Sunday, March 20, 2005


Russel T Davies has been quoted as saying that he is irritated when people complain that Disney changed the ending of The Little Mermaid. What does that matter when the cartoon made the story available to millions who hadn't read the book. He says that great characters like Sherlock Holmes and Tarzan can and should be re-invented in each generation.

Up to a point. I am one who is very keen to defend the weirder adaptations of classic fiction, and if Jonathon Miller and Svankmeyer are allowed to re-interpret Alice in Wonderland in surreal and post-modern ways, I can't really complain if Walt Disney does so in a crassly populist way. I think the work of art stands on its own terms Ultimately, I disapprove of Jackson's Gimli because he is crass and unfunny, not because he has nothing to do with Tolkien's Gimli.

People say that a re-working of a book can't violate the original, because the original still exists. This is only partly true. I think that Disney's Snow White did, as Tolkien says, vulgarise the Dwarves, to the extent that any fairy tale involving Dwarves struggles against the image of cute people singing "Hi-ho!" with American accents. If you liked the original mythology, that harmed it in some way. There's an old joke about an intellectual being a person who hears Rossini's William Tell Overture and doesn't immediately think of the Lone Ranger and Tonto. Is there a person on earth who can read Mary Shelly's romantic masterpiece and not see a little picture of Boris Karloff in their head every time the name Frankenstien is mentioned? At some level, then, Karloff has violated Shelly.

I don't believe that there is such a thing as the essence of Story: that, somehow, by re-telling Tarzan or Frankenstien I am "passing on" or "evolving" a bigger entity called The Story. I don't think that a story exists over-and-above any individual version of that story. Johnny Weissmuller's jungle movies were terrific fun; I loved them as a kid; I still quite enjoy them now. But they were not "making Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan available to people who would not otherwise have known about him." They had almost no point of connection with ERB.

Certainly, an adaptation, done in a careful way, can hold a light up to the original. I adored Jeremy Brett's version of Sherlock Holmes: for the first time, I was seeing the character that I thought I remembered from the books coming to life on the screen. But, in truth, his portrayal was just as partial as anyone else's, taking the maniacal eccentricity (which I think is mainly present in the earliest stories) and making that the controlling feature of the character. If I take Conan Doyle off the shelf nowadays, I can read it as if played by Jeremy Brett and equally as if player by Basil Rathbone. But here, we are talking about people interpreting an existing story, not making up new ones. Brett took words which the author wrote and acting them, changing some emphasis, inventing details that the author left out (when did Holmes give up taking drugs? Doyle doesn't tell us; Jeremy Brett invented an answer.) But this is based on the assumption that the text say-what-they-say; and that a future actor or interpretor will be free to come and re-interpret them. That is a very different proposition to creating a new stories that will have the stamp of "canonicity" -- new adventures that aficionados will pretend "really" happened.

I agree with RTD the characters need to be re-invented, and a new version of Doctor Who that was simply a pastiche of someone's favourite period of the original show would be a catastrophe. Bringing back something which is nearly 20 years old implies a very substantial amount of re-invention and re-imagining. But if you re-invent Magic Roundabout as a quest narrative with villains and pop-culture references, then what you have isn't Magic Roundabout, even if the the thing is quite interesting in its own right, which, by all accounts, it isn't. There is a fine line between re-invention and starting again from scratch, between Ultimate Doctor Who and "this is just a totally new series which happens to have a time-traveler in it", at which point I lose interest.

I'm hoping that Davies faith in the mystical integrity of Story doesn't mean that he thinks he has crossed it.


Anonymous said...

But there isn't a coherent thing you can point to that is "Doctor Who". Doctor Who was always whichever series about a time traveller the BBC decide is going to be called "Doctor Who" this year.

Anonymous said...

'coherent' = logical & consistent according to my oed.

While DW doesn't have a coherent philosophy like the various incarnations of Star Trek, there are, despite the above post a great many things within the series which were consistent.
DW always contained a character called the Doctor and throughout his various actorly incarnations he retained if not the same 'character' then certainly the same function within the stories, along with a fairly consistent background (timelord, poor relations with other timelords, alienness compared to human colleagues)
DW's Doctor also consistently had human companions whose function remained more or less the same throughout the series. Help the Doctor do stuff while requiring frequent rescueing. They were also there for us, the viewer to relate to because they often shared our fear. They were also quite often attarctive young women which at some point we started to notice (Lala Ward was when I noticed: Oddly enough she then married The Doctor (which Andrew might enjoy) divorced him and later found happiness as Richard dawkins Teletubby. (which Andrew wouldn't enjoy))
The Doctor's adversaries were also pretty consistent. Daleks, Cyber-men, Ice-Warriors, and others who also reappeared, presumably because the cossies were hanging around.
Other consistencies: use of cliff-hangers, programme length, theme-tune, episodic structure.

That's enough cosistency. Someone else can do 'logical'.

Not exactly the subject I'd choose for my first entry on Andrew's site. Oh well.
Yours, Colin.

Anonymous said...

I was reasonably happy with the Disney ending to "Little Mermaid," because, although Disney's Ariel has some serious problems, she is a model of mental health compared with Anderson's original unnamed aquatic masochist.

But that is really to agree with Andrew that the two are different stories, and the Disney people are not really passing on Anderson's work.

Nick Mazonowicz said...

"But there isn't a coherent thing you can point to that is "Doctor Who".

Also, Doctor Who is always on the side of the angels and is essentially an asexual innocent (until Paul McGann pissed on that last idea)

Andrew Rilstone said...

Also, Doctor Who is always on the side of the angels and is essentially an asexual innocent (until Paul McGann pissed on that last idea)

"City of Death" was about the Doctor's honeymoon, or at the very least, his dirty weekend. ("Warriors Gate" was about the divorce.)

Doctor Jon drives off in a sulk when Jo gets engaged to the Welsh hippy.

Doctor Bill is at least a little bit affectionate towards the Aztec lady he pretends to get engaged to.


Anonymous said...

TLM ending reminds me somewhat of...

Scarlett: Oh, Rhett, where will I go? What'll I do?

Rhett: Frankly my dear, I love you. Let's remarry.

...from a certain animated sitcom
which will remain nameless