Sunday, 3 April 2011

Why films don't always make good books

I saw the SF movie 'World Invasion' (aka Battle for LA) last night, and it got me thinking about why films written from a script don't always tranlate back into books. For those who haven't seen it, World Invasion is about a platoon trying to fend off aliens in modern day Los Angeles. Unusually, it's more about the platoon and the interactions between the 'team' led by Aaron Eckhart, than cool computer graphic images (CGI) of aliens.

The aliens themselves look techy but are fairly flimsy and terrible shots, judging by the survival rate of the platoon members. There is a lot of 'handcam' filming, and although I'm not a fan of handheld camera work, it's appropriate as it gives the sense of disorientation in battle a gritty realism. Not sure how a Kindle would handle it, though - maybe the Kindle could shake the words around on the page?

The film kicks off well with good battle scenes which establish that the world is in serious trouble, and then flashes back to 24 hours earlier before the invasion began. Having had a good start, the next fifteen minutes quickly establish the characters, such as they are, and then the action ramps up again.

Incidentally, this trick of having a 'guns blazing' start and then slowing down to introduce the charatcters while the reader/viewer gathers his or her breath is called the swimming pool technique - kick off hard, then glide before you start swimming again. Excellent pacing technique, whether film or book.

I enjoyed the film - it was better than I expected, and executed well given its theme. The main problem however, is the concept, and here is where it would be difficult to translate it back into a book, because once you start to think about it, you quickly realise it's full of holes.

First hole is that these aliens come from space, but decide to engage in a good old fashioned infantry-style battle. Why? Why not just blast cities from space? Second hole is that although they can obviously travel between the stars, their weapons are barely a match for our tooled-up marines. Does that make sense to anyone? Third - there was no nuclear response (as in the film Independence Day). Why not? Given that the aliens ships looked as if they'd been borrowed from the site of the quirky but excellent film District 9, they'd have been vapourised in micro-seconds.

What I did like about the concept, and its (more polished) forebear Independence Day, was that the aliens used a co-ordinated attack, hitting major cities at the same time, causing mass global shock, and preventing a co-ordinated reponse. The confusion and the despondency of the platoon members was palpable in the film (though I didn't need the camera shots of crying kids to ram it home). I also liked the inferred reason for the invasion, that the aliens wanted our water as so few planets have liquid water - a nice SF touch.

In my book, The Eden Paradox, the build-up to the attack on Earth occupies three quarters of the book, and when it finally comes, it is savage and devastating, and above all, quick. This makes more sense to me. And the aliens find a sneaky way to neutralise nuclear and nanotech defences...

A lot of Hollywood blockbusters these days are not based on books but on scripts and screenplays. These often work well while watching the film, but if you really think about it after the popcorn is finished, you'll often find holes in the plot. If it's a book, such holes are spotted and plugged long before the book gets published.

Still, I love movies, and am willing to ramp up my 'suspension of disbelief' for a couple of hours and just enjoy the moment. And there are exceptions, like Inception, for me the best SF film for a long time (but the script took a decade to deliver, longer than most books). At which point I'll declare my favourite SF film ever, Blade Runner, based on the book by Philip K Dick. Here is a great film, and a great book, though they are very different. A rare win-win in the ongoing debate over films vs. books.

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