On Ghosts, Starships, and Source Material

pjimageWhat does it mean to be true to your source material when making a big budget movie or TV show?

What responsibility do you carry when you tell a story in a world you didn’t create?

It’s a question that’s been on my mind a lot this week after seeing two movies that draw on source material I adore- Ghostbusters and Star Trek.

I’ve never been a purist when it comes to adaptations, reboots and the like. There are story or narrative elements that may be perfect in one genre, but fall flat in another, and I trust the vision of writers and directors in exploring that. Katniss’ internal monologue was a central part of the Hunger Games books, but two hours of Jennifer Lawrence talking to herself would be hard to take. Nor do I object when story elements are adapted to reflect changes in the world, such as when the movie of V for Vendetta shifted its political commentary to reflect the time in which the movie was made, rather than that of the comic.  I’ve seen movies go off the rails by failing to do that, such as when The Watchmen took a story written at the height of the Cold War and retold it exactly, without any recognition that the audience would know that Cold War had been over for two decades.

(I should also note here that I’m talking specifically about film/tv where the barrier to entry is pretty high, and any version that is done has some stamp of being ‘official.’ Fan-fiction, where anyone can create anything, and if you don’t like it you can easily move to the next story by the next author, is outside what I’m talking about here.)

So I don’t mind when I see things that take liberties with their source material. But I want to see some effort to stay true to the spirit of that source material; I want to know there’s a line of continuity I can draw from your work back to the original source, even if it’s a long one. Nor does that have to be plot continuity; I’m ok with reboots or new timelines, or whatever you want to do.  Show me that you understand the themes and the ideas that were at the heart of the original, and that you’re interested in exploring those themes in some new setting or a new way, and I’m on board.

Want to tell a story about the Prince of the Martian Plant People who agonizes over a hard decision when he suspects one of his earlier clones may have killed the mushroom that spawned him? Sure, I’ll watch Veggie Shakespeare in Space. But don’t tell me a story about a happy go lucky prince, of any race, who never faces a hard choice and has a kick ass, drama-free, family, and call it Hamlet.

Ghostbusters passed this test with flying colors. Star Trek Beyond, did not.

Obviously, Ghostbusters changed some things.  Beyond the one we’ve all heard about, the gender of the main characters, they updated a number of things from the original, as befitting a reboot of a movie made 30 years ago.  But the elements that made Ghostbusters what it was-  the off-beat humor, the ‘no one believes us, but we know the truth’ feeling among the team, the battle with city officials, the just on the line between scary and ridiculous ghosts, the unapologetic nerdiness, the team winning the adoration of the crowd, and the inclusion of New York City itself as a character, with all its wonderful, tough love, kookiness—they were all present.

In many ways, Ghostbusters proved a perfect example of how the details that may seem so vital to a story at first glance, are actually pretty irrelevant to what its actually about.  For some, it may be hard to see the Ghostbusters as anything but male, but that has more to do with generalized perceptions of gender, then anything about the story itself. Once you accept that women can be just as heroic, just as nerdy, just as anything else as men, it becomes pretty easy to see this version of the story as being in the same spirit as the original.

Star Trek, on the other hand- where do I start.

I’m ok with the continuity break. They gave us some hand-wavy temporal physics in the first of the re-boots, to explain how this is a different time line then the one we all know, and so I’m fine if things don’t quite line up. The technology of 2016 is a lot better than the tech of the late 60’s or early 90’s, so of course their version of the future is going to look a lot better, and I’m ok with that.

But at the heart and soul of almost every part of the Star Trek cannon is the idea that conflict does not have to be resolved through physical violence. That more often than not, conflict stems from misunderstanding or other differences that can be overcome through dialogue, not just with phasors and explosions.

At a conference I attended earlier this year, on a panel about the new Star Wars movie, one of the panelists talked about how she was new to the Star Wars canon, after years of being a dedicated trekkie. She talked about how the first time she saw Star Wars she was surprised, because Trek had taught her that most disputes between alien races would be solved by discussions, not immediately devolve into fighting.

You can see this even in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.   It is far and away my favorite of the movies, and it is in essence one long starship battle. But a central theme of that movie is Khan’s ability to exploit the fact that no one in Star Fleet enters a new situation expecting violence. Even James T. Kirk, one of the greatest warriors in Star Fleet, waits till the absolute last minute to raise his shields in a potentially hostile situation. In that movie it gets them in trouble, but it underlines the idea that these are people for whom fighting is an absolute last resort. Even then, the central conflict of the movie isn’t just the spaceship battle to be fought with Khan; it’s the inner conflict caused by time and growth and change. In the end, Kirk defeats Khan, not just because he’s a better warrior, but because he’s better come to terms with the changes in himself and his world, whereas Khan cannot let go of his Ahabian quest for vengeance.

More to the point, the Khan story line works so well because it is so out of character with the universe that has created. The fact that this is one of the only times that our heroes can’t reason with the enemy and have to fight him is part of what makes the movie so powerful.

Wheras this newest Star Trek movie is about—fighting and saying funny things while getting ready for the next fight. Not because this is the one time when we have to fight, but because fighting is what these folks do.

The movie opens with Kirk trying to broker peace between two alien races, and when one misunderstands a peace offering made by another, our hero’s response is—to run away.  How many times did we see original Kirk, Picard, Janeway or Sisqo help fighting people find a way to understand each other and make peace? But here, Kirk’s attempts to break through the prejudice of his audience quickly becomes a vehicle for humor and an escape, instead of any real dialogue.

From there we get a pretty run of the mill sci-fi action movie.  Fight scene, make new allies, evil villain is evil, escape scene, more fighting, our heroes learn to work together, our heroes come up with a crazy but workable plan, villain monologues about his backstory and evil plan, epic fight scene, villain almost dies 5 time and is in the end finally defeated.

I’ve got nothing against that kind of movie. It can be a perfectly enjoyable excuse to eat popcorn for a few hours, and some of my favorite movies are solidly in that genre.  But that’s not Star Trek.

There were other character beats that felt wrong. Kirk wanting to give up being a starship captain, when previous stories had established that was all he ever wanted to do. Spock showing some emotions, but it was ok because he had gotten bad news. It might not be my version of the characters, but these people are making their version and they get to make artistic decisions, and that’s their prerogative.  Not the way I would have gone, but not Snyderesque either.

But to make a generic space ship movie, and call it Trek? To use the name and the characters to tell a story so out of step with the central messages of almost every Trek property that came before it? That’s a bridge too far.

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