Sunday, May 30, 2010

Sunday Book Review (Gone)

Watch Scriptshadow on Sundays for book reviews by contributors Michael Stark and Matt Bird. We won't be able to get one up every Sunday, but hopefully most Sundays. Here's Matt Bird with his review of "Gone!"

Yup, it’s another teen novel. I never intended to be the “teen guy” around here, and I had a list of adult books to choose from for this article, but then something happened that hadn’t happened in a while: I finished a novel not because I should but because I wanted to, and the whole time I was thinking “You know, this would really make a pretty kick-ass movie.” So I figured “screw it, that’s the one I should write-up, even if it is teen again.” I am afraid, however, that I’m going to lose most of you with the cover. If you read a few teen novels, one thing you realize is they're sometimes plagued by cheesy covers. This book is very much written at the same level of sophistication as a Stephen King novel, but it’s got a very Gossip-Girl-y cover. Another reason why I was pleasantly surprised at how bad-ass it was.

I’ve been reading a lot of first chapters of novels recently. (Full disclosure: in addition to my screenwriting, I’m writing a teen novel myself.) I do it to see a lot of different styles, but also because I rarely feel the urge to keep reading. I’m a tough crowd in general, and I’m not the intended demographic for these books anyway. Then something funny happened with Gone. After I read the first chapter, I felt the urge to read the second, just to find out what happened. And then I pretty much ate the whole thing up.

In the movie world, we worry a lot about ideas getting used up, but the book world is much more “live and let live”. The premise of this book is basically “What if Stephen King wrote a book about a small town that suddenly gets sealed within a force field and degenerates into civil war.” (Grant wears his inspirations on his sleeve: the national park inside his bubble is called Stephano Rey National Park) Then, just after this came out, Stephen King himself revealed that he’d been toying with just such a novel for years, and released his own version.

Problem? Nope. They both blurbed each other. But then there’s the other half of this book’s premise: every adult inside the bubble has blinked out of existence! Well, a year later, another big teen novel came out in which everybody over fifteen becomes a zombie: The Enemy by Charles Higson. Once again, what could have been a problem was turned into a friendly blurb-exchange. And why not? We overprize ideas in the screenwriting world. Yes, this book has a wild high-concept, and that’s what got me to read the first chapter, but I kept going because the dialogue felt authentic, the characters’ motivations were compelling, and it was well-written in a way that “beach read” books like this rarely are. Movies worry so much about ideas because they’re really only interested in getting you in the door. Books aren’t overly-bothered about that because they know the real challenge is to get you to finish the thing. They make their money over customer loyalty.

So why would this make a great movie? Because it tackles the same themes as a lot of other popular books, but in a much more cinematic way. There’s a ton of Post-Apocalyptic Dystopian titles out there right, led by The Hunger Games. Roger recommended The Hunger Games for adaptation in the very first of these columns, and I do have to agree, because it combines a high-concept action premise with a huge fan base. They’re mounting a big-budget adaptation now, and the pre-existing fans alone may be enough to sell it, as was the case with the Twilight movies, but if they’re hoping to actually win new fans without making the sort of adaptation decisions that alienate the existing ones, I think that they’re going to run into problems, with both the world-building and the ending.

I have a theory: post-apocalyptic movies only work if no new society has arisen. The Mad Max movies work because it’s still like our world except that it’s gone straight downhill. But as soon as another world has replaced ours, you get into trouble. Zardoz territory. Why has there never been a good movie of 1984, or Brave New World, or Fahrenheit 451, or The Time Machine? It’s the nature of cinema. Novels can talk to you directly and tell you what’s going on in the new world, but in movies all the information is conveyed through characters’ experiences and they’re only going to react if they’re encountering something for the first time. Both Gone and The Hunger Games, for instance, have mutated animals in their apocalyptic settings, but in the latter book, the heroine already knows what they are and describes them within the narration strictly for the reader’s benefit. And so on throughout every aspect of that futuristic world. How will that work in the movie? Gone, on the other hand, is cinematic: we start in our world, then the apocalypse happens on page one and we and see it swiftly become a bad world, step by step, and we see the logical reactions of our heroes to each change.

And that’s the other thing I want to praise about this book: the structure is just rock solid in a very popcorn-movie way. My wife always alerts me when there’s a new book with a really exciting premise, and I used to get excited until I realized that most high-concept best-sellers just don’t build the way that movies do. They might contain a high-concept idea, but they rarely ramp up to a big conclusion where the personifications of those ideas have a mana-a-mano smackdown. I hate to keep picking on The Hunger Games, but the conflict in that book, for all that it seemed cinematic, was actually way too internalized to easily adapt into a movie (a few spoilers here): The government orders a girl to kill a bunch of people, and she does, and then they order her to kill her friend, and she figures out a way to get out of that, and so she wins the games and then goes home. Since we’re inside her head, we knew that she hates the government now, but you would never know it from anything she does. She never takes any anti-government action. It’s still basically an internal book: about a girl coming to a secret realization about her government.

In Gone, on the other hand, every internal secret leads to an external confrontation. The ending is just as sequel-riffic as a lot of these other books are, but along the way each character grows and changes and settles their conflicts, at least temporarily, out loud. The biggest obstacle to adapting Gone would be that the underlying situation doesn’t really resolve at the end (two more novels have come out and there will be six overall), but the civil war storyline does totally resolve in a very satisfactory way, making this feel like a complete story.

I still haven’t really gotten around to explaining the story of the novel, which is pretty simple and nothing we haven’t seen before, but it's an effective variation on a theme: A small town in California had an accident at the nuclear power plant fifteen years ago. The kids born since are starting to get mutations that give them superpowers. An autistic kid’s powers go haywire and cut the town off from reality, banishing or killing all the adults. It’s sort of the action movie version of the old Jerome Bixby short story (turned Twilight Zone episode) “It’s a Good Life”. The teens left in town have to take care of the little kids and grow up quick. Then the violent kids from the reform-boarding school on the hill come down into town and take over. Our heroes have to lead a counter-revolution, all while discovering their individual powers and trying to figure out how one of them caused this in the first place.

Have these books been optioned? They don’t show up on IMDB pro, but here’s a video of the author talking about how some discussions are ongoing. I wouldn’t be surprised if, as Hollywood deals with the problems of building some of these post-apocalyptic worlds, they don’t start to seek out novels like this one instead, where we get the pleasure of seeing the world turn apocalyptic onscreen.

Matt Bird bloviates about movies (and occasionally comics) everyday over at Cockeyed Caravan.