So…M. Night Shyamalan May Not Be A Total Hack

Bryce Dallas Howard in “The Village”

I really hope I haven’t lost you with the title. The fully warranted consensus of the past few years, which have seen flops like The Happening, Devil, and perhaps most offensively, The Last Airbender, is that M. Night Shyamalan is a hack. A one-trick pony. Not even a poor man’s Guillermo del Toro, but a caricature of himself, arrogantly riding the coattails of his early success.

Yeah, I don’t like him all that much either. Even worse than his formulaic storytelling, worse than the unnecessary cloud of mystery shrouding the theatrical release of his all too predictable films, are his own smug cameos pointlessly inserted in almost every one of his movies.

Not to mention, he seems to have fallen hard for his own gimmick, and there is nothing more unforgivable in a director.

No one can deny The Sixth Sense deserves the lofty place it so quickly obtained in American pop culture. “I see dead people,” remains one of, if not the most chilling soundbite of all time, more recognizable than “Here’s looking at you, kid,” “Frankly, my dear, I just don’t give a damn,” and “Luke, I am your father.” At this point, I hope you’re nodding in concession and are willing to read on to the next paragraph where I may lose you again.

It’s not the ghosts that make The Sixth Sense such a prime example of good filmmaking, nor is it the much-discussed twist. No, The Sixth Sense succeeds largely due to Shyamalan’s incredible knack for building tension and suspense, almost organically, and the overarching theme of loneliness that permeates the film. The ghosts were just cherry on top of an already delicious and satisfying cake. The fact that Shyamalan has continued to place more and more emphasis on the supernatural and the shock factor suggest he doesn’t really know his own strengths. Because for all his faults, he can be a decent writer and director when he wants to be.

Case in point: The Village. I really think it’s one of his best films. I believe, or perhaps I just hope, that this film will in time become one of those cult favorites in the vein of Labyrinth or Heathers. I doubt it will actually happen, but like Morgan Freeman’s Red, I hope. The Village had the misfortune of being released right when people were beginning to tire of Mr. Shyamalan and his antics. His obsessive protectiveness–refusing to reveal the plot or to allow his actors, promoting the film on talk shows, to show full, coherent clips–and, of course, that whole Sci-Fi Channel hoax, both of which contributed to the widely -held impression that this latest film of his would follow in the same tradition as The Sixth Sense. Thus began the public’s disillusionment with the director. The film was largely promoted as horror or a thriller, when it in actuality it was a love story with the occasional jump moment here and there. I love the movie, and even I can’t say there was anything especially thrilling or even remotely creepy about it. For this reason, not a few audience members left the theater with a huge question mark hovering above their heads. All this to say, The Village did not really have a fair start.

Bryce Dallas Howard and Adrien Brody

Personally, I remember being super excited for this film when it was coming out. I was only fourteen and luckily it was rated PG-13 so I didn’t need a parent or an older cousin to take me. I was also just getting into the habit of seeing films by myself and had grown to prefer it that way. I also remember coming out of the theater as confused and let down as my fellow audience members, but generally grateful that the first horror film I saw alone likely wouldn’t give me nightmares. The people walking out with me were not quite as forgiving.

While The Village was successful box office-wise, it was critically slammed, even by Ebert, a reviewer typically after my own heart. No matter; even leaving Dutch Square Mall in my disoriented, un-thrilled haze, I bought it when it came out on DVD. It held up well on a second viewing. And a third. And a fourth. When I accidentally scratched the DVD and it would no longer play, I replaced it almost immediately. That’s not to say the  film is flawless. No, Shymalan and his ego get in the way too often for that. But it is at least well-acted, well-scored, and for the most part, well-written and directed.

Joaquin Phoenix and Bryce Dallas Howard

The Village is an interesting case because it showcases Shymalan’s biggest strengths and his biggest shortcomings. Like I said, he is a master at creating tension and suspense. Before we  hear about “Those We Do Not Speak Of,” the audience sees the terror in the people that populate the village of the title.  The movie begins with a funeral: the son of August Nicholson (a very understated Brendan Gleeson) has just died. Afterwards, when the villagers are all gathered around long picnic tables for dinner, mysterious sounds reach out to them from the nearby woods. The ensuing montage follows the townspeople as they attend to their chores and go about their daily rituals while James Newton Howard’s haunting, melancholy score plays not at all subtly in the background. At one point, two young women are sweeping their porch and proceed to spin around playfully together. Suddenly, they stop. One young woman frowns as she turns to her companion. The camera drops to reveal a single red flower. The urgency with which they snatch up the flower and bury it, the violin yearning in the background–something’s not quite right, obviously. The audience doesn’t have to wait too long to discover the source of the fear that plagues these quiet, seemingly innocuous people.

In  the very next scene, Mr. Walker comes upon his students encircled around a partly skinned animal with its head twisted back. When he inquires as to the culprit, one child replies for all of them: “Those we don’t speak of.”

If nothing else, Shyamalan’s technique is worthy of one film class discussion. Despite the fact that the townspeople don’t dress like us, don’t talk like us, don’t even look like all of us (the cast is all-Caucasian) we connect with them almost immediately. The audience watches them engage with each other endearingly–the women twirling on the porch, the two children splashing each other when they’re supposed to be watching dishes. We feel sympathy, too, for it’s not soon forgotten that a man has just lost his son–a child, judging from the lingering close-up of a headstone engraved with two dates, not many years elapsed between them.  Moreover, at this point, the source of their fear has yet to be identified; “Those We Don’t Speak Of” could be anything. Our imaginations are allowed to run wild for the first part of the film.

Shymalan thankfully has the wherewithal to know a story, any story, is nothing without well-rounded personalities to inhabit the space he has created. The audience is introduced to a plethora of likeable characters: the shy, but courageous Lucius Hunt (Joaquin Phoenix); the carefree tomboy Ivy Walker (Bryce Dallas Howard), daughter of kindly schoolteacher Edward Walker (William Hurt); the mentally handicapped Noah Percy (Adrian Broday); and the soft-spoken Alice Hunt (Sigourney Weaver), Lucius’s mother.

These characters collectively serve as the film’s emotional compass, and this is a largely sentimental movie. “The world moves for love,” Mr. Walker tells a wary group of elders. “It kneels before it an awe.” Indeed, almost every action in the film is guided by love, the fear of losing it perhaps even more than the joy of finding it. And though all of this might sound schmaltzy, somehow it works. Phoenix and Howard have a sweet, tender chemistry, which makes us root for them and also makes them a solid foundation for the film. Other storylines, however, seem superfluous. What’s the point of Mr. Walker’s undeclared and ultimately fruitless love for Mrs. Hunt? The lack of it certainly would’ve saved the audience at least ten minutes of tedious, surreptitious gazing.

Fortunately, like I said, the story really belongs to Ivy and Lucius, and then to Ivy, a woman who didn’t even want to talk about  unpleasant things because it “put knots in her stomach.” Their love story becomes the catalyst for Ivy’s growth and the unveiling of the secrets harbored by the town’s elders.

SPOILERS

In time it’s revealed that the creatures are not real. The Elders are comprised of a grief counseling group who each lost a loved one to uncommonly tragic circumstances, inciting the wealthy Mr. Walker to propose they move to his father’s grassy compound and build an Amish community of sorts. In order to protect their children from the outside world, to stunt their curiosity about the outside world, they created “Those We Don’t Speak Of.” It sounds pretty far-fetched, and indeed it’s presented clumsily. This revelation comes as one unwelcome twist too many, wrapped in Hurt’s ponderous voice-over and an overstated musical cue (Howard and Hahn’s only misstep–although alone it’s a beautiful composition).

That said, it does at least prompt an examination of fear and what it means to live. Death, contrary to popular opinion, is part of life, as is love, and so sorrow is part of life as well. “We know that now,” says Gleeson’s Nicholson. “If Ivy wants to run towards hope, let her run.”

This exchange comes after Noah hears that Lucius is engaged  to Ivy, and jealously proceeds to stab Lucius several times. So Walker agrees to let Ivy go to “The Towns” in order to retrieve the medicine that could save his life. I’ll leave you to figure out the rest.

The Village is no masterpiece. No one could ever say that. But it is a fine example of filmmaking. The sweeping cinematography, James Newton Howard and Hilary Hahn’s score is a match made in musical heaven, and despite being given some very hard to deliver lines, Hurt, Dallas, Phoenix, Weaver and Gleeson (as well as their smaller supporting counterparts) each rise commendably to the occasion.

Advertisements

MY Top 5 Book-to-Film Adaptations

Jane Eyre

At last, Jane Eyre; the reason I began this thread in the first place.

If Brideshead Revisited spoke to me first, Jane Eyre spoke to me loudest. Its arrival in my life was about as timely as you can get: I was eighteen, mere months away from graduating high school, on the precipice of a big, scary “adult” world (or so I thought; depending on who you talk to I had four more years to go). Jane, in a different era and place, was eighteen, too, leaving her stifling boarding school behind and entering the big, scary “adult” world, fearlessly, with a deep, almost unmatched sense of self the world so unsuccessfully tried to strip from her.

When we first meet her, Jane is a young orphan, unfortunate enough to spend her formative years with her cruel, abusive relatives, the Reeds. Luckily, Jane possesses an innate self-worth that affords her the conviction to tell her Aunt Reed, who believes her children inherently  superior to Jane, “They are not fit to associate with me.” Unable to control or to break the child, Aunt Reed ships Jane off to Lowood Institution where she endures more hardship, mainly thanks to the headmaster Mr. Brocklehurst who singles Jane out as “deceitful” and instructs the other children to shun her. Despite his efforts, Jane first encounters kindness at Lowood in the forms of Miss Temple, a gracious young teacher, and Helen, a fellow student who befriends our heroine almost immediately. The latter, however, meets an untimely death, continuing Jane’s streak of bad luck.

But Jane does not let this to destroy her. She leaves Lowood a secure, confident young woman, traveling to Thornfield Hall where she is to become governess to young Adele Varens, the ward of Thornfield’s master Edward Fairfax Rochester. Jane’s relationship with her employer can be characterized as a complex power struggle. Their first meeting is marked by deception. In the middle of the woods outside the estate, Jane scares his horse, resulting in a sprained ankle for Rochester. While she helps him, he never tells her that he is the master of Thornfield all the while inquiring about her and her position at Thornfield. When his identity is finally revealed, he wields his authority to invite Jane to late night conversations where they debate morality and free will. Jane often wins these arguments, but fails to catch Rochester’s thinly-veiled suggestive comments sprinkled throughout their discussions. After an amusing detour during which Rochester dresses up like a gypsy, both to humiliate Jane’s “rival” Miss Ingram and to gauge Jane’s feelings for him, Jane and Rochester finally get engaged only to be torn apart by the terrible secret he’s been harboring more than a decade.

SPOILERS BELOW!

Mia Wasikowska in “Jane Eyre”

 Rochester is already married. Unable to stay with him as anything less than a wife, Jane runs away. While running away is typically indicative of cowardice, in this instance it is a sign of indomitable strength. Jane refuses to compromise her dignity, even for love. How many other romantic heroines can we say that about? Not many.

“I care for myself,” she reasons. “The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself.”

You don’t hear that too often nowadays either.

Sure, the Madame Bovaries and the Anna Kareninas with their heartbreaking vulnerability have their place, but Jane is all the more endearing for her unabashed refusal to compromise her dignity for anything. Ironically, she remains as refreshingly unique in this time as she was in hers. Back then she was surrounded by Jane Austen‘s witty, likeable, but ultimately male-oriented characters. Today her competition consists of a teenage necrophiliac with little in the way of a personality and financially successful, “unfulfilled” career women anxious about approaching thirty, or depressed having already breached thirty, companion-less. Jane, on the other hand, is not driven by the objective to be married nor even accepted outside of her own terms. She is a girl without a family, but not without love.

Rochester says it best (and no doubt it is this that attracts him to her) when he, disguised as a gypsy, reads her fortune and prophetically describes her character in first-person:

 “I need not sell my soul to buy bill. I have an inward treasure, born with me, which can keep me alive if all extraneous delights should be withheld; or offered only at a price I cannot afford to give,” he says of her.

How refreshing to read a heroine who does not need to be told she is worthy. This is the character I fell in love with four years ago and have returned to religiously at least once a year.

At eighteen, I did Jane the great disservice of idealizing her, creating an infallible idol where a remarkable, but most importantly human young woman stood. I mistook identification for perfection. In subsequent readings I discovered I’d happily overlooked the part where she returns to Rochester without knowing whether his wife is still in the picture or not. More to the point, I discovered that what I identified with was not Jane’s perfections but her vulnerabilities. She, like most people, longs to be loved; probably more than most people, love having been denied her time and time again. And this is what makes her so extraordinary. She could’ve easily given into Rochester and stayed with him as his mistress. It would have been an understandable path for the story to take given her history. Most readers want her to stay with him anyway. But if she had then what would distinguish Jane from her contemporaries?  To leave the love of her life, after having attained the one thing that she has wanted and desperately needed, is no easy choice.

When Rochester asks her to forgive him his deception, “Reader!–I forgave him at the moment, and on the spot.” Jane forgives him, she loves him, but she leaves anyway. She realizes there can be no true love with another before love of the self, and to stay with him–to submit to her pleasure, to sin selfishly against God–would surely degrade her in her own mind. Jane knew at eightteen what it takes many women decades into adulthood to figure out: Her opinion of herself matters far more than Rochester’s or anyone else’s.

If she lost that love for herself, would he even still love her? This would not be the first time he has lived with a woman who was not his wife only to lose interest.What would make her any different from the other women he had once been passionate about only to throw aside when he found something new? These are the worries that plague Jane, questions that, to the modern woman, might seem archaic. What remains is the unwavering self-respect and dignity sorely missing from today’s heroines.

There is a reason this is one of the world’s most adapted novels, and not because it’s a staple of British literature. After all, how many times has Middlemarch been adapted? Even before last year’s film there was an adaptation as late as 2006 of Jane Eyre starring Ruth Wilson and Toby Stephens. I’ve only ever seen the  1998 version with William Hurt and Charlotte Gainsbourg, both of whom are at their worst in it. Gainsbourg wanders wide-eyed and open-mouthed through the film; meanwhile Hurt is so gruff and dull it’s hard to recognize one of literature’s most beloved Byronic heroes in all his spirit and charisma and danger.

No, there is something about Jane that continues to speak to young girls and women throughout the ages. Alice in Wonderland actress Mia Wasikowska was only in the middle of reading Jane Eyre when she called her agent to find out if there were any projects in production. Luckily, a few months later, something came into development. Cary Joji Fukunaga, a young up-and-coming director, had only one full-length feature film under his belt (the incredible and well-received Sin Nombre or Nameless) when he stepped up to helm Jane Eyre. He did not disappoint. In fact, he succeeded with flying colors. The film received generally positive reviews and even earned an Oscar nomination for Costume Design. Honestly, it deserved more.

Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender

The reason I made this my number one adaptation is because Fukunaga did not blindly seek to mirror the novel. He brought his own vision to the piece while keeping its spirit in tact. Within the first few seconds Fukunaga distinguishes his adaptation from the others. Instead of the linear trajectory most films take, his movie begins at the height of the action, with Jane fleeing Thornfield Hall. She hurtles down the grassy hills into the moors, tears streaming down her face, mingling with the sudden rain, until she stumbles upon the home of St. John Rivers and his two sisters. By beginning the film at this point and unraveling the story through flashbacks, Fukunaga begins to pave the perfect balance between love story and gothic fairytale, for Jane Eyre is as romantic as it is gothic. First, he establishes suspense, an often overlooked aspect of Charlotte Bronte’s novel. Secondly, he carves out the tone with elegant cinematography, sweeping over the bumpy countryside under a light gray tint when not closely focused on Jane. What’s more, the first few minutes of the film are silent except for Dario Marianelli’s expressive, melancholy score.

That’s just a sampling. The next hour and a half of the film don’t disappoint either, except by reason of not being longer and encompassing more of the novel. Who knows what Fukunaga could have come up with given more time?

Mia Wasikowska as Jane was pretty inspired casting. She’s the perfect age and physique, because while Jane is certainly spiritually and emotionally mature, in appearance she is often described as unremarkable and small. And while being physically inappropriate for a part is sometimes recompensed by amazing acting, it’s always lovely when an actor completely fits. Thankfully, Wasikowska is also a good enough actor to pull off what is a rather difficult character to bring to life on screen. Jane, for her part, is quiet and introspective. We have the luxury as readers of gaining unlimited insight into her quick-witted mind and unconventional (for the times) conviction. There’s really no way to translate that to film unless you use voice-overs, an almost always lazy, heavy-handed attempt implemented poorly by most directors when adapting a novel. Fukunaga leaves it up to Wasikowska–certainly with help from Marianelli’s score which was intentionally crafted to “express” Jane–who captures the spirit of the beloved character with her strong gaze and well-delivered wit.

Michael Fassbender as Rochester is imposing enough, and gives a dark, emotional performance–something of a specialty for him. My favorite scene of his is one of the late night conversations with Jane where he effortlessly recycles one of my favorite lines in the book: “I see in you the glance of a curious sort of bird through the close-set bars of a cage: vivid, restless captive. Were it but free, it would soar. Cloud high.”

This scene brings me to another point. As much as it has been adapted, I imagine it was never an easy feat considering the bulk of Jane Eyre is contemplative. In the novel we get Jane’s frustrations about women not being as free as men because she vents to the housekeeper Mrs. Fairfax (played by Judi Dench). But even Jane, forward-thinking and modern as she is, would never admit to her precious readers that she is experiencing a sexual awakening. Instead we get her talking about how Rochester has become her idol and worrisome vignettes about her frisky fiance during their initial engagement. Fairly early on in the film, following this conversation with Rochester, is a well-placed scene of Jane returning to her room and stopping before the portrait of a naked woman hanging in the hall. Done. Like everything else, Fukunaga seamlessly and efficiently brings the novel to life.

His meticulous attention to detail and ambition to do something fresh extend even as far as the lighting. He did not use anything but natural light throughout the film, so his actors’ faces are lit by candle flames and the first beams of morning peeking through the windows. This serves to further strike the gothic tone of the novel and further evidences the filmmakers’ dedication to Bronte’s work.

All that said, the film is not without its flaws. Fukunaga rushes it a bit once Rochester enters the picture. Rochester and Jane seem to fall in love pretty quickly on screen, but the chemistry between Wasikowska and Fassbender is good enough that this is not such a glaring mishandling.

At any rate, I commend Fukunaga for his courage and for trying something new. So much more the better that he pulled it off. His Jane Eyre is not only one of the best adaptations I’ve seen in a while, but one of the best films I’ve seen in a while, immediately becoming one of my more recent favorite films alongside Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life.