In my latest movie-going ventures, I’ve learned that when adapting a story for the screen, you can have the most state-of-the-art technology and stunning visual sensibilities on your side, and still make a stinker that will bore the most Ritalin-addled child. At the end of the day, a compelling story, simply told, has more flash and dazzle than any CGI effect. Now’s the part where I tell you what to do.
See It: A Single Man
In director Tom Ford’s adaptation of the Christopher Isherwood novel A Single Man, there’s plenty of opportunities for swelling melodrama and soapbox shouting. The movie details a day in the life of George Falconer (played with subtle precision by Colin Firth), a British professor at a Los Angeles university in the early-’60s whose world is shattered when his lover dies. His loneliness consumes him, invades his dreams and fogs his mind while giving a lecture about an Aldous Huxley novel. And because his lost love was another man, Falconer has nobody to turn to for solace – even his best friend Charlotte from across the pond (Julianne Moore at her booziest) passes George’s love off as a flight of fancy, arguing that they should have been together instead. Thankfully, Ford has little time for tear-soaked temper tantrums, depicting Falconer’s emotional breakdown as a subterranean entity that drives its host to the brink, and using the character’s suicide attempts as fodder for black humor. By the end, although a light at the end of the tunnel flickers brightly, it’s not enough to save a man who spent his life loving, and mourning, in the shadows.
Flee It: Alice In Wonderland
By the end of Tim Burton’s latest take on a beloved tale, the main character has learned valuable lessons about the kind of life she wants to lead. If only the movie itself could have had such definitive ideas. On paper, of course, Alice In Wonderland seemed a perfect marriage of director and subject matter – a master of modern fairytales reimagining one of the most fantastical stories in all of children’s literature. But perhaps because the match was so perfect, and such a surefire moneymaker, Burton didn’t bother to take the story apart and rebuild it with the loving, critical eye of a fanboy, like he did in Batman, where we were introduced to characters we knew and loved as if we’d never met them before. Here, it’s assumed that you know who The Mad Hatter is, so there’s no point in explaining why he’s mad, beyond showing that he used to have a gig with the White Queen, and now he doesn’t. Johnny Depp is equally disinterested in adding anything to the character, beyond a lazy giggle and a dance sequence that’s the most embarrassing moment of Burton’s career. (Helena Bonham Carter’s spirited, hilarious take on the Red Queen makes Depp’s stumblings all the more glaring.) And the story itself is a hodge-podge of British fantasy cliches – a child finds a magical world, becomes its most famous resident, joins the battle between good and evil, slays a dragon and goes home forever changed. It’s an insult to the deranged brilliance of Lewis Carroll, and makes the 1951 Disney version seem artfully told by comparison. The biggest change of Burton’s adaptation is the addition of C.S. Lewis’ most famous idea to the plot’s gloppy stew – Alice is now a 19-year-old girl who’s been visiting Wonderland since she was six, although it takes her a while to remember that. As she makes her way through this beautifully visualized place, Alice feels like the characters she meets are somewhat familiar, but she can’t quite place them in her mind. Maybe that’s because behind all the fabulous makeup, spot-on costumes and stunning CGI, there are only echoes of real creativity.