Imagine having waited six years for someone to make a film adaptation of your favourite book. Now imagine yourself sitting in a theatre eagerly anticipating what you believe deserves to be the cinematic equivalent of Star Wars. But almost from the outset you realize it’s not going to be Star Wars, it’s actually Space Balls. Except it isn’t meant to be a parody, it’s meant to be a dramatic interpretation of your book. Welcome to my world last night, when, for the first time in my life, I seriously considered walking out of a theatre.
It all started about six years ago when I tried to read Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale for the first time. I say ‘tried’ because I didn’t finish it. In fact, it wasn’t until a year later when I re-read it that I finally managed to get to the end. But since then, I’ve read it every year at Christmastime and it’s become one of my favourite books. Kind of like an annual visit with an old (extremely messed up and verbose) friend. That said: this book is not for the faint of heart. Yes, it is a masterpiece and Helprin is a wizard with words, but it’s not for everyone. It’s fucking intense, the passages are extremely long and descriptive, and a lot of the time, the storyline doesn’t fully connect or make a whole lot of sense. In fact, only after reading it six times, do I actually feel like I have an understanding of the characters, the plot, and the underlying themes.
About a year ago, when I first heard that a movie about this book was to be made, I was fairly skeptical. There are just some books that should never be made into movies. Or at least not in the Hollywood style. And I felt like Winter’s Tale was one of those books. It’s so immense that probably only a trilogy would be able to capture it all. Nonetheless, I tried to be optimistic and excited. Especially since I heard that the director, Akiva Goldsman, was a huge fan of the book and had been dying to make this movie for a really long time. Wonderful, I thought, someone who will understand the true meaning of the story, someone who won’t butcher it with cheesy Hollywood dialogue and shitty CGI. Oh wow, how I could not have been more wrong.
I knew it was going to be bad when I learned that Colin Farrell was to play the lead. Holy shit, Colin Farrell as Peter Lake? No offence to Farrell, but that’s just not a role for him. I never really pictured any Hollywood actor for Peter Lake, but when Wilf forced me to think about it, I suggested that a scruffy Paul Bettany would do the trick. It’s less about appearance and more about feeling, and Farrell is just not mysterious enough. Then, when I saw the trailer in December, I knew all hope was lost. With his floppy hair-do in this film, Farrell just looks like a joke. Although not ideal, the other casting choices were the least of my worries. I had to watch twice just to make sure I wasn’t imagining the absurdity of the script, the corny, insincere interaction between Peter and Beverly, and the mushy theme song.
I probably shouldn’t have gone to the movie, but I had to. I’ve been contemplating it for about two weeks. Luckily I couldn’t bring myself to ask for company, so I went on my own. Still, I couldn’t imagine that it could be worse than the trailer. The sad thing is that I don’t even know where to begin. I’m going to try to avoid ripping it apart as a film because from what I’ve seen, a lot of reviewers have already done that. And rightly so. More than anything, what broke my heart is that someone could so thoroughly butcher such a beautiful piece of original literature and make it just like every other hokey chick flick to have been made in the last decade. How someone could so thoroughly butcher a book they claim to love.
This movie was essentially a hybrid of The Time Traveller’s Wife, Snow White and the Huntsman, The Adjustment Bureau, and Gangs of New York, in which the worst parts where taken from each of them (which says something since the first three were pretty shitty in the first place). Not to mention that a solid two-thirds of the characters and three-quarters of the plot were entirely omitted. It was kind of the opposite of what was done to The Hobbit (whole other kettle of fish). Anyway, I appreciate that it’s a massive book, with tons of characters and plot twists and turns, but if you’re going to settle for a snippet of a book, at least make it a fucking awesome snippet*. The events and dialogue that were included were so sappy and one-dimensional (about as bad as Athansor’s shitty CGI wings) that it felt like a 13-year-old girl wrote the script in an afternoon. (By the way, Athansor is the magical white horse, although you wouldn’t really know that if you’d watched the movie since he’s mostly just referred to as ‘Horse’.)
In fact, I wonder if Goldsman actually read the book. Or if he just kinda skimmed the first 200 pages and thought, “Meh, a flying horse and some gangsters. That’s kinda cool”. Seriously, I was shocked at what he chose to change and leave out. Despite referring to the film as a “fairly tale for grownups” that is “shamelessly magical”, the role and existence of everything magical in the book was shamelessly omitted. There was no cloud wall (one of the most magical things in the book and the real reason Peter Lake is able to travel a century into the future) and Goldsman also clearly failed to appreciate the importance of the approaching new millennium (a.k.a. The Golden Age), since he set the present-day half of the film in 2014. He chose to forgo explaining the origin of Peter Lake’s name, take out the Baymen (with the exception of one brief interaction between Peter Lake and a Native American—who I believe went nameless— at the Battery), remove all of Athansor’s independent adventures, and omit the real reason Peter Lake wanted to save Abby (i.e., his search for the child from the hallway). I guess his interpretation of magic meant focusing on an over-the-top-and-in-your-face importance of miracles and inserting clips of a flying horse as frequently as possible.
Moreover, there was no backstory for why Pearly had it out for Peter Lake (i.e., his betrayal regarding the gold carriers). We were instead given the impression that Pearly was a demon meant to prevent miracles from happening in the mortal world. And that in this particular story, Pearly was supposed to prevent Peter Lake from saving the life of a girl. Unfortunately, Pearly misinterpreted things and instead of the ‘girl’ being Beverley (in the late 1800s part of the film), the girl Peter Lake was supposed to save was actually 8-year old Abby, in present day. The story gave the impression that people are supposed to 1) commit a specific miracle or 2) be killed before they are able to commit their miracle by a demon (e.g. Pearly.) Which made me then wonder that if the two scenarios are mutually exclusive, wouldn’t there be a bunch of people from a hundred-plus years ago running around right now because 1) they haven’t yet committed their specific miracle because it’s too far into the future (i.e., what if my miracle is meant to take place in 2347? Do I have to survive that long?) or 2) they have not yet been killed by a demon? I know, that was probably hard to follow. But I understand the feeling. Not to mention that there were also angels popping up occasionally, which I found amusing. Especially since one of them was responsible for semi-poisoning Beverly. Or something weird like that, it didn’t make sense. There was nothing regarding justice and the “perfectly just city” nor its relevance to Lake of the Coheeries. I won’t even go into all that was wrong with Lake of the Coheeries but it really did get the shaft in this one. Although he was absent from the film, Hardesty’s salver did make a brief appearance as a piece of loot from one of Peter Lake’s break-ins when it was quickly shoved into Athansor’s saddlebag (Athansor in a saddle?) near the beginning of the film. I had to laugh to keep from crying when Virgina Gamely, one of the most prolific linguists at The Sun, was turned into its ‘Food’ columnist. Speaking of The Sun, while it justified one measly clip (definitely not depicted as being modeled after a whaling boat and with Willa in charge, rather than Harry) there was no Ghost or Craig Binkley. This is far from surprising though, since why include him when you leave out the likes of Jackson Mead, Mootfowl, Asbury and Christina? The ‘missing persons’ list goes on, probably for pages.
Yet, despite all the omissions, Goldsman somehow felt it necessary to include a totally random cameo by Will Smith (an old friend from I, Robot, I assume) as Pearly’s boss. Naturally this meant he played Lucifer and lived in a stone dungeon, dressed as a wannabe rockstar (Jimi Hendrix t-shirt and all) reading all day. Riiiiiiight. I’m sure there was some logic behind that choice.
Of course the ending was all wrong, although I wasn’t surprised by that point since the beginning and middle had paved the way so nicely. I know there is so much that I’ve missed here, but I also know this rant is probably getting repetitive and boring. I guess this whole ordeal has just made me wonder what happened to originality in Hollywood. Sure, I know it’s really hard to try to make a book into a good movie, especially one as immense and convoluted as Winter’s Tale. But maybe there’s a reason for that. Books that are innately magical in their telling are impossible to put on a screen because the mystery of the magic is lost, or else seen through someone else’s (in this case, entirely uncreative) eyes. It makes me sad that if such a fan of the book could produce such a bullshit interpretation, then how do most people who read the book imagine it? I don’t blame Goldsman as a person (I’d have it out for whoever had portrayed the book this way), but I do wonder what made him alter the story so dramatically. Budget? Time constraints? If yes, then why make something that he knew was going to be less than mediocre and fail to do one of his favourite novels any justice? The only positive feeling that I took away was the belief that this wasn’t really my book. This was just some standardly pathetic chick flick that I wasted two hours of my life enduring. My book, however, will be waiting for me again next December, having lost none of its magic or imagination.
*Keeping with the Lord of the Rings similarities, I understand that more people are familiar with Tolkein’s work, so I’ll give a brief analogy in an attempt to convey what was left out of this movie. Imagine Peter Jackson tried to squeeze all three books into one two hour movie in which we spent the first 30 minutes learning about hobbits and watching Bilbo’s birthday party, then stressing as Gandalf tells Frodo that the Ring must be destroyed (we never learn why, much less where the Ring is from), followed by scenes of the four hobbits making their way through the Shire. The most exciting part in the movie is when the Nazgûl attack at Weathertop (although we never learn who the Ringwraiths are, much less their connection to Sauron. In fact, who’s Sauron?) And the climax occurs in the last ten minutes, which consists of Frodo contemplating the future of the Ring at Mount Doom (we’re never sure how he ended up getting there) when suddenly, out of nowhere, some totally random giant lemur leaps on him, bites the Ring off his finger and falls into the fire. OK, crude breakdown, but you get the idea.