Thursday, 20 November 2014

300, film vs book

While browsing the shelves in the local Sally Army shop I spied the 2 DVD edition of 300 the other day, since I hadn't watched it, I thought I'd pick it up for the 50p asking price and give it a spin. It's a pretty faithful vision of the comic so the idea coalesced that I might write a brief comparison. If you haven't read the comic or seen the film, I should warn you there's a few spoilers to follow.

Firstly, did you ever see that fick, U-571, if you don't recall, it was a WWII flick which reference the historical drama regarding German u-boat codes and the capture of the Enigma machine, all highly fictionalised of course. It was subject to some consternation over here at the time of its release because it was seen as an exercise in poaching glory from our own valiant lads, much in the same manner as the notorious Objective Burma, the flick with Errol Flynn. All a bit of a storm in a tea cup really because there was no way the flick represented itself has a fact based drama but that's the press for you, somehow these pointless battles over symbolism and national pride, gain significant portent when that nation is withering on the vine. Well Miller's 300 was subject to the same sort of criticism from some prominent quarters in the comic trade, I think Alan Moore called it "...poorly researched" when his ire had been piqued by a single line referring to Athenian patricians as, boy lovers. Miller's retort actually belied a rather better understanding of the history, as we conventially think of it, than Moore's  accusation did but that's beside the point, anyone looking at Miller's 300 and expecting--history is not really playing hopscotch in the same park.

It's not totally devoid of historical interest but it has about as much to do with the conventional interpretation of classical history as an episode of Xena Warrior Princess and it should be appreciated in that light. I quite liked Miller's 300, when I say quite, I mean a lot. Miller's interpretation of the Thermopylae legend was a breath of fresh air, something to cut through the snot that congests the sinuses with most post eighties US comics. You get a good sense of Miller's method with all his artwork, let's just say he's not one to dawdle, not while he's got pen in hand anyway, his layouts are slightly more intricate and his care and skill with cadence is probably matchless amongst contemporary artists working in the medium.

Cadence is an extremely important and often overlooked aspect of writing for comics, I define it as the synthesis of image and word, with the goal of pacing the reading experience. We experience comics differently than we do a narrative conveyed through copy alone, as in a novel, there we take it in at our own pace. There are techniques for tripping up those scanning a page at apace, getting them to stop and smell the roses, so to speak but it's generally a losing battle and it's not something that is in vogue with today's popular authors. When a comic is working well, cadence can be seamless, when they're not working quite so well it can be an awkward encumberment, like reading through the over embellished dialogue that occasionally afflicts action sequences. The cadence in 300 isn't seamless however, in fact it's quite noticeable, if not intrusive, Miller has rendered the prose deliberately punctuated and taciturn, it's a Laconic ode, if that's not an oxymoron. It's a fitting approach considering the subject and it serves to underline the nature and character of the Spartans.

The Laconic ode is my first problem with the film, yes I do have problems with it although I did quite enjoy it. The film makes a fair attempt at emulating the comic's narrative style but it comes across as a bit shouty, more Brian Blessed than I can easily cope with, Gerard Butler being the chief offender, every time he would shout "Spartans!!!!!!" I wanted to wince. There are other problems with the pacing of the film, its makers chose to insert a couple of scenes one of which isn't so bad, it's the Tree bearing blossom, blossom that would attract flies as it should bees and bear only the fruit of such visitors' spawn, that right, it's laden with corpses. It's the kind of thing I could imagine Miller himself using, if the symbolism wasn't quite so familiar, as it is it's a little bit of a cliché and it offends in a manner that Miller was careful to avoid in the comic, in that it characterises the invaders as bad guy stereotypes and it's too heavy a weight in the mythologising of the Spartans as the good guys. Spartans in reality were pretty brutal to their own rustic villagers, an example of such brutality is that, during certain festivals, they were given licence to murder them, that's if you believe the history of course, which was written by Athenians. The other insertion into the narrative of the film is much more of a problem, there are several extra scenes inserted, dedicated to an entire sub plot that is absent from the comic. This would be Leonidas's Queen and the political intrigue than occurs concurrently with the action at Thermopylae. The motive for inserting this episode, which is quite a tedious obstacle to the flow of the narrative and replete with lumpy narrative conformity, is pretty obvious, it's almost laughable in fact. I can imagine the scene as the studio executive are seated around a black granite table pawing over a treatment or draft script, somewhere during the the proceedings a voice would be raised, "Where are the strong women in this film?". So integrity is backed, once again, into a corner, its fate sealed with contrived thrust of a sword into stereotype villain, gawd help us. Well at least it gives some much needed work to some actors but that's the only benefit that flows from this sub plot, which sees the queen of Sparta prostituted, coerced into a tawdry sexual liaison by her lascivious antagonist, only to publicly exact her vengeance upon this ravisher, with his murder. An act that coincidentally, exposes him as a traitor, as the gold he's been bought with spills to the floor, oh please stop it--my sides are hurting.

This particular aspect of main stream culture, represents a probably unprecedented imposition on creators interested in exploiting the main stream to disseminate their narratives. I have hinted on the topic in the past here, when I was still scratching my head to understand what exactly was going on. I'm still not sure I do have proper cognisance for the reasons behind it but it's a trivial matter to see that it is contrived. Imagine an adaptation of Little Women, where studio execs insisted on the insertion of a sub plot, involving bar fights, gun play and the heroic, self sacrificing deeds of some unsung masculine stereotype, be honest now, that's never going to happen is it?

Beside the probably unnecessary insertions, the film makes several omissions, Stumblios is missing, along with the entire episode of his fall and subsequent events, quite an important omission, in my eyes. Stumblios is the nickname used to refer to Stelios, a seemingly inept lesser member of the ranks, who Leonidas rescues from a beating at the hands of his, over enthusiastic captain. Stelios progresses to the point where he delivers the blow to Xerxes emissary that severs his arm. This would put him in the territory of the right of passage stereotype but Miller is a bit cleverer than that. He uses Stelios to extract humour as he prompts amusement when his comrades dub him Stumblios, I challenge anyone not to laugh at that moment. Then he uses him to offer insight into the character Leonidas, who chastises his men by ordering them to forgo food and drink that night but instead of acting as a supercilious patrician, casually imposing a per capita punishment, on the heads of all for the deeds of a few, he elevates him, when Leonidas includes himself amongst the chastised. Something that elevates him to soldier, a soldier who avows his own culpability as well of that as that of the men under his command. It's an episode that is used effectively to engage the reader and draw empathy towards the Spartans, we laughed with them when we laughed at Stumblios, we feel their contrition as they're chastised. I think Stumblios might've been omitted for fear of offending, he draws on a stereotypical Greek name, which I'm sure is not authentic for the period, so he would offend on two counts. It's something you could get away with in a comic but it would draw out too many pedants and blue noses in a high profile feature film, unfortunate really because those aspects are part of what make him effective.

Ephialtes's tragedy is also affected by omission but it's harder to reconcile the reasoning for this, as he's introduced, twice he exclaims that his parents were right to save him as he endeavours to join the Spartans in their mission. When confronted with Leonides's rejection he throws himself from a cliff, attempting suicide as he shouts, "... you were wrong!". The film omits his endorsement of his parents and his apparent suicide, substituting an elaboration of his seduction by Xerxes in his harem. This throws a slightly different light on his betrayal, where in the comic, there's an an element of rebirth, a casting aside of his old life, the film reduces it to a simple act self interest.

One of the strengths of the book is the portrayal of Xerxes, who conventionally is, somewhat incredulously, portrayed as something of a clown, who it's claimed, was so enthralled by his own chagrin he ordered the waters beaten with whips when his bridge was swept away, uh yeah I'm absolutely sure that's what happened. Miller rightly junks that bilge in favour of that of a charismatic potentate, someone who you could actually believe could harbour ambition to subjugate the world and maybe even achieve that ambition. Xerxes weakness flows from the same source as his strength, the supreme confidence in own his own power, that sees him fashion himself as a god, that makes him a curiously unitary and compelling character. Miller keeps things brief with Xerxes, he's revealed through his influence as much as his presence, a device that allows a certain amount of projection from the reader. The film is faithful to Miller's vision but somewhat more explicit, where Miller hints at Xerxes rage, the film depicts him near apoplexy as he threatens to erase Leonides from history. On the whole, I'm quite impressed with the film's depiction of Xerxes, it's a little more baroque than in the comic but that works and his interaction with Leonides is reasonably well preserved, Rodrigo Santoro deserves recognition for a fine performance.

One aspect of the film's visual feel that does bother me, quite a bit it must be said, is that it's a little antiseptic in it's portrayal of the Spartans, they're all bit too uniform. Yes they're portrayed suffering the privations of war but they've all got neatly oiled pecs and abs as they're doing so and there's this weird bathing suit model feel about them, something that's not helped by the measures taken to preserve their modesty, if you catch my drift. On occasion it looks like they're all wearing swimming trunks, it comes across a bit contrived compared to the occasional depiction of the, tackle out, Spartans of the comic, who when they are covering themselves up, are achieving it with something not much more the size of a handkerchief. I would've prefered something a bit more rough and ready, you know, perhaps not every featured actor  needed to have the same purposefully honed physique, a few bellies with some girth to 'em, maybe they should've  hired a few cage fighters, I dunno.

So what's the conclusion then? well the film is pretty good fun, it's just a little annoying that it doesn't quite match the comic in subtlety. I wouldn't say that it doesn't do the comic justice, it's probably a pretty fair adaptation, one thing I really like is the studio feel it has to it and the stylised approach to photography, it makes it feel more like a homage to the comic medium. I think if I were Miller, I would be pretty pleased with it and I'm sure the cheque would help in that regard too.

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