Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? Email us at email@example.com.
This week’s question comes from reader Thane Himes: There are so many stories being told nowadays, but sometimes something really brilliant comes along that just doesn’t work in practice, and you wish someone else had been the one to execute it. For example, I thought the concept behind the movie In Time was really intriguing, but I kind of wish someone besides Andrew Niccol had thought of that idea, as his muted directing style and his screenplays’s constant “DO YOU UNDERSTAND THE ALLEGORY YET” dialogue bogged down the emotional weight of the actual story. Maybe in the hands of someone like Rian Johnson or Duncan Jones, the human element would have been more present as the audience is taken through the dystopia of “time is literally money.”
What story concept or premise do you wish wasn’t explored by the person that did something with it? And for bonus points: Who would you have preferred take a crack at that concept?
I sort of wish that J.K. Rowling hadn’t written the Harry Potter books. I say “sort of,” because I think there are elements of Rowling’s style that create the comedy and whimsical appeal of the books. But with such a fantastic setting, the story could have been so much more satisfying. Rowling doesn’t seem to have gotten a good sense of the conventions of genre fantasy before writing the books, and as a result the series doesn’t hit the right beats. Slytherin House was badly characterized and poorly executed; its wizards Professor Snape and Draco Malfoy were never really treated right. Dumbledore, as has been previously proven, is the worst professor ever. And Rowling’s hero, Harry Potter, is so much less interesting than most of the other characters in the series—including, of course, Hermione Granger, the true hero of the books. Somewhere in the source material of Harry Potter is a moving epic that tells the story of good and evil while also making jokes about flying cars. But J.K. Rowling couldn’t quite pull it off. Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising offers more of what I’m looking for; Douglas Adams, if he were alive and interested, would be absolutely the best candidate for the untold story of Hermione Granger and the dumb boys she kept dragging out of trouble.
Thank you, Sonia, for reminding me of what I always say to this question, even though it’s an obvious opinion to have at this point: the Harry Potter movies are all pretty terrible. Oh, they tried their best, but they were always fighting a losing battle. The books have too much story to get through in a neat two hours, and there was always the shadow of Warner Bros. standing overhead, making sure the movies came out at lightning speed and had enough merchandise opportunities to keep the residual Galleons rolling in until the end of time. It’s a pipe dream, but I’ve been thinking lately that if the Harry Potter books had come out even five years later, they would have made an awesome television series. A magical boarding school filled with monsters and hormones, following extraordinary teenagers as they fight an ever-growing threat of social disorder and real, true evil? I’d marathon the shit out of that. Plus, having the luxury of more time would give the Harry Potter series the room it needs to breathe (even Alfonso Cuarón’s superior third movie landed with a thud as it stuffed 30 pages of backstory into 30 seconds of chaos), and would allow space for the nuance Sonia and I crave (A Very Special Slytherin episode, anyone?). This would have seemed laughable a few years ago, but at the very least, Game Of Thrones proved an epic book series can make an epic television series. I’m not saying Harry Potter could be Game Of Thrones, but... no, wait, I am. There’s some dark shit behind the Disney-fied magical shenanigans—betrayals, ruthless beasts, forced body possessions, slavery, attempted genocide—so why not actually take the time to show it?
My real answer to this is “the guys that are making the Jem movie,” but seeing as how that hasn’t come out yet, I can’t reasonably hate it completely. Thus, I’m going to go with “everyone who made a Twilight movie.“ I’m a semi-shame-filled fan of the books and while it’s hard for me to separate the films’ imagery from the Stephenie Meyer’s not-great prose, I still think the CGI in most of the movies is hack work at best. It would have been nice to see Summit Entertainment and the Twilight team hand the movies over to someone who understood what it takes to make a big budget project shine, rather than someone who was just capable enough to get a bunch of teenagers to not totally hate something. I’m reasonable, though. I don’t want a Sofia Coppola examination of Bella’s inner soul or anything. I’d settle for a Joss Whedon.
Good scripts don’t necessarily make for good movies. (Conversely, plenty of good movies have been made from bad scripts; it’s direction that counts above all.) I wouldn’t call The Counselor a bad movie, but I think that Cormac McCarthy’s screenplay—with its careful rhetorical constructions and arcane dialogue—is much richer than the film that sprang from it. What it needed was a director who was willing to chew McCarthy’s text and spit something out of his or her own; what it got instead was the undigested, undistinguished direction of late-period Ridley Scott, all flat two-shots and please-don’t-notice-me cuts. My answer in this kind of situation is always Michael Mann. Just about any imperfect American movie that tries to tackle major themes could be great if it were a Michael Mann film. An adaptation of The Great Gatsby? Just imagine the loneliness and longing Mann would evoke in those views from the pier. (“Time is luck, old sport,” has a nice ring to it.)
Man, what I wouldn’t give to see a TV series set in the world of modern journalism that didn’t spring from the pen of Aaron Sorkin. I’m not the world’s biggest cable news network fan, but there’s all the potential in the world for a show like The Newsroom to be something other than what it’s been for two seasons, even at its best. And the thing is, I’m not that bothered by Sorkin’s approach. TV could use more bald romanticism, and it could use more shows where characters fret about whether what they’re doing will be good for the American republic. It could even use more shows where characters struggle with the intricacies of the backstage world of entertainment. (Okay, maybe it doesn’t need so many of those.) But The Newsroom as we have it is a stultifying bore. When it’s not being preachy and didactic, it’s being ridiculous toward the vast majority of its female characters and needlessly in love with the Great Man theory of everything. Even at its best, the show feels like a mash-up of all of Sorkin’s better works, and there’s so much in it that should be so good but simply isn’t. The worst part is that The Newsroom is so close to the show it could have been—all it takes to see it is squinting a bit. Oh well. Maybe we’ll get a good journalism show next decade.
It’s easy to look at the last decade-plus of Tim Burton movies and feel discouraged about the empty quirk and uninspired adaptations that devoured the filmmaker like a towering, zebra-striped carnivorous worm. But there isn’t a straight line from 2001’s bungled Planet Of The Apes remake to Dark Shadows, because that stretch also includes personal, truly weird stuff like Big Fish and Corpse Bride among the blockbusters. And clumsily grafted-on backstory aside, Burton’s Charlie And The Chocolate Factory is still the best screen attempt at recreating the whimsical menace of Roald Dahl’s literary work. Still, I’ve never felt angrier as I’ve left a movie theater than I did at the end of 2010’s Alice In Wonderland—in no small part because I feel like Tim Burton circa 1997 would’ve done it so much better. Limited CGI, less pressure to be family-friendly, access to a Johnny Depp who isn’t made entirely of scarves and bracelets—imagine a world where Mars Attacks! didn’t flop, and late-’90s Burton followed it up by giving Lewis Carroll’s Alice novels the looser, more surreal treatment they call for. Or not: In interviews around the film’s release, the director said he’d never felt any emotional connection to the subject matter, so maybe any Burton Alice In Wonderland would come out feeling hollow. Still, I like to think the guy who ended Mars Attacks! like this wouldn’t have given the Mad Hatter a send-off like this.
Richard Kelly has made one excellent movie (Donnie Darko) and one that’s so batshit it’s incredibly entertaining (Southland Tales). After the latter flopped, he tried to make something more commercial with The Box, based on a short story by Richard Matheson that had already been adapted for a Twilight Zone episode. The premise: A young married couple is given a box with a button on it. If they press the button, they’ll get a million dollars, but someone, somewhere will die. Maybe that’s just not a concept that can be stretched into 90 minutes, but Kelly built a big mythology around it that involves the NSA, a lightning strike, and some other stuff that never quite works. Visually, the movie is striking, but it doesn’t have much soul, and it doesn’t spend enough time exploring the moral quandary of the box itself. Plus, shouldn’t every savvy couple know that this kind of deal with the devil never ends well? Maybe in somebody else’s hands—somebody with an actual mainstream sensibility, instead of a forced one—it would be something better.
As a kid watching the Transformers cartoons, I always thought there was a fascinating, potentially sophisticated science fiction story buried somewhere below the toy commercial. The basic idea of an ancient race of giant, space-traveling, metal-based life forms getting tied down to a planet occupied by comparatively newly evolved, tiny, squishy, vulnerable sentients seems like the kind of study of cultural contrasts that makes great sci-fi. Add in the deeply weird idea of relationships and partnerships forming between aliens and humans with nothing in common—and the idea of the giant alien robots basically domesticating themselves into vehicles for people they could just as easily turn to paste without noticing, and the inevitability of the military wanting to weaponize the aliens—and there’s a lot of potentially rich metaphorical and conceptual material there. The cartoons didn’t do anything with it, and as soon as Michael Bay got hold of it, it was clear the live-action “adult” version wasn’t going to, either. I’m not sure Bay knows what a metaphor is, or understands that giant, million-year-old alien robots could be anything but yet another framing device for his endless series of boring comedy stories about sex-obsessed yet sexless adolescents. I don’t know if anyone else cares about the story potential in Transformers’ basic setup—not compared with making a billion dollars at the box office, or selling more toy Transformers—and I don’t blame them, so I don’t have an ideal director in mind. But if pressed, I’d note that Brad Bird has shown he’s great with tense, explosive, exciting action sequences, and with making an actual emotional story about the relationship between a small boy and a giant robot. I don’t need Iron Giant levels of tearjerking emotional power out of a Transformers movie, but boy, they’d be different if they evoked any honest emotions at all.
The sheer scope of Max Brooks’ novel World War Z set it apart, not only from the field of zombie fiction, but also from all but the most revered sci-fi, horror, or fantasy fiction. In extrapolating the (even in 2006) well-shambled zombie genre into every conceivable social, military, political, and economic outcome such a global catastrophe would produce, Brooks wrote as compelling, complex, and downright unsettling a work of speculative fiction as I’ve ever read. By my estimation, the book’s many chapters—each one focusing on one individual’s experience of the barely overcome zombie apocalypse—could have produced nearly as many truly striking movies. (For the record, I’d pay to see films about the Battle Of Yonkers, the siege of the celebrity house, the female pilot bailout/survival tale, the family’s ill-fated escape to Canada, the story of the zombie K-9 Corps, the horrific military engagements in India and Russia, Russia’s chilling post-war political programs, the terrifying battles of the Paris catacombs, undersea zombie submarine warfare, the flesh-crawling implications of the disappearance of all of North Korea, the American president’s inspirational gambit to rally the world’s depleted governments to fight back, the cross-country cleanup battles against both zombies and separatist humans, the South African doomsday plan, and a two-parter of the Japanese computer geek’s epic attempt to escape his high rise apartment building, and his eventual meet up with the old man I call Zombie Zatoichi.) The natural home for such an undertaking would have been an HBO miniseries, with each story getting its own hour-long entry. What we got instead was Marc Forster’s competent, pedestrian zombie action flick (featuring fast zombies, which remain the dumbest idea in movie history), where Brad Pitt flies around trying to save the world. In one of the most egregious wastes of surefire source material, Forster’s conception is just another zombie flick, jettisoning Brooks’ epic conception of humanity coping with the very real probability of extinction in favor of standard, action movie thrills. “Competently made and forgettable” might be Forster’s stock-in-trade, but it never should have been World War Z’s.
I’m not someone who bashes stuff at the drop of a hat, as I’m the kind of guy who really wants to see the glass as half full whenever possible, but there are exceptions to every rule. In this case, I’m still not able to look back at Star Trek: Enterprise without seeing it for the hugely wasted opportunity that it was… mostly. I absolutely loathed the way the writers constantly created new planets and alien races when they had decades worth of established history to fall back on and explore further, but in the fourth and final season, they finally did something to change that situation: They brought on Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens as executive story editors and co-producers. I’m not saying that the fourth season was hugely better than its predecessors, but it was the first time that Enterprise ever felt it was paying homage to the series that had spawned it, providing trips to Vulcan (“The Forge”), the return of the Organians (“Observer Effect”), and an in-canon explanation for why the Klingons look one way in the original series but another way in the movies (“Divergence”). Of course, then Rick Berman and Brannon Braga had to go and ruin that brief burst of fondness I had for the show with the last episode, which made me scream, “Are you fucking kidding me?” But I’ve never forgotten how great the Reeves-Stevens’ contributions were, and to this day I still wish someone would give them a shot at showrunning a new Star Trek series. I just know they’d kick ass.
I’ll follow Will with another Star Trek-themed answer. I will always have a soft spot for J.J. Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek, in that it re-ignited my curiosity in all things Trek enough to get me to finally seek out Deep Space Nine, which is now my favorite show of all time. Yet that very same re-kindled love of the Star Trek franchise has made me realize just how poorly the new movies fit with what came before; the 2009 Star Trek is a ton of fun as a big action blockbuster, but that’s no longer something I’m all that interested in from this universe. Compounding all this is the fact that Abrams never made any secret of his preference for Star Wars over Star Trek. That’s all well and good, but it feels like even more of a waste for him to use Star Trek as an opportunity to make two de facto Star Wars movies when he’s now about to direct Episode VII anyway. If Abrams’ approach was literally the only way to make Trek relevant again, then so be it, I guess, but I’d like to think another director and writing team could have shown the public at large why Trek is so much fun while preserving far more of its intellectual, inquisitive spirit. As for who might fit that bill: Honestly, this is such a painfully obvious answer, but the cosmic vistas of the Interstellar trailer do make me intrigued to see what a slightly more optimistic Christopher Nolan could do with a Star Trek movie.
Like most red-blooded Americans raised on George Lucas’ original trilogy, I spent my childhood fascinated by throwaway bits of backstory sprinkled throughout Star Wars. For years, I fantasized about hearing the story that was hinted at in the prequels—Obi-Wan Kenobi finds Anakin, thrillingly powerful, but full of anger and pain. Kenobi arrogantly thinks he can train this unstable prodigy, and watches helplessly as that arrogance brings down the Jedi, the Republic, and destroys everything he holds dear, and then has to spend decades living in the desert, alone with his guilt. Of course, instead of the grand saga we were promised by the original trilogy, we got The Phantom Menace and its two sequels, which gave us tow-headed happy-go-lucky Anakin, who grows up to be a whiny, petulant teenager, who turns to the dark side because he’s scared of a stupid prophecy? I’m tempted to say any other human being or wookiee could have served the story better than George Lucas, and there are a few accomplished directors who could have given the Star Wars prequels the depth and scope they deserved. While Empire Strikes Back director Irvin Kershner seems like the obvious choice, I’d actually like to see Ang Lee bring the style and broad-stroke characterization he brought to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. What would serve Star Wars better than a scene like Dragons climactic swordfight, where, without a word spoken, we see unmistakably that Zhang Ziyi is a prodigious raw talent who’s undisciplined, while Michelle Yeoh is overmatched physically, but patient and thoughtful? Give us that dynamic between Obi-Wan and Anakin, and spare us endless variations on “you have much to learn, my young apprentice.”