April 9, 2006

A Sound of Thunder

Posted in Movies, Reading, Reviews, Writing at 3:15 pm by mj

Last weekend, we watched the 2005 Hollywoodisation of A Sound of Thunder. I didn’t really expect much of the movie–this is Hollywood, after all, retelling a 50-year old story that had already seeped into the consciousness of every American boy.

I cringed most of the way through the movie. First of all, the acting was pretty bad, and not intentionally so. It was like every actor was just reading his lines from a teleprompter. Second, the special effects were worse than, say, those found on Sliders ten years ago. Third, the story itself was just bland; ironically (or not), The Butterfly Effect was a far superior movie.

But the worst was the preachiness, which seemed to be on overdrive: every other line was either hitting the audience over the head with an explanation of the events to come, or preaching about how saving the environment is a noble cause, or blaming capitalism for the evils of the world. I’m not saying these were bad sentiments, or necessarily out of place. I’m sure Ray Bradbury agrees with every line uttered, and probably most Americans too. It’s just that they were out of place and overdone.

So, this weekend, I went back to read Bradbury’s original story. …

I have two distinct recollections of encountering this story in my childhood: once, in elementary school, a teacher-in-training read it to the class (weren’t those teachers-in-training hot in the 80’s??); and, later, in high school, completing an independent study American literature course. Both times I was just blown away, especially by the end.

I sought out an online copy (which I found through the Wikipedia entry) expecting to put the movie to absolute shame, so I could blog about how much they fucked up the original story, and how Hollywood never gets things right. Well, maybe not with those intentions exactly, but c’mon, you know I was bound to do it.

After rereading the story, however, I am struck by a couple of unexpected observations.

First, the movie is pretty faithful to the story, as far as the backstory and feel of the protagonists are concerned. It just tacks on much more to the end, in a fanboyish fashion, and creates the quintessential Hollywood “happy ending.” (If I were being nice, I would say that the movie was probably written by a couple of Bradbury fanboys who just lacked experience writing compelling scripts with believable dialogue and science that doesn’t peg the willing-suspension-of-disbelief meter.)

Second, the story itself contains a lot more exposition than I remembered. It, too, spends a disproportionate amount of time explaining the events that are about to transpire, compared with the amount of time it spends developing the world or the characters. I have absolutely no idea why I ever remembered it having a twist ending, because it was telegraphed in the fourth paragraph. And again in the fifth. And sixth. And…

I wonder if this says something about translating stories into movies. Is it possible that exposition works in stories in a way that it doesn’t work on the screen?

I know when I read, I tend to nearly overlook exposition (a lot of SF contains much exposition, so this may be entirely self-taught)–it’s like the author is creating a direct connection to the intellectual parts of my brain, preparing me with the science or pseudo-science behind his world, and freeing the existential parts of my consciousness to concentrate on the characters.

But in the movies, it falls flat, because I know that people don’t talk that way. Also, movies have to contain all their exposition through dialogue (or creative uses of monologues), whereas stories are free to dig into a character’s thoughts, or provide it through quick narrative.

This thought will reappear when I write up my thoughts on Cordwainer Smith, whose collection I just finished for the first time. But that’s for a later post.

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