Saturday, May 27, 2006

Musing Pictures: The DaVinci Code

There are many new films these days that begin with baggage. Some are sequels, entering theaters only to face a crowd of comparers -- an audience that is all too eager to go home, to tell friends "it was better than the first one". Some are re-makes, with the same problem: "It was better than the original" is the best they can hope for (and the least likely of possible outcomes).

"The DaVinci Code" comes with its own baggage, of course. Many moviegoers will be eager to compare it to the book, itself a sequel.

I have seen several reviews of "The DaVinci Code" that claim that it does stand on its own quite well (that it is not one of those films where if you didn't read the book, you won't understand the movie). Why is this assertion so necessary so often? There have been quite a few big hits lately that are literarily-inspired, from the Harry Potter films to the Lord of the Rings trillogy. Those films didn't require a familiarity with their source-material. Why do people keep expecting this?

Perhaps it's the sequence that does it.

People assume that sequels necessitate a familiarity with the film which they follow. You have to see film #1 before you see film #2. That is always the order of things: thing #1 has to come before thing #2. You have to see the original before you see the remake (or, at least, that used to be the way of it. How many people who saw Peter Jackson's "King Kong" made a point of seeing the Cooper/Schoedsack original?) It seems to be the same with books -- you have to read the book before you see the movie.

Interestingly, this idea wasn't originally a matter of understanding.

Of course, movies are made in such a way that they can stand on their own -- even sequels, nowadays, are structured so as to appeal to an audience that is broader than that of their preceding film. Movies based on books, too, are made so that you don't have to read the book. They have to be, especially in a culture that tends to watch movies more than read books.

So why do people seem to ask "will I understand it if I haven't read the book"?

I don't really know the answer to this. Certainly with the "Lord of the Rings" films, knowing the books meant knowing a richer backstory (but not necessarily a necessary one, as far as the films themselves are concerned). "The DaVinci Code", though, is a very dense film that stays very true to the book it is based on (at least, very little is added, even if one or two moments are taken away). But even with "The DaVinci Code", if it were a film that you could only understand if you had read the book, it would be failing as a film. And this is true of any book-based film. Movies are supposed to stand on their own.

A coda pertaining to the third installment in the new Star Wars trillogy: Here is an example of an intentional deviation from this unspoken "rule" of cinema. In the third installment of the new Star Wars trillogy (this would be the sixth Star Wars feature, then), there is an entire battle sequence with a robotic creature that seems to come out of nowhere. Apparently, this sequence is really the conclusion of an entire narrative that takes place between that film and the film before it -- a narrative that is explained in a short graphic novelette (a part of George Lucas' franchise, of course). Is it fair to put the end of this episode in to a film in such a prominent way without explaining the backstory (even in a rudimentary way) within that same film? some have suggested that in doing so, Lucas has developed a new form of movie -- one that takes advantage of the age of multimedia -- by incorporating multiple media sources and bridging one narrative across them. Imagine, then, a story that is told partially through a book, partially through a movie, partially through a radio show, and partially through a play, where you have to go through all of those media in the right order to get the story straight. It strikes me as an interesting idea at first, but also as a tiring one. What's the point, other than to make more money by selling more tickets for one story? It might be interesting to have a narrative presented in a book that will only conclude on screen, but only if I can get both for the price of one, and only if I can somehow get them at the same time, or in the same way. It forces too much work on the viewer/reader/listener to be a practical concept, as far as I can tell.

But who knows? Perhaps there will come a visionary mediamaker at some point who will be able to combine all of these different modes of narrative expression in to a coherent, multimedia narrative? I'm sure people are striving towards that end already, so it's probably a matter of time before it happens.

Meanwhile, movies based on books will still be made so that you don't have to read the book to understand the movie.


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