Tone Deaf

AMC Theaters has a Best Picture Showcase every year where they screen all of the Best Picture nominees. It’s usually split across two Saturday’s, although I know a couple of crazy people who did it all in twenty-four hours one year. I’ve never gone, for a variety of reasons, chief among them that the nominees are usually R-rated and, as a general rule, I don’t watch R-rated movies. (No, I don’t see many movies these days.)

However, this year the stars aligned (not the movie stars, the other ones); a number of the movies were ones I hadn’t seen and wanted to see (or was willing to see), and the ones I wanted to see were, with one exception, all clustered on the same weekend of the showcase.

So, February 25th found me at Grapevine Mills Theater to watch Lion, Hacksaw Ridge, Arrival, and Hidden Figures1. Of the four, I had seen only Arrival, but it was one I was happy to see again (since it was, as already noted here, my personal Best Picture for 2016). Although it was R-rated, I was willing to watch Hacksaw Ridge because I’m a WWII buff2 and the story was interesting and because I knew why it was so rated (it was a Mel Gibson film, and Mel has a violence fetish). I figured if I could survive Private Ryan I could survive Hacksaw Ridge. (Word to the wise, the battle scenes in Hacksaw are far worse, and more numerous, than those in Private Ryan.)

Hacksaw was as expected (not bad, Spiderman gave a great performance, and if you haven’t read about Desmond Doss you should; a couple of things Doss really did Gibson didn’t include in the film because he thought it would make it too unbelievable), Lion was amazingly good (spectacular cinematography, great screenplay “based on a true story”, and excellent performances from everyone, but especially Slumdog’s Dev Patel), and Arrival was just as awesome the third time as it was the first (although it gave Cory Johnson a headache).

The one I was looking the most forward to, though, was Hidden Figures. It had gotten a lot of press (unlike Lion, which deserved more), it was also based on a true, and uplifing, story, and it had astronauts. What could go wrong?

As it turned out, quite a bit. It was easily the most disappointing film of the day (for me; that would probably be the film I skipped for the rest of the group I went with). I don’t have enough training or education or vocabulary or something to fully explain what was wrong, but it reminded me of all of the sports movies of a decade or two ago that had great stories but told them uninspiringly (The Rookie, Remember the Titans, Invincible, and so on).

I was still very interested in the story, though, so I decided to read the book.

Now, it’s a cliché that the book is always better than the movie. And, like most clichés, there is a grain of truth to that. However, a movie requires a very different method of storytelling than a book, and most of the complaining from book-lovers is that the movie wasn’t exactly like the book. What they don’t seem to realize is that if the movie had been exactly the same, it would have been a terrible movie.

But reading Hidden Figures helped me crystalize the real issue — the movie needs the same tone as the book. The LOTR movie trilogy varied from the book in huge portions (e.g. Helm’s Deep is a few pages in the book but most of the second movie), but the tone was the same — good vs evil, the seemingly little can do much, the sheer weight of the story. On the other hand, the movie version of The Shining, while revered by many, is in my opinion a horrible film, not the least because the tone is completely off. King’s book is generally acknowledged to be one of his best3, but it is a psychological thriller. The movie was horror and halls full of blood and, at times, camp (“Heeeeeeere’s Johnny!”).

What was obvious just a few pages in to the Hidden Figures book is that the movie had gotten the tone completely wrong.4 The book is fantastic, well-written and scrupulously researched, and a paean to a group of women who were brilliant and innovative in a time when people of their gender and race were considered incapable of being either. The movie was built around conflict and manufactured confrontations (that aren’t in the book) and was entirely too preachy.

So, in the words of Whiteheart, read the book, don’t wait for the movie.

As I was formulating this post, I realized it describes me occasionally as well. If the book is what’s going on in my head and the movie is what actually happens, my movie doesn’t match the tone of book a lot of the time. Things that aren’t a big deal to me apparently come out sounding like they’ve a very big deal.

There are a couple of problems with that (well, more than a couple, probably, but we’ll just deal with two here). First, although I’ve read the book, I can’t see the movie. And since the book is in my head, I’m naturally biased in thinking the movie’s coming out exactly the same. Years of training5 from my wife has helped me occasionally realize the movie didn’t come out right, but it’s still pretty hit and miss. Second, the people around me only have the movie to go on, there’s no book to check out from the library. (And frankly, they wouldn’t want to read it even if there was.)

So, if you see a movie you don’t care for in my neighborhood, realize the book might not be that bad. And the director’s working on making better movies.

  1. I skipped the first movie of the day for several reasons. 
  2. “Buff” is not the right word for me (in any of its senses), but “fan” doesn’t work since that’s not really the right word to use of a world war, and “I’ve read probably 100+ books on WWII” takes up too much room. 
  3. Many would put The Stand in that position; I’m conflicted. 
  4. It also left out twenty years of the story, but that’s another matter. 
  5. I’ve been married for thirty years and I’d like thirty more, so “training” is what I’m going with. 

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