Adapting Screenplays: Blade Runner

As part of English 408A, Media Writing at the University of Waterloo, I have been doing some extra reading regarding screenwriting. While movies are clearly a visual art, where they excel is clearly in the narrative performance. Due to the compressed length, a screenplay is far shorter, and thus the narrative must be compressed. This is one of the reason why many movie adaptations are so very different from the original novel. Complex subplots which stray from the main plot are cut loose, perhaps replaced with shorter subplots which provide a quicker payback.

I’ve occasionally wondered exactly why it is that the short stories of Philip K. Dick are so frequently adapted by Hollywood. Blade Runner, starring Harrison Ford is a prime example, and is also a film classic. There are a number of themes from the novel which were dropped from the film. The most obvious of which is Mercerism, and the empathy boxes. The shared artificial reality, designed to allow users to share pain in a spiritual manner, can be read as a critique of our modern media culture. There’s also an interesting parallel to the video screens in Fahrenheit 451. Dick was critical of modern media, in a way that wouldn’t necessarily carry over into a commercial film.

Sadly, this and several other themes are left out of the film. In the case of Blade Runner, I think these changes were justified. Film emphasizes the visual, and while I believe that Philip K. Dick was an exceptionally visual writer, many of the themes in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep just wouldn’t translate well into film. Where in a novel, the author can show the thoughts of the protagonist, where in film, this can only be achieved artificially, such as through a narrative voice over.

By trimming down these themes, Ridley Scott was able to emphasize those that remained, and to emphasize the new form of visuals. The world of Blade Runner is very different from that of the original novel. Where Dick’s world was a post-nuclear wasteland, depopulated through emigration, the world shown in the film is a dark, densely populated melting pot of American and asian cultures. This visual style later came to embody the cyberpunk aesthetics.

It’s interesting to consider some of the other adaptations of Dick’s work, especially those from short stories. Where in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? themes were removed from the screenplay, when adapting his short stories, the stories are fleshed out. Not every adaptation remains true to even the core plot of Dick’s original story. Often, the main elements which remain include the name, those of the major characters, and the key plot point of the story. Others, like the Minority Report, follow the path of Blade Runner, weaving together many of the strands of the original narrative, keeping “mostly true” to the original tale, which in some ways, becomes a minority report of its own.

Tangled

As the parent of a two year old, I don’t often get the chance to head out to the movies. Occasionally I get the chance when the little one is at Grandma and Grandpa’s, but today we took her out to see Tangled.

Tangled, as you’re likely aware, returns back to the Disney Fairy Tale stories, such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Cinderella (1950), Sleeping Beauty (1959), and Beauty and the Beast (1991). As such, Tangled tells the story of Rapunzel, most famously collected in the Grimm Fairy Tales.

While Disney has certainly left its mouse-prints on the story, I was pleased to see so much of the original fairy tale remaining. The tale as told by the Grimm brothers certainly emphasizes the overprotectiveness of the parental figure, keeping the girl locked away in a tower. When the male lead of Tangled, Flynn climbs the tower a second time to rescue her near the climax of the film, he finds Rapunzel held captive by the witch Gothel. While the magical powers of Rapunzel’s hair are not in the original source material, the healing powers they possess was originally found in Rapunzel’s tears.

While there was some controversy in changing the film’s title from Rapunzel to Tangled, I think it works quite well. As Disney spokespeople have noted, this is an adaptation of the source material, and the film does prominently feature Flynn Rider in addition to Rapunzel. While the original tale does include a male prince, the role has been significantly expanded in this retelling, and changed from that of a prince to a thief. This change works quite well for the movie, especially as it reverses the trend of earlier Disney films, where a prince comes to rescue the helpless female. While Rapunzel appears to be a helpless girl, and this is certainly the reason her “mother” claims that she needs to stay in the tower, she ends up rescuing Flynn more often than the reverse.

I was pleasantly surprised by the calibre of the film’s animation, especially when considering Rapunzel’s long flowing hair. The film does not attempt photorealism, and instead aims for a very happy medium between CGI and traditional hand-drawn cell shading animation. Movement was more fluid and natural. This film has returned to Disney’s roots, both in narrative capacity, and visual style, while continuing to innovate in new areas.

I was a little concerned about bringing my daughter to see the movie. The trailer is really action-oriented, and filled with suspense. Two year olds are impressionable, and she can get upset about Dora the Explorer getting stuck on an iceberg. Of course, it turns out that Disney cut the trailer out of all the high intensity action scenes, which are spread out through the movie, allowing us to ease through them. Tangled is far less dark than Disney’s earlier movies, such as Snow White. You really can see the difference 73 years makes. Disney should be proud of Tangled. It hits all the right points, and maintains the classical traditions of their storytelling.