Film, Book, or Both? When Additional Material Harms a Medium

Needless to say, there’s going to be some spoilers below, the major ones coming from Game of Thrones and Prometheus.

As I began to get into in my Prometheus review, there has been a never-ending discussion on whether the book something is based on should be read, or if the movie is good enough to convey what the book conveys. Most people argue that reading the book first is the way to go, and some even argue it’s the only way to go. As a film buff, it’s hard to justify reading the book if something like the movie presents it in an already entertaining medium. So at what point do we draw the line on needing extra material in addition to one medium?

Looking at Prometheus, I discussed the fact that it used viral marketing to contribute to the plot and that it took Ridley Scott and Damon Lindelof themselves to explain things from the plot, after the movie was released. To examine this further, let’s take a look at an important plot point: why does David, an android, infect Charlie? The fun partial answer to that is the fact that there’s no clear indication as to why, but there is an explanation as to how. It’s not presented in the film, but with David being an android we expect clear intentions, and if we were to assume Weyland told David to infect Charlie, then we have to ask the question as to why David did that, when most androids in science fiction films are programmed to be like humans. Well, watch the ‘Meet David’ viral video again. There’s a line in there that explains why David does what he does, knowing it’s unethical: “I can carry out directives that my human counterparts may find distressing *long pause* or unethical”. So going into the film knowing this, you are left with one less question about the film. But is that right? Should the people that go to see a movie be forced to watch viral campaigns and read extra source material to get the full experience? The answer is an emphatic ‘no’.

Ridley Scott revealed that the reason the Engineers in Prometheus are intent on destroying humanity, even though they created it, is because we killed Jesus Christ. This is an interesting notion that explains things for the audience and explains some questions regarding the Engineers themselves. However, we’re once again left at a crossroads because by accepting that plot point, we’re accepting responsibility to seek that information out as a viewer. Unless you read film news on a day by day basis, you probably were not aware of this “Space Jesus” theory, and maybe when you read about it you wrote it off because it wasn’t in the film. That’s the stance I have taken on Prometheus at least, because plot holes are plot holes and you can’t use outside material to answer them.

Now let’s look at another example: Game of Thrones. Where Game of Thrones goes right (most of the time), is it follows closely to a narrative that’s already pretty TV-like to begin with thanks to George R.R. Martin’s previous television experience. The problems that arise are (usually) when they pull away from the novel and deliver new scenes or change things. The Robb Stark story line of the show is a different story than in the books, and because of that fans of the book hate it, and fans of the show who haven’t read the books are none the wiser about it being a different story line. So does this actually matter? No, this doesn’t matter. The show will either be better or worse because of it, but it’s not a plot hole. No, what really matters is if they change a plot point and because of this leave a gaping hole in the story itself.

Game of Thrones does that with the Jon Snow story line, because it takes way too long to draw out a story for the sake of giving the relationship between Jon and Ygritte more impact, and less focus on the details of why things happen the way they do. The main thing is, why does Jon kill Qhorin? Well, the answer is more explicit in the books than you will have seen in the show. In the show, Qhorin tells Jon before he gets separated from the rest of the Night’s Watch that he must do the right thing when the time comes. This is whispered, if I remember correctly, implying significance, but there’s no other mention at all in the rest of the show, nor any hints to it happening near the end. Because of this, I’ve forced myself to begin acknowledging the books and the show as a whole, with some changes in the way certain stories play out. But what I am doing is contrary to how things should be; no onus should be placed on me to clearly establish what is happening on the show, nor should I have to explain to others what is happening. The script should convey everything that it needs to convey.

When I read A Song of Ice & Fire, I picture the actors from the show playing their characters because it’s easier for me to read the book with a face in mind. The show however, does not get the liberty of assuming details because the show is adapting the book, not the other way around. The book created the details and since the show is a more visual medium, it demands more on the part of the creators, not the viewers. With that in mind, why should one have to ever go online and look up explanations for an answer. You can have ambiguity and open-ended questions, but you can’t have plot holes or an entire script of unanswered questions. This is what Prometheus did wrong by not including certain sequences in the film and not clearly defining actions. Hunger Games followed that book fairly closely, and because of that there was little confusion beyond any confusion that may have simply been there because of the book.

I’m not trying to argue that an adaptation should have to be exactly what it’s adapting, but I don’t think there should be any onus on the viewer to explain things that aren’t explained in the adaptation. As I said, ambiguity is fine, and an open-ending is an easy way to provoke discussion, but there is a difference between ambiguity and incompetence/laziness from the screenwriters. Prometheus turned me into a more critical person because even though I thoroughly enjoyed the film, I will never be able to get over its mistakes. It might very well end up on a top 10 list in the future for it’s technical merits, but with films like 2009’s Star Trek that can adapt source material and answer questions with no need to have watched the TV show or read the many books, there’s little reason to excuse a film that cannot execute it’s own script properly.

The reason television and movies are an important medium is because they appease many senses and when they are done well, the viewer feels glad that they spent their time on that medium. A movie is meant to present the viewer, with little imagination required, but can invite the viewer to dwell on it’s themes and messages. The best example I can think of is Inception which had it’s plot holes but the film left you with questions and at the same time was a technical marvel. Star Trek was another technical achievement, but it didn’t ask the viewer to interpret anything, it simply presented a story. Prometheus however, was also a technical achievement, but tried to ask questions that simply could not be answered from the information given. This is where the line is drawn and requires more scrutiny to be placed on screenwriters than is currently being given. After all, it is their job. Would you want to walk into a store and have to receive shipments and put out stock in order to finally buy the item you went in looking for?

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