, already.  There was nothing extraordinary about Pekar until he took his ordinary existence and used it (whether intentionally or not) to make people laugh, to make people appreciate their own ordinariness and to appreciate Pekar’s eagerness to open his life for everyone to see.  There is a certain audacity in what Pekar did, but this audacity is the extra and the super that transformed the ordinary and the real.

Tag Cloud