Wednesday, September 7, 2011

"My Sister's Keeper" or "How Not To Adapt A Novel For Film" or "Why 'Based on A True Story' Will Make Me Hate Your Film"

Let me say this straight off: My Sister's Keeper is not a good movie, and my saying that is probably going to piss some people off. It's going to piss them off because My Sister's Keeper is the sort of movie that's supposed to be immune to criticism.

It's about a family's struggle to deal with one of their daughters dying of cancer, and the conflict that ensues when her younger sister (who was conceived artificially as a "donor child") refuses to undergo any more surgery to save her sister's life, and sues her parents for "medical emancipation". This stuff is so worthy it might as well be "based on a true story" (it's not). But here's the harsh truth guys: it's entirely possible to have the most worthy story in the world, and still make a shitty movie out of it. It feels like the team got hung up on how worthy their film was, and this blinded them to its faults.

This is why I don't watch movies that say "based on a true story" on the box if I can get away with it - if the fact that the movie is based on true events is their only selling point, that doesn't say very much worthwhile about it.

In case you're wondering why I keep talking about "based on a true story" when this movie isn't (it's based on a novel by Jodi Picoult, if you're wondering) it's because "based on a true story" and "about a kid with cancer" fit into the same mental category for me. Both of these things strike me as an attempt to claim legitimacy or emotional "weight" for a movie upfront, before we've watched it and determined it's actual merits. This goes for books as well as movies, by the way. I've read (or attempted to read) a couple of things my wife put my way, because the stories were so astounding, and the events they were based on were true. In the majority of these cases, the events have indeed been shocking and/or amazing, but the writing has made me want to gouge out my eyes with a fork.

In fact, if you want a stunning example of this phenomenon at work, check out the furore around James Frey and his books A Million Little Pieces  and My Friend Leonard. These are books which reviewers agree are average at best (and trying far too hard to be "edgy" in the case of Little Pieces at least) by a comprehensively underwhelming author. However, they're both bestsellers. Why? Because James Frey initially claimed that the events in these books were true and autobiographical. When it turned out he'd made most of them up, there was a massive public outcry. People weren't willing to put up with his crap if it wasn't true, and reviews of his actually-honestly-fiction book Bright Shiny Morning bear this out.

The lesson here is: "If your book (or film) sucks, claim it was based on a true story - it'll sell anyway." And if you're not up to pretending it's based on true events, make it about child cancer - that's a close second.
But back to My Sister's Keeper. Having established that this is (generally speaking) the sort of film that puts me off, it wasn't actually doomed from the get-go. I'd decided to see this movie voluntarily after all, and I'd made that decision on the basis of the trailer, which made it look like a clever, talky, heart-warming-yet-real "family in crisis mode" movie like The Kids Are All Right. It's not.

What it is, is a lesson in how not to translate a book to film. When I watched Let The Right One In and Let Me In, I was struck by how little the story had been harmed by the excision of the various subplots and mid-to-minor characters who didn't make it into the movie, or got elided with others. My Sister's Keeper is the exact opposite phenomenon.

I have to come clean at this point, and let you know that I haven't actually read the book - I've read the Wikipedia article, which supports my impressions of the film, but I can't actually tell you whether or not the book sucks. What I can tell you is that in the process of adapting this book for the screen, a lot has been cut out and paradoxically, far too much has been left in.

At the beginning of the film, each of the characters gets their own section, where they introduce their view of the situation. This is not a great framing device, as it relies on us constantly being told things that the movie could just show us, but it works. Then, it's abandoned without any particular ceremony about halfway through the film. It feels like someone lifted the device whole-cloth from the novel without adapting it to the screen at all, and then just kind of forgot why it was there in the first place. A later section is told in flashbacks as the dying girl flicks through the scrap-book she's made, and each page calls up memories for her. Again this works as a framing device, and there's no reason that the whole movie couldn't have centered around this conceit instead of the clunky in-character intros at the beginning. And once again, it's dropped after a few scenes for no particular reason.

A novel could get away with this stuff, to a certain extent. Novels can sprawl, because you read them at your own pace, and because they can be broken up into chapters, sections, "books" (or whatever else the author wants to call them) to mark changes in setting, style, focus or whatever. Films, because they run through in a linear fashion and have a limited running time, need some kind of unifying structure or else they just feel sloppy.

Then there's the issue of the characters. The film tries to get across the way in which the eldest daughter's illness has affected the whole family. However, this isn't really shown to us, and is only explained quite late in the piece. Instead what we get are vignettes of the characters which are supposed to be illustrative, but are so brief and lacking in context that they just appear to be brief glimpses into a different movie about different people.

This destruction of context also changes the characters motivations. Or rather, it completely destroys them. Cameron Diaz, as the overprotective mother is nigh-unwatchable. She is so shrill and single-note that it becomes increasingly difficult as the movie progresses, not to yell at the screen every time she's on it. Of course, if she was the villain of the piece, this would be fine. But she's not. She's supposed to be a sympathetic portrait of a woman whose extreme circumstances have severely damaged her sense of perspective. And I don't think this is even Diaz's fault - even the briefest scan of the Wikipedia article for the novel reveals details that would make her behaviour throughout the film far more justifiable, and the brief bits of internal monologue we got from her at the start hint at her explaining herself fairly reasonably in the novel.

Other characters suffer from the same problem, most notably the troubled elder brother whose "inner turmoil" is demonstrated by a scene in which he tries to get on a bus for some reason, then fails and goes home and finds that no-one missed him. I suppose this is supposed to be him "slipping through the cracks" but it just seems like they felt they had to give him a scene to himself because he doesn't do much for the rest of the film.

Finally, we get to Kate. Kate's tragedy is that she's dying of cancer. However, in order for this to actually be a tragedy, we'd have to know and like Kate. At the very least least she would need to be fun to watch. Now, it's indicated, and said by other characters that Kate is a very warm and funny character - but this is demonstrated by only one scene in the whole film. Most of the time she is simply a big sign with the words "Child Cancer" written on it. Again, the stuff that would really have fleshed her out is mostly ignored.

The real tragedy of My Sister's Keeper is that it seems like it could have worked. All that really needed to happen, was for the adaptation to streamline the novel down to one or maybe two plots (perhaps the court case and the scrapbook?) and completely ignore the rest. Do away with inconvenient characters entirely.

Instead, we got Dreamcatcher syndrome - a whole stack of ideas which individually could have made great movies, all clumsily kludged together into a barely-watchable mess.

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