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