Thursday, December 27, 2007

On the Big Screen

I Am Legend, 2007
dir: Francis Lawrence
starring: Will Smith

Having written earlier this week about Richard Matheson's I Am Legend, I went to see the film yesterday. It's always strange to see the film of a book you've enjoyed, and rather a cliche to say that the film is inferior. Novel and film are different media, and they work in different ways. The artistic choices that a screenwriter makes will inevitably be different from a novelist's.

On its own terms, then--the only way a film should be judged--I Am Legend can be seen as a success. Will Smith is an actor of unusual versatility, and here he has to carry a 100-minute picture largely on his own: he is, after all, the last man in the world. The film is genuinely chilling with some horrifying set-pieces, and the resolution, although very different from the book, is largely satisfying.

The divergences from the book, however artistically justified, are nonetheless interesting. I Am Legend is a dark film by Hollywood standards (although somewhat lightened by the ending), but does not approach the bleakness of the book. Will Smith's Neville becomes the eponymous legend by finding a cure for the vampiric plague; Matheson's original is a legend of horror to the surviving vampires. Smith's Neville spends his days looking for a cure; for Matheson, days are spent hunting and killing vampires while they sleep. Both film and book have endings that are to an extent redemptive, but Matheson's redemption is hidden deeper, and much darker in nature.

* * *

It's always misconceived to criticise a film adaptation for "not being the book": if you want the book, read the book. Novels and film have different characteristics, and film in particular has difficulty in depicting inner states. There are ways around it, of course, but film is essentially a medium external to the protagonists' minds: what we see is what they do, and what they are can only be inferred from that. In fiction, a similar effect can be created with a tight third-person narrative, but the novelist has a much wider field of vision to work with; so the novelist writing in tight-third person is doing so from choice, not necessity.

Look at the economy with which Jane Austen nails her heroine with the opening of Emma:

Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.
In a single sentence at the start of the novel, Austen has told us all we need to know about Emma's backstory. The perceptive reader will sense a "but" coming, and of course it's the "but" that occupies the novel. Given that, Austen has not chosen to waste time showing background detail when she can tell us, get it out of the way, and move on to showing the material she's really interested in.

Film, unless it uses the voiceover (very rarely a successful technique), is limited exclusively to showing. This necessity has had a great impact on the teaching of creative writing: the mantra that the novelist must show and not tell owes much to the filmic approach of many "how to write a novel" books. But while film and novel have much in common, as two readily accessible methods of laying out a narrative, it's a mistake to see them as interchangeable. And in insisting that the novelist must only show, conventional wisdom limits and banalises the writer's arsenal.

So next time you go to see the book of the film, think about how the two differ and why the screenwriters have made the choices they have. You may not agree with the choices, but there should be an artistic reason behind them.

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