Mutant Popcorn #28

Nick Lowe


Nick Lowe’s Mutant Popcorn series of essays on cinema fantastika has been an integral part of Interzone since 1985.

IZ Digital has managed to coil its many-suckered tentacles around the vast and unexpurgated Mutant Popcorn archive and will be dishing out each and every delicious portion.

The serving below – Frankenstein Unbound, The Handmaid’s Tale, Communion, Akira – appeared first in Interzone #44 (February 1991).

It must be so strange to be asked what you think of the film of your book. Imagine if you’ve just been subjected to your first sexual experience, and you roll over to find flashbulbs popping and a cassette machine thrust in your face: ‘Could you tell us what you thought of your partner’s performance just then?’ ‘How would you compare it to other acts of passion you’ve been involved with?’ ‘Would you say the experience had been a satisfying one for you?’ The bizarre thing is, you’re not allowed to say No (author disowns movie! phones start nastily ringing) or even Mostly (author tries to distance self from film! phone calls ominously cease). But what can you say? ‘Well, inevitably, it’s a different medium, so it’s hard to judge, but Eddie Murphy is a man whose talents and judgment I very much respect, and I was happy to trust him with the necessary creative decisions on Last Men in London, and I think what’s come out of it, though necessarily different from the book, is obviously a valid and interesting…. Wait a minute, shouldn’t those little reels be still going round?’

Well, this month’s bemused-looking movie defloratee with the face full of microphones is our own dear Brian Aldiss, on celluloid at last after many a false start with Roger Corman’s Frankenstein Unbound – which lands at a time when both sides of the collaboration have just unloaded agreeable volumes of memoirs, so the personal promo appearance is presumably obligatory. Actually, though, the sector most likely to feel disappointment at the product is the Corman fanclub, who will surely have expected something more obviously gleeful and poppy than this surprisingly low-key and literary subject with its unashamedly disjointed plot, perfunctory rationale, awkward poetic ending, and worryingly uneven effects. By rights, that should be the fans’ problem, not the film’s, given the master’s lifelong disavowal of any grand auteurial talents, and his blissfully erratic directorial track record. (At twenty years’ distance, we tend to remember the occasional Masque of the Red Death or Little Shop of Horrors, and too easily forget the rather less occasional Haunted Palace). All the same, the project was largely bankrolled on impossible expectations this modest, amiable, not always perfectly competent comeback has little interest or capacity to deliver.

One challenge, of course, that nobody could have foreseen even five years ago is the emergence of a whole genre of variously dippy follies about that same wild weekend on Lake Geneva in 1816. Compared with Ken Russell’s gibbering 1986 Gothic and the intellectual soft-focus of Ivan Passer’s 1988 Haunted Summer, Aldiss’s 1973 novel has incomparably more interesting things to say about Mary Godwin, her dream, her book, her husband, and their Promethean visions of science’s challenge to humanistic values. Now in fact Corman and his writers have respected a surprising lot of this in their adaptation – though inevitably the talky novel’s wide-ranging conversations have to be collapsed down to sound-bite sloganising, not all of it by any means bad (‘I am a scientist,’ says the Baron: ‘I cannot sin.’) But what the genre has left by way of individious comparisons is a whole string of remarkably creditable performances in the role of Frankenstein’s teenage creatrix, to which Unbound’s Bridget Fonda is just painfully unequal. She has the one undeniable asset of being for once the right age, but the poor child’s accent coach seems to have gone into voluntary exile after Scandal, and judged against Natasha Richardson and Alice Krige (to say nothing of Elsa Lanchester, who’s simply not in competition) she looks considerably less like a precocious literary terrorist than Michael Hutchence looks like Lord Byron. (The interesting possibilities this raises for the casting of Claire Claremont are, alas, resisted.) This hole at the centre is particularly regrettable, because nearly everyone else is remarkably good. John Hurt gets more life into Aldiss’s rather unfocussed time-traveller hero than the novel really managed, the reliable Raul Julia is an extremely fine Baron, and the monster is just gorgeous, one of the most authentically tortured and Shelleyan yet seen.

Even so, it is, one can’t but feel, a strange choice of Aldiss as well as of Frankenstein, and sometimes seem hesitant about what exactly it’s got to offer as a film. More than most Aldiss, the novel was more of a fictional essay than a story, resting more on layers of image and ideas than on any conventional strength of narrative line. The rather mild plot – a 21st-century US politician thrust back by a man-made temporal apocalypse to an 1816 Switzerland enigmatically compounded of the historical universe of the Byron-Shelley menage and the fictional one of Victor Frankenstein – justified itself in the novel as a prop for some moving confrontations between the Promethean impulse in past, future, and (implicitly) present, as well as a passionate polemic on the history and value of sf itself. The first, though not the second, of these themes remains, with the Hurt character more directly implicated in the process of scientific hybris at beginning and end. A retired presidential adviser in the novel, in the film he becomes a military scientist, inventor of a weapon intended to end war that escapes to unravel the world; while the film’s strange ending carries maker and monster a step further in their ballet of unending confrontation, to the point of discarding all pretence of conventional resolution and coherence along the way. But big themes alone don’t deliver big grosses, and the inescapable tyranny of film form keeps supervening – from Fonda’s delivery of simply the worst come-on line in costume movie history (I can’t quote it. I just can’t. Sorry), to the unsalvageably naff death-by-weedy-lasers showdown. I think it does manage to preserve, just about, the idea that Frankenstein is a story about the difficulties of keeping science innocent, and that Mary Shelley was the prophet of this truth. For that alone it deserves our welcome. But it may be a little too unbound to play well in Omaha.

All the same, Aldiss gets off relatively lightly compared with the Schlöndorff-Pinter screenad of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. This is, I suppose, the book-to-movie answer to safe sex: strict on fidelity, relentlessly caring, and a little bit too obsessed with the traditional climax. Out go most of the novel’s rather modest dislocations of time, the leisurely entree to the handmaids’ world and duties, and most of the incidents that advance texture rather than plot. In come a name and a considerably more active and spunky role for Atwood’s quietist heroine, a load more bonking with the bit of rough over the garage, a clodhopping gore-puddled finale resolving everything that in the novel was left delicately unresolved, and a disastrously upbeat coda in the great tradition of the reshot ending to Blade Runner. These must have seemed to the chaps like tasteful, conservative compromises; in fact, they’re appallingly destructive of much of the strength of the book. The plot is the pious product of relentless subtraction and elimination, where the Big Sister world offered ample scope for expansion. Even more than the novel, the film throws out tantalising shadows of ghastly conspiracies, betrayals and revelations that never materialise, with not a single character turning out to be anything other than they seem. Compared with the emerging documentation of real secret states’ activities, all this seems rather feebly imagined and tame.

And the same goes for the world. The visual texture, and most of the performances, are extraordinarily good. But though Gilead and its people look and feel uncannily like they read, stripping away most of the filtering subjectivity of Offred’s first-person dictation simply lays bare the delicate daftness of Atwood’s totalitarian-fundamentalist America, already a bit much for some readers’ willing suspension. At a time when Western awareness of the mechanisms of this kind of ideological dystopia is higher than it ever was, there’s a perfect opening to reclaim this rather lapsed genre from the deathclutch of all those dreary doomies from the early seventies. But it doesn’t happen. It should feel like pre-revolutionary Romania; instead, it feels like THX 1138. I don’t believe the fault lies, as the tidy solution would have it, with the fact that writer and director are notably short in the ovary department – though it’s curious that just about everything good about this movie, on and behind the screen, is provided by women. It’s simply that, as in Frankenstein Unbound, first-person novels of emotions and ideas don’t turn very naturally into cold celluloid narratives of action and incident.

Of course, you can always bite the bullet and involve the author. I have more patience than anyone I know with (God, this is like owning up to a crush on someone out of New Kids) Whitley Strieber, though I’ve got to say I found the second book pretty hard work. No, really: it would take more than bank-rupturing royalties to persuade me to get up on nationwide chatshows and swear that little blue proctoes from another world had given me a good rogering with a robot trouser-hose, but that’s frankly not the issue. What I really liked about Communion was a kind of old-fashioned Lovecraftian scariness I used to get from crappy Brad Steiger books read late before bedtime, assuring me that there really were nameless things out there all around in the darkness just waiting to pounce on me in my pyjamas. When, aet. 13, I read Menzel’s Scientific Study of Unidentified Flying Objects, it was like losing Santa. I’d dreamed of being a man in black when I grew up, and handing out business cards reading ‘MR SMITH. The Government’ that would mysteriously dissolve into smoke a day or two later. So much for the fancies of youth.

And then here’s this sincere and utter case who actually believes he’s been there. Doesn’t that make you feel anything? In the book, I ate up the stuff about screen memories and the gradual recovery of awful glimpses of wall-to-wall nightmare in his past. I loved the way he employed every device in the repertoire to make it sound rational, even to the extent of stressing his own contradictions and giving serious consideration to the hypothesis that the wiring in his head had a few spare dangles. I adored the deft, steady evocation of what it would feel like for a sensible person to have to come to terms with the seemingly irrefutable memory of incomprehensible weird-outs. And the great thing about Communion the movie, as scripted by the man himself, is that it plays this stuff to the limit. Even more than the book, it pumps the presumption that Whitley Strieber is a totally rational, well-adjusted, and likeable person with an engaging sense of humour, scientist’s zeal for truth, passionate scepticism about the daft and flaky, and exemplary frankness and integrity about his own beliefs. I’m in no position to judge any elements of this self-portrait, and I’m honestly not interested in finding out. It’s a well-written, very well-played, and admirably ambivalent movie about a comfortable world-model creepily derailed, and is marred only by a tendency to take the job of writing a little too pompously (at the hem-hem encounter group: ‘Do the rest of you feel threatened by his profession?’), and an excess of bolting-upright-in-bed-sweating scenes. (Does anyone actually do this after a nightmare? It’s like trying to remember the last time you actually said ‘Let’s get out of here’.) And I’ve no doubt at all that if anyone but Strieber had scripted it, it would have just been a joke. Of course, for some incorrigible wags, it still is. Shame on you, you big bullies. Go pick on Shirley Maclaine.

But the most extreme extension of scribble-to-screen authorial control (all right, maybe next to William Peter Blatty) has to be Katsuhiro Otomo’s eye-boggling animation of his own manga epic Akira – surely the first movie where the author of the adapted work not only produces, writes, and directs, but actually storyboards every image in detail from page to picture. A close adaptation of the first sixteen issues of the sprawling apocalyptic comic, it faithfully reproduces the baffling plotline and explosively escalating concept, while magnificently amplifying the amazing eruptive images that remain the comic’s main strength long after the continuing storyline has disappeared into shambling randomness. It’s probably the truest translation yet to screen of the comic serial experience, taking at least a couple of reels before it even starts to come together, and genuinely using the drawn medium to deliver effects unrealisable in another form. In particular, it’s the first film fully to appreciate the possibilities animation offers for gore and destruction on a truly volcanic scale, making the mightiest efforts of a Verhoeven look frankly wimpy. The character animation, as opposed to the background and effects, is only adequate; the plot (I shan’t even try) offers plenty more quantity and pace than recognisable sense; and there are subtitles to muse on both in the translation (‘The revolting soldiers arrested the Councillors’) and in the content (‘This city is saturated in all aspects like overripe fruit. It has its seeds inside it. So all we do is wait for the wind. The wind called AKIRA.’). But the effects, backgrounds, and set pieces blow more or less everything else you’ve ever seen off the screen. Just totally unbound.

Nick Lowe has been dispensing Mutant Popcorn for Interzone since 1985. By day he teaches Classics at Royal Holloway, University of London, where his books include The Classical Plot and the Invention of Western Narrative (2000) and Comedy (2009).

Nick Lowe’s Mutant Popcorn appears in each issue of Interzone. Subscribe to the print magazine to get it delivered directly to your door, six times a year.

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