February 1, 2010

Adapting modern classics….

Two recent novels that have already been classified in some circles as ‘classics’ of their time have been recently adapted for cinema. First we have ‘The Road’ (2009), based on Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 novel. McCarthy is of course hot property in Hollywood after the Oscar-winning success of ‘No Country for Old Men’ (2007), the Coen brothers’ adaptation of his 2005 novel of same name. Billy Bob Thornton’s 2000 film of 1992’s ‘All the Pretty Horses’ had been a critical and commercial failure, but that’s in the past. Expect more McCarthy novels, especially 1985’s ‘Blood Meridian’ to receive the Hollywood treatment shortly.

‘The Road’ is directed by Australian film maker John Hillcoat; a perfect choice one might think after the success of his 2005 film ‘The Proposition’, a collaboration with Nick Cave, starring Guy Pearce, Ray Winstone and Emily Watson. Its setting of a hostile, uncivilised Australia in the final years of the 19th century makes the terrain of ‘The Road’, in a dystopian America where a natural disaster has destroyed civilisation as we know it, almost second nature to Hillcoat. ‘The Road’ was unique for how it was written. Seldom descriptive, it was based around memories and speech, mainly from its central protagonist, ‘the Man’, who tries to survive, along with his son, in these exceptional circumstances. One might imagine therefore that adapting it into a feature film might be difficult, but Hillcoat makes a more than accomplished stab at it, retaining the style in which the novel was written and making Viggo Mortensen, as ‘the Man’ both narrator and central protagonist. The film, as is the case in the novel, is based around a relationship between ‘the Man’ and his son. ‘The Man’ might know their journey is futile, that there’s little hope of survival and there are dangers everywhere. Hillcoat doesn’t shy away from showing these either and with this, he captures every potential emotion that his characters feel. Some have questioned the resolution of the film (which mirrors the novel), describing it as conveniently satisfying. I don’t agree this is the case. This is a world where the dead are fortunate as the living can never hope to develop any kind of civilisation. Survival exists purely on a day to day basis. In this respect, ‘The Road’ retains a deeply pessimistic message and is as every bit as emotionally devastating as one might imagine.

‘Disgrace’ (2008), on the other hand, is based on the 1999 Booker-winning novel of same name by the South African born, Australian based writer J.M. Coetzee. A much more modest production altogether, funded by Australian/South African finance, it’s directed by Steve Jacobs, another Australian film maker without much experience under his belt thus far. John Malkovich, with a South African accent that demonstrates effort rather than execution, will inevitably provide the film with more exposure than it otherwise would have received. He was no doubt attracted to the film because of its literary significance – with the central role of David Lurie being something that Malkovich can really sink his teeth into.

As if aware of Coetzee’s reputation, the film makers ensure they protect it, adapting his novel as though it’s a sacred artefact. It’s a careful, respectful adaptation, adhering to the text at all times. The strength of the film is the strength of the original source. Coetzee presented an allegory of the social and political circumstances of post-apartheid South Africa through the ‘disgrace’ of Lurie, a divorced, fiftysomething lecturer who seduces a young student and resigns from his position, before moving to the countryside to visit his daughter who owns a farm. It’s here where the political situation is really changing, as the white farmers are gradually replaced by the indigenous community, which manifests itself in a shocking, violent act that changes the lives of the central protagonists irrevocably.

Jacobs allows Malkovich to draw out Lurie’s character as far as Coetzee developed it in his novel. He holds little back. We are privy to Lurie’s arrogance, his impetuous nature, his complacency – all of which are dismantled in the allegorical changing of the guard in South Africa. Jessica Haines, as his daughter Lucy, arguably possesses the strongest role – seemingly more at home in these exceptional circumstances, able to come to terms with them. Her pragmatism in the wake of what she endures during the most powerful scenes sets her sharply at odds with her father. Since Coetzee had fleshed out these real, believable, complex individuals, it’s no surprise that ‘Disgrace’ showcases excellent acting talent and these actors are given perhaps the finest roles they’ll ever receive in their careers. The modest origins of ‘Disgrace’ means though that often it pays too much reverence to Coetzee, that we never see much external creative input. The same could be said of ‘The Road’. It’s not a criticism as such, but just an acknowledgement of what is usually considered when adaptations of great novels are prepared.

‘Disgrace’ is released on DVD on 8 February by ICA Films


September 12, 2009

District 9 (2009)

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 1:43 pm
Tags: , , , , ,

USA/New Zealand
Director: Neill Blomkamp
112 min


In 1982, an alien vessel stops over Johannesburg. The malnourished aliens on board are rescued and soon placed into a government camp named District 9, which quickly becomes a slum. In the present day, Multi National United, a private military contractor starts the process of relocating the “prawns” (as they’re called) to the new District 10, outside of the city. The operation is led by Wikus van der Merwe, the son in the law of the head of MNU, who starts evicting the aliens. At one shack he finds a cylinder that sprays him with an unknown liquid. Wikus falls ill. At this hospital it becomes clear he’s mutating into an alien. MNU take him into custody, intending to experiment on him but he escapes.

Wikus returns to District 9, to the shack of “Christopher”, where he found the cylinder. This liquid was intended to power the dormant vessel. Christopher offers to reverse Wikus’s transformation if he retrieves the cylinder. Wikus attempts to purchase alien weapons from Nigerian gangsters, who want his arm, believing they’ll be able to gain his powers from eating it. Wikus steals weapons, and both he and Christopher break into MNU, retrieving the cylinder. When Christopher tells Wikus he has to return home before turning him back, Wikus knocks him out and attempts to power the vessel himself. The Nigerians hijack MNU when they capture Wikus and Christopher. Christopher’s son activates a powersuit that allows Wikus to save himself against both the Nigerians and MNU. Wikus allows Christopher to return to the vessel and go home. The aliens are moved to District 10, where it’s suggested we see Wikus, fully transformed into a “prawn”.


The debut film from a South African film maker widely known already for his work in advertising (you’ll have seen his Citroen advert with a car that turns into a dancing robot!) came about rather fortuitously. Peter Jackson, director of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, had been impressed by his previous work, including the short ‘Alive in Joburg’ (2005) and had arranged for Blomkamp to work on a film version of the Halo videogame’. When funding collapsed, Blomkamp returned to his earlier short, to turn in into a full length feature. In hindsight, it was a very wise decision. ‘Alive in Joburg’, which can be seen on Youtube is a six minute short that features the rough synopsis of ‘District 9’, but with the freedoms of a two hour running time and a large budget (though nothing like as large as most Hollywood action films – $30m approximately), Blomkamp has been able to tackle serious subject matters, whilst making a film that appeals to a mainstream filmgoing audience.

Blomkamp’s film hasn’t been acclaimed as a particularly inventive action film because of the technical bravura, although how he gets so much of a comparatively tight budget is certainly impressive, but moreover, because of its sometimes subtle, sometimes not so subtle allusions to South African history and general philosophies about humanity. It doesn’t require the audience to be an expert on apartheid to understand what Blomkamp is probably referring to. Confined to shanty towns, discriminated against, facing prejudice at every corner – we recognise these as symptoms of apartheid. As is the case in an increasing number of “alien”-themed films (Verhoeven’s ‘Starship Troopers’ springs to mind), it’s the “aliens”, not the humans with whom we sympathise. It’s the “aliens” who demonstrate the most obvious “human” characteristics. What humanitarian impulse began the settlement of the aliens in District 9 quickly descended into outright hostility and fearmongering. Sure, we expect politicians and military personnel here to be devious and selfish, but mild mannered bureaucrats like Wikus think nothing of illegally evicting aliens and issuing the use of violence with little motivation.

The transformation of Wikus from human to “prawn”, which seems influenced by Cronenberg’s ‘The Fly’ (1987), isn’t just a physical metamorphosis, but also a mental and emotional change. From changing from a human, he somehow becomes more human. The effects of his actions as a civil servant become more apparent – he sees the experiments that MNU undertake on “prawns” first hand. He experiences discrimination and prejudice for this first hand – note the rumours peddled about how his change happened (sexual intercourse with a “prawn”). The one significant relationship within the film is between an alien named Christopher Johnson, an intelligent and articulate alien who knows his rights and that the eviction of his community has no legal basis, and his young son, who plot to rescue their species. Compare this at least with the relationship between Wikus and his father in law, Piet Smit, who has nothing but contempt for him, is complicit with his taking into custody and lies to his own daughter about what’s happened to Wikus. Mid-transformation, Wikus recovers his humanity and selflessness, risking his own life to ensure that Christopher and son can return home. Even with the final scene that shows a fully transformed Wikus, who may never return to human state, carving a flower from a can and leaving it on his wife’s doorstep, this never feels cloying or overly sentimental, but poignant and moving.

Not that there aren’t issues with the film. In its final third, it often feels as though Blomkamp realised there was a significant part of the budget left and the film begins to descend into one massive shootout between Wikus/Christopher and the MNU mercenaries, led by the almost psychotic Venter. For a film that wears its anti-discrimination, anti-prejudice credentials firmly on its sleeve, the characterisation of the Nigerian gangsters sails a little close to the wind, as they seem to merely fit crude stereotypes. These are minor quibbles though that shouldn’t detract from the otherwise impressive nature of this film. It’s a superior, intelligent action film, with a fine, nuanced central performance by Sharlto Copley, who actually doesn’t act all that frequently. Blomkamp nicely switches between faux-documentary of Wikus’s attempts to evict the aliens (filmed for state television) and more conventional film making once he begins to change and the CGI overseen by the director and presumably Jackson gives the film its epic feel. After the superb box office returns already in the US and worldwide, a sequel is probably inevitable. Blomkamp ends his film tentatively, on something of an anti-climax that suggests this chapter isn’t closed. With Jackson’s patronage, he ought to keep his feet on the ground and choose his subsequent projects wisely.

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