Friday, 20 July 2007

What I Learned from Dodgy Movie Adaptations

During my undergraduate days (ah! what halcyon days they were!), in one of my several English Lit courses I was required to write an essay on an adaptation of one of the novels we had studied. One of these had been Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, which I found interesting and surprisingly popular (in all senses of the word)- Defoe was perhaps one of the first to indulge in the making of endless sequels following an initial unexpected success. And yes, if you're interested, none of the sequels to Robinson Crusoe were any good- there's a reason you've never heard of them.

The book had interested me so I dutifully made my way to my local video store and borrowed a copy of Robinson Crusoe starring Pierce Brosnan. Yes, there's a reason you haven't heard of it either. It was made in 1997. I don't remember seeing it advertised at all, and am not even sure if it saw the cinema. If it did, it didn't really warrant it (not that a lot of the things that see the cinema these days do). What interested me most about it, however, was the elements of the plot the film had changed.

In the book, Robinson Crusoe sets out to sea to explore and see the world. It is his desire for new experiences and adventure that propels him towards a maritime career. And his being marooned on an island is only the most major of his many adventures (the book also includes, among other things, Crusoe and Friday fighting off wolves in the snow, for example). In the film, Crusoe is compelled to seek the sea because he has killed a man in a duel out of love (sic) for the newly-invented character Mary.

I am not so much of a purist that I was offended by the change simply because it was a change. Defoe certainly would not have been fazed by someone changing his story to make more money- he would have changed it himself if he had thought it would have that effect. I was far more interested in why the change was made and what it meant. I explored a couple of ideas in this connection in the essay I subsequently wrote.

Fast forward a couple of years. The film The Time Machine starring Guy Pearce is released. I am slightly but not overly intrigued by it- not enough to pay money to go and see it, at any rate. I had enjoyed the book by H.G. Wells in high school very much (my first introduction to Wells, actually), but the film looked a bit silly. When it came out on DVD, I had occasion to sit and watch it for free. So I did.

And here I detected the same pattern. In the book, the Time Traveller (for so he is called throughout) is obsessed and excited by the concept of time travel. The very idea is exhilirating. And the way Wells describes it, there's a certain exotic wonder about the idea of it and, subseqently, its execution. In this, it is a very nineteenth century book- entranced by the idea of Progress, coming on the tail-end of the Age of Discovery. This scientific impulse- to learn, know and see new things- this wanderlust, this thirst for discovery and to pioneer, was resurrected very briefly with the NASA programme, but didn't last more than 10 years after the Moon landings.

Exhibit A: The Time Machine starring Guy Pearce. In the film, the impulse to travel through time has nothing to do with science or discovery- it has to do with Guy travelling to the past to rescue his fiance who was tragically killed.

This pattern of film versions of books replacing the original motive of the protagonist with one based around romantic love got me thinking. We are probably aware that ours is the most eroticised culture in recent history. Generally, we may be accustomed to think of this in connection with its negative implications- the sexualisation of youth, for example, or the lowering standards of modesty, the increased availability of pornography, etc. Yet here we see quite different (and, in one sense, positive) implications of this viz. the summum bonum has become romantic love.

In our culture's mindset, the goal of human existence, and its highest good, has been sexualised. If we canvas any number of films, or even just imagine for a moment, and see what qualifies as a happy ending, it will inevitably involve a romantic relationship. The application of romance as summum bonum can be varied as well. For example, the redemption of a protagonist almost invariably involves him/her falling in love, often with a fair helping of self-sacrifice thrown in. The applications can be multiplied.

All of which leads me to suggest that JPII's Theology of the Body is brilliantly timely. It redeems the glasses through which our culture sees everything. It explains and heals not only the vices to which our culture is particularly prone, but also the goods for which it longs and the virtues that it elevates above any others. For this reason, I believe the Theology of the Body will be absolutely crucial for future evangelistic efforts. For those of us involved in evangelistic efforts ourselves, therefore, we need to take the Theology of the Body into account. These are the words our culture needs to hear and, indeed, is longing to hear. The harvest is plentiful but the labourers are few.

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