Gnomeo & Juliet

Gnomeo & Juliet
Written by John R. Smith, Rob Sprackling, Kelly Asbury, Mark Burton, Andy Riley, Kevin Cecil, Emily Cook, Kathy Hamburg and Steve Hamilton Shaw

Not that I’ll pretend to know their individual contributions, but the nine writers collectively prove how no one can write a whole film based on one gimmicky title. And I also won’t pretend to understand exactly whatever the hell it is that producers actually do. There are already several producers I could name who lead public lives, bringing honest passions to whatever they make, from conception to release. But the massive majority of them are also either directors or writers, who are using their position as a producer to benefit their creativity.

And none of them are legendary musicians whose songs make up just about the entire soundtrack. As it happens, it’s Elton John. Not that I’m ripping on Elton John, of course. If you don’t like Elton John, then you clearly just hate love.

This is only made all the more unfortunate by John being legendary for a reason, and his original song for Gnomeo & Juliet – Hello Hello – is one of his newer classics. What makes it tragic is that it was made for Gnomeo & Juliet, a film that secretes popular culture to the point of getting a fever. Accusing a William Shakespeare adaptation of being unoriginal isn’t a valid argument, but what makes this particular example so vile is that those other adaptations at least manage to be original within themselves. Film-making is like house-construction: in one neighbourhood, most of the houses will look alike, but the difference is what’s inside.

A house’s appearance doesn’t matter, because their purpose is to be lived-in, not looked at. So when a film is adapting anything, it’s taking the fundamental aspects and making something new of it. What Gnomeo & Juliet does isn’t just to grab the most basic elements that can be found in any other Shakespeare adaptation, but to draw on whatever else the producers thought was popular of the moment, and to throw them all in there as well.

I regularly use the old content/context analogy made famous by Syd Field, and this is another good excuse: it’s not the cup I don’t like, it’s the drink. I’ve never judged a drink by the cup, and neither has another self-respecting individual. Which isn’t to say that the cup can’t also be disliked, but I’m yet to discover an example in-which the two aren’t separate. Gnomeo & Juliet, like every film, had the potential to be good.

Even with such a gimmicky title. All of us have those personal examples that we didn’t expect to work, yet did. But make no mistake with this one – Gnomeo & Juliet is a gimmick, and nothing more. It really doesn’t take long – almost no time at all, in fact – for the meta-textual references to become grating.

“Look”, it says, “we understand Shakespeare”. Well, so does every good adaptation. But what made them good is that they don’t constantly try to prove it to you, they just get on with it. And the ones that stand-out are those that transform the source material into something new.

Romeo & Juliet is arguably the most popular story ever told, but the way Gnomeo & Juliet approach it is to go on derivative tangents almost as if it doubts you like it. If this film were a person, it would try to impress you by appealing to the band you like, or the comic books you read. But deep in your heart, you’d know it was just mentioning them without actually understanding them. You wouldn’t want to spend your time with someone who, whenever they open their mouth to make you like them, exposes how much of a fake fan they are.

Similarly, I don’t want to watch a film that masks its own lack of confidence with distracting fake-fangirling about a story it simply doesn’t “get”. Which is probably why it has – quite frankly – the bloody nerve to suggest that its new ending is better than the original. I’ve nothing against the ending being different – early theatrical performances would alternate between tragedy and comedy – but it’s executed in a way that tells me that it’s being done just for the hell of it, rather than contributing something to the original. In fact, it’s not really an adaptation of Shakespeare.

Even that’s just to make it seem deep. I expect the original draft of Gnomeo & Juliet started as two gnomes from different gardens that fall in love. But some pretentious flap-dragon saw the vague similarity to Romeo & Juliet and had a load of literary analogies thrown in there even though it’s not that kind of film. The ending was obviously changed because of the film’s tone, but if that’s the case, maybe it should just not pretend to be something it isn’t, because that also ruins the source material it’s claiming to adapt.

Especially when it even describes the original text as “rather boring”.

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Feature film’s future

Recently, a lot of debate’s arisen over the state of modern cinema and whether it can provide the kind of quality people are prepared to pay for and sit in an auditorium with other people.

Personally, I find this is still the best way to watch a feature for numerous reasons. Mainly because doing it alone is still fun, but it’s even better when there are other people involved. It’s a better way to gauge the reaction from the audience, and if a film’s good, you find yourself feeling it together. And that’s what cinema has the power to do; bring people together.

Gone With the Wind is the highest-grossing film when adjusted for inflation, meaning that it’s the feature film people were most interested in seeing. To this day, no other feature has beaten the number of tickets sold. But that was 1939, and the industry’s moved-on since then. Now, cinema has to compete with television and videogames. Nobody expected videogames to become popular enough to legitimately challenge entertainment consumers’ attentions. Within three days of release, Grand Theft Auto V became the highest-selling and fastest-selling entertainment product. And that was only two years ago. Television is also now a legitimate threat; Games of the XXIX Olympiad is officially the highest-rated television broadcast, with an estimated peak of five billion viewers – nearly seventy percent of Humanity. Compare that with Floyd Mayweather, Jr. vs Manny Pacquiao, which became the highest-grossing pay-per-view television event, to the point that Avengers: age of Ultron, the fourth highest-grossing feature film of all time and third highest-grossing feature film of 2015, opened to less numbers than expected because of the audience divide caused by television.

So what’s to be done? Is the public going to be divided into those that game, watch television or go to cinemas? Will cinema become less of the phenomenon that it once was, and now becomes smaller compared to the competitive media? The answer to that is to be determined by whether cinema can be innovative than those other three. Whereas before different distributors and feature films would compete with each-other for what would generate the highest opening weekend, cinema itself is if anything united by the other media it needs to compete against. Cinema needs to offer something videogames and television cannot, or… television and video games themselves.

My local cinema allows customers to book console parties, where they can bring a games console and a video-game and play on the big screen. And it’s been announced that Sherlock Special will be livestreamed in cinemas worldwide. But it’s more than that. People are no longer able to just experience feature films, television and video-games in cinemas, because cinema is adapting those things into feature films. This April, Focus Features brings us Ratchet & Clank, based on the PlayStation 2 video-game Ratchet & Clank. And this month will be closed-out with Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, based on the television series Mission: Impossible. But is there anything that’s soon to exist across all three media? Is there a feature film coming soon that’s also a videogame and television series?

Probably not. But there are still adaptations of at least one of those things. Coming soon is:

  • Warner Bros. Pictures’ The man From U.N.C.L.E. (Guy Ritchie) based on NBC’s The man From U.N.C.L.E.
  • 20th Century Fox’s Hitman: Agent 47 (Aleksander Bach) based on Square Enix’s Hitman: Codename 47
  • Universal Pictures’ Jem and the Holograms (Jon M. Chu) based on Claster Television’s Jem
  • BBC Films’ Dad’s Army (Oliver Parker) based on BBC One’s Dad’s Army
  • Columbia Pictures’ The Angry Birds Movie (Clay Kertis and Fergal Reilly) based on Rovio Entertainment’s Angry Birds
  • Columbia Pictures’ Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune based on Sony Computer Entertainment’s Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune
  • Universal Pictures’ Warcraft (Duncan Jones) based on Blizzard Entertainment’s Warcraft: Orcs and Humans
  • Paramount Pictures’ Star Trek Beyond (Justin Lin) based on NBC’s Star Trek
  • 20th Century Fox’s Assassin’s Creed (Justin Kurzel) based on Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed
  • Lionsgate’s Mighty Morphin Power Rangers (Dean Israelite) based on FOX’s Mighty Morphin Power Rangers
  • Paramount Pictures’ Baywatch (Seth Gordon) based on NBC’s Baywatch
  • Farscape creator Rockne S. O’Bannon has said he’s adapting the Nine Network series.
  • Battlestar Galactica (Bryan Singer) based on ABC’s Battlestar Galactica.

So where does this leave us? Is the future of feature films in adaptations of video-games and television? It’s not as if it’s anything new, but is it the future? That will be determined by the relative success of these feature films, and nowhere else than 2016. The current dominating trend in feature films is comic book adaptations, Fantastic Four (Josh Trank) being the next upcoming release. But in 2016, with Warcraft and Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune currently releasing on the same weekend, it’s an in important question, especially given the upcoming Hitman: Agent 47, coming out in the same month as Fantastic Four. All trends end, but in their place something new will begin. What’s more interesting is the behind-the-scenes story. How do these videogames and television series make it to being a feature film, and what kind of brand recognition is required for it to work?

One of the major differences between directing a television episode and a feature film is the creative control a director has. In television, the showrunners have that control, in feature films, the director generally has control and will be hired based on his vision, which he’ll create for the producers. In a Breaking Bad episode, the director will have been overseen by showrunner Vince Gilligan, whereas a feature film would give the director more control (although in Breaking Bad‘s case, Gilligan would probably be directing anyway). If a television series is to be adapted well, it requires a director with cinematic creativity, who won’t just direct a feature-length episode. Universal Pictures’ Serenity (based on Fox’s Firefly) scored high critic ratings but low grossing, despite being directed by creator Joss Whedon. A popular choice of adaptation amongst television audiences is The CW’s Supernatural, and Ron Howard claims to have been signed to direct a feature film of Netflix’s Arrested Development. The BBC One series Doctor Who‘s already had two feature film adaptations: Dr. Who and the Daleks and Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. (directed by Gordon Flemyng), but at eighty minutes, these were arguably not feature-length. Nevertheless, they were adaptations of two original serials, rather than connected to the television continuity. This is often seen as necessary in feature film adaptations, as it would be the best way of being accessible to a wider audience not familiar with the television series. That said, some Game of Thrones fans claim that a feature film set during the early years of the show’s mythology could be so far removed from the television continuity that it wouldn’t matter, while also introducing new audiences to the television series. But it would still require a cinematic director to work.

In terms of videogames, popular selections to become feature films include Dead SpaceAlan WakeTomb Raider and The Last of UsTomb Raider‘s already been adapted into Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (Simon West) and Lara Croft Tomb Raider: Cradle of Life (Jan de Bont) with a reboot planned by GF Films after the videogame series was rebooted with Tomb Raider, and an adaptation of The Last of Us has already been announced by Sony and Screen Gems.

What this is doing is putting the feature in a similar situation to the early 2000s, when comic book adaptations were on the rise. The comic book adaptation is the highest box office draw currently; Marvel’s the Avengers (Joss Whedon) is the highest-grossing of them. Spider-Man 2 (Sam Raimi) and The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan) are those often considered the best. But this was not always the case. There was a time when comic book adaptations were considered a bad idea. But this wasn’t out of ignorance. The track record showed why – Howard the Duck (Willard Huyck), Superman IV: the Quest for Peace (Sidney J. Furie), Batman and Robin (Joel Schumacher) – Catwoman (Pitof)! But comic book feature films are now, arguably, the most anticipated.

Video game feature films currently hold the reputation once shared with comic book feature films. Alone in the Dark (Uwe Boll), for instance, is considered the worst of them all. The two Tomb Raiders are also thought of as being inferior to the source material. No video game adaptation has ever been successful. But there’s hope yet. WarcraftHitman: Agent 47Assassin’s Creed and Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune is amongst those coming out soon. Pixels may have underperformed and yes, The Angry Birds Movie will probably be horrible, but the rich source material of these adaptations have such potential that eventually all videogames will be trying to get themselves adapted.

With comic book fans wondering what the next line to be adapted will be, eventually video gamers will be anticipating the announcement of their favourite video game’s adaptation. I myself have an idea for how to adapt Grand Theft Auto V, which I’d love to write into a treatment for the property’s Rockstar owners. The series itself is becoming the subject of a feature film, Game Changer, about creator Dan Houser and the video game lawyer who accused him of making them too violent. If there’s a popular video game, it will be adapted into a feature film, and it will probably be good. Jones is a very good director, and someone like him working on Warcraft is a good sign. All that’s required is for publishers to understand that a feature film adaptation will make even more money when it’s good. Yes, filmmaking is an art, but cinema is a business. And if those two things can be combined, drawing from the interactive art that is video games, feature films could be transformed.

And as for television? That looks less certain. A feature film is a different style of storytelling, which requires a narrative to be established, developed and resolved in some form between ninety and one-hundred-and-fifty minutes. Ninety minutes is generally considered the minimum duration to be “feature length”, but that doesn’t mean a television series can create two episodes and just combine them. This year, we’ve had

  • Warner Bros. Pictures’ Entourage (Doug Ellin) from HBO’s Entourage
  • 20th Century Fox’s Spooks: the Greater Good (Bharat Nalluri) from BBC One’s Spooks
  • Paramount Pictures’ The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge out of Water (Paul Tibbitt) from Nickelodeon’s SpongeBob Squarepants
  • StudioCanal’s Shaun the Sheep (Richard Starzak and Mark Burton) from CBBC’s Shaun the Sheep.

But the reason so many television series aren’t adapted into feature films is because there needs to be enough substance. Most television series wouldn’t work as feature films, and many that do are already part of a franchise that includes the feature film medium.

Rotten Tomatoes criticised Entourage for feeling “less like a film than a particularly shallow, cameo-studded extended episode of the show”. Of note is that the television series had already been cancelled, and that was for a reason. That’s a good point, and one that Wittertainment’s Mark Kermode said of comedy actor Harry Hill vehicle The Harry Hill Movie (Steven Bendelack): “It is funny how small screen comedy works on the small screen, and when you take it and transpose it up on to the big screen, it’s like watching an articulated lorry trying to do a three-point turn. There’s something about the mechanism of cinema, which is so much weightier … just to do with the scale. All that stuff that Harry Hill does – the asides, the strange little surreal interludes, the puppets, the catchphrases – all that stuff is perfectly suited to the medium of television, on which he does brilliant, and on which he is, and quite rightly so, very successful. In the case of a film, it was just like going behind a tapestry and seeing all the bits hanging out from behind it. It was suddenly, you become crushingly aware of the mechanism.”

Spooks: the Greater Good was met with more positive reviews, but still received a mixed response. Many critics felt that its weakness was in the elements carried-over from the television series. Scotsman’s Alistair Harkness said, “The big screen proves an unforgiving canvas: for both the show’s hitherto high-end production values and its topical urgency”. The Express‘ Allan Hunter said, “it does not feel much different from an above-par television episode but then that is probably no bad thing”. Radio Times‘ Andrew Collins said, “the first big-screen spin-off, which revisits familiar Central London locations and similar dramatic territory, is essentially an extended bonus episode that will please fans but may leave cinemagoers spoilt by Bond and Bourne”. IGN’s Leigh Singer said that it was, “neither big nor smart enough to justify its big screen incarnation”. List Film’s Angie Errigo said, “this is very enjoyable, but cinematically pedestrian, looking and feeling like a long TV episode”. And that’s the main problem with Spooks: the Greater Good – in a world where Spectre‘s released next October and Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation‘s released next week, a television series in the same genre can’t justify itself just for being in that same genre – it actually has to be good. A Game of Thrones feature film could happen, but it would need to work as a fantasy piece capable or rivalling The Lord of the Rings. Just because something’s the best of a genre on television, remove the medium from the equation and it just comes across as weak imitator.

And of The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge out of Water, Rotten Tomatoes said, “The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water won’t win over many viewers who aren’t fans of the show”.

And yet, Shaun the Sheep scored 100% on Rotten Tomatoes, with Irish Times’ Tara Brady saying “The gorgeous big-screen version of Aardman’s TV hit has been carried off with faultless professionalism”.

Clearly, then, television feature films are rarely of a quality to be considered legitimate in their own right. Unlike video game adaptations, which are considered to just be bad films. Television feature films are more common, but video game feature films are going to become the next trend based on the expected quality of Hitman: Agent 47Warcraft and Assassin’s Creed. The difference is that television is already a motion picture, and therefore has a guaranteed level of quality, even if it isn’t very high, whereas videogames are interactive motion pictures, and that’s the difference. With a television feature film adaptation, the way it’s consumed is only a difference of situation; you have to pay for a ticket and go to a cinema, and watch it on a big screen with other people. Video game feature film adaptations don’t have that interactivity, but the desire to recreate it is often the downfall. There are video game “movie”s on YouTube which are perfect playthroughs in feature-length videos, but that’s not what a motion picture should be. It’s like comparing a novel with a comic book – totally different thing.

But there’s still no denying that video games and television series are now challenging feature films, and to catch-up, there’s going to be a lot of adapting to do. But there’s nothing wrong with that. Art builds on art, and since the largest feature film draw was from a novel, it’s clearly what the people want. And what the people want is what the feature film needs…