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.

Theme & Variation, Mystery Edition

Should you read the book before the movie? Conventional wisdom says BUT THINK OF THE PURITY OF YOUR CONSCIOUSNESS, UNFETTERED BY THE SCREEN. Codswallop. We’ve always got stories and images running through our heads, and you aren’t a blank slate during your first encounter with any text, ready to form impressions based solely on a media-free life in the splendid isolation of the Orkneys, the Canadian tundra, etc.

phryne fisher

The Honourable Phryne Fisher

Take Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. My wife got me hooked on the TV series with little effort, and it hits plenty of my sweet spots, from the Roaring Twenties to unconventional P.I.s. The stories tend to be good, from the setups to the dialogue, and each episode blends genuine acting and light, set-piece banter, in the manner of Buffy et al. The Honourable Phryne Fisher takes on a range of standard and novel cases, from stolen paintings to occult gobbledygook, but each is given new life, typically springing from something in Miss Fisher’s character, or that of other recurring characters.

Subsequent to watching the first season (all we Yanks can get at this point, legally anyway), I started reading the books. The screen adaptation is good, and it reaffirmed my view that you need to be a good conductor if you want to translate a story. Here bring the strings up, there back the horns off, all in service of creating something that works in the new medium. Had the books been adapted with no sensitivity, the show would not now be on Season 2. The dialogue works on the page, but Kerry Greenwood‘s novels are decidedly written for history nerds. We can relish her deployment of slang and period terminology, going to look up (and learn from) her word use at need, but too much of that on the screen would be deadly. In similar fashion, the characters are well drawn on the page, with backstory, motivation, and personality galore—they have more complexity than backup characters can hold, particularly given each episode is usually distilled from en entire novel.

I’m neither glad nor sad to have seen the TV series first. Each has its own merits, and I don’t count myself poorer (!) for having Essie Davis in mind while reading. If anything, I’m grateful for the interest that the television series piqued, in the same way that watching Mystic River ultimately led me to read Dennis Lehane. The joys and flaws of adaptation aren’t particular to mysteries, but for some reason I notice them with more interest than I do when watching mainstream, fantastic, or whatever other kind of stories. Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings? Plenty of changes—some I loved, some I hated—but none that caused my noticing machine to start clicking. Dexter? A completely different story… but that’s one for another day.