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Alice, Shutter Island — Do these big-time film adaptations betray the books?

March 10, 2010

Johnny Depp as The Mad Hatter: Art direction run amok.

I’m sitting here, paging through the movie times, trying to decide whether I should go see Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, or Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland? I fancy myself a sophisticated reader of reviews, but the notices for these two pictures are so mixed, I’m turning to you for help: Is either worth two precious hours and nine bucks?!?

Shutter Island, as you all know, is based on a change-of-pace novel by the Boston-based crime writer, Dennis Lehane (a distinguished alumnus of the Florida International University creative writing program, here in Miami). A bestseller, the book met with enthusiastic reviews when it was published in 2003.

It’s a story about a couple of U.S. Marshals who go to a hospital for the criminally insane, on an island in Boston Harbor, to investigate the disappearance of an inmate. Once there, they start to suspect the facility may be conducting human mind control experiments for the government. The hero, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, also begins to question his own sanity.

Even if you haven’t read Lehane’s novel (or the too-revealing reviews), you can guess the direction this is going, if not its exact destination. Lahane’s book is an intense thriller, one that intentionally plays around with pulp tropes and conventions, but, by dint of the author’s talent and — more important — sensibility, adds up to more than the sum of its parts.

Scorsese has an even bigger artistic reputation (gigantic in fact; Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas will do that for you), and most of the reviews indicate he’s up to the same game as Lahane–making use of gothic and horror conventions to create something more than mere entertainment.

This may be sacrilege to many cinephiles, but I don’t trust Scorsese. Scene for scene, he’s the best in the business, but his narrative tone tends to wobble, and he doesn’t always pay attention to story — consistency, texture, depth. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, The Color of Money, After Hours, Bringing Out the Dead are not great movies, and Gangs of New York is not even a good one.

Still, Shutter Island‘s trailers were nicely creepy, and the cast is impressive. DiCaprio’s grown into a reliable leading man, while supporting actors Mark Ruffalo, Patricia Clarkson, Michelle Williams and (especially!) Emily Mortimer are always great. But the reviews, even the raves, put me off.

Like Jon Anderson, who, in The Wall Street Journal, writes that Shutter Island “requires multiple viewings to be fully realized as a work of art. Its process is more important than its story, its structure more important than the almost perfunctory plot twists it perpetrates.”

Any time you read something like “its process is more important that its story,” you’re reading the opinion of a critic, emotionally attached to a filmmaker, twisting himself into contortions to explain away the movie’s weaknesses and make a rave review out of a sow’s ear. Look at how ready he is to lean into the source material, to blame Lahane for anything that doesn’t work.

Paul Chambers at CNN is even worse: “Great director, lousy material.” This is not criticism, it is defense lawyering. If Scorsese agreed to work with this material, then he’s responsible for it. And besides, as the copious rave reviews of the novel suggest, Lahane handled this stuff well enough, thank you very much.

As for Alice in Wonderland, I’m even warier. In an essay on the history of 3-D film making in the March 8 New Yorker, the peerless film critic Anthony Lane observes:

“Lewis Carroll’s tale is as brisk and bright as the Victorian child at its heart, more anecdotal than plotted, and Burton, spotting this, overcompensates by trading the domestic for the apocalyptic. Humans galumphing bareback on outsized beasts, and blasted war zones, where ignorant armies clash by night: we could be back in Narnia, or in the set pieces of The Golden Compass—leagues away from the spiky language games that enliven Carroll’s pages.”

That pretty much describes exactly the kind of overly calculated Hollywood movie I don’t want to see. Besides, I’ve been creeped out by the Johnny Depp-as-Mad-Hatter movie poster for months. It’s another example of director Tim Burton’s penchant for letting art direction substitute for story, character and other minor aspects of the film maker’s craft.

So maybe I’ll just stay home and read (another) book. But if you have seen either of these movies, please let me know if they are any good.

20 Comments leave one →
  1. alexis permalink
    March 10, 2010 1:52 pm

    Okay, despite the fact that I agree with everything you said, I still want to go see both of these movies. I guess I have become susceptible to the hype surrounding these movies.

    I have to admit that I have not read a singe Lahane book, yet I feel the need to support his projects. I have heard him speak a couple of times and have been impressed and motivated by what he has to say.

    …..I have no explanation for my desire to see Alice in Wonderland.

  2. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    March 10, 2010 1:59 pm

    Johnny Depp?

    I might yet see Shutter Island — even if my worst fears are realized Scorsese may be interesting in failure.

    I urge everyone to read Anthony Lane’s essay on the history of 3-D. Not only is it fascinating, but he’s a very funny writer, with a turn of mind (and phrase) all his own.

    • alexis permalink
      March 10, 2010 2:20 pm

      Well, like you said, he looks really creepy. It’s not like I am going to sit there drooling over him when he is in that getup. Although, it might remind me of what he looked like in other movies, like Donnie Brasco, and then I might start drooling…..

      • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
        March 10, 2010 2:33 pm

        Okay, okay, this is a family blog, so keep it clean, sister.

  3. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    March 10, 2010 3:13 pm

    Another troubling review, this one from Newsweek: Taking the Wonder out of Alice in Wonderland:

    • Jose Dorta permalink
      March 10, 2010 3:24 pm

      This adaptation of the classic is way too creepy for me. If my children were young, I would not take them to see this. As it is, my children were both disappointed after just watching the previews. Johnny Depp or not this movie is not a good retelling of the original classic.

      • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
        March 10, 2010 3:42 pm

        That would be my surmise, too, though I haven’t seen it, of course. So far, nothing in this discussion is pursuading me that I should.

  4. Candice permalink
    March 10, 2010 4:52 pm

    And yet, Alice in Wonderland was one of my favorite books as a child. Have to go see it.

    I’m with Alexis. Count me in.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 10, 2010 5:05 pm

      From what I’ve read, almost none of the charm of the book is to be found in the new movie, where the Jabberwock becomes a monster that must be vanquished, like Sargon or the White Witch or something.

  5. Connie permalink
    March 10, 2010 5:53 pm

    I can’t imagine a scenario that would include me sitting through Alice in Wonderland, and not just because 3D gives me a headache.

    Shutter Island I saw…it wasn’t as bad as some people are saying but I’m not sure it’s must-see cinema.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 10, 2010 7:24 pm

      You know it has disturbing similarities with William Peter Blatty’s 1980 movie The Ninth Configuration, right? Like, almost exactly the same plot? I may see it yet anyway. Scorsese knows how to aim a camera, that’s for sure.

  6. Connie permalink
    March 10, 2010 5:56 pm

    There’s also the matter of Tim Burton, whose movies are not…always…as wonderful as people seem to think they are (though I really did like Sweeney Todd, even if I didn’t quite see why the ingenue was crying about having to marry Alan Rickman. He’s Alan Rickman for God’s sake!)

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 10, 2010 7:25 pm

      I tried to watch Sweeney Todd on HBO, but I could not get past the horror of…Johnny Depp…singing (talk about Shudder Island!).

  7. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    March 10, 2010 7:27 pm

    When it comes to Tim Burton, I have four words: Planet of the Apes. If he cures cancer and ends world hunger, he’ll make a start — a start, I say! — on atoning for that awful, awful thing. And the original is such a great movie, Chuck’s histrionics notwithstanding.

  8. Candice permalink
    March 11, 2010 10:47 am

    And yet, I know a lot of Tim Burton fans out there…

  9. Monica permalink
    March 12, 2010 7:36 pm

    I do not think that these movie versions like many others before them, pay any homage to their literary origins, but then again, it seems as if Hollywood only cares about making money rather than staying true to the characters or plot of anything that they re-create. Johnny Depp scared me as Willy Wonka, and he definitely scares me as The Mad Hatter, just as Jim Carey’s cartoon version of Ebenezer Scrooge terrified not only me, but most of the seventh graders that I took to see it last Fall. These movie versions of classic literature are just that, mere versions and don’t seem to ever come close to the originals. I will take my childhood memories of Alice in Wonderland and A Christmas Carol over the movie versions any day.

  10. Candice Simmons permalink
    March 13, 2010 12:22 am

    I loved JOhnny Depp as Willi Wonka.

  11. Tommy permalink
    March 15, 2010 12:04 am

    Been way too long since I read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass to say whether or not the latest film version has been a betrayal caught on film. It was a… well… surprisingly fun and ghastly trip. Not a great film, yet not all together horrible. Not a kiddy film (that doormouse has to stop it with the eyes) and not really a film for grown-ups. Disney finally made a film exclusively for young adults on mushrooms. I appluade Depp and Burton for not going overboard with the Mad Hatter character, instead focusing on Alice and her wariness of the confusing and frightening prospect that is the art and battlefield of “growing up”.

    Get right sized.

    • Tommy permalink
      March 15, 2010 12:21 am

      I also must applaud Disney and Burton for keeping the run time down to 100 minutes. See Hollywood, movies do not have to be 2 and a half hours long. I would have loved it if they had stretched the film another ten minutes so that The Walrus and The Carpenter could have had lunch.

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