My, How Movies Have Changed!

Since moving to Canada in 1996, I have been slowly replacing all the books I sold to finance moving here with ebook copies.  Sometimes those copies have been slow to acquire because the books weren’t yet issued in ebook format.

I’m very happy that traditional publishers are finally getting a clue and re-issuing their backlists in ebook format.  (Although in some cases, the traditional publishers still don’t seem to know how to properly format an ebook!)

There’s a few hold outs, yet – I’m waiting patiently for Peter O’Donnell’s estate to figure they can make some nice money and get all his Modesty Blaise books into ebook format.

But I’m also very happy that Alistair McLean’s estate have got with the times, and all his books have been recently re-issued in ebook.  He wasn’t my most favourite action & adventure author (Desmond Bagley held that laurel for years until…well, that’s another story). 

Anyway, it has been at least twenty-five years since I read any Alistair McLean novels, and I picked up one of my favourites of his, The Way to Dusty Death (one of the very last he wrote), and found it hadn’t aged too badly at all.  Although the hero is so alpha it makes your teeth ache.

So I picked up another long time favourite of his, Where Eagles Dare.

My, my.

I strongly suspect that the last time I read Where Eagles Dare was well before I decided I would pursue writing fiction as a career.  And now I’ve picked it up again, after twenty-five years.

So the structure of the novel leapt out and smacked me upside the face.

You see, it’s the perfect plot.  It’s absolutely flawless, action every page, non-stop twists and turns.  An adrenaline ride.

And it has absolutely zero character development.  None.  The characters in the book were there to advance the plot, and from the beginning of the book to the end of the book, they didn’t change a single iota.

I had to have a good think about it after I’d read the book, because I don’t think I’ve come across a book quite like it, that is absolutely 100% plot, with not a stitch of character in it, that is also a wham-bam, highly entertaining read.

And because I found the technicalities of the structure so interesting from a writer’s perspective, I talked Mark into watching the movie with me.  Why the movie?  Because it’s 2.5 hours invested, rather than ten or more reading the book.  It’s a shorthand way of getting the story into your head.  I only wanted Mark to consume the story so I could talk about the fascinating aspects of a story that works without character development in it.

To be able to see how a plot works flawlessly without character getting in the way is like a doctor able to see inside a patient’s body with Superman’s vision, instead of using indirect imaging like x-rays and MRIs.

So Mark sat down to watch Where Eagles Dare with me.

The movie was released in 1968, and the screenplay was written by Alistair McLean himself, at the same time he wrote the book.  So I was fairly confident that the movie would represent the book closely.

We were both braced for the slow pacing of older movies, too.  Even though this was a run away best seller in both movie and book form, and was touted the best action adventure movie of the year and the decade, and a lot of other breathless honorifics, we knew that it had probably aged and were ready for it.

Oh.  My.  God.

It was a cringe-fest. 

The pacing was every bit as slow as we’d braced for, if not even slower.  

It’s watching stories trickle out at this sort of speed that makes me understand and appreciate why movie producers and TV show runners remake so much old stuff. 

It’s not just because the original was a great seller and an updated version would make money, too.  It’s also because modern audiences just won’t sit still for the tortoise speed of story telling from those decades.  I’m thinking 1960s and earlier, and also up to 1970s (as we just watched The Eiger Sanction, made around 1974, and that had a creaking pace, too). 

But the pace of the movie wasn’t the biggest issue.  We were ready for that.

The problem was, the producers and/or director made changes to the script that changed the story slightly from what was in the book.  All of it was “minor” stuff, that didn’t change the major storyline at all…or at least, that’s what I’m sure they were thinking, when they made the changes.

In fact, the changes they made were…well…stoopid.

The commando team parachutes into Austria, and are behind enemy lines.  They have to climb down from a mountain pass into a town full of German Alpine Corps soldiers to complete their mission.   Ten minutes after they land on the mountain pass, the team member carrying the radio is found dead.   And that’s not even where the movie began to change from the book.  It changed right from the credits onwards.  But this was the first one that made my eyes roll. 

In the movie, Eastwood straightens up, puts his hands on either side of his mouth, and shouts “Major!!!”, to bring Richard Burton over to see what’s happened.

In mountains.

In winter, with lots of reflective ice and snow.

Behind enemy lines.

It wasn’t the only stupid change. It was just the first.   They also left windows uncurtained, with lights playing across the landscape.  They had a bottomless backpack that carried an inexhaustible supply of dynamite, which they used with abandon.  We could recall about sixty bundles of dynamite used throughout the movie (and we weren’t keeping count).  The book, I’m glad to say, didn’t turn the plot into a “let’s blow shit up!” fest.

There were more painfully bad mistakes, errors and whathaveyou that should have resulted in the infiltration team, and most especially the heroes, all being stood against a wall at dawn, after a last cigarette.

The end result was a plot that sucked from all the logic holes and oopses in it.

They even managed to completely destroy all suspense and mystery and about three major story twists in the principal scene.  Reading the book, your neck gets sore from all the snapping backwards and forwards that happens around that scene.  In the movie, they killed all of that by one stupid line uttered by Richard Burton (that wasn’t in the book).  So the scene became a showcase for Burton, with little suspense left in it.

And honestly, Burton wasn’t worth watching.  By 1968, the booze had a tight grip on him.  Clint Eastwood has been quoted as saying that the movie should have been called  “Where Doubles Dare” because whenever they could get away with it, the director and crew substituted doubles for Richard Burton, because he was usually too drunk to complete the scene.

All this lethal tinkering with the plot and dialogue and yet the movie was still a massive hit.

I have to wonder if the movie-going audience were less rigorous in their demand for verisimilitude.   As long as the movie was entertaining, what did it matter if plot holes abound?  Or did they genuinely not notice the flaws?

Have we, the modern audience, become so adept at consuming stories, that we see everything the 1960s audiences did not?

Again, it’s not the pacing that bothered me the most, because we’re all used to how slow story telling was, back only a few decades.  I can sit still for a 1960s movie, if the story hangs together properly. 

So my attempt to save Mark hours of reading time failed spectacularly.  But it was an eye-opening experiment, all the same.  I learned a lot about story structure, story-telling and how not to treat the audience/reader as if they’re stupid.

Have you ever gone back and watched or read a classic, older story, and been appalled by what readers/viewers put up with, back then?

Worse, have you consumed a story created in this century, that made you feel you were being patted on the head?

Tell me about it.