Monthly Archives: March 2014

The Art of the Movie Tie-In — Part I

The phenomenon of the “movie tie-in” has become so important over the years that many publishers regard it as a small art form.

I certainly do.  Since motion pictures can give us only a slice of the book, the job of the movie tie-in is to lure viewers from screen to print, and heaven knows that’s not an easy sell. Hollywood’s target audience — young males aged 13 to 25 — reportedly believes that reading a book is harder, duller and less relevant than watching a film.

So most publishers have mistakenly decided that the movie tie-in — instead of rousing and inspiring potential readers! (which we’ll get to in Part II) — must calm and reassure. It must show moviegoers that reading can be less taxing, more fun and just as passive as watching a movie.

For some years, publishers did this by inserting a fat section of color photos from the movie into the pages of the text. Just open the book to these photos, the movie tie-in beckoned, and you’ll see it’s all the same movie experience. There’s nothing literary or challenging here.

Photo inserts are expensive, however, and besides, it’s the cover illustration that must erase any artistic-looking stuff from the book.  That’s one reason this gorgeous jacket art (“Celestial Eyes” by Spanish artist Francis Cugat), which appeared on the first edition of The Great Gatsby —

Picture of The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby, original jacket illustration, 1925

–was replaced at one point with the pulp-fiction look below, where a big-chested Alan Ladd removes his shirt just in time to be shot.

The Great Gatsby, 1947 movie tie-in edition

The Great Gatsby, 1947 movie tie-in edition

Pulp fiction covers had an extra allure. They reminded readers that movies were heavily censored at the time, while explicit sex scenes in books were protected by the First Amendment. So the marketing line at top — “The Great Novel of the Sinful Twenties” — promises that reading a book might be better in terms of active personal engagement with the story that’s not allowed in a movie theater.

New tie-in art for The Great Gatsby arrived with this photo from the 1974 movie, where Robert Redford and Mia Farrow try hard to emote under those nifty hats. Here the message seems to be that failures of the upper class can be just as entertaining as sinful sex.

The Great Gatsby jacket

The Great Gatsby, 1974 movie tie-in

Then came your basic larded-with-celebrities illustration in this Art Deco cover for the 2013 tie-in. Too bad it looks like a dreary office party from The Wolf of Wall Street. It might be cold, clinical and tiresome. It might be manipulative, cynical and boring. But it’s safe.

The Great Gatsby, 2013 movie tie-in

The Great Gatsby, 2013 movie tie-in

So movie tie-ins  try to lure or trick us to look inside, but sometimes they’re more honest than the publisher’s original illustration.  For example, the first book jacket for The Help seems to be saying, let’s-not-talk-about-RACE-for-god’s-sake  in Penguin’s U.S. edition, since it doesn’t even allude to the story inside —

The Help, 2009 jacket

The Help, 2009 jacket

— or does it? Let’s see, one bird sits apart from two other birds, and that’s a metaphor, right? So it must mean …. I know! Birds of a feather should do the laundry together!  At least in the United States. In England, the jacket may have resembled a documentary film cover, but at least it provided a glimpse of the story’s theme inside.

British edition of The Help

British edition of The Help

Eventually, after the movie came out, the skittish publisher decided that famous actors from the movie could, in the American tie-in, give the reader an idea of the story:

The Help, move tie-in edition

The Help, move tie-in edition

Or wait. These characters seem to look like birds, don’t they? — all lined up in a cartoonish and nonthreatening way. Aw. And here the publisher is trying to make everything entertaining and fun with a marketing line that says, “Change begins with a whisper.” Isn’t that simple?  It’s your basic no-risk movie tie-in.

Which brings us to 12 Years a Slave and the subject of truth in book cover illustrations. When you look at the movie tie-in photo of actor Chiwetel Ejiofor playing the role of Solomon Northup, what do you see?

12 Years a Slave, 2013 movie tie-in

12 Years a Slave, 2013 movie tie-in

I think the cover says, This is an escaped slave who is running for his life.   I bet it was selected as the “brand” for movie posters and book covers because it suggests that: 1) here is an “action” movie and not some boring treatise on slavery that will make white viewers feel guilty; and 2)  Solomon Northup survives the 12 years of the title, so don’t worry about a sad ending.

The irony here is that we never see Solomon Northup running like this in the movie. We see him speed up on his walks between plantation and store; we see him explore the swamp and contemplate escape; we see him nearly hanged and chased around a hog pen, but we never see him running so desperately, so wildly, so fearfully fast.

In the book, however, the running scene does exist, and it’s a pivotal episode. I’m not sure why the director didn’t bring it to the screen (what an idiot), but readers will find a thrilling, awesome passage in the book that keeps us on the edge of our seats.

Next: So what if a cover photo never appears in the movie? Why the difference matters.

 

 

A Mistake and a Debate about ’12 Years a Slave’

I loved that moment at the Academy Awards when John Ridley, accepting the award for Best Adapted Screenplay, stated fiercely that almost every word in 12 Years a Slave came from the original book by Solomon Northup, who wrote it in 1853.

John Ridley

John Ridley

In later interviews, Ridley added that he  saw his job as “reductive — take 12 years and fit it into what ended up to be about 2 hours — but not additive. I had nothing other, better, greater to say” than what Northup put on the page. At last: a commitment to print from the translator-to-film.

Question #1: The Out-of-Place Scene

So I’m wondering why director Steve McQueen created a scene for the movie that’s not only missing from the book but is weirdly, to me, out of place.

In this scene, Solomon Northup is trying to sleep on a floor crowded with other slaves when he notices that the female slave next to him is staring beseechingly and soon insistently at his face.  Without warning,  she grabs his hand and uses it to massage her breast. Then she briefly kisses him on the mouth and brings his hand between her legs to masturbate herself to orgasm. Then she turns away from him and bursts into tears  — in shame or hopelessness or release, we’re not sure.

McQueen has said he created this scene for the movie because “I just wanted a bit of tenderness — the idea of this woman reaching out for sexual healing in a way, to quote Marvin Gaye. She takes control of her own body. Then after she’s climaxed, she’s back where she was. She’s back in hell, and that’s when she turns and cries.”

His choice of words sounds odd to me because “tenderness” is completely absent in the scene, and the idea of “taking control of her own body” had not been conceptualized for women at the time (i.e., no Our Bodies, Ourselves lying around.) Since we know from the movie that female slaves were raped repeatedly by white men along the way, it’s hard to believe this manic rubbing would provide the kind of “sexual healing” McQueen mentions.

Steve McQueen

Steve McQueen

Of course, directors throw new material into adapted screenplays all the time, and I’ve always believed it’s not the business of the viewer to question WHY a decision was made.  (We simply get to say it works for us or not.)

But in this case, Ridley’s pride at the Academy Awards reflected more than a faithful script. He wanted us to appreciate the enormous achievement of Solomon Northup, an ancestor who so perfectly captured every detail of his experience that the truth of it, coming to us through the political chaos of a century and a half, must be respected and preserved.

And Ridley is hardly alone in his praise for Northup. Usually in the case of an adapted screenplay, only one edition of the book exists, and that’s the movie tie-in. But 12 Years a Slave has been valued by so many  audiences that there are more than 20 versions — illustrated, annotated, footnoted; with interviews, introduced by scholars/celebrities, written for children — now available.

McQueen himself is quoted as saying that when he first read 12 Years a Slave, “it felt as important as Anne Frank’s diary.” That should have meant Don’t mess with what the author left us in print.

News stories suggest that Ridley and McQueen argued during the filming and  aren’t speaking to this day, which is why they snubbed each other at the Oscars.  I wonder if the made-up masturbation scene is the reason.  The worst part of it, to me, is that McQueen inserts the scene again later in the movie to show us (I guess) all the things Northup endured in his 12 years of slavery. The unfortunately comical message we get at that point is Wow, what a great guy! Show him your needs and he’s a veritable Dr. Ruth. No puns allowed about lending a helpful hand.

Question #2: The “Mistaken” Scene

One of the big no-no’s in movie tie-ins is that the publisher must never step in and “correct” the original work, even if there are misspellings and grammatical errors aplenty.  The thinking goes that once you open that door, your own biases could intercede, distorting the author’s intentions without your conscious knowledge.

Several times while reading 12 Years a Slave I imagined frustrated copy editors tying their hands to the chair upon viewing Northup’s many misplaced modifiers (“having been fed, preparations were made to depart”), lengthy sentences and pronoun confusion.

12 Years a Slave book cover

12 Years a Slave book cover

See, for example, if you can sort out who is who in this passage below. The speaker is Solomon Northup, and he is describing  the hatred that Mistress Epps bears for Patsey, the slave whom Mr. Epps sexually prefers:

“Nothing delighted the mistress so much as to see [Patsey] suffer, and more than once, when Epps had refused to sell her, has she tempted me with bribes to put her secretly to death, and bury her body in some lonely place in the margin of the swamp.”

Yikes, so many uses of “she” and “her” could inspire a person to pick up the blue pencil, but noooo. Just as Northup is to be respected for his thoroughness in historical/geographical accuracy, so must he be allowed a few bafflements along the way.

But readers get to have their opinions, so what do you think:  Is it Mistress Epps or Patsey herself who is depicted asking Solomon to put her (Patsey) to death?  The pronouns make it impossible to tell, so the filmmakers chose Patsey to be the one pleading with Solomon to put her out of her misery.

#2On the Internet, however, by my count, most viewers who debate this question believe Northup was writing about Mistress Epps –for one thing, she can afford the kind of bribes Patsey could never offer; for another, Patsey is not suicidal even after the whipping scene (though her spirit is altered terribly).

I also believe the author meant Mistress Epps,  but this time, unlike the first example, I’m not worried about the filmmakers’ mistaking the author’s intention. The scene is so well acted and scripted that it feels authentic and fitting in terms of the movie’s view of the world, and that’s good enough for me as a viewer.

Question #3: The Jacket Illustration

What film producers decide to put on the jacket of the movie tie-in is something I wonder about all the time. Like many readers, I tend to stare at it the cover illustration while pausing between chapters, and if its message even remotely misrepresents the book, I find myself thinking that all of Hollywood is illiterate.

So I’m wondering what comes to mind when you view this photo of Chiewetel Eliofor, the actor who plays Solomon Northup, running across the cover of Penguin’s official movie tie-in cover.

I’ll try not to bang on the table in the next post, The Art of the Movie Tie-in, when describing what I think is going on.

movie tie-in book cover

movie tie-in book cover