Winter’s Tale

Winter’s Tale

I saw the movie today.  I was very disappointed (even though I had every reason to expect it wouldn’t be good based on the trailers and virtually every review I’d read).

The book is my favorite novel ever, so it really bothered me on the level of lack of faithfulness, and choices that made no sense at all to me in adapting the story (see my posts about adapting books to film – part 1, part 2, part 3 and part 4).

Let’s start with the movie on its own terms; I’ll try to approach it without the book in mind.  The movie is the story of Peter Lake (Colin Farrell): orphan, thief, and outcast from the gang that had taken him in.  After a brief narration setting up the magical “rules” of the story (each star in the sky is an angel, more or less; each person has one miracle in them, which is meant for a specific person; there’s an ongoing war between the forces of good and evil), and a quick scene cutting from present day Grand Central Station (where an unkempt Farrell pores through a tiny room hidden in the ceiling of the station) to 1895, where the infant Peter Lake is put into a tiny boat and sent off, while his immigrant parents are sent back (due to having consumption).

We then move to 1916, and Peter is on the run from Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe) and his criminal gang, the Short Tails (although I’m not sure they’re actually named in the movie).  Peter escapes with the aid of a mysterious white horse, who then leads him to the house of Beverly Penn (Jessica Brown-Findlay), daughter of a newspaper publisher (William Hurt, playing the role as though he was anesthetized, as usual for him), and also consumptive.

It’s love at first sight, which is good for Beverly (who’s never even been kissed before, and would kind of like to be before she dies), sad for Peter (meeting your one true love and learning that she’s got weeks to live would be rather a bummer) and quite vexing for Pearly (who fears that if Peter uses his one miracle to save Beverly, it’ll upset the balance between good and evil in good’s favor permanently, which is not good news if you’re a fully-fledged demon, as we discover Pearly is).

I won’t give away the whole story, just in case you want to go see it for yourself, but suffice to say, we meet a few more angels and demons in 1916, there are confrontations and there’s tragedy, and then we jump ahead a century to the present day, and poor amnesiac, unshaven Peter in Grand Central Station, where he (and we) learn that destiny isn’t always what we expect, and he’s still got work to do, which involves newspaper columnist Virginia Gamely (a tragically underused Jennifer Connelly) and her cancer-stricken daughter.

I don’t even know where to start with the problems with the movie.  On a surface level, some of the dialogue is cringe-worthy (“I’ve had no memory for as long as I can remember)), Colin Farrell’s hair is too awful for words, Russell Crowe’s accent is all over the place, and his facial tics are distracting well past the point of reason, and the less said about Will Smith and his two scenes, the better.  And there are obvious, glaring lapses in logic: we see baby Peter in 1895, and catch up with him in 1916 when he’s turned into Colin Farrell.  I’m sorry, but Colin Farrell does not believably look 21 years old!  Similarly, when we meet Eva Marie Saint in the present day and it’s revealed that she’s the elderly version of a character we see as a child in 1916…well, it’s not that hard to do math.  Eve Marie Saint may not look quite the same as she did in “North by Northwest” but she certainly doesn’t look 107 years old, either (although i suspect this is partly due to the fact that there’s a similar issue in the book, except that the “present day” section of the book – which was written in 1983 – takes place in 1999.  A 92 year old still heading up the dynastic family business stretches credibility, but it’s more believable than a 107 year old!)

On a story level, the opening narration over-explains the “rules” but then as we learn more, things that ought to be explained are left hanging (why can’t Pearly and his minions leave New York City?  what’s the deal with the shaman who helpfully explains to Peter who and what his horse really is?  etc.).  We never get a reasonable motive for Pearly’s overwhelming hatred of Peter Lake, either.

The love story, too, falls flat.  There’s chemistry between Farrell and Findlay, but there’s literally one scene between them, and then they’re lovers devoted to each other for life – and after.  There needed to be more time spent on them, before they meet her father, both to make things believable, and to develop the relationship and get the audience to care.  As it stands, it happens too quickly, and there’s simply not enough done to invest the audience in them as a couple (or in any other characters in the movie, really).

I’d say, sadly, it fails on its own merits.  And as an adaptation of an amazing book…?

It fails even more.  I understand – the book is 800 pages long, spans a century, has over a hundred characters, and covers very deep philosophical ground.  There’s no way you can tell the book’s story in two hours.  Maybe in four hours, you’d have a shot – I can visualize how I might approach that.  But two hours?  Take an epic movie – “Gone With the Wind”, or “Ben Hur” or to jump to the 21st century, the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.  Think about what you’d have to cut to get those movies down to an hour and fifty-eight minutes (less, counting the opening and closing credits).  At some point, you’ve taken away so much of what makes them what they are that what’s left isn’t even a story anymore.

For “Winter’s Tale”, they threw out pretty much the entire final 3/4 of the book (the tale of Peter and Beverly takes up the first 1/4 or so, before we jump to the end of the 20th century.  And they threw out most of Peter’s childhood and adolescence (the “shaman” I mention above is a reference to Peter’s first 12 years among the Baymen of the Bayonne Marsh; Peter’s aptitude for machines is a holdover from his apprenticeship with the Very Reverend Mootfowl; his time with Pearly and the Short Tails from age 18 or so until his early 30’s, the many things he learned, relationships he developed, and the reason for his break with Pearly are entirely ignored).

And even the development of Peter and Beverly’s relationship is cut short, although that’s supposedly the main plotline of the film.  There are a few scenes taken verbatim from the book (Peter’s first conversation with Beverly’s father), but so much was left out.  And, what I don’t understand, some scenes that both would have fit with what the filmmakers seemed to be trying to do (and which would have been quite cinematic) were dropped as well.  The initial chase where Peter escapes from the Short Tails on horseback was far more involved – and entertaining – in the book.  The New Year’s Eve dance in the book would have worked perfectly well in place of what the film did, and served the same ends – I can’t figure out why they did it that way.

And the gutting of the entire philosophical basis of the story and the worldview espoused by it, replaced by “we all have a miracle inside us, and one day we’ll all become stars” is just – I’m sorry, but it’s dreadful.  Even more so because the writer/director/producer, Akiva Goldsman, really does seem to have read and understood the book (at least if this interview is any indication).

One thing about adaptations that, to me, is a good judge of how well they did, is, do the choices the filmmakers made, make sense?  You can disagree with them, but if they’re at least defensible, then the adaptation did a good job.  And I really don’t think you can say that for this film.

Whether you have or haven’t read the book, I honestly can’t recommend the film to anyone…

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