Monday, May 27, 2013

Is Television the New Silver Screen?

Having grown up in the 1970's, I developed a strong disinterest in television at an early age.  Endless reruns of The Brady Bunch or The Love Boat were not much of an incentive to sit in front of our family's small black-and-white television when I could be doing more interesting things.  Even after we got cable, I was disappointed to find that all those extra channels played the exact same shows I already didn't want to watch.

So for most of my life, the rule was that if I wanted to watch something good I went to the movies, and television was reserved as a special form of torment for when I was too sick or bored to do anything more than lay on the couch, respiring and metabolizing.

This is a paradigm that seems to be reversing itself in recent years.  It's been a long time since a movie has truly impressed me, and few have entertained me enough to warrant the price of admission.  On the other hand, there has been a growing number of outstanding television shows that, unlike those of my youth, are well-written, well-acted, and have high production values.  This trend started over a decade ago, when HBO launched The Sopranos, which was so successful, that the network fed its viewer's growing appetite for high quality television shows with historical dramas like Rome, and Deadwood.  HBO isn't the only network to realize the value of quality programming, and AMC has produced some truly outstanding series over the past few years such as Breaking Bad, and more recently, The Walking Dead, both of which have been extremely popular.

One of the most exciting developments in this recent trend towards high quality television is HBO's series A Game of Thrones, adapted from George R. R. Martin's fantasy series, A Song of Fire and Ice.  This series format has allowed, for the first time ever, a high fidelity adaptation of a series of novels that remains faithful to the story and its characters.  Martin, himself, is an executive producer of the show, and has written some of the episodes.  Likewise, AMC's The Walking Dead employs Robert Kirkman, creator of the graphic novel series from which the show was adapted, as one of the executive producers.

Thus, there has been a refreshing commitment to treating adapted works with the respect they are due, and consulting with the original authors to ensure that their vision is faithfully created on the screen.  This is something that has happened infrequently in Hollywood adaptations - typically, when authors sell movies rights they lose any say in how those movies will be made and it often appears as though the writers, directors, and producers of the movie never bothered to even read the source material, let alone faithfully adapt it.  One of the difficulties in adapting a novel or, worse still, series of novels to the big screen is that the story must be told within the two to three hour time frame of a movie and it can be awfully difficult to develop characters and tell a novel-length story in that time.  A lot of plot ends up on the cutting room floor.

Television, however is the ideal medium for the visual adaptation of novels. a single book can be portrayed faithfully in about ten episodes, which is far beyond the means of a movie, but well within the scope of a mini-series presented in the course of a single season.  So, it looks as though after more than eighty years television is finally hitting its stride.

Movies however, seem to be in a decaying orbit.  Hollywood has been attempting to draw us into movie theaters with the siren call of technological innovation, filming everything in "3-D" with a veritable orgy of CGI effects.  Mostly at the expense of an actual story.

Indeed, Hollywood appears to be tapped for ideas and is doing its damndest to ignore the fact.  Instead, they're sticking their collective fingers in their ears and singing "la, la, la, I can't hear you!" while remaking movie versions of every crappy '70's T.V. show that I didn't want to watch when it was in syndication, or looking for the next hot property to licence.  But here's the thing: no amount of CGI is going to make me want to watch "Knight Rider, the Motion Picture," and I'm pretty sure that nobody in their right mind wants to see The Brady Bunch in 3-D.  Meanwhile we are treated to an endless array of lacklustre adaptations of popular works of fiction: tepid shades of cinematic Jason Bournes, Jack Reachers, John Carters, and Bilbo Bagginses limp across the screen dressed up in such flashy special effects that, hopefully, the audience won't notice.  There is much buzz about the impending release of Ender's Game, an adaptation of the science fiction classic by Orson Scott Card but, past performance being the best predictor of future behaviour, I have very little cause for optimism.

It doesn't have to be this way, though.  Television has finally found itself, and movie producers need to break out of this self-destructive cycle of laziness and rediscover their roots.  Movies need to go back to what it is they do best: telling stories written specifically to be told in a visual format in a two hour time span.  In other words, film makers need to stop adapting literary works, or incestuously plagiarizing themselves and focus on producing movies based on original screen plays.

Perhaps the age of the silver screen is over: modern home entertainment systems have made movie theaters largely obsolete, and by obsessively making movies that are intended to reverse this trend, Hollywood is looking to go down with a sinking ship.  But it doesn't have to be this way.  If they reinvent movies as a relevant story-telling medium and embrace the reality of how people watch them we could see the beginning of a new age in cinema.