Blockbuster adaptations and moral ambiguity

Who watches these movies?

When it comes to adapting literature into film, I’m hardly one of those people who demands a slavish devotion to the source material; in fact, quite the opposite. I expect and welcome when directors make changes to the original content if it makes the story and characters more palatable for the medium. What matters most is that the adaptation nails the spirit of its source. That’s why Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy stands as one of the defining cinematic achievements of the new century – for all that was changed, it absolutely nails the spirit of Tolkien’s iconic tome.

What has me worried about two major book-to-film adaptations currently in the works is not how well they’ll work as movies. Both Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass (the first book of the His Dark Materials trilogy)are epic, masterful works that will sit well among this decade’s most popular movie genres. No, I’m worried about how they’ll work as popular movies. After all, Warner Brothers and New Line Cinema respectively aren’t greenlighting these movies for artistic reasons. They’re hoping to create two more genre sensations – one superhero, the other fantasy – in the wake of countless similar films that preceded them. And I’m not only concerned that studios are betting on the wrong horses, but that they’ll whip those horses to run the way they want them to.

The problem is that popular filmmaking doesn’t handle moral complexity very well. The majority of people don’t go to the movies to have their worldview questioned; they go to have it reinforced. They want their protagonists to be challenged, certainly, but by the end of the film they want a clear view of right and wrong, of good and evil, so they can be reassured about the state of their own world. If the actual world around us can’t provide certainty, we want our popular culture to do so for us.

What’s so wonderful about both Moore’s Watchmen and Pullman’s His Dark Materials is the wrench they throw into this rigid concept of morality. Watchmen, considered one of the greatest accomplishments in the history of comics (evidenced by the fact that I’ve actually read it), goes through great pains to complicate the superhero formula, making several not-so-subtle links between the ideology of superheroes and fascism. Its ending is as complicated as it is troubling, which is precisely the point. The disturbingly utilitarian decisions made at the climax leave the reader unsettled and uncomfortable as they turn the final page.

Likewise, His Dark Materials dismisses the idea of good and evil as absolutes. Its two dominant adult characters start off as fairly clear cut: Lord Asriel looks like a hero and Miss Coulter definitely looks like a villain. And yet, throughout the three books things end up becoming decidedly more complex on both fronts. This is merely one aspect of the books’ anti-authoritarian message, embodied in its criticisms of theology, dogma and organized religion (Narnia, this ain’t). In Pullman’s universe, no adult authority is to be trusted.

Now, there are all sorts of challenges facing the film versions of both Watchmen and His Dark Materials – not the least of which is their massive scope – but perhaps their biggest challenge is how to portray their moral complexities to audiences who would prefer certainty. I’m less worried about Watchmen. I know that Terry Gilliam once declared the comic unfilmable, and that director Zach Snyder hasn’t faced a storytelling challenge this massive before (300 wasn’t exactly a “story” film), but everything I’ve seen so far in terms of casting and design impresses me. But with The Golden Compass, I’m intensely concerned. When a book’s main thesis is “organized religion is bad,” how on earth will it not be muted for the “next Lord of the Rings” audience that New Line is seeking? How will it handle the book’s authority figures all turning out flawed and untrustworthy? And can director Chris Weitz – who’s never done a big studio picture like this – keep things in order?

Because with millions of dollars on the line, the sanctity of the source material isn’t about to block the path to mass consumption.

Watch: The Golden Compass trailer

Watch: Watchmen panel @ Comic-Con 2007 Part 1 (watch part 2 here)

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