Monday, 30 January 2017

Adaptation: Minority Report

The A-word.
It's the bane of cinephiles, everywhere.

That book you love; the comic you remember; the show you used to watch; the game you lost an entire summer playing? Oh, someone's adapted it and it's getting made into a movie! Whether a cause for pre-emptive celebration or foreboding caution, it leads to only one thing: expectation. And expectation is the death of the 'clean' movie-viewing experience; no matter how closely the film sticks to its source material, or how much it tries to distance itself, it will be faced with the hurdle of comparison.

And while the movie industry loves the pre-built marketing buzz of 'now a major motion picture!', they loathe the comparative references which will be made from the first review onwards. Because many punters will expect to get exactly the same reaction from a completely different medium, to a story they already know. And therein lies the problem.

In this monthly series, we'll look back at some of the most respected and best-loved properties which have made the perilous journey to the big screen; often with some controversy, and almost always with far too much hype. This isn't so much a review of the films themselves, more an appraisal of their suitability as an adaptation.

Minority Report
Minority Report
Philip K. Dick (1956)

And so we begin with Philip K. Dick's Minority Report, the 1956 short story of a man caught in a system of 'Precrime', whereby a monitored trio of precognitive mutants read the imminent future for cases of murder and treason. The details are then passed on to a dedicated police unit (with an identical set of results passed to the military as a set of 'check and balances'), who are dispatched to arrest the offender before they have a chance to commit the crime. Although in some cases, the offender isn't yet aware that they intend to murder their victim(s). Precrime are almost literally the thought-police.

That's right, I'm starting 2017 by reading about institutionally-sanctioned prejudice in a book from 61 years ago. But I digress…

Bearing in mind that my default approach to sci-fi and speculative fiction is cinematic (rather than literary), my first thought was that the initial setup of the story seems reminiscent of Robocop , with The Establishment focusing more on a pre-emptive deterrent, rather than in-situ engagement of criminals. Not withstanding the obvious flaw in the system (we'll get onto that), the fact remains that with a system of punishment in place that addresses the 'crime' while leaving the victim still alive, Precrime would indeed act as a first-stop deterrent. For murder, at least. The narrative seems to suggest that reports of theft and assault are automatically filtered out of the system, and are presumably picked up by the authorities in the regular manner.

Dick's philosophical time-cruncher is only a forty-two page short story, and - like all the best speculative fiction - isn't so much concerned with the advancement of technology, but more the non-advancing nature of the humans with access to it. At the core of the story, the machines which facilitate the scrying are only tools connected up to the people (albeit 'mutants') at the centre. But then, people are only biological machines, after all. Minority Report is more a brief study of the illusion of free-will, and the margin of error involved when anybody tries to second-guess someone's true motives. Again, cf 2017.

Most of all, I love that the thought-analysing machines in this future state are still printing off slips of card. Can we hold on to that, please?

The central figure one John Anderton, the developer of Precrime and a police commissioner about ten years or so from retirement (so not a young protagonist, something worth bearing in mind for a movie adaptation, I'm sure). In a system where the last recorded murder was over five years ago, its inventor has convinced everyone - including himself - that constant surveillance and preemptive intervention is for the public good. And it's all the more baffling since the one obvious flaw in punishing someone for a fixed crime in a fluid timeline is something which doesn't seem to have occurred to him until he ends up accused of murdering someone he hasn't yet met. Once this happens, the penny seems to come clanging down with ironically startling rapidity.

Even for a 'short' story, Minority Report takes its time in getting round to this caveat, although when it does, Dick's writing is reassuringly self-aware. The tale unfolds into corporate conspiracy, rather than personal vendetta, and the already unclear waters of right and wrong are muddied with the pollutant of 'for the right/wrong reasons'. And while it's nicely compact, this is a story just crying out for expansion.

The book (I'm going to call it that) is good fun and far more accessible than I've found Philip K Dick on previous attempts. I can't help but wonder how 'out of reach' this non-specific future would have seemed in 1956, because in the 2017 of consumer algorithm profiles and social media tracking, Minority Report feels closer than ever...

Minority Report
Minority Report
Steven Spielberg (2002)

Oh, I see the Murder Cards™ have been replaced with carved, wooden lottery balls. Makes as much sense as anything, I suppose…

Given an entire plot makeover and with Steven Spielberg, Tom Cruise and Colin Farrell, the budget for this adaptation is clearly larger than the starting concept. Thankfully, the film's always more than being A Tom Cruise Movie™, event though the translation's still more generic that it should be. And sure, it's more heavy-handed in its message than the written-version, but that's probably a combination of the larger narrative and the visual storytelling method. The film is less of a philosophical thriller, and more the arch action movie that the cast-list would suggest.

As a plot-device and overall concept, Precrime seemed more practical in the book version of this. Equally overblown and with the same moral stumbling-block of course, but less ostentatious. While the how of the story remains largely the same, screenwriters Scott Frank and Jon Cohen take significant liberties with the who and why. All for the good of the feature-length adaptation, of course.

On the plus side, this is exactly the kind of exploration than the story needs. Although if anything, the film's far longer than it needs to be at just under 2h20m. Minority Report hits the ground running with a show, don't tell methodology, but the extended narrative time means there's a lot of exposition in here, over and above what's really needed. And it's perhaps ironic that for a sci-fi movie, Anderton's newly-added 'broken cop' backstory could have been written by a computer. In what could be the film's signature sequence, it displays the morbid fascination with eyeballs that occurs in other adaptation of Dick's novels (more of those in future entries to this series), but which is absent from the source book (a bit I was looking forward to, if anything).

This film version is set (ie captioned) in 2054, which puts a specific future-date on things, this time round. Although bizarrely, if Cruise's hand-wave-operated computers with translucent holo-displays don't date the movie enough, the Nokia-logo product placement and COPS referencing certainly do.

Overall though, not a bad movie by any means, even if it's a slightly unremarkable one, in the long-run of cinematic history…

Is the original thing any good, though?
It is, although it's more like an idea in longhand; the first, bare-bones draft of a novella. It also feels in places like it was written in an afternoon.

Is the film-version any good, though?
It is. The creative team behind the film have fleshed out the initial idea (warts and all) in ways which allow it to be expanded more fully. Okay, this leads to the potential setbacks of the system being more glaringly obvious, but it's not like everything in the real world's been thoroughly foolproofed, either.

So, should I check out one, both or neither?
As much as I enjoyed the paper-version, you won't really get much more out of it than just watching the movie. Although, perhaps uniquely, it'll probably take less time to read the book.

Oh, is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?
I didn't hear one.
Although I wasn't listening out for it, truth be told.

Yes, but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 1: Well apart from those police-cruisers which look an awful lot like Jango Fett's Slave 1 ship from Attack of the Clones (2002), the city-scape and assembly-line chase sequences which bear more than a passing resemblance to Attack of the Clones (2002) and John Williams' score which bears more than a passing resemblance to his work on Attack of the Clones (2002)… Lor San Tekka's in this (from the Star Wars in 2015, admittedly).

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
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  1. Heh, do Solaris next!

    I love Dick's writing. It's so strange and colourful. Actually, A Scanner Darkly would be another great adaptation to cover.

    1. Schedule's already set for the book-section, I'm afraid. But I haven't seen either of those so I'll certainly pencil them in for my 'downtime' viewing :)