The Weight of Adaptation: Ghost in the Shell (2017)

spanish language poster for Ghost in the Shell, featuring Motoko bursting through a window with gun in hand

The 2017 live-action adaptation of Ghost in the Shell is best understood more by what it lacks than by what it offers. A pleasure to watch, it is so much in love with its own visuals that it often forgets to have characters, motivation for those characters, or indeed a point. The first time I saw it, I thought it was a pleasing diversion and not much else, the very definition of an unnecessary remake. Seeing it again last night, I was struck by how badly it suffers from adaptationitis, trying to bring the source material to a new medium in overly faithful fashion.

The first half of the film involves people running around, jumping off of buildings, jacking into networks, battling modified yakuza, and other things that add up to an nth-generation loss version of Blade Runner and the like. While influences on the film and its source manga were many and literary, all of it’s by this point been strained through hundreds, if not thousands, of transmedia sieves. The result is a beautiful, shallow melange of forty years of cyberpunk. Ghost in the Shell (1995) did it first, better, and without the weight of a quarter-century of descendants.

The story actually begins shortly after the nightclub shootout, quite a distance into the film. Motoko and Batou have both lost things they wish to recover (or at least notionally recover from the loss of), and they have actual reasons to do things. Scarlett Johansson, who has up to that point ably pretended to be a robot pretending to be a person, seems to breathe anew and actually inhabit the role. Her character has a genuine conflict, not mere annoyances or programming errors.

All the scene-setting and worldbuilding that belabor this film could and should have been wrapped into the story as it developed after the first act. While this film wants you to believe that it begins almost in medias res, barring a brief origin story opening, it does not. The res comes long after, and all of the skyscraper-sized holograms in the world cannot make something out of nothing.

A pleasure to watch, Ghost in the Shell (2017) could have been genuinely good instead of merely profitable, in ways that are trivially easy to identify. Motoko’s quiet interactions with her mother, Aramaki’s final scene with and execution of Cutter, Motoko & Hideo’s multiple charged interactions: all are effective. These are not original comments, but seeing these things on screen, still shining years after the hype, make me wish there had been more of them, incorporated into a coherent work.

A Few of My Favorite (Pandemic) Things: Horror Movie Edition

Here are a few horror movies that really floated my boat over the last 16+ months…

movie poster for ready or not
Ready or Not (2019) missed me when it came out, but it’s a delightful, thrilling, winking part of the “the real horror is the rich” micro-trend, with a supernatural side order.
dvd cover of 2014 the grudge
Had never heard of obscure indie flick The Grudge from 2004, so thought I’d check it out. Not bad!
poster for doctor sleep
I wasn’t eager to see this or read the book it was based on. Living up to the legacy of a classic horror novel, and a classic adaptation that’s a genuinely great film that the book’s author never liked… seemed a difficult proposition at best. Turns out, what do I know? Doctor Sleep is the real deal.
movie poster for angel heart
Angel Heart was a fun, strange watch for me. Many people love it, and it is good, but lacking any sort of nostalgia for it? I thought it was an 80s supernatural thriller, with Robert De Niro mustering big Alec-Guinness-does-Star Wars energy.
I really enjoyed Hold the Dark. Lots to like, and I’m still thinking about it a month later, including the performances and dialogue, but this is one flawed film. Weird editing, lots of things way out of proportion, story-wise. If you like brooding, atmospheric A24 biz, check it out. (Maybe look around online for the opinions about how well Yup’ik language and culture are or aren’t represented here. Apparently the answer is complicated.)
the green knight poster
I’m grouping The Green Knight here because it’s A24 and vibes thoroughly with a lot of other A24 stuff. It has the darkness that underlies many, many fantasies and is a sumptuous watch. We saw it in the theater, and it was a sight to behold.
film poster for rebecca 2020
Apparently every die-hard Rebecca or du Maurier fan hated the 2020 version of Rebecca? Whatever! It’s great, and they’re all wrong. Check it out. (And if you don’t think it’s horror… watch it again.)

Open-Source How To Write Gooders

man on motorcycle
Turn left at Amazon, stop at Goodreads, go three sites north…

Mostly, I try not to dwell on writing process or business in detail anymore. I did it a lot in the ol’ LiveJournal days, back when I was just starting to find community and do the things that newly serious writers do. LJ waned, platforms changed, and so on. After I passed through some invisible but tangible doorway, long conversations about writing became less interesting. I had chewed over most of the big writing questions, at least the ones appropriate for me for the moment.

Things change. I’m currently enmeshed in the transition from one novel draft to the next. I’m working harder than I ever have to improve my scene transitions. It is literally exhausting, working on it at the intensity I currently am, from the analysis to the rewriting. This is new territory for me, which is nice. It’s encouraging to see that I have room to grow, can tell that, and can see a path forward.

Anyway, these days I mostly spend my social media time on Twitter (@smythsewn), which never lacks for writing-related drama. The perennial to-MFA-or-not-to-MFA debate popped up again last week, courtesy of an article about overpriced programs. Many hot takes resulted, but also some cool ones. I particularly liked Faylita Hix’s open-source MFA/professionalization thread, and Lincoln Michel’s post on everything he’s learned about “professional” writing.

A Few of My Favorite (Pandemic) Things: Comics Edition

Here are a few comics that really floated my boat over the last 16+ months…

I picked this up on a whim, and I really enjoyed it. Futures past are their own strange form of fantasy, and Blade Runner 2019 is particularly so. It emerges from the soup of the various different Blade Runners out there, along with the whole architecture of cyberpunk, once cutting edge and now increasingly conservative. Even given all that, this volume managed to weave a clever story around ability and disability, which I hadn’t expected going in.
B.P.R.D.‘s long arcs cover all sorts of highways and byways of the Mignolaverse. Though I really like individual stories in this volume or that, this collection is my favorite thus far, and it brings the long arc of the Frogs to a satisfying end.
After years of reading this or that story, I set out a while back to read all of Hellboy. I haven’t gotten there yet, but I’m still trying. I like the big arcs, and I like the small stories even more. The quiet and mysterious ones most of all. I like to see a mystery or two remain unexplained. The Crooked Man and Others is full of all of that.
Cover of graphic novel about the Green River killer
Hard reading, but good. These killings were a significant part of my childhood experience, as I grew up in that place around that time, and they were always in the news. I recognized businesses and vistas in here, and this comic’s creators got the feel right, 100%.

A Few of My Favorite (Pandemic) Things: Literary Edition

Here are a few books that really floated my boat over the last 16+ months…

Cover of Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book
Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. Finally read this in April 2020, and it was as delightful as you might expect, given its author and its awards.
Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age. An outstanding 2020 first novel that I still find myself thinking about, for its politics, humor, and most of all its characters.
Stephen Graham Jones’ The Only Good Indians has been nominated for and won a bunch of awards. And well it should! This book did new things. Scary things.
Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic is an award-winning novel that I couldn’t put down. It draws from all sorts of topics she’s researched at length. This book felt to me like the definition of a book that springs from an author’s interests & perspective in such a way that no other author could have done the same book justice.
A couple years ago, I picked up a psychological thriller called The Kind Worth Killing, by a guy I’d never heard of: Peter Swanson. It was compelling! I’ve since gone on to read most of his books and enjoyed every one. Eight Perfect Murders was no different: a mystery about mysteries, and thoroughly Hitchcock.
Though I’ve probably read more by Stephen King than any other living author, I never got around to Doctor Sleep until recently. I’m glad I did! While it’s billed as a sequel of sorts to The Shining, it’s simply a different book, and very good.
I tore through Ruth Ware’s In a Dark, Dark Wood. Ware specializes in modern turns on Golden-Age tropes and techniques, revitalizing them for the 21st century. If you liked Knives Out, but you just can’t plug in to Christie, Sayers, March, and kin, try this. I’m making my way through the rest of her books, and The Death of Mrs. Westaway is also prime reading.