Category: Movies

The King's Ransom

So, another month, another piece of news on Jack Kirby's heirs seeking termination of copyright transfer from Marvel. And another thread made up of the exact same absurd comments.

For the sake of my time and blood pressure, I've decided to just copy down all the very very stupid comments people keep making, followed by explanations of why they are very very stupid, and just preemptively copy-paste it into the comments thread of every article I see on the subject from now on.

I'll probably come back and revise this post here and there, so if it pops up new in your RSS feed every now and again, well, consider it a Living Document.

(Thanks to Nat Gertler for feedback and corrections.)

Revision notes:

  • 2018-07-12: Updated a Robot 6 link to the Wayback Machine version, as the comments are no longer available on the live site
  • 2011-08-02: Updated to comment on the outcome of Marvel v Kirby
  • 2012-05-23: Updated to discuss the Avengers movie, correct some bits where I conflated modern work-for-hire law with pre-1976 work-for-hire law, and include some brand new clichés I'm sick of seeing
  • 2014-06-24: Rephrased a remark about the now-overturned Superman ruling; updated the instance-and-expense section with some information on the current challenge to the lower court's ruling; updated some dates and links.
  • 2014-09-26: Updated to reflect the news that the case has been settled and will not be taken to the Supreme Court.
  • 2014-10-01: Added a link to a Kurt Busiek post on CBR.
  • 2014-10-10: Added a few more lines about the settlement, and one new numbered comment/response since I've been seeing a lot of the "The Kirbys may not have sued bu they provoked a suit" argument.

Thad Boyd's Preemptive Response to Comments We Are Definitely Going to See in This Thread

  1. "Kirby's heirs didn't do the work, Kirby himself did! Therefore, they don't deserve any money for it!"

    Yes, that money should go to the people who actually did the work. Like Disney. Who could forget Bob Iger's classic run on Fantastic Four?

    Snark aside, there's a valid point to the argument that Kirby's heirs shouldn't get the rights. I personally believe that copyright law lasts far too long and these characters shouldn't belong to Kirby's heirs OR Disney/Marvel at this point, and should be in the public domain. But until that day comes, can we at least acknowledge that Bob Iger didn't contribute any more to the development of these characters than Kirby's heirs did? And that, if Kirby had made more money in his lifetime, he would have left it to his children?

  2. "The Kirbys shouldn't have sued Marvel!"

    You've got it backwards. MARVEL sued the KIRBYS; only then did the Kirbys countersue.

    The Kirbys simply filed a request for termination of copyright transfer; it was MARVEL who responded with a lawsuit.

  3. "The Kirbys may not have sued Marvel, but they knew that filing for termination would RESULT in a lawsuit. The suit is the Kirbys' fault, regardless of who filed it."

    While it is true that the Kirbys would have known that Marvel would probably choose to sue them, it was still Marvel's choice. Marvel didn't have to sue; it could have chosen to negotiate outside the court system.

    As it eventually did, with the final settlement in 2014. Marvel CHOSE years of litigation before agreeing to a settlement.

  4. "Kirby didn't do all the work himself! Don Heck and Larry Lieber co-created Iron Man, Steve Ditko gave him red and gold armor, Joe Simon co-created Captain America, Ang Lee's Hulk is based on Peter David's run, the movie version of Magneto is way more like Claremont's version than Lee and Kirby's, Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch made Nick Fury look like Samuel L Jackson, and on and on!"

    I completely agree -- all of those people should receive a share of the profits from the films based on their work, too.

    What I don't understand is taking that line of reasoning to the conclusion that NONE of them should receive anything.

  5. "Marvel can't AFFORD to pay everyone involved in creating the characters and stories adapted in its movies."

    Of course it can. Avengers grossed over a billion dollars.

    It is especially clear, following the settlement, that Marvel can afford to make a deal with the Kirbys -- because it has.

  6. "Isn't it convenient how Kirby's heirs waited until there were successful film franchises based on his work before they asked for the rights back? If it's so important to them, why didn't they do this years ago?"

    Because they couldn't. Copyright transfers can't be terminated until 56 years after the property's creation.

  7. "The Kirby kids should just get jobs!"

    The youngest of the Kirby "kids" was born in 1960. Do you really think they've all just been sitting around, unemployed, for the past several decades, waiting for the moment when they could try and get Dad's copyrights back?

  8. "It was work for hire, so Kirby never had any claim to the rights."

    Yes, that's what the judge ruled on July 28, 2011.

    But consider this: There was no work-for-hire contract. Jack Kirby was a freelancer. There is no evidence that he signed ANY contract with Marvel prior to 1972.

  9. "Kirby was an employee of Marvel, so he never had any claim to the rights."

    No, he wasn't. There was no employment contract. Jack Kirby was a freelancer. There is no evidence that he signed ANY contract with Marvel prior to 1972.

  10. "But he KNEW it was work for hire, because that's just how things were DONE in those days."

    The law does not recognize "just how things were done". What it DOES recognize in determining whether a pre-1978 work was made for-hire is the instance-and-expense test -- that is, did the creator make the work on his own initiative ("on spec") and then sell it, or did he create it at the publisher's request, to the publisher's specifications, and get paid a set rate by the publisher regardless of whether or not the work was published?

    The question of whether Marvel paid Kirby for art it didn't use is key. And the judge's ruling was based on Stan Lee's deposition.

    Other people who did freelance work for Marvel, including Stan's brother, Larry Lieber, said that freelancers were not paid for unused pages. Ultimately, the judge relied primarily on Stan Lee's deposition to support the claim that Kirby was paid for unused pages.

    Marvel's key documents were agreements Kirby signed in 1972 and 1986 claiming his previous work had been done on a for-hire basis. Kirby's agreement, in writing, that this was the case is legally damning, but still not hard evidence that the works actually WERE for-hire; Kirby signed these documents under duress, and the 1986 one was famously a condition for Marvel returning his original art.

    It bears noting that work-for-hire agreements cannot be made retroactively; if Kirby's 1963 work was not for-hire, he couldn't MAKE it for-hire in 1972. Furthermore, the 1972 document itself is contradictory -- it asks Kirby to assign all his copyrights to Marvel, and then suggests he never had any.

    The Kirby heirs attempted to appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court; they submitted an amicus brief challenging the instance-and-expense test and its application in the lower court's ruling. Bruce Lehman, former director of the US Patent and Trademark Office, filed an amicus brief arguing that the instance-and-expense test violates Supreme Court precedent. And, ultimately, Marvel chose to settle, just days before the Supreme Court would have decided whether or not to take the case. This suggests that, at minimum, Marvel believed there was a CHANCE that the Kirbys might prevail, and was unwilling to risk that outcome.

  11. "This will destroy Marvel Comics and all my beloved characters!"

    Most of Kirby's characters were co-created with Stan Lee. Stan has already agreed not to seek termination of copyright transfer (presumably because Marvel gave him a much, much better deal than Kirby), so that means Marvel will keep a 50% stake in them no matter what. The Kirbys will not be given editorial control and will not have veto power over Marvel's decisions; all they get is royalty payments -- which, incidentally, Jack never got from Marvel.

    This was exactly how the Superman rights operated between 2008 (when Jerry Siegel's heirs were awarded 50% of the rights) and 2012 (when that ruling was overturned): DC continued to publish Superman comics, they just had to compensate the Siegels.

    Kirby's lack of fair compensation during his lifetime is relevant here: stuff like this doesn't happen in a vacuum. It's too late for Jack or Jerry to get their due, but these legal battles have an impact on still-living creators -- chiefly, publishers will give better deals to their talent in order to keep them happy and avoid future lawsuits. Every time a writer or artist gets a royalty check from Marvel or DC, he has guys like Siegel and Kirby -- and their heirs -- to thank for fighting that fight.

  12. "I work hard at my job, and I don't expect an ownership stake in my work."

    Unless you were doing freelance work in the comics industry prior to 1978, your job is not analogous to Jack Kirby's job, your agreement with the company you work for is not the same as Jack's agreement with the company he worked for, and your heirs' claim to the work you do is not equivalent to Jack's heirs' claim to the work he did.

  13. "So if I built a house --"

    Copyrights are not houses.

  14. "So if I bought a house --"

    Copyrights are not houses.

  15. "So if I sold my house --"

    Copyrights are not houses.

  16. "So if I filed for a patent --"

    Getting closer, but copyrights are not patents, either.

  17. "Marvel lived up to its end of the bargain and doesn't owe Jack anything."

    Even assuming this is true (and I think the King would have something to say about that if he were still with us), you could just as easily frame this as "Kirby lived up to his end of the bargain and his heirs don't owe Marvel anything." Marvel got sole ownership of the copyrights for 56 years, which is exactly what Jack agreed to. That agreement is about to expire. What you're suggesting is that Marvel should automatically get to keep the copyrights for 29 more years than Kirby ever agreed to, in exchange for nothing.

  18. "This is an insult to Jack's memory! He would have wanted all the money to go to Marvel, not his family!"

    Have you ever noticed how most people on the Internet would rather crank out an ill-informed, knee-jerk response than spend the same amount of time using Google to find out whether they're actually right or not?

    Leaving aside the question of how many people would REALLY rather see the profits from their work go to the company they work for than their children, Kirby's relationship with Marvel is a matter of public record, and it wasn't a positive one. He did not feel that he received either the compensation or the credit that he deserved.

  19. "If it was so bad, why did he keep working there?"

    He actually quit, on several occasions, due to disputes with the company: once in the 1940's, again in the 1960's, and finally for good in the 1970's.

  20. "If it was so bad, why did he keep coming back?"

    He came back in the 1950's because the market was crashing and many of the other publishers were going out of business. He came back in the 1970's because he had been offered a better deal than he'd had before -- that was the point at which he sold his rights, though it bears repeating that this was prior to 1978 and the sale would have expired at 56 years from the date of each character's creation.

  21. "Jack Kirby didn't create anything; all he did was design costumes for characters Stan Lee came up with."

    Have you ever noticed how most people on the Internet would rather crank out an ill-informed, knee-jerk response than spend the same amount of time using Google to find out whether they're actually right or not?

    Even if all Kirby had ever done was design the look of characters, that would be sufficient for an ownership stake. But he did considerably more than that.

    Writing at Marvel was a collaborative process. The "Marvel Method" was that Stan would float a plot outline, the artist would draw the pages, and then Stan would fill in the dialogue. Sometimes Stan's outline was detailed, sometimes it was rough, and sometimes there was no outline at all and he wouldn't know what was in the comic until he saw the art. In those cases he'd just write the dialogue -- and even then, he would often use the artist's dialogue suggestions.

    Artists at Marvel had an active role in developing characters and stories. Kirby, Ditko, and others felt that they were not given the credit they were due, and their contributions were underplayed. The fact that you didn't know how much Kirby did and believed all the heavy lifting was done by Lee would seem to prove that point.

  22. "What about Spider-Man? Kirby didn't create him!"

    Kirby worked on an early version of Spider-Man that bore little resemblance to Ditko's final version. I would tend to agree that his claim to Spider-Man is tenuous, but the court may decide that his heirs are entitled to some share in the copyright -- probably not the 50% they'd expect for the Fantastic Four, but some smaller portion.

    I've seen some commenters speculate that the Kirbys never expected to win the Spider-Man rights but asked for them as a tactical maneuver -- in a legal dispute, it's good practice to ask for more than you want, wait for a counter-offer, and negotiate from there. This seems plausible, but Kirby DID claim that he had co-created Spider-Man.

  23. "Marvel took all the risk; Marvel should get all the reward!"

    I see this one all the time, and it's rather baffling. Are you arguing against the very CONCEPT of royalties? Try running that one by most comic book writers or artists today and see how far you get. And that's without getting into other creative industries like books, music, film, and television.

    Aside from that, the notion that Marvel took all the risk relies on the assumption that Kirby was paid whether his work was published or not. Again, while the courts have upheld this claim, it is widely disputed.

  24. "This is unethical!"

    Ethics are personal and subjective. I think it's unethical for a company to pocket billions of dollars on the back of a man it never paid more than a modest page rate, 20 years after his death. You, presumably, believe it's unethical for a dead artist's next-of-kin to try to turn a profit from characters he willingly sold off 40 years ago. We can agree to disagree on the ethics of the situation.

    The law, on the other hand, is much less ambiguous. When Jack Kirby sold his rights in 1972, he did so under a copyright law that stated they would go into the public domain starting in 2014. When Congress changed that law in 1976 (effective in 1978), it changed the terms of the agreements Jack and others had signed. As such, the new law included an escape clause for anyone who had sold his copyright under the old law: he -- or, in the very likely event that he didn't live long enough, his statutory heirs -- could terminate the transfer when the original expiration date came up.

    Whether you think the law is ethical or not, it's the law, and it's not being disputed in this case. If Kirby's works were not for-hire, then he owned a portion of their copyrights, and his heirs are legally entitled to reclaim that portion.

    The size of the portion, and that "if", are the only legal points in question here. Did Kirby sign any work-for-hire contracts? His heirs contend that he didn't, and the court agrees that there is no evidence that he did. Marvel's work-for-hire case is based partially on documents that Kirby signed years after the fact, and partially on Stan Lee's widely-disputed contention that Kirby never worked on spec.

    If this exact same set of circumstances were to occur today -- a freelancer were to create a work without a prior written agreement acknowledging it as work-for-hire -- then the freelancer, not the publisher, would own the rights.

    And if the Kirby heirs could actually produce hard evidence that Jack worked on spec and submitted ideas, on his own initiative, that Marvel never used and that he was not paid for, then that would prove that at least some of the work he did was not on a for-hire basis.

    I can't help thinking that, if any such evidence exists, it was somewhere in the piles of original art that Marvel agreed to return to him and which someone then left unattended next to an elevator.

I grant permission for anybody to reuse this post, in whole or in part, so long as they grant attribution. And don't go nuts with that "or in part" part; no selectively excerpting partial sentences to make it seem like I meant the opposite of what I did.

And, for further reading, check out the following links, which have much more thorough rundowns of what copyright law says, why it says it, and how it specifically applies in the Kirby case:

Form and Function

A few weeks back, I rented Hellboy: Sword of Storms. It was a neat little movie, and adhered pretty well to the the comics' folklore vibe. The highlight was a sequence adapting Heads.

And it occurred to me, you know, the best Hellboy stories are 8-page adaptations of folk tales, in which Hellboy himself plays only a minor role. Similarly, wouldn't it be great to see some 10-minute Hellboy animated shorts?

It's a real pity that both 8-page comic stories and 10-minute animated shorts have fallen by the wayside. DC, at least, seems interested in bringing them back: they've been doing 8-page "secondary features" in some of their popular titles, and next week's animated Crisis on Two Earths will also include a 10-minute Spectre short. Which is the perfect length for a Spectre story.

And of course all this has me thinking, Why 22 pages? Why 22 minutes? Why 6-issue arcs? Stories should take all the time they need; no more and no less.

Which isn't to say that rigid parameters can't foster creativity. The BioWare Writing Contest I participated in a few years back had some very tight guidelines -- only so many characters, only one location allowed, and that location has to be a pretty tiny square. But in a way, that stimulated creativity. Sometimes, you need parameters.

Douglas Adams is a favorite example. His best Hitchhiker's Guide work was written for radio, with a rigid three-act structure and length requirement for each episode, with the requisite pacing those things entail. Those episodes were adapted as the first two books of the Trilogy. The third, Life, the Universe and Everything, was adapted from an unused Doctor Who pitch, so it was conceived around a predefined structure as well. The last two books, where Adams took a more freestyle approach, tended to flail a bit; they were adapted by Dirk Maggs for radio a few years back and, for my money, worked much better with his judicious editing.

(The awesomeness of The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul does not fit my narrative as, to the best of my knowledge, it wasn't adapted from a radio or TV format. The first Dirk book was, though.)

There are plenty of writers who could benefit from tighter restrictions. Will Eisner put as much plot in a 7-page Spirit story as Brian Michael Bendis does in a 132-page Avengers arc. Sometimes I like longer, decompressed stories that spend more time on the scenery and the atmosphere. But there should still be a place for those weird little Hellboy stories.

I recently read Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall. Its pacing and form were noticeably different from the typical Fables books, because of its format: it was written as a graphic novel, rather than simply collecting 6 issues of a serial comic.

(A tangent on nomenclature: I absolutely despise the term graphic novel as it is commonly used, ie as a synonym for "comic book" used by people who think they're too cool for Spider-Man. However, it is a useful term when used in its original sense, ie a comic written in long form instead of being serialized in stapled, 22-page, monthly increments.)

Of course, 1001 Nights isn't a graphic novel so much as a graphic short story collection -- far from being a longform Fables story that takes its time, it's a series of stories which are shorter and tighter than a typical issue of Fables. So actually, it's more along the lines of those 8-page Hellboy stories I've been yammering about.

More in the "paced like a novel" vein would be DC's upcoming Earth One books. While it is obvious that these stories need to be published, as nobody has retold Superman's origin story in over three weeks, it's going to be interesting seeing them told with a little more breathing room, without the overwhelming, breakneck pace of Superman: Secret Origin.

I kid, but you know, the nice thing about constantly retelling Superman's origin is that now the Siegel heirs get a cut.

At any rate, once the rehashes are done, it would be quite nice to see DC tell some new stories with these characters in this format -- stories as long or as short as they need to be, at whatever pace suits the piece, without having to speed toward a cliffhanger every 22 pages.

V for Vendetta is actually a decent example -- yes, it was serialized, but its chapters don't fit into a consistent, forced length or pace. And while some of the chapters were climactic action sequences of V stabbing people a lot, others had him simply soliloquizing about anarchy.

(And funnily enough, the guy writing Earth One: Superman is J Michael Straczynski, the same guy whose The Brave and the Bold is currently the best 22-page superhero book that actually tells 22-page stories -- but whose run on Thor was decompressed, organic, and even meandering. Which is not a criticism, as I loved his Thor; it's just a statement that the man can write very well in different formats.)

If the world is a just and beautiful place, Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog is a template for the future of television. It manages the rather neat trick of adhering to a rigid structure that also just happens to be noticeably different from the traditional structure of a TV show: three 13-minute acts, each itself featuring a beginning, a middle, an end, and four songs. It's similar to, but distinct from, the standard three-act structure and 44-minute length of an American TV show.

Even The Daily Show -- God, not a week goes by anymore but one of the interviews goes over. Which is swell, but the way this is handled online is completely boneheaded: if you go to Full Episodes on thedailyshow.com, or view an episode on Hulu, you get the broadcast episode, which shows the truncated interview, followed by an admonition to check out the website, followed by Moment of Zen and credits. I can see this as an unfortunate requirement for broadcast, but guys, Internet videos can be more than 22 minutes. Why in the hell do I have to click through to a different page on the site (or, if I'm watching from Hulu, a different site entirely) to watch the rest of the interview? It's viewer-unfriendly, especially if you use your PC as a media center hooked up to your TV. Cut the full interview into the damn episode. Add an extra commercial in the middle if you have to. (It would be swell if you didn't show the exact same commercial at every single break, but that's a separate presumably-silly-and-useless "rant".)

At least they've wised up a little and started showing just the first part of the interview in the broadcast episode and then showing the rest in the "Full Interview" link on the website. It used to be they'd show a chopped-up version of the interview in the broadcast episode, meaning that instead of the Full Interview link picking up where the show left off, it had five minutes' worth of the same content spread out across it.

You know, it seems like the youngest of the major media is also the one with the least rigid requirements for length. Video games can be anything from a three-second WarioWare microgame to a persistent world that players sink years into. People may grouse a bit that Portal or Arkham Asylum is too short, but it doesn't prevent them from being highly-regarded, bestselling titles.

Which is, of course, not to say that longer games don't have to function under tight restrictions. They're often very high-budget affairs with a hell of a lot of people involved (as Dragon Age tries to forcibly remind you with its absurdly slow credits crawl) -- programmers, writers, artists, and so on. The Mass Effect games have voiced player dialogue and let the player choose Shepard's sex, which means every single one of those lines has to be recorded twice. (And frankly that doesn't seem like enough variety -- I have a Samuel L Jackson lookalike who says "aboot".)

And those restrictions are probably why every dialogue choice in ME is broken up into a predictable paragon/neutral/renegade choice. That kind of very-unsubtle delineation is exactly the sort of thing western RPG developers have been trying to get out of (as in both The Witcher and Dragon Age), but in the context of ME it works quite well -- I've even tried my hand at writing in a three-choices, no-hubs dialogue style and it works very organically. (For the ludicrous amount of dialogue in Dragon Age, there were places I could see the seams showing -- spots where I'd have three dialogue options and, as soon as the NPC spoke, knew that all three led to that exact same response. But that's probably a lot harder to notice if you've never written a dialogue tree yourself, and it's certainly an artform in and of itself, giving a response that works equally well for three different questions. I can only think of one occasion in the dozens of hours of Dragon Age where a writer screwed up and had a question hub that began with an NPC answering a specific question in a way that didn't make any sense if the dialogue looped back.)

And of course it's the medium that allows this kind of longform storytelling. Game length is no longer restricted by the arcade environment. Which is, of course, not to say that short-play games don't get made anymore -- Street Fighter 4 is a high-budget, "hardcore gamer" example, but Nintendo's entire business is built around games a casual player can pick up and play for ten minutes at a time. Ditto every Flash game on the Web, and most games on the iPhone.

And, indeed, Internet delivery is going to liberate other media from their restrictions. Eventually, we're bound to see shows like The Daily Show just run more than 22 minutes if they have to, and, God willing, we'll see more offbeat stuff like Dr. Horrible. The Web's given us comics as diverse as Achewood, Dr. McNinja, Templar, Arizona, and FreakAngels, and cartoons from Adventure Time to Homestar Runner to Charlie the Unicorn to Gotham Girls to the complete version of Turtles Forever. It's also allowed MST3K to continue in the form of the downloadable RiffTrax and the direct-order Cinematic Titanic.

Variety is the spice of life. I love comics -- and yeah, that includes mainstream superhero comics. But I'm sick of all of them having the exact same structure. Fortunately, I think we're on the edge of an age of experimentation.

Or another damn market crash. It is an odd-numbered decade now, after all.

Repo! The Genetic Opera

I just caught Repo! The Genetic Opera at my local independent theater. I'd seen the trailer some months back and it had piqued my interest, and I get bulletins on what Chandler Cinemas is doing because the manager, Matt Yenkala, is a friend of mine and runs the local Rocky Horror cast.

The background: test audiences and critics panned the movie, and Lionsgate refused to distribute it, so the makers are taking it on tour personally. Chandler Cinemas was the first stop on their second tour.

It's the sort of movie where if it sounds like something you're going to like, it probably is. A rock opera about a dystopian future with mass organ failure, transplants, and repossessions of same -- yeah, it's pretty clear there's a very selective audience there. But I saw the trailer and thought "That looks awesome," and as far as I'm concerned it was.

Let's get the obvious out of the way: it ain't Shakespeare. The themes, characters, and plot are all pretty shallow. I would add that the lyrics struck me as mediocre (most didn't rhyme, and relied on awkward slant-rhyme like "daughter/monster" and repeating the same three words three times; the lyricist did better when he wasn't trying to rhyme), and some of the songs run together in my head (though that's a common failing in musicals), but by and large the singing was good, and it's a rarity to see a full-on rock opera -- not merely a musical, but a show where most lines are sung rather than spoken.

Critics throwing about phrases like "worst movie ever" or making comparisons to Uwe Boll are just engaging in obnoxious hyperbole. Even if there were nothing else to like about the movie, it's very striking visually -- every scene has something fresh and interesting to catch the eye (and most scenes look like metal album covers).

Peter Travers at Rolling Stone, who should really know better, went for the low-hanging fruit and spent a nine-sentence review mocking Paris Hilton -- but honestly, I find it hard to complain about a movie where she plays a superficially pretty, morally bankrupt substance addict who is an embarrassment to her rich and powerful father. See? You can go for low-hanging fruit and still praise the movie, Pete.

There was a Q&A after the show with director Darren Bousman, co-creator Terrance Zdunich, and...there was a third guy but unfortunately I didn't catch his name; my apologies. Nice guys, all of them, who were just happy to have a theater full of people who "got it" -- it's a movie with limited appeal that was never suited to a mainstream audience, and has been given short shrift by a Hollywood system that doesn't know how to cope with a movie that's neither a summer blockbuster nor winter Oscar-bait.

It's not a brilliant or life-changing film. But it is a very good B movie. Anthony Head steals the show as the Repo Man, there's a lot of really pretty stuff to see, and it's at its best when it remembers to be funny -- which fortunately is most of the movie. (The denouement gets a bit maudlin and is longer than it needs to be, but this is an opera, for cryin' out loud.) I thought it was a fun damn way to spend a Thursday night, especially in a house packed with enthusiastic theatergoers. If it sounds like it's up your alley, it probably is; check it out if the tour comes your way, and give it a rent once it's out on DVD if it doesn't.

Halloween '08, Part 3: Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula

Continuing from my previous post:

Bram Stoker's Dracula was my favorite of the four movies, and here's why: it managed to create the most faithful adaptation of the events of the book, while totally subverting its theme. Also, it had boobies.

The movie goes to great lengths to adapt the book accurately, from the inclusion of Holmwood and Quincey, a pair of redundant characters who are usually left out of movie adaptations, to details like Dracula climbing on the walls of the castle like an insect, feeding a baby to his wives, becoming younger after feeding on Lucy, and appearing on the streets of London in broad daylight; Harker going prematurely gray after his ordeal; Dracula's wives surrounding Van Helsing and, unable to break his protective circle, killing his horses.

And yet, in the end, the viewer is left with a wholly different feeling about Dracula: far from being evil incarnate, he's more of a sympathetic character. It's the uptight Victorians who are the real villains here; Hopkins's Van Helsing is out of his damned mind, chopping a woman's head off and then casually discussing it over dinner, after dismissing her as "a bitch of the Devil, a whore of darkness" while laughing giddily.

The sexuality that's implied in the book, and in most of the film adaptations, is overt here. Yet, it seems far less perverse than the society that condemns it. Lucy talks lustily about "unspeakable acts of desperate passion on the parlour floor", and this seems a far more natural thing for a nineteen-year-old girl than choosing a husband. She doesn't look like she's suffering when she's clutching at herself during an "attack" by Dracula, but she certainly does when she's having her head cut off by Van Helsing.

Yes, Dracula's origin story and his motivations are original to this version, as are his meetings with Mina under the identity of Prince Vlad. Most importantly, Mina's consent, and indeed insistence, on being turned is original here. And that's an integral part of the film: when all is said and done, it's clear she belongs with Dracula, her exciting and mysterious ancient love, not the boringly conventional and dull Harker (a role which you'd think Keanu Reeves would be perfect for, but which he still manages to drag down). Dracula is a sympathetic character, and thus the whole story is turned on its head.

Thematically, it's The Rocky Horror Picture Show played straight.

No, hear me out.

I'm not comparing the quality of the two movies, and certainly not of the two directors. Rocky is an awful damned film, which is of course part of its appeal. Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula is, by contrast, an utterly brilliant film. But thematically, the two have a lot in common: a fresh take on monster movies of the 1930's, centering around the conflict between old, prudish attitudes toward sex and modern, more liberated ones. Both movies focus on straightlaced couples seduced by a character who's traditionally depicted as a villain but who, in the end, is far more relatable than the eccentric German professor who seeks to destroy him.

Which is not to say that Frank-N-Furter and Dracula are good guys -- they're both cannibals, for God's sake. Frank kills Eddie and serves him up for dinner; Dracula throws a baby to his wives (and reminders are given throughout the movie that he is, in fact, Vlad the Impaler). And so both of them are still monsters, and there's no defending those acts -- saying they're another metaphor for breaking taboos is a copout. Less a copout, perhaps, is to contrast these actions with their sexual behavior: it's not sex that makes them monstrous, it's violence; the typical western notion that violence is more acceptable than sex is another piece of those perverse and puritanical social values that both movies criticize. (In Dracula's case, it also allows for the contrast between a charming, Lugosi-style Dracula and a monstrous, Schreck-style one within the span of the same movie.)

So that's where the Coppola movie shines: Stoker's Victorian sensibilities are wrong, but his story can be easily adapted to late-twentieth-century themes -- perhaps because Stoker's novel itself is about the clash between the ancient and modern worlds. (Not to say, by any stretch, that modern films aren't prudish in their own way -- MPAA-approved nude scenes are still utterly absurd, and this is a movie chock-full of graphic sex scenes where nobody ever completely disrobes.) Ironic, then, that Stoker's name is in the title -- this was the first in a trend of films with authors' names, not always appropriately, stuck in the titles to differentiate them from previous adaptations of the same work (the worst offender being Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book, which bore even less resemblance to Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book than Disney's animated version; if memory serves its credits didn't even say "Based on the book by Rudyard Kipling" but "Based on characters from the book by Rudyard Kipling").

Anyhow. All this to say, Francis Ford Coppola makes pretty good movies. I know, amazing observation, right? That is why you read this blog. Because you enjoy watching someone take 800 words to say something everybody already knew.

Go vote tomorrow.

Halloween '08, Part 2: Three Dracula Movies

Halloween's my favorite holiday, and this year, in celebration of the season, I watched four different versions of Dracula: 1922's silent German Nosferatu, the 1931 Bela Lugosi Universal classic Dracula, the 1958 Hammer Horror of Dracula starring Christopher Lee, and Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula from '92. (I was hoping to squeeze in the 1979 Dracula with Frank Langella and Laurence Olivier, but ran out of time. Maybe next year.)

The most obvious and banal observation I can make is that each of the four films is the product of its time. But interestingly, they all stayed fairly close to the source material.

Nosferatu is an excellent example of the art of silent film, and does an admirable job of conveying the plot with minimal dialogue. The acting is, of course, purely physical and greatly exaggerated. Schreck's makeup is suitably creepy; his ratlike features and too-long limbs and fingers grant him a sense of the otherworldly and frightening. The cinematography adds to the effect with the shots of Count Orlok's shadow on the wall, and, most famously, the Count springing up out of his coffin as if his feet are on a hinge. In the version I saw, the soundtrack was fully orchestrated; I expect this detracts from the authenticity of the experience, but it added to the atmosphere.

It's no wonder Prana Film lost Florence Stoker's copyright infringement suit, as the film's efforts to dodge infringement accusations are decidedly half-assed. The film's first two acts are virtually identical to the novel's, and Count Orlok, Hutter, Ellen, and Knock are clearly the same characters as Dracula, Harker, Mina, and Renfield, respectively. (Harding, Lucy, Professor Bulwer, and Dr. Sievers are minor enough characters to have plausible deniability, but their names are still suspiciously similar to Holmwood, Lucy, Professor Van Helsing, and Dr. Seward.)

Most of the movie is a fairly straight-up adaptation -- Hutter, as in the original story, is a realtor, and is bound for Orlok's castle to sell him property in his hometown. (The movie deviates from the book by making Knock/Renfield a realtor as well; the 1931 and 1992 versions follow suit.) Hutter says goodbye to his wife, meets spooked villagers who warn him of wolves in the woods and refuse to take him to the castle, and takes a scary stagecoach ride with a mysterious driver. When he arrives at Orlok's castle, we see all the expected symbolic scenes: he cuts himself, Orlok lunges for the wound but is repelled by the cross; Hutter falls asleep and wakes up with bite marks on his neck. After Hutter finds Orlok sleeping in a coffin, the count leaves him for dead and departs for his new home on a ship.

The ship sequence is expanded in significance compared to the book, but to the same result: Orlok kills everyone on the boat, leaving only the captain's body tied to the wheel.

The last act seems truncated by comparison. It's creepy enough -- the seeming plague come to the city, with people dying left and right, and the angry mob led by Professor Bulwer against Knock -- but Orlok's defeat ultimately seems anticlimactic. No turning Lucy into a vampire, no stake through the heart; the significance of multiple coffins filled with soil from his homeland is hinted but never comes to any payoff. He simply stays out too late and dies by exposure to sunlight. But that in itself is probably Nosferatu's most lasting contribution to the story and the genre: it introduced the idea of vampires not merely being weakened by exposure to sunlight but actually dying on contact with it.

Moving on to 1931: it struck me how different this Dracula is from its best-known contemporary in the Universal Monster series. The 1931 Frankenstein has very little to do with its source material, while the 1931 Dracula follows Stoker's story fairly closely, with only a few major deviations: Renfield, not Harker, is the realtor who goes to Castle Dracula to close the sale on Carfax Abbey, and Dr. Seward is Mina's father.

That aside, we've got the same staples noted above: spooked villagers, the coach ride, the blood and the cross, the coffin, the attack, the departure by ship, and the arrival of the same with its crew all dead. We also see Dracula's wives, who show up in the 1958 and 1992 versions as well.

Swapping Renfield in for Harker does a nice job of explaining his madness, and also serves to throw out Harker's unlikely escape from the castle, one of the more problematic parts of the original story.

And of course in Lugosi's Dracula and Frye's Renfield, we get the two best characters in the film. Lugosi's Dracula stands in stark contrast to Schreck's Orlok; Schreck is immediately scary, while Lugosi is charming with menace below the surface.

This version includes Lucy in more than a cameo; as in the book, Dracula bites her (after appearing at the window as a thoroughly hokey rubber bat), Van Helsing attempts a blood transfusion, and she turns anyway; unlike in the book, this doesn't take an agonizingly long series of trial-and-error attempts to stop Dracula from coming through her window every night (though part of that sequence appears later in the movie, with Van Helsing hanging wolfsbane around Mina's neck and the nurse removing it). Lucy's story, curiously, is left dangling here; she becomes a vampire, but the heroes never bother to track her down. Presumably, like Mina, she reverts to her old self when Dracula is killed.

Dracula starts feeding on Mina and then, for reasons not adequately explained, decides to show up and hang out around the scene of the crime long enough for Van Helsing to notice he doesn't have a reflection; in an iconic moment, he breaks the mirror.

As in the book, Renfield betrays his master for Mina's sake and Dracula eventually strangles him. Unlike the book, Dracula shows up to gloat some more; Van Helsing gloats back and tells him his plan to kill him. Once again we get the multiple coffins containing Transylvanian soil.

No chase back to Castle Dracula in this version; Van Helsing corners him in Carfax Abbey and stakes him there. Mina reverts and she and Jonathan leave Van Helsing behind.

In the end, there's a reason this is the definitive Dracula movie. It's not as creepy as Nosferatu, but it's bigger and has a more satisfying third act. The sets are gorgeous, and Lugosi's charisma (and eastern European accent) make him the Dracula all others would be compared to and most would imitate to some extent. The pacing is good and a lot of extraneous material from the book is removed; the changes are mostly good ones.

Speaking of changes from the source material, the 1958 version probably deviates the most out of the four, while still keeping fairly true to the story. That version starts much like the others -- Harker goes to Castle Dracula, except this time he's a librarian rather than a realtor, and the most interesting early twist is that he knows who Dracula is and is actually there to kill him. It seems a little farfetched that he writes this all down in a diary that he keeps not-really-hidden in the desk in his bedroom, but as the plot develops it becomes clear that the diary is insurance in case he fails his mission.

Lee plays Dracula similarly to Lugosi -- charming and eccentric; perhaps a little colder than Lugosi's version. Much of the typical foreshadowing -- the mirror, Jonathan cutting himself -- is missing; instead, a single Dracula wife feigns being a damsel in distress, and then bites Harker. Dracula appears at that point, looking crazed, and with blood around his mouth. Here we see what may be this version's biggest departure from the previous films: cinematic sex and violence were getting more overt by 1958, and in fact the Hammer Horror series was on the leading edge of the trend. Horror of Dracula is tame by modern standards, but pursued titillation that the Universal version didn't. You don't quite see the female vampire sink her teeth into Harker's neck, but this movie comes closer to that shot than the 1931 film did, and shows blood around her mouth and Dracula's afterward. As for the "sex" part, the inherent sexuality of the story is still veiled, but there is an element of the erotic to the scene, and the female vampire is one of several women in the film to wear a revealing dress.

Harker lives to fight another day, but only one more. Like the 1931 version, this film throws out the hard-to-believe "Harker gets away" part of the book. Unlike the 1931 version, it replaces it with the even-harder-to-believe premise that he waits until right before sunset to try to kill Dracula, and kills the wife first so she can scream and wake the Count. This seems like particularly poor planning on Harker's part given that he has the presence of mind to hide his diary where someone will find it first.

Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) turns up looking for Harker, finds him vampiric and sleeping, and stakes him. Between the scene in the crypt, Harker's diary (which he acquires from the traditional spooked villagers), and the carriage he saw tearing out the gate carrying a coffin as he arrived, he determines that Dracula's headed to London to replace his dead wife with Jonathan's fiancee. In this version, Lucy is engaged to Jonathan, and is Holmwood's sister; Holmwood is married to Mina.

Holmwood, with good reason, is originally skeptical of Van Helsing, but as Dracula goes after Lucy and Dr. Seward (a minor character in this version) misdiagnoses her with anemia, Mina seeks his help. We get the transfusion scene again in this version, as well as the wreath of garlic around her neck that the maid then removes. Lucy apparently dies, Van Helsing reveals Jonathan's diary, they go to the crypt and stake her.

As Van Helsing and Holmwood try to track Dracula's coffin down (there's no Carfax Abbey in this version, and neither is there a ship scene; Castle Dracula is within a day's ride of London and Dracula came by coach). As in the previous movies, Dracula needs to sleep in a coffin in his own home soil, and in this version he isn't capable of transforming into wolf, mist, or bat, so his mobility is limited.

While they're out looking for him, Dracula makes his move (leading me to wonder why they didn't perform the search in the daytime) and turns Mina. Holmwood discovers what's happened when he hands her a cross and, as in the book, it burns her. He and Van Helsing go to the morgue to find Dracula's coffin, but it's gone; in another unexpected twist, it's inside Holmwood's house. As Dracula attacks Mina again, Van Helsing finds the coffin and throws a crucifix into it, preventing Dracula from returning to it and forcing him to flee with Mina back to his castle. At last, the chase scene!

Van Helsing corners Dracula for a good, solid fight scene, ending in sunrise and Dracula's death. Holmwood saves Mina, who was buried alive; she returns to normal. Presumably Harker and Van Helsing didn't know that killing Dracula would cause his victims to revert, because if they did, then none of the movie makes any sense.

This version, while IMO the least memorable of the four, is interesting for managing to throw some twists into the story, most notably Harker's revelation that he knows who Dracula is and intends to kill him and Dracula hiding inside Holmwood's own home. The decision to include Holmwood while minimizing Seward's role and omitting Renfield's is interesting. And again, the increase in sex and violence over the previous films is notable.

I think my biggest complaint is that Dracula's transformation from man to monster occurs too quickly in this movie -- Christopher Lee doesn't get nearly enough lines, which is a pity given his fantastic voice and delivery. Nonetheless, it remains one of his most memorable roles in a long and distinguished career, and with good reason.

That leaves the 1992 version, and I have enough to say about that one for it to be its own separate post. To be continued!