Wednesday, 7 April 2010

The Strain; the world's first dead-tree movie trailer; and I paid actual money to watch it

I'm tagging this as a book review, but it feels almost more like a pre-emptive movie review. I've just finished reading The Strain, which is described on the cover as being by Gullermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan. I think that what probably happened in real life is that del Toro had an idea for a movie or two, was not in a position actually to make them right now and for some reason that I can only guess at, he decided to mark his territory by having the ideas published as a series of novels.

One of the fascinating problems of adapting a book to a movie is that most books have got too much stuff in them to fit into a movie comfortably. The rule of thumb is that a page of screenplay is a minute of movie. You'll rarely see a 120 page novel these days, although thirty years ago detective stories and science fiction novels were often that length. So books have to be squeezed down and simplified to get them on screen. Characters are discarded, side-plots thrown away, and people like me often wind up getting more satisfaction from complaining about the changes than they do from the movie which results.

The Strain has the opposite problem. There's just enough stuff in it to make a movie, but Chuck Hogan somehow padded it out to 450 pages. And honestly, it's hard work. It's a page turner, but it's a page turner in a "cut to the chase, can I please get this over with" kind of way rather than "I gotta see what happens next" way. To make this into a REAL 450 page novel, Del Toro and Hogan would have had to deploy the full panoply of ideas they cooked up for the trilogy and cram them all into the one book. Or alternatively. Hogan would have had to be able to write as well as Del Toro can make movies. Since the second is plainly not on, all I can do is complain that they didn't go with the first plan.

Everyone always wants to reinvent the vampire, and everyone who does has to wrestle with the problem of vampire logistics. I've touched on this before. Del Toro and Hogan seem to have settled on the old school model that vampires dislike competition and go out of their way to kill their prey rather than letting the contagion spread. I say that they seem to have done this, because it's early days in understanding their view on things; the book only covers the first week of a change in the ways that vampires do business. There's obviously a boat load of back story which we'll have to tune into later. This would be forgivable if what we had now was rich and involving, but it's frustrating to have a bunch of cardboard characters lined up and whacked while the writers chuck hints at you that they've got a much more interesting sequel tucked away for next year.

That much said, it's hard to make sense of the ecology. Vampires have almost no weaknesses; they don't like silver, being decapitated takes them out of play, and they get cooked by ultra-violet light, so sunlight is bad news for them. Other than that, forget all the old stuff; they could care less about crucifixes, garlic and holy water. Now the new bad stuff; the condition is caused by a virus which is carried by little parasitic worms and those worms can wiggle into you and infect you with vampirism the moment the vampire springs any kind of leak at all. So new and improved harder to kill vampires with what amounts to the blood from Alien; whatever you do, don't get splattered when you kill them. And just in case that didn't seem like enough bad news, they don't have fangs any more - they have an extending tongue which can stretch out six feet.

The thing which makes the ecology kind of hinky is the infectious splatter. Because the infection is completely mindless and actually kind of hard to dodge, it's hard to see what would stop it from going pandemic in normal conditions. And sure enough, The Strain does give you the sense that an uncontrolled pandemic is going to spread from New York to North America and just obliterate the American way of life. So it's vampires meets Alien meets zombies. And people are not up to stopping the peril. So as the book comes to a close, there are hints that the answer to the problem is more disciplined vampires who are still in touch with the old ways...

Although most of this is basically bits nicked from all over the place and hastily bolted together, it will probably make a great movie when del Toro gets round to making it. It's just that it doesn't make a particularly good book. I don't know what Chuck Hogan is like working on his own, but when he's typing up someone else's somewhat schlocky outline, he's not very good at all. There's a horrible moment right near the beginning when any discerning reader starts to fear the worst. The book has a movie style cold open, with an airliner landing in New York full of dead people. A movie or a TV show gets a cold open out of the way in a matter of minutes; the book takes fifty pages or more and even prose this uninvolving takes half an hour to plod through. Along the way, Hogan takes a moment from explaining the problems of cutting into an airliner to tell us how much fuel the tanks hold and how far that lets it fly. And in (brackets) he converts the numbers into familiar US equivalents. WHY? Just think of a good way to tell us that the plane's full of fuel and fuel fumes, and move on. What makes it worse is that then they don't even cut into the damn plane.

It's not actually the worst use of brackets in the book; that comes later, when a Creole character is conducting an (unnecessary) internal monologue about voodoo. First it's there in Creole, then the Creole phrases are translated into the kind of technical English that no-one actually thinks in, then the technical phrases are translated (in brackets) into vernacular English. You're writing a goddam book about vampires! Is it really that likely that the people who buy it are going to need to have voodoo explained in baby-talk? There's a lot in that little oversight, including the horrible possibility that Hogan actually thought he was typing literature and that the sort of people who read literature were going to be reading this hor-ror fict-tion and would need to have their tiny sophisticated hands held. Chuck, Chuck, Chuck; I hope I'm not the first person to tell you that literature doesn't have explanations - it has writing good enough to make the meaning clear without explanation.

All in all, The Strain's interesting first and foremost as a dead-tree trailer for a potentially sort of awesome movie, and as an afterthought as a how-not-to book about how you don't write a book. It's full of attempts to set on paper things which work brilliantly as film; the airliner cold open would be fine on the screen and is completely dead and uninvolving on the page, because it's mostly descriptions of things which the camera can just show you in moments but which take time and effort to describe. And the problem persists all the way through. The book does all the things which screenwriting manuals tell you that you need to do when you're writing for the screen; set up a three act structure, give your hero a backstory which will counterpoint the challenge he must overcome, use your archetypes, present the hero with reverses and so on. These things can be made to work on the screen - or it's more accurate to say that the limitations of what the movies can show us in two hours or less mean that not much else can be made to work - but their limitations become manifest in the novel.

One of the most jarring things - from a narrative point of view - is the way in which the characters have to carry more than they should. In movies, once you've hired an actor, you use him as much as you can, and film adaptations of books often condense two or three characters into one so that the story can unfold simply and the viewer isn't confused by too many strange faces. In novels, there's absolutely no cost difference between two characters having two things happen to them and one character having two different things happen to him, but having everything happen to just one guy tends to feel very strained in a novel, so if you've got two striking scenes, you can afford to populate them differently when it's just a matter of ink on a page rather than having two sets of casting calls and contracts. So The Strain is populated sparsely, on the law of conservation of actors, rather than richly as it should be.

It didn't help that I was reading this immediately after two of Stephen Hunt's madly inventive and totally novelistic Jackelian books, of which more later. Actual novels make adapted screen treatments look bad. I suspect I will try to find out what's in the second and third books when they come out, but I'm not sure if I'm going to read them if there's any other way of getting the information. There's not enough reading in them to make that a good plan.

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