This one’s from reader Eric Stoveken:
Have you ever had a movie (or other media) experience enhanced by a lack of familiarity with the source material?
Note: This AVQ&A reveals major plot points of everything mentioned below.
While I was aware that Judge Dredd was a comic, I had never read it. And after hearing about the misbegotten take on the material headlined by Sylvester Stallone, I never planned to. But then I decided, on a whim, to go see the 2013 film Dredd. It was in the middle of the day, in Brooklyn. There was exactly one other person in the theater. And I can assure you, it was one of the best moviegoing experiences of my life. That lone other attendee and I bonded forever over our shared whoops of joy. Having no understanding of the subversive nature of the source material, I entered the theater expecting a stupid shoot-’em-up, and was rewarded with one of the best action films in recent years. Karl Urban instantly became a new crush, and, having since been somewhat underwhelmed by the comics, I can affirm that I would never have had that magical experience, had I known anything about what I was in for.
I won’t argue that Twilight is a great book or movie, but I do think seeing the movie without having any sense of the book’s background, fandom, or general insanity really helped grab me. I don’t know that I ever would have picked up a YA novel about sparkly vampires, but I was drawn to the movie by commercials that spoke to me as a fan of dumb teen romances. And while the acting, directing, and pretty much everything about the movie is no great shakes, I left the theater wanting to know what happened next—especially because I knew that was absolutely possible. I popped right into the bookstore next to the theater, picked up New Moon, and the rest is, as they say, glittery, unbelievable history.
I deliberately remained spoiler free on Gone Girl, despite the fact that it was such a cultural juggernaut, both as a book and as a film. I’m actually kind of surprised I was able to, even though I didn’t see it until just a few weeks ago. But just by virtue of the fact that I knew there was some kind of twist, I was on slightly high alert. So I wasn’t the slightest bit surprised that Amy Elliott-Dunne wasn’t actually dead or even kidnapped, but I was still able to enjoy the twists that followed. I still don’t have any real desire to read the book, and I’m sure glad I didn’t before I actually saw the film, since those twists were most of the fun (is that the right word?) for me.
I have a strange history with the film Pay It Forward. For reasons I may never know, my high school marketing classes often featured viewings of it. By the time I was in college I was under the impression I had seen this film at least four times and was eager to watch the feel-good, well-casted creation again. After I told my best friend to cue it up, she hesitated and asked if I was sure, adding something about it being such a downer. I had no idea what she was talking about, because classes were 90 minutes in high school… and it turns out I had never watched Pay It Forward, which clocks in at 123 minutes, from beginning to end. I was also completely unfamiliar with Catherine Ryan Hyde’s novel, which the film was adapted from. This story ends with me bawling and yelling, “THEY KILL HIM. WHAT THE FUCK, THEY KILL HIM? AFTER HE WAS PAYING IT FORWARD THE WHOLE DAMN TIME.” And before you yell “SPOILER” back at me, take a moment and admit that it’s better to know that going in so you can avoid any attachment to young do-gooder Trevor McKinney (Haley Joel Osment).
I’ve never read Stephen King’s Carrie, but Brian DePalma’s 1976 film based on the novel is among my favorite horror films. King himself reportedly withheld his support for Kimberly Peirce’s 2013 remake, calling it superfluous given that DePalma’s version was “much better than the book.” I should have taken heed to King’s warning, but I was intrigued by the idea of a Carrie that hewed closer to the book, especially given the innovations in visual effects since 1976. DePalma’s film is far superior to King’s book and Peirce’s film, and I wouldn’t have kept an open mind to it if I’d gone into it expecting the book. The biggest difference is that in DePalma’s prom scene, he leaves some ambiguity in the students’ reaction to Carrie getting doused in pig’s blood. They could be laughing at her, but DePalma’s version strongly suggests Carrie hallucinates the laughter in reaction to the trauma, then razes a gym full of kids in response. The approach allows the audience to view Carrie as a tragedy in which the malice of a few leads to the slaughter of many. In Peirce’s version, the laughter is literal, and only the prank’s perpetrators are killed, making it play more like a straight revenge tale. Plus, the new Carrie can fly, and don’t even get me started on that.
I wasn’t even aware Guardians Of The Galaxy was a comic book when Marvel announced it was adapting the title for the big screen. After seeing the movie, I picked up a collection of the comic and was baffled by a convoluted knot of alternate universes, warring timelines, prophecies, magic, and an ever-shifting cast of characters that prominently features a talking raccoon. It seemed like comic books at their worst—a tangled storyline nearly impossible for newcomers to jump into, full of every absurd sci-fi and fantasy plot twist in the book. Had that been my introduction to Guardians, I almost certainly would have dismissed the film out of hand, and missed out on James Gunn’s witty, propulsive adaptation, which effortlessly streamlines the comic book into a rousing adventure story… that prominently features a talking raccoon.
If I’m watching a movie based on a novel, odds are good that it’s a novel I haven’t read (I consume way more movies than novels, and many of my favorite books have remained blessedly unadapted). So I’m sure there have been countless movies where lack of familiarity helped me go in with an open mind. But something I probably love more for having watched it before I read it is High Fidelity, the Stephen Frears/John Cusack movie of Nick Hornby’s novel. Granted, the movie is pretty close to the book. But I think if I had read it first, I might have been distracted by the movie’s combination of major cultural changes (like the shift from England to the U.S.) and the large chunks of dialogue and narration taken verbatim from the book. Watching the movie fresh also turned John Cusack’s on-screen past into de facto replacement source material for me, so despite having since read most of Hornby’s books (and loved several, including Fidelity), I think of the movie as the final installment in the Cusack Trilogy begun by Say Anything and Grosse Point Blank—and prefer it that way. (That said: As much as I like the movie’s Evil Dead II shout-out, it does make more sense in the book as Reservoir Dogs.)
The only thing I knew about Cloud Atlas when I sat down to watch it was that it was the latest film from the Wachowskis, a pair of filmmakers who occasionally frustrate, but rarely bore. Cloud Atlas turned out to be my favorite of their movies since the original Matrix, a winding, often audacious tale of human destiny that also featured the most interesting performance I’d seen from Tom Hanks in years. It was only after I walked away from the film in a happy daze that I discovered David Mitchell’s source novel and realized what drastic changes the Wachowskis had wrought on it in the transition to film. The book’s elaborate, nested structure, its most notable feature, had been discarded in favor of a far more conventional—and visually effective—layering of different plots and timelines. Cloud Atlas the novel is a work of deliberate build-ups, with each story reaching a climax before jumping to the start of the next. Cloud Atlas the film is a much wilder thing, emphasizing themes of interconnection and destiny as it skips from time to time. What’s lost in the pleasure of the novel’s formalist exercise is made up for in the energy the Wachowskis and editor Alexander Berner contributed. I’m proof that the novel can be enjoyed after watching the film, but I had a much better time watching the movie without knowledge of the novel’s rigid structure distracting me from its joys.
Some people have soaps. I have Game Of Thrones, a reliably lurid plot monster that lives for the hook. At least half the episodes end with something that has me eager for the next installment, from a sudden but inevitable betrayal to a heartwarming wedding toast. The show’s a roller coaster, but wearing a blindfold makes the ride even more exciting. Now, it’s hard to keep up with pop culture and not know anything about the story. I knew there was something called The Red Wedding, for instance. But whatever I expected, by the end my mouth hung open and I just stared in disbelief until the credits were over. And now that the show is in the territory of the lesser-loved later books, there’s so little chatter about what’s in store that it feels like anything could happen. Which makes watching it all the more fun.
Everyone else is going with movies, but I’m taking a left turn with my answer: The Iron Man: The Musical, by Pete Townshend. When the once and future Who guitarist released this solo album in 1989, I hadn’t read Ted Hughes’ original story, which is probably known more familiarly to Americans as The Iron Giant (yes, that one), but I was extremely intrigued by the various folks Townshend had rounded up to participate in his project, including John Lee Hooker and Nina Simone, as well as Roger Daltrey and John Entwistle, with whom Townshend reunited for a pair of tracks (“Dig” and a cover of Arthur Brown’s “Fire”). I won’t say it’s the best thing Townshend’s ever done, but I listened to it so many times when I was working music retail that I still remember every song and will always have a soft spot for it, particularly Hooker—who gives voice to The Iron Man!—singing “I Eat Heavy Metal.” Talk about your perfect casting.