Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Boy on TV (as of this posting it's not on the site yet, but should be soon).

It was just on, he's the team leader for Skorper Tank 225.

What's on the turntable? "Taschenrechner" by Kraftwerk from "Minimum-Maximum"

Adaptations are hard

...and seldom work satisfactorily.

So, the latest "Day of the Triffids" adaptation by the BBC. As I said it seemed to get very little promotion and was buried in the back end of the Christmas schedule. I imagine the powers-that-be realised that it "wasn't very good".

John Wyndham was a phenomenal writer, leaving aside his predictions of GM crops, global warming, satellite-based weapons, and who knows what else, he had a knack for creating menace using a very matter-of-fact style. His skill was, perhaps, in plotting the behaviour of people and society when put under incredible stress.

While occasionally he would get into nasty details - the horror of the attack on the sea-coast town by the aliens in "The Kraken Wakes" really sticks in my mind. Yet it's not really gory, just matter-of-fact recording (the narrrator is a journalist).

The problem with adaptations is that novels are a very different animal to TV or film. The best recommendation for writers involved in adaptations is to capture the spirit of the novel - the intention of the original author - and not worry so much about the actual plot, though one does try to keep the same sequence and events.

Peter Jackson took huge liberties with "Lord of the Rings" (and everybody leaves out Tom Bombadil) but created something that truly carried the spirit of the original. It's a phenomenal piece of work.

*** Utter Spoilerage from here on out ***

So we have to ask: what is the spirit of "Day of the Triffids"?

John Wyndham is always making a point about the human condition - usually human arrogance and stupidity. In the book he makes the point that the blinding of the population is caused by satellite weapons, and that the triffids are completely manufactured. In other words: humans did it to themselves.

In this version the blindness is caused by a solar storm, and the triffids are natural (if slightly modified to increase their oil yield).

In other words, to my mind, the story had its heart ripped out.

Purists will complain that huge liberties were taken with the events that took place - but I'm not really complaining about that. I understand why the writer introduced Torrance from the start and had him as the leader of the Brighton group - now shifted to London. It's not what I would have done, but I understand it.

Let's look at the triffids themselves. In the original they are plants, they can move slowly and have their poison whip - and they can hear and communicate with rattles. They are a type of carnivorous plant but still plants, mostly they sit around and wait for their prey to come to them. They kill to create a richer soil to grow on. Blow its flower off and it'll grow another one eventually. Guns don't really bother them, shotguns can slow them down a bit.

In the new version they move reasonably fast and have tentacular roots that are completely controllable (so must have a complete nervous system). Obviously this new nervous system is the reason why guns have a bigger effect and they can be killed by beating their flower head to a pulp. They also want to eat people - just people. They will travel a hundred miles for a human lunch.

And, apparently, one human every couple of days is sufficient to keep dozens of them satisfied - I am referring to to the nunnery sequence here - except they don't completely absorb these ones (just to be sure they're recognisable). Yet the other triffids are not satisfied with even one dead human, kill one and then ignore it and go to kill another.

It may be just me, but I feel the originals are far scarier then these new ones. By making the triffids an obvious danger - even one being lethal - their overall menace is taken away. The fact that triffids can hear is the key point of the menace. It means that as long as people are quiet they can get away (as long as they don't get too close) but if someone starts shouting or starts a car. the audience knows what's coming - it's how you build tension: audience superiority and inevitability. All this is lost with psychotically murderous triffids that can hear and feel - and think.

There were, of course, the other obvious problems: characters wandering around alone and at night when they know there are triffids around - typical stupid schlock horror rubbish. The main character going off to capture a triffid by himself ... by himself? Yet there were three other people who could go with him (one of whom was another triffid expert). When Susan hides in his landrover (which was impossible, by the way, there was no way she could have got to it unseen) you know that either he's going to get into trouble and she'll save him, or she'll get into trouble and he'll save her. (It was the latter.)

My feeling overall is that the story completely lost the point: the title of the story is "Day of the Triffids" by concentrating on the characters and their relationships - and changing the plot to increase that interdependence the triffids became an afterthought, it was no longer about them.

In regard to other aspects: the acting was all good (Eddie Izzard makes a great villain), the actual dialogue was good, the effects certainly good enough.

I have to say that I still prefer the 70s TV version, obviously it's a bit slow by modern standards and the acting (not to mention the triffids) are a bit wooden; but it is more faithful to the original and manages to communicate the level of menace that is the essence of Wyndham, despite its handicaps.

I didn't hate this new version (no point turning my emotions up to 11, it's only TV). I liked some bits, understood why other bits were the way they were, and tutted at the TV in places at the utter stupidity of it.

What's on the turntable? "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting" by Elton John

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

We have been watching...

What a laugh ... back in September it was the Teacher's birthday and the four of us (myself, the Teacher, the Daughter and the Boy) went out for a meal at a very nice local Indian Restaurant.

This was before we shot Monsters and before the Boy was on Bamzooki (and no, I haven't forgotten, they made rather more episodes than I expected - he hasn't been on yet, I'll let you know).

The discussion got on to the subject of shooting schedules - who was doing what and when - then we suddenly realised what we sounded like, all this TV and schedules and so forth, and burst out laughing.

However on to the main course:

We've been having a bit of a Bruce Willis Christmas.

We have a tradition: Boxing Day involves closing the curtains and watching a set of films from a series. For two years we did the entire Lord of the Rings extended - needs 12 hours - last year we did all four Indiana Jones (not entirely satisfying), and this year we did the Die Hards. (Next year we'll be doing LotR again.)

The Die Hards are good satisfying fun - you almost never see the third one nowadays since it involves bombs in New York - and we enjoyed them (the Boy had only seen 4.0 until then). EDIT: Die Hard 3 was on this very evening. Typical.

The Teacher was also very pleased with her gifts, since she got one of her all-time favourite films on DVD: Hudson Hawk. This is a very silly film and it was a box office disaster - but it has a certain charm. The Teacher loves it. And it's a Bruce Willis film. From a screenwriting viewpoint there is an awful lot wrong with this film - it doesn't know its genre for a start - and yet it still manages to please.

In the great video cull of 2008 we lost a lot of films we liked to watch - though by then we did not have a video player that worked properly (except one integral to a very small TV). So we've been replacing with DVDs - we've seen Blu-ray on a big TV and yes, it is fantastic, but we won't changing in the near future.

We have now also re-acquired The Hunt for Red October which we watched. Quality stuff. Other DVDs we've newly received but not yet re-watched: Galaxy Quest to go with our brand-new copy of Star Trek, and Practical Magic, as a family we're big Sandra Bullock fans and the Teacher and the Daughter adore this film.

TV has been mostly irrelevant, as it tends to be at Christmas. We watched Dr Who, of course, and were suitably impressed - bearing in mind it was a "part 1". I'll talk about the new "Day of the Triffids" tomorrow when we've seen part 2. However the fact that it had almost zero promotion may give you a clue - John Wyndham knows how to spin a terrifying yarn in novel/short story form, adaptations are always hard.

Oh, and the DavidTennant/PatrickStewart/RSC "Hamlet", of course. Overall we think it wasn't as good as the Brannagh one, but still damn good. Brilliant writer, of course.

And I got a telescope for Christmas, I was absolutely stunned and delighted - I've always been interested in astronomy - unfortunately there is a problem and it's not focusing. We are in discussions with the UK distributor.

What's on the turntable? "Your sister can't twist (but she can rock and roll)" by Elton John

Monday, December 28, 2009

Heard the one about the bearded bloke and a reindeer?

Merry wotsit. I shall do my review of 2009 and goals for the coming year on Thursday because I'm just a pedantic bar steward.

I had a private response to my Solicitations blog (the previous one) from one of the actors who appeared in our Monsters mini-pilot. It was on the subject of making direct contact with producers and directors with a view to getting in. (He gave me permission to talk about it.)

There's a production company that have an amazingly commercial idea, well they've had it for at least two years. I had seen their website and their idea myself. Anyway, my correspondent saw their website, recognised that the idea had potential and introduced himself via email as an actor who'd very much like to be in it, if it ever got made.

Cutting a long story short, they stayed in touch, and two years later the film is getting attention and that means money. And it's looking like it's actually happening - at which point he gets an email inviting him to have a featured, but non-speaking, role.


I have another friend who's a writer-director, he's been trying to get a horror movie made for at least the last five years. It's a decent story, a decent script, and he's got real name talent attached (big names). And yet - nothing. Why? Because he wants to direct it himself and the people with the money find that prospect too scary.

It's the way it works. As Simon Beaufoy said at the Screenwriters Festival - it's their money so yes they do have a right to have their conditions met (at least some of them). They are gambling millions.

So what's the solution? There isn't one really, at least, not by being pig-headed or cutting off one's nose to spite one's face.

In the first story, this actor (having got over his initial disappointment) realised that this was a very good opportunity and that it could easily lead to better things - a credit in a successful movie is valuable.

In the second, the director has been producing other work - proving that he can direct. And things are beginning to move.

Anyway, back to the bearded bloke and the reindeer - have you heard that one? No? Pity. I don't know how it ends either.

What's on the turntable? "Joanni" by Kate Bush from "Aerial"

Thursday, December 17, 2009


You don't have to like David Bowie, it doesn't bother me, but I do both as a singer and an actor. One of favourite films is Labyrinth, I can watch it again and again.

***Mild Spoilerage***

At one point the characters have to cross a bridge but it's guarded by a knight who will fight anyone who tries to cross it "without my permission!". After being beaten to a standstill by the knight the main character finally just asks for permission. The knight is a bit surprised by this turn of events - apparently nobody ever just asks - gives it.


This is the whole point when it comes to production companies who don't accept "unsolicited" scripts, because everybody really really wants to find good writers and hopefully good scripts.

It's the query letter or email.

I have quite a high success rate getting my scripts read by industry peeps because I get them to solicit my scripts even without representation.

My feeling is that an old-fashioned snail-mail query letter is easy to ignore and forget - what you need is a good brief email. Since I'm more of a TV writer (I'll get the hang of features one day) I tend to target TV companies. I find ones that produce things I like and are the sort of things I write. I check their website for the the right person to contact, find the email address and write a concise (sometimes not so concise) email explaining who I am, my writing credentials (such as they are) and ask them whether they'd be interested in reading my work.

Humility is called for - and a good choice of subject line. I have a subject line that works really well in all circumstances, and I'm not saying what it is (sorry).

I've even used this approach successfully with the BBC.

I personally think the key is to realise that you're selling yourself as a writer rather than attempting to push a particular script. Almost all writing jobs in film and TV will be writing what someone else wants, it's very rare to get a spec made until you've made a name for yourself, sometimes not even then.

If your scripts, or parts of them, are available on the web so much the better - then you can just direct people to the correct URL. It makes it really easy for them and that's important, the fewer barriers between them and your script, the better. It's also useful if you have more than one - just to prove you're not a one-script wonder.

I mention all this because I got an email yesterday from a production company as a response to one of these query emails. And they will be reading my scripts (plural).

Nothing may come of it, but at the very least (for better or worse) they now know my name.

What's on the turntable? "Mobocaster" by Tangerine Dream from "Tang-Go"

Monday, December 14, 2009

Writing about writing

Yes indeedy.

I was watching Elf yester-eve. I hadn't seen it before and I'm not a huge Will Ferrell fan - but as I mentioned in this post, I'm not the sort of person that feels the need to turn their emotions up to 11, when anything from 1 to 10 might be more appropriate.

Elf is okay, amusing and doesn't get overly sentimental despite being a family feel-good movie. I wouldn't be averse to seeing it again, but wouldn't go out of my way to see it.

But that's not the point. It's the important similarity between Elf and The Fugitive that I'm talking about here - actually Elf isn't a perfect example but it has elements that reminded me of the point.

Yes, but what is the point? I hear you scream.

The Protagonist and the Hero's Journey.

Everybody knows that the Hero goes on a journey and they change in the process.

Everybody knows.


Actually that isn't always true. (Please note, I am not turning my emotion up to 11 here, I said "it isn't always true" which means there are instances where it isn't true, and instances where it is true.)

Who's the protagonist in the Fugitive? Dr. Kimble, whose wife is killed by the one-armed man, or so he claims. What journey does Dr Kimble go on in The Fugitive? Um ... none. At the beginning he knows he's right and at the end he's exactly the same. The only journey is proving he is right, he doesn't change.

But, his pursuer, Tommy Lee Jones's character, he changes but he isn't the protagonist.

In Elf Buddy is the protagonist, no question, but the journey belongs to his father. He's the one that does the classic Aristotleian Dilemma-Crisis-Decision and Action-Resolution. And it's really obvious. (Buddy does have his own sub-plot which involves some change, but it's a sub-plot.)

What it means is: the Protagonist does not have change, they can be "Steadfast". But someone does have to change.

I'm not going to pretend I thought this up all by myself, however it's taken me a while to absorb this concept thoroughly and find other examples. It comes originally from Dramatica which I read up on for a while - it appealed to my computer programming background (which is why, I suspect, some people think it's too automated - but as usual that's not right, it's just another tool which you can choose to use or not use).

So that's today's take-away, or leave-behind depending on your viewpoint. And if you want to disagree, well, I don't mind, but have a good think about it first.

What's on the turntable? "Something to believe in" by Clannad from "Sirius"

Friday, December 11, 2009

Keeping up appearances

I've not been blogging because this is primarily a screenwriting blog - and I haven't been. I've been rather tied up with a little web-based project that could net me a few extra pounds. And we could all do with a few extra pounds (as long as they're monetary - I have plenty extra of the other sort).

Anyway if you don't read Bill Martell's blog you should and this one is another interesting insight into the curious world of scriptwriting in Hollywood.

Tomorrow I'm heading down with family to That Crazy London, to see relatives and go to a birthday party of an old friend. I'm pretty sure he doesn't read this blog - and he doesn't know we'll be there. I hope I haven't spoiled the surprise.

I'm planning to invest much of the Christmas break to writing - hopefully getting the first draft of Winter complete.

Oh, the Boy hasn't been on TV yet - we have no idea when he'll be on because it hasn't been the last two episodes of Bamzooki and isn't the next one either (apparently).

The Daughter has discovered there's a major (well-loved) fantasy book which is not currently optioned ... she wants to make it. She really wants to make it. With that kind of intention, she just might.

What's on the turntable? "Go Your Own Way" by Fleetwood Mac from "Rumours" - except this is deluxe edition with lots of extra tracks. And this is a previously unreleased version of the song with slight differences to the released one, though not many.

Monday, December 07, 2009

So shoot me

I know, I haven't blogged in over a week. Very unlike me.

Well, I'm not blogging now, either. But I think this is important (it's about screenwriting).

What's on the turntable? "Into the Lens" by Yes from "Drama"