Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Alice, Part Two: What I Learned From The Films

Sorry about the long delay (two days... an eternity in e-time... or should it be i-time... no, we don't want to put an "i" in front of anything else). I've been a little distracted as of late (all good things), not to mention that I just got pulled to be the musical director for Our Town and so I'm back, once again, in rehearsal.

What I Learned From The Films.

Shripriya mentioned that this would be a useful guide to aspiring filmmakers as well as aspiring theatre directors. I agree. I think that any filmmaker wanting to get started should find and view as many of these films as possible (a good compendium of titles, plus some mild analysis/criticism, can be found here). They're useful to compare and contrast shots and cuts as well as casting, design, style, and all of those wonderful things.

Anyway, here are some things I've noticed -- set up, rather arbitrarily, as "rules."

1. Do not presume yourself cleverer than the source. This does not work. Lewis Carroll was a very intelligent man. In addition to being an author and poet, he was a mathematical genius. Your jokes are never more funny than his jokes. This is a hard rule to follow when creating an adaptation, because one always wants to include a few wink-wink-nudge-nudge moments, but they must be very judicially employed or else they will end up like the Mad Hatter Tea Party scene in William Sterling's 1972 Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. He stays blindingly faithful to the text until he hits this scene, whereupon he suddenly allows the Mad Hatter and March Hare to start spouting his own jokes -- along the lines of "What did the father ghost say to the baby ghost? Spook only when you are spooken to!"

Was "why is a raven like a writing desk" not a good enough riddle?

2. Concepts will work, if they do not violate Rule Number One. One of my favorite Alice films is the Broadway Theatre Archive recording of Elizabeth Swados' Alice at the Palace. She remains faithful to the text and to the spirit of the story, but sets it in a meta-theatrical, presentational vaudeville milieu. In other words, Alice does not journey underground, but onto a stage; and the characters she meets are not only characters, but actors as well. Imagine yourself opening a strange door and finding yourself walking out onto a brightly lit stage in a darkened auditorium, with people coming towards you and singing. What would you do? That's the concept Swados sets forth, and it succeeds brilliantly. Perhaps it succeeds because it takes the foremost tenet of Carroll's book -- a person finds herself immersed in strange world -- and builds upon this theme while simply changing the setting of the strange world.

3. Be very careful when cutting the text. This is not just because there are book-lovers out there who will wail if you skip over the chapter where Alice meets the gnat. It's because the text -- any text -- is built upon a particular framework, and removing scenes or lines or even words is like pulling sticks out of a game of Pick-Up-Sticks (or Spillikans, since we're talking Brit-lit). Eventually, the tower of sticks will collapse.

Through the Looking Glass is even more crucial because Alice meets a different character on each square of the chessboard. If a character or scene is cut, she's lost an entire square and she'll go through the play (or film) making fewer stops than she should. Don't think your audience won't notice.

David Ball, in his book Backwards and Forwards (another must-read for filmmakers, Shripriya) gives a much better example even than Alice. He reminds us that, for the sake of length, most directors cut the Fortinbras plot from Hamlet, and make it a story about domestic rather than international revenge. Yet with the Fortinbras scenes gone, Hamlet makes fewer stops than he should, and the story we get isn't at all the story Shakespeare wrote. The audience usually doesn't notice because they haven't read or don't remember the original, but the addition of the scenes (go watch the Kenneth Branagh film) makes the story so much richer -- and it makes so much more sense.

4. Allow your audience the pleasure of contextualizing. In the 1985 Irwin Allen megahit T.V. miniseries Alice In Wonderland (which included Through The Looking Glass), he allows the Dormouse to begin his story about the three little sisters who live in the treacle well -- but then has the March Hare instantly interrupt with "that's the same thing as molasses!" Thanks for stopping the narrative flow, Mr. Allen. Not to mention that it deprives the audience of making the discovery of what treacle is on their own, and disrupts the otherwise pleasurable activity of having to pay very close attention to the Dormouse's story to discover what exactly is in this well along with the three little sisters.

5. Don't skimp on the rabbit suit -- or, Choose Your Design Well. Elizabeth Swados' "actor in rehearsal clothes" makes a much more convincing rabbit than the handful of poor men stuffed into fuzzy onesies who appear in other films, because he takes the time to move and sniff and thump like a rabbit. Likewise, certain visuals make much more of an impact than others. When writing an adaptation, have you set yourself scenes which can be staged in dramatically arresting ways? And when directing one, have you selected and refined those moments? Or have you stuffed the show in a onesie?

6. Leave space for music and dance. This, I think, applies to everything. Possibly to life as well.

That's all I have time for today... the next installment will tell how I wrote my adaptation, and which of these rules I chose to follow, and which I chose to break. ^__^


Daniel said...

so, uh, it's been like ten years since I read Alice last... what exactly do a raven and a desk have in common?

also, the brannagh version of hamlet is by far the best. yay for kenneth!

Blue said...

Daniel -- the riddle is never solved in the text (the characters begin to work on it, but get distracted), which prompts the reader/audience to puzzle out the punchline, which is tricky because -- as you've noticed -- there's no clear answer.

Here's some more info, along with answers people have proposed: http://www.straightdope.com/classics/a5_266.html

Shripriya said...

Great post, Blue. I love all the links. Following many of them to learn more. Thanks for all the detail!