Saturday, 19 November 2011

All We Make Is Entertainment

The title, taken from a song by the Manic Street Preachers, laments the death of the British manufacturing industry and growth of vacuous reality TV shows.  Although the Tony Blairs and David Camerons of this world have difficulty in grasping the fact that the sun set on the British Empire some considerable time ago in the wake of two global conflicts, the rest of us have a firmer grasp on our position in the New World Order.  In case it needs saying, we are no longer dinning at the top table.  Not that this is any excuse for sleeping creatively, but as a certain Mr Clinton once remarked, ‘It’s the economy, stupid.’
With the global economy flat lining, there has probably never been a worse time to be involved in the creative arts.  They only thing worse than being an aspiring writer right now is probably being an aspiring actor, although the two go hand in glove to some extent giving the paucity of original drama currently being commissioned and broadcast by the UK’s terrestrial channels (HBO in America, by contrast, is light years ahead of the curve).
The public gets what the public wants, and what it apparently wants is to watch greedy awful people making dinner for other greedy awful people while scheming to appear slightly less greedy and awful than they really are.  Then the are the D-lebrities in the jungle or the Big Brother House, largely following the above script, not to mention Simon Cowell’s latest karaoke offering.  Admittedly, even at my most curmudgeonly, I can’t deny Susan Boyle has a great singing voice, but the circus of exploitation that went along with her “discovery” was nothing short of shameful.  Surely the measure of any society is how well it protects the vulnerable.
What all the above have in common is that they’re cheap to make and more or less write themselves, making them an attractive alternative to commissioning original work.  That, perhaps, makes the exceptions all the more important.  Abi Morgan’s excellent “The Hour” and Shane Meadows’ “This Is England 86” provided compelling, and in the case of the later, often uncomfortable viewing, as did William Boyd’s adaption of his novel “Any Human Heart”.  That all three dramas were, to varying degrees, set in the past is perhaps telling of our need to escape from the harsh realities of the present.  A series such as “Mad Men” allows us to look back and see the sixties as simpler times, better, and more wholesome, even though we know this to be a lie.
Of the UK series presented above, only “The Hour” stands as truly original, “This Is England 86” being a sequel to Meadows’ earlier film and “Any Human Heart” being a book adaption.
If television is grim, film in ten times as worse, with a slew of sequels and franchise extensions in the works.  Hollywood likes nothing better than a pre-established audience, be it fans of a best selling novel or game.  But with films costing millions of dollars who can blame them for wanting a little box office security?  Back in the day, having a “star” was sufficient to open a film - the public didn’t care what film Tom Cruise or Mel Gibson were in, just that they were on screen.  Nowadays a star reprising a well known role is required, as proven by Johnny Depp’s multimillion dollar payday for “Pirates Of The Caribbean IV” (I’m willing to forgive Depp for this on account of the fact the he recently lost millions of dollars of his own money that he’d ploughed into the adaptation of “The Rum Diary”, his warm hearted tribute to his friend Hunter S. Thompson).
Truth be told, sometimes I like to put my brain in neutral and watch shit explode.  I might not be guilty of watching reality TV but I’m definitely part of the franchise problem - must see trips to the cinema in 2012 will involve Star Trek (12 or 2 depending on who is counting), Batman: The Dark Knight Rises, Dredd, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and Bond 23: Skyfall.  Three franchise juggernauts, a comic strip adaptation reboot and a book adaptation.  Of course, amongst such popcorn fodder, I’ll be hoping for the next “The Usual Suspects” or “American Beauty”, but the trouble with original and thought provoking films is that they appear unannounced and are promoted by word of mouth.  “The Disappearance Of Alice Creed” and “Winter’s Bone” both came to my attention in this fashion.  The former an original low budget Brit flick that proves that the British film industry isn’t quite dead in the water, the latter a wonderfully shot and acted adaption of Daniel Woodrell’s novel of the same name.  Other classic book adaptations of late have been “The Rum Diary”, mentioned above, and “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”.  You would have to have been living under a rock to have avoided the second, but with a strong cast and beautifully understated direction it more than lived up to the hype and critical praise.  Whether the American remake of “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” can pull off a similar feat remains to be seen.
On the face of it, film or television adaptations are surely the Holy Grail for an author.  Best case, it exposes a new audience to your work and sales rocket.  But even if it stinks, you still get to keep the money (unless you’re Alan Moore and actually have the balls and integrity to return the cheque).
If only it were that simple.  The reality is that once a film or television production company has “optioned” your work i.e. paid a nominal fee for the exclusive rights to adapt it for the big or small screen, there’re no guarantee the project will ever get made.  Numerous book adaptations have festered in production hell, only for the option to lapse, be bought by another company and for the whole process to repeat.  You’ll make some money from the above but not enough to turn pro.  Then there is the issue of creative control.  Assuming the cheque has enough zeroes you might well be happy enough to cash it and distance yourself from the fact that they’ve turned your beautiful baby into a crack addled whore.  To be fair, unless you have sufficient clout to have some form of veto written into your contract, odds are you’ll have to lie back and take it.  Same goes for your chances of negotiating a cut of the box office or merchandising.  Myself, I’d at least want an option on first draft of the screenplay, if only so I could hold it up against the final draft and say, ‘Look what those bastards did to my book!’

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