November 2003

Adam Lipkin

fear factor

The Collective IQ of Hollywood

We've all heard the news. John Constantine, that oh-so-British blond occult master created by Alan Moore, will be portrayed on the big screen by the oh-so-American Keanu Reeves. Whoa, indeed. Like almost any other Constantine fan, I railed against the stupidity of Hollywood at screwing with one of my favorite comic creations. But deep down, I didn't really mind it that much. Because as a horror fan, I've grown used to movie adaptations that drain the life (and not in the good way) out of formerly enjoyable novels. Even more than in other genres, horror novels (and comics) simply don't seem to make good movies.

Of course, there's the usual reason -- that Hollywood, collectively, has an IQ of about thirty. That explains decisions like the one about Constantine. But good adaptations of other genre works abound (remember that last year gave us successful Robert Ludlum and Tom Clancy movies, and Patricia Highsmith's Tom Ripley books have been turned into no less than four enjoyable movies). Horror hasn't seen a really good adaptation since Angela Carter helped Neil Jordan adapt her short story "The Company of Wolves."

The biggest problem with horror is that it's inherently visual. H. P. Lovecraft (whose books have been turned into more bad films than any three other authors combined) has protagonists who go mad when they encounter otherworldly beings that no amount of special effects can replicate. We end up with the rubber prosthetics of From Beyond, wondering what the big deal is. But translating creatures isn't nearly as tough as attempting to convey the otherworldly geometry that pervades Lovecraft's books. When the entire setting relies on something that defies our laws of physics, creating a visual of that concept is beyond even the best F/X crew in Hollywood.

But that's not the only problem. Think about the most successful horror authors of the last few decades. John Saul has built his career on nasty things happening to children. Bentley Little has nasty things happen to kids at least once a book. And Stephen King's novel Cujo (unlike the movie) ends with the death of the young protagonist. It's not (to the best of my knowledge) that any of these authors want to see children get hurt. Rather, they realize that in order for something to be evil, it can't have a soft spot for children.

Now, take a look at Hollywood. Almost every slasher -- from Jason to Michael Myers all the way to former child killer Freddy Krueger -- spends their time going after teenagers, but not young kids. Newt, a small defenseless (but relentlessly cute) little girl, manages to survive for weeks in Aliens, with no reasonable explanation ever given (this doesn't make it any less of a favorite of mine, but it is a major hole). Even the lowly Dr. Giggles, when alone in a room with a six-year-old, decides to spare the kid's life because he's playing Dr. Mario on his Nintendo. Awwww.

Why the difference? Part of it is a matter of standards. Any industry ruled by a myopic tyrant like Jack Valenti isn't going to allow anything that offends his moral sensibilities. But it's more than that. In horror novels, the goal is to scare the readers. But in so many horror films, we're not there to be scared. We're there to watch the teenagers -- almost always kids who have more sex, do more drugs, and with better looks than most of us had in high school -- get killed by a slasher who is often portrayed almost heroically, and whose nature (ugly, slow, big, shy) resembles that of the classic high-school loser. They're not horror movies; they're revenge fantasies.

Kids and F/X aren't the only problems. Horror novels are, often as not, about things developing slowly. The Relic, one of the better horror novels of the '90s, allows its horror to take its time and grow. When it was translated into one of the worst movies of the same decade, weeks of time in the novel were compressed into minutes in the movie (and one of the main characters was eliminated, but this goes back to our earlier discussion of the lack of brains in Hollywood). A story that slowly developed into something suspenseful was turned into a quick gorefest, with the plot falling by the wayside. Similar things happened with Stephen King's Christine (in which John Carpenter completely excised the ghostly possession that was the reason behind the car's actions) and the recent remake of Shirley Jackson's The Haunting (as Jan de Bont ignored all of the slow building of horror in the novel in favor of quick scares and bad dialogue).

There are plenty more reasons for the generally terrible state of horror adaptations (I could probably write a book about the subject, which could then be turned into an awful documentary). After a while, it's best to just get used to the idea that all horror adaptations will be terrible, and be happily surprised when the occasional The Company of Wolves comes along.