After posting what some might consider a negative review for Julie Ann Robinson’s One For the Money (2012), I had a number of people defend the movie to me, not on the basis of it being good, but that it was made with a specific audience in mind (readers of the book on which it is based and the corresponding series of Stephanie Plum adventures). I was told that to that end the movie was satisfying. “Just read the book,” people implored me. I don’t think this was in an attempt to exonerate the movie from its glut of problems, but just a way to justify the existence of the character and the subsequent 18 novels, four holiday novellas, and one short story these people had dedicated a significant portion of their time to. Last week, I found a copy of One for the Money, the first novel in the Plum series, in a discount book store, bought it and read it in a couple of days. I don’t know enough about fiction to properly review it, but I will say, without a shadow of a doubt, I enjoyed it much more than the movie. The book is grittier than the film, and it goes for fewer laughs in exchange for a heightened sense of danger, which allowed it to avoid the uneven oscillations of tone that the movie possesses.
One of the reasons it was insisted upon that I read the book is that I was told that my review of the movie missed the central element of Stephanie Plum, that what I took for irrational and unbelievable behavior is actually just part of her character, the details of which would be better explained had I read the novel. I argued and remain strongly convinced that it was the movie that had missed the central element of Stephanie Plum and not my review, but upon reading the book, there’s no question the character is much better defined, although I put forth that one of the failures of the novel is in having Stephanie act one way while her interior monologue tells us she feels another; it may inform us what she’s thinking but it doesn’t make her actions seem more plausible. I do have, after finishing the book, a finer respect for the screenwriters of the film and for Katherine Heigl’s performance as Stephanie, as they had a steep hill to climb translating a character to the screen who reveals most of her defining traits internally. They still did a terrible job, but they had a hard task, I’ll give them that.
I was also told that the movie was satisfying to Plum fans because it hit all the notes that people familiar with the novel were expecting. I’m less convinced of this, but it’s not for me to say as I absorbed the content in the wrong order. I can most definitely maintain this, which I told the people who pressured me to read the book in the first place: The movie has to stand on its own and convince a viewer who has never heard of Stephanie Plum that it’s good. The movie doesn’t do that and it remains that way.
I was further told to lighten up, that the movie was the equivalent of the book: breezy fun that wasn’t to be taken too seriously, a cinematic beach read. Yes, but only the book was breezy and fun; the movie was an assault on fun. I am not indifferent to the plight of silly movies. Brainless entertainment has a valuable place in my critical esteem. God help us if every movie was Last Year at Marienbad or Through A Glass Darkly. But every movie has to have a certain level of intelligence and respect for the audience that was nowhere to be found during One For the Money. It isn’t fair for the Plum people to project their love of the novel onto the movie, not fair to the movie that is taking credit for an admiration it didn’t earn, and not fair to themselves, as that love was not reciprocated and they deserved a better movie. Since reading the book, I’ve seen a plethora of movies based on novels or other material, and I’ve been asking myself this question: What’s fair in love and criticism?
In the last two weeks I’ve seen movies based on novels, a self-help book, an opera, a TV show, and a board game. Some of the source material I was familiar with, others I was not. It shouldn’t make a difference; the movie has to prove its own worth. Otherwise it’s piggybacking on the success of the original material without adding anything to it. A movie is its own entity no matter where its origins lie and therefore has to be critiqued that way. As wrong as it is to bring an uncritically positive eye to a movie based on one’s relation to its source material, it’s just as wrong to hold the movie to the expectations created by that material.
I watched Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice last week and when I read other reviews, a number of critics complained about the movie’s failure to capture the depth of the Thomas Mann novella it’s based on, unread by me. While it’s fair to complain about what is missing from a certain movie, it isn’t fair to criticize the movie for not being the book, just as it is absurd to criticize an orange for not being an apple. Depth is a luxury novels can afford; movies require more focus. I liked Death in Venice, which is visually rich enough to make up for its narrow plotting. That the novel is more nuanced I do not know, but that doesn’t enter into my enjoyment of the movie. In the same vein, I mentioned in my review of the Dark Shadows movie that it lacks the intensity of feeling of the series it’s based on, of which I am only slightly familiar. If I had accused the movie of being too simplistic and without the complexities of the TV show, I would be in the same boat as the critics of Death in Venice. Television is episodic and lends itself to multiple complicated story lines; movies do not and, in fact, one of the strengths of the movie Dark Shadows is its clear narrative. Its missing the spirit of the show is not a criticism in and of itself; it being unable to replace that spirit with anything worthwhile most certainly is. The movie would be wishy-washy whether it was based on the show or not.
It’s perfectly fine to bring expectations into a movie, especially one based on something you’re passionate about. It’s only a problem when one is unbending in those expectations once the movie starts revealing its point of view. The movie can only be what it is; it’s unfair to hold it to the movie you have in your head. Sometimes a movie is only too happy to be the visual representation of its source material (The Hunger Games, say, or The Lord of the Rings movies), others enjoy presenting simply the feeling of the material if not all its every detail (movies in this category range from Chimes at Midnight to The Brady Bunch Movie), and others still stray so far from their origins that they barely resemble them (Adaptation. or Dr. Strangelove).
Now that I’ve finished reading One For the Money I’m reading a book of letters written by Francois Truffaut to his various friends and collaborators. Truffaut spent a lot of time adapting books to the screen and in his letters he expresses only a passing fealty to the plot but an extreme adherence to the tone of the story. David Lean, however, was a fierce proponent of honoring the author’s plot, providing his adaptations with as much closeness to the book as possible. Neither way is “correct;” both directors made successful and unsuccessful adaptations, but those movies worked or didn’t based on the quality of the filmmaking and not what they were adapting. Orson Welles, who adapted seven of his eleven released theatrical films from books or plays (and eight of twelve if you include his Don Quixote which was posthumously edited and released), said “I want to use the motion picture camera as an instrument of poetry,” which hardly suggests a great troth to a novels every detail, though it has to be noted whenever one quotes Orson that he was fond of making strong declarative statements in one interview then saying the exact opposite in another. I’ve seen bad movies based on great material and great movies that come from the most pedestrian books or unusual sources (in 2011, one of the three best movies of the year was The Mill and The Cross, a movie based on a painting, and Powell and Pressberger’s brilliant The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp from 1943 is based on an inane comic strip, yet no filmmaker has adequately tackled Ibsen, Twain or Faulkner). The movie has to stand on its own.
Except when it doesn’t. There is one caveat and that caveat raised its head this week when I watched Casino Royale, which I faintly praised for being a good movie, and loudly dismissed for being a bad Bond movie. It didn’t pay off the numerous elements of Bond movies that audiences anticipate. Am I being a hypocrite for deriding other critics whose disappointment in Death in Venice was based on their expectations of the book when I panned Casino Royale for not meeting my standards based on the previous 20 Bond movies? It’s not for me to say (though I encourage you to let me have it in the comments section if you think I am). The key difference that allows me to sleep at night is that the problems of Casino Royale, which is based on a book I have read, are not generated from the adaptation of the novel (much of which is disregarded for mainly wise reasons), but because it doesn’t play along with the other films in the series to which it belongs. Think of your favorite TV comedy. Think of the funniest episode of that comedy. Now change all the characters to those of your favorite TV drama. Imagine watching that episode of The Office as if it were Law & Order: SVU, as an example. Would it still be funny? Doubtful. Within the framework of Bond movies, Casino Royale doesn’t work; it is beholden to the legacy of the rest of the franchise and it falls short. It’s the very reason sequels so often disappoint; they have to be good movies and pay off the potential of the last movie. If Janet Evanovich had written The Metamorphosis and changed the name of Gregor Samsa to Stephanie Plum, it would make for the worst Stephanie Plum book of them all. Movies have to stand on their own but they are also contextual. They can’t be judged against the material they are based on, but they must be judged against other movies, whether that be other movies in the same genre, style, or series.
The real point of this is that criticism, like the movies or books or paintings they apply to, is subjective and the idea of fairness comes down to only one rule: be honest. If I enjoyed a movie, I have to tell you. If I didn’t, you have to know that. No critic is seeing the movie for you, how could they? They are seeing the movie for themselves and letting you know what they thought. The difference between good critics and bad ones is how well they can articulate the finer points of their experience. “It sucked,” while direct, doesn’t give the reader too much to go on. When I see a movie, I bring into it the expectations of every other movie I’ve ever seen, as does anyone else who sees a movie, but I try not to bring to the movie the unneeded expectations of the source material as well.
When I expressed my disappointment in Casino Royale I was being honest; it let me down on the basis of its inclusion among the other movies in the Bond series, notwithstanding the movie’s other qualities. It would have been genuinely unethical not to express that. Depending on how well I wrote it, my review should express that honesty and my opinion on the movie should be clear. It’s not important whether the reader agrees, only that the reader can understand my problem with the movie. The critics I’ve taken umbrage with for Death In Venice were being similarly honest; I felt that they placed too much importance on Visconti’s movie living up to Mann’s novel, which they have a right to do and I have a right to find irrelevant.
I’m glad I read One for the Money, a book I enjoyed. It didn’t retroactively make the movie any better but how could it? One hardly has anything to do with the other. Roger Ebert routinely cites this quote from Robert Warshow, “A man goes to the movies. The critic must be honest enough to admit he is that man.” The man who sat down to watch One for the Money hadn’t read the book, but it wouldn’t have made much of a difference.
As a post script, I offer another critical opinion, as well as a happy coincidence and proof that people have always obsessed over this stuff. In 1976, Truffaut was making Close Encounters of the Third Kind in Mobile, Alabama, and he took a moment to write a friend during one of the many breaks in shooting. In the letter he wrote, “Death in Venice is endlessly screened in art cinemas because, in formal terms, it’s an almost perfect film and one which has stood up well over the years. …The year it went to Cannes, however, the journalists … wanted to punish Visconti for having practically assumed the G.P. (Grand Prix prize) was his for the asking, that’s why they leapt on Losey’s The Go-Between which benefited from the fact that it had arrived with no particular reputation. On the other hand, people seeing The Go-Between today for the first time tend to find it disappointing. …” There you go.