Michael Rennier recently penned some very timely musings in a post called “Why do we insist on gritty remakes of classics?”, the subject being the new, darker CBC/Netflix adaptation of Anne of Green Gables. As is often the case, a comment meant for the bottom of his article got a tad out of hand and now it’s a post. Apologies.
The main questions Michael’s asking are probably the same ones occurring to many of us when we look at the modern multiplex: why are we so focused on dark storylines? Why do we feel the need to take innocent characters and put them in compromising situations? Is something lost in the process? Are we culturally incapable of presenting rich, vivid depictions of virtue, decency and kindness? Is the world really so dark? Is being good just not good enough anymore? It’s a big issue to chew on, and digging deeper into the whys of it all may end up unearthing some poignant suggestions about where we are as a people and as a culture.
In his post (which you really should read if you haven’t yet) he mentions how most of the reviews for the new Anne haven’t been terribly appreciative – there is one piece up at the New York Times, though, describing the series’ shift to a darker tone as something enriching. Using this assertion as a launching pad, Michael propels into a discussion of how, while gratuitous grit seems to be the order of the day, it might have the greatest impact on TV and film.
While I agree with the spirit of what he’s saying (grit, when substituted for depth, is lame), I should be upfront about not being on board with all his points. While I don’t want to claim he intended to sound dismissive of the trend towards darker programming, there’s certainly a lot of meat in the topic that wasn’t able to be addressed in a short post. Which, really, is no insult to him – this’s a colossal issue to unpack.
Is “darker” richer?
The easy answer is ‘it depends’ – but on what?
For an obvious example of how upping the dark drags entire films down, look no further than 2016’s biggest turkey: Batman v Superman. Sure, the movie drips with angst and alley fights, but it doesn’t take long to realize there’s no real soul in the flick – rather than scratching at the hidden corners of the human condition, the darkness ends up illuminating nothing. It’s a hollow aesthetic choice, and it’s just this kind of grit that’s left us exhausted and hungry for something more substantial.
But that’s not the vibe I get from what I’ve heard of the new Anne.* For some context, Michael quotes the above-mentioned New York Times review:
“In Anne we have…one who, helped by her ability to use her imagination as a defense mechanism, remains generally upbeat despite the abuse in her past and the callousness of many of the grown-ups in her present. Yes, this rewarding series says, be sunny and positive. But don’t assume those around you will be.”
The Anne we’re usually used to seeing is a perky, spirited and precocious girl who doesn’t let the system get her down – that’s particularly why we’re drawn to her but, if we’re honest with ourselves, we have to admit she’s a bit of a fantasy.
Think about it: the orphan girl out of nowhere who, despite soul-crushing life circumstances, brings light, life and good-natured mischief wherever she steps. We all know, deep down, this isn’t how life usually turns out – which might be the secret to why she’s moved so many people. Maybe, we say, life could be like that. Maybe I can be like that.
But what if we’re not, and won’t ever be, like that? What if she’s popular precisely because she’s fiercely unlikely, because she give us a taste of all we don’t possess? What if our experience of suffering doesn’t immediately turn us into wholesome, life-giving go-getters? And, correspondingly, what if we approach art not to look at how life could be for those blessed with saintly temperaments, but at how life, for most of us, is? What if we need someone who looks, feels and reacts like us? What if a traumatised Anne is what gives people hope, is what shows a realistic model of journeying through pain and into healing? Maybe this’s the real reason dark remakes have an appeal: it gives us an opportunity to draw closer to dear, nearly-mythic figures. In catching sight of depictions closer to our lives, we may be able to relax and trust what it says about goodness, virtue, and love.
There was a great article I saw a few weeks back mentioning how the classic epics (think Beowulf, the Norse Sagas, the Ramayana or even the Gospels) never really get inside their protagonists’ heads. We get to know them almost entirely through their words and actions, rather than through psychological depth – but this might only prove natural. Like, we developed psychological language over time, and there were centuries and centuries of art before we could pin down names for stuff like complexes, the unconscious or emotional intelligence. We perceived them of course, and the best characters were never wholly flat, but artists are necessarily limited by their time and so now, in retrospect, we’re able to go back and speculate about the darker motivations of beloved characters.
This might seem like sacrilege to some but, really, isn’t it a way of embracing our heroes in all their humanity? Wouldn’t denying them their traumas, tics and night terrors be a way of erasing who they really would be? Obviously people can take things too far, but it’s a worthy project in and of itself. When Batman first appeared, he was a paragon of goodness and right – it was only decades later that we could really plumb the depths of his vigilante life: his crimefighting is, in great part, compulsive behavior rooted in childhood trauma. Would it not make sense then to speculate that Anne’s exceptional ability of finding the good in things might be, to a certain extent, her way of coping with abuse and worldly misery? And, if so, then showing that dark helps us understand who she is and how she lives her humanity.
If Bruce Wayne and Anne Shirley have no right to be broken, then we’re not dealing in stories so much as in cheap hagiographies.
I have a confession: sometimes, when I’m watching adaptations of the classics, I secretly hope they go off the rails. I remember watching Prince Caspian when it came out and being excited by the changes – there was a whole subplot where people try to take back a castle and it’s a racking failure. People die, and the kids watch as they realize war isn’t just fun and games. They feel the futility of resistance, and it gives weight to their choices that the book never had.
This will sound like heresy but, one time when watching the first Narnia flick, part of me hoped the kids would lose in the end. That Susan and Lucy would run back to the wardrobe without their brothers, horrified by violence, only to reappear to a world still at war. Instead of being a tale of how kids escape the Nazis and find a fantasy land where they become kings and queens, it’d be about how war can’t be run from, how choices had to be made in the world as it was. That would make for just as compelling a plot as the original.
Of course it wouldn’t be Lewis’s story anymore – it would be a play on it. A riff, so to speak, one drawing on ghosts of themes never fully developed in the original text. We’re so concerned with making sure film adaptations are true to the original (or, for studios, lucrative franchise-factories) that we miss out on the potential for exploring compelling tangents, especially when a definitive version already exists. When it comes to Anne of Green Gables, we’ve already got the stellar Megan Follows miniseries from the 80’s – why try for another exact adaptation? Why not go for something that squeezes new revelations from the characters?
From what I hear, the new Anne doesn’t entirely satisfy as a new take, but there are tons of successful examples doing just that. Take Baz Luhrman’s Romeo and Juliet, Jurassic Park and the Charlie Kaufman masterpiece Adaptation – all incredibly different from the books, and all deeply rewarding on their own terms. A number of them take on darker themes than the originals and are undeniably enriched for the effort. Anything, even expanded grit and dark, can prove incandescent in the hands of a master.
And it doesn’t have to just go one way: take Wicked, for example. It’s based on the Oz stories, a veritable bastion of innocence/virtue/the victory of good over evil, but careens into a biting work of political fantasy. Eight years later it finds itself adapted as a musical, one softening the despair and adding the closure of a bubbly ending. Each version has its merits, and each draws on different wells of the human experience. When done well, distinctive adaptations can survive as successful interpretations rather than coarse appropriations.
But it still begs the question: why are gritty adaptations so popular, and why now?
Midnight of the world
Things could be attributed to simple pendulum swings: maybe we’ve gotten tired of adaptations that soften challenging elements into something more palatable. Maybe we’ve gotten tired of cheap eucatastrophe.
But Michael, in the original post, hits on a relevant nerve: “I suppose my question is – Do we really live in such a dark, vicious world?” The answer, in an excruciating number of ways, is yes. We’ve watched optimistic coups overthrow dictators only to usher in years of chaos, corruption and civil war. We’ve seen our youth attach bombs to their bodies and objectify themselves as living weapons. We know corporate exploitation provides the most everyday products at a devastating human cost. Americans have just been served with perhaps their most gut-wrenching electoral choice to date. Myths of just rulers, noble savages and peaceful revolutions have been deflated and revealed for what they usually are: myths. Art that pretends otherwise may, at best, come off as quaint and, at worst, as fraudulent.
This doesn’t mean there isn’t space for fantasy,** but it does create a hunger for art we can relate to, art we can believe in. The Hunger Games, for example, builds a climax on political disenchantment. Jessica Jones uses mind-control as a metaphor for rape, and the new Anne poses serious questions about the aftermath of childhood abuse.
Here’s where I can’t help disagreeing with a number of stuff Michael, perhaps unintentionally, alludes to in his post:**** I might be taking things out of context, but hints of what he talks about may imply that this trend towards gritty adaptations amounts to a) “a shrug of the shoulders and [a] retreat into a fantasy world,” b) an inexcusable loss of confidence in the goodness of the world, c) an inability to deal with the complexity of the human soul, and d) a shallow denial of the overarching nature of the Story we find ourselves in.
Yes, he says a bunch of other things too (and I’m leaving out a number of the solid points he makes), but there’s a strong whiff of an, unfortunately, very Christian brand of hand-wringing: if only this world knew what was going on, if only they weren’t in denial of who God is, if only they looked at things more clearly, they’d get with the program and stop all this nonsense.
While there’s an element of truth to that, it’s all too easy for critics with faith to end up sealing themselves off in a corner of self-delusion. There’s a hint here of how digging into the dark amounts to a breach of authenticity, as if the best people can do, in their ignorance, is “get dark.” As if the dark were merely “[wallowing] in pseudo-intellectual bliss.” As if miserable turns of plot don’t reflect the genuine facts of some people’s heartbreaking experience. As if truth and light and redemption are self evident. Because duh.
Our world’s one where children, if born in the wrong corner of the globe, may be forced to kill their own parents before joining the army of a maniac. One where a poor soul’s only comforts can eat them out from the inside. Where one’s experience of men may be neatly summarized as an extended string of objectification and abuse. For a staggering amount of the human population, life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. Showing them Sam Gamgee’s famous monologue and expecting them to see the light is not only naive, but is itself a cheap, lethal rejection of reality.
We live in a bewildering, sometimes terrifying universe and, as Scorsese’s latest masterpiece affirms, even God can appear silent in the face of aeons of human ache. For some, extreme darkness isn’t self-indulgence so much as the only authentic way they can relate to things as they genuinely perceive them to be. Cormac McCarthy’s brought up as an example of not wallowing in despair – I assume The Road’s the example here – but Blood Meridian, perhaps his masterpiece, provides no easy out, nor light at the end of the tunnel. And it’s all the richer for it.
Any discussion of despair in art, as in the world, eventually has to come around to a very sobering truth: if people don’t see the presence of God (or light, or beauty) in a mutilated world, it’s in part due to Christian failure to manifest that God. It’s in part due to saccharine Christian art that refuses to look at suffering authentically, instead opting for painless revelations and unearned eucatastrophe. For every Flannery O’Connor or Evelyn Waugh, we have a Bud Macfarlane or a Michael O’Brien who, for all their merits, simplify the human condition beyond recognition.
Sometimes going dark isn’t an easy way out – sometimes it’s the only way to approach our bleeding, beating existence with a stitch of integrity. And perhaps it’s all too easy for people of faith, who’ve inherited a hope neither earned nor deserved, to underestimate how dark the midnight of the world has truly become.
*Full disclaimer: I haven’t seen it yet.
**More on this in an upcoming series of posts.***
***I’ve been saying this to myself for years – maybe we’ll get there one day.
****Michael, btw, I’m a big fan of what you do.
Josh Nadeau is currently based in Russia and, when not writing or teaching, may be found winter cycling, hitchhiking or engaged in general shenanigans. He hopes, when he’s older, to maintain a sense of awe.