Taking apart the telly • 24 March 2008 • The SnowBlog

Taking apart the telly


David Jason looking understandably sheepish

As a trainee storyteller, I spend quite a bit of time looking at other people's yarn-spinning to see what works and what doesn't. When I see good work I wonder how the writer came up with it. When I see bad work I ask myself what makes it bad. Of course since no two people can agree on a definition of what 'worked', the answers to these questions are somewhat elusive. But for whatever reason, with visual storytelling, it seems a little easier to make progress in my post-mortems. My favourite objects for study are near misses: stories with most of the right ingredients but which somehow never rise, or gel or take off (pick your metaphor). Though many in the world of publishing may not approve of this fact, Terry Pratchett is an immensely, stupendously successful author. Many may feel that it's not what people should be reading, but nevertheless it's what a lot of readers want. Personally, I'm on the fence. I've read probably a dozen of his books. I've laughed out loud many times, and a couple of the books had me steadily chuckling throughout. I've got more out of a good Terry Pratchett book than I ever have out of a Booker prize winner (which of course says a lot about me). But TP writes them at such a rate that inevitably I've felt like many of them are just by-the-numbers exercises which made no impression on me. What's been really fascinating, with my recent TV and film obsession, has been picking apart the TV adaptations of two Terry Pratchett books, both adapted for the little screen by Sky Television. There was last year's Christmas Special, The Hogfather and this Easter's The Colour of Magic. This year's attempt is noticeably better than last year's, but they're both lifeless and flat too much of the time. You find your mind wandering. And even if you've read the books you can't always work out what's going on. But why does that matter? Why do I regard my confusion with the story as a bad thing, when in other circumstances I'd think of it as a delightful mystery? The first time I saw Dark City, for instance, I had no idea what was happening or why, but I adored every second of it. I enjoyed working out what was going on. I also chafe at the way the Sky adaptations give us few clues as to what most of the characters want out of life; we can't follow them on their quest because everything they do seems spur of the moment or reactive (or just confusingly random). But is understanding motives really fundamental? Again, stories with clouded motives which leave you continually guessing can make for gripping drama. There's also the matter of some appalling blocking and editing. The camera is never looking where you want it to or it's loitering too far from the action. It never finds any interesting emotions on the actor's faces and reaction shots tell you nothing. The camera lingers on incidentals or sits stuck in a wide shot in a way that makes you wonder if the operator is chatting on his mobile. There's also a literalness to it all, where if someone falls down (which happens a great deal), we have to watch them get slowly back up again and then mutter something about having fallen down. There's no sense of urgency or pace. In fact I began to suspect that for their three hours of television they shot exactly three hours of footage and put the whole thing on the screen. But then again, perverse cinematography isn't always the kiss of death. Cloverfield is both a triumph and a disaster as a piece of entertainment, but the way in which it won't let you get a good look at the monster has you scrutinising the frame, looking for glimpses. It's genius. By making you work to orient yourself it draws you in and simultaneously makes it all seem more real. Another Colour of Magic failing is the mushy sound. I suspect most of the program has been ADRed, because there's often a general sense of muttering and chattering that doesn't tie particularly well into what's happening on screen. In fact I often get the sense that an extra bit of dialogue has been shoehorned in using a shot where you can't see the actor's mouth. But then some fantastic scenes in other productions end up needing to have their dialogue dubbed in again afterwards. And changing lines of dialogue in post-production can sometimes be inspired. I could go on like this, finding problems with the adaptation and then thinking of counterexamples where the fault isn't really a fault. For instance, there's no attempt to have one empathise with a central character, but good stories may lack a simple centre. The acting is generally pretty poor, but in almost every case, these bad performances are being coaxed from good actors. David Jason is terrible in the Colour of Magic, giving the impression that not having a heart attack from over-exertion is his main concern, but give him the right script and he can do marvellous things with it (even in straight drama). So while I instinctively know that these TP adaptations are bad, every concrete criticism I can level at them is some other film's quirky charm. I'd like to understand which are the crucial failings and which are merely annoyances. It's too easy to rationalise one's disappointment. For an example of this, read any shoddy film critic's panning of a bad movie: they see no further than the actors, who are often nearly powerless in these situations. Perhaps it's as simple as a blanket lack of competence that encroaches into every image and envelops each scene. Perhaps mysterious motivations, perverse camera-work, undirected actors and a plot that's difficult to follow are forgivable only when you can convince yourself they're deliberate choices. This, after all, is not intended to be avant-garde; it's supposed to be 'family fun', whatever that is. So as you can see, I haven't really got any conclusions (besides replacing the director, Vadim Jean, who is also the writer, with someone who is, you know, more good). But specific lessons aren't necessarily the point. Looking at the use and misuse of all these variations on classic storytelling, and seeing where stylistic choices or professional blind spots cross over into liabilities, is valuable even when it's not definitive. It's all about learning to pilot a story from take-off to landing - and watching Sky slam their expensive vehicles into the sides of mountains is every bit as educational as witnessing more commercial and professional ventures come in for a neat landing.


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