I read an interesting i09 article recently that compared the critical failure of the new Star Wars prequels to the pitfalls of writing science fiction/fantasy. Essentially, the writer argued that the original Star Wars movies were better because of the budget restrictions and technological constraints of the time period. Back in the day, director George Lucas was forced to work with limited money and technology, which meant dressing real humans in fur-suits and hoping that no one could see strings floating around the toy ships. But, the article argues, those limitations actually led to better overall choices and a tight, amazing story that still resonates in pop culture today.
The new Star Wars prequels, on the other hand, well…. they had Jar Jar Binks. They were basically a CGI orgy. Lucas went wild with the special effects, forgetting the story, the writing, and the fact that some things are just over-the-top in a bad way. With CGI and today’s level of technology, Lucas’ imagination had no limits. If he could dream it up, it could happen. Sounds good, but can turn out bad. (Remember Jar Jar!)
So, do speculative fiction writers fall prey to the same scenario? A writer has no budget, no technology restrictions. A writer could pen a scene where winged elephants fly through the red dot on Jupiter, and bam, it’s a part of the story and on the page, even if it’s a terrible idea. And George Lucas could film it, if he so desired.
But there was a time when a filmmaker just couldn’t put that elephant on the screen. Some things were basically un-filmmable. And some of those un-filmmable things were un-filmmable because they were terrible.
The whole thing reminds me of that old adage: “Be careful what you pray for, because you might just get it.”
I think it’s an interesting way to look at writing/filmmaking, but not entirely true. Yes, restrictions can foster better writing. Ever try to write a flash fiction piece that comes in at under 500 words? Suddenly every word is valuable, and it’s easier to ruthlessly cut fluff. Choices become more important, because they’re necessary.
Still, not all special-effects laden films and imaginative fantasies are laughable failures. Lord of the Rings offers a great counterexample on both points. The story has giant eagles, elves, hobbits, volcanoes of doom, and Gollum. Pretty wild and imaginative. And the films rendered everything marvelously. The CGI was there, but so was the writing, the acting, and the story.
I also think of a children’s book by Road Dahl, called Charlie the Great Glass Elevator (sequel to the famous Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). That book was never filmed, at least to my knowledge, and it had a scene with these crazy squidlike creatures in outerspace going after the magical glass elevator that was also in outerspace. Wild, but it worked.