Page to Screen: Setting and Pacing (Week 2)

This is the third in a series of articles, you can read the introduction here, and last week’s episode on characters and narrative here.

By Joe Strange


Last week I gave the impression that films can’t do an awful lot of justice to good source material, I brought up the fact that the difference in time dedication to each medium is vast and is a reflection on how much focus on character progression each one has the resources for. This week, however, I’m going to focus one a couple of things that films really have the upper hand in.

The first of these trump cards is the physical setting of the story. Novels often require you to imagine completely new worlds, with new creatures, races and phenomenon, you need only look at the Lord of the Rings series with its plethora of dwarfs, elves and trolls for instances of this, and that’s before all the more obscure creatures like the Mumakil; giant six tusked elephants. When faced with these hurdles in a book, a reader has to imagine not only the new things being described but they must also keep in mind the current actions of their character companions and when these descriptions are lengthy and complex (normally taking the form of exposition dumps in the case of creatures and phenomena like magic) that can be surprisingly difficult.

With films there is no such effort, the design and presence of these things are all ready for the reader to absorb at a moments notice; a great field full of exotic beasts or a consulate of alien ambassadors could take a long while to describe, but in a film a single panning shot will suffice and makes all these things much more real for the audience.

It’s in this setting that I feel it’s apt to talk about graphic novels. With their focus on images, a film adaptation can be risky; creators are expected to stay as close to the source material as practically possible without deviating too far but without it seeming out of place in the film. One example of this that is impeccably done across the board is the Scott Pilgrim Vs the World film based on the books of the same name (sort of). The first 2 acts of the film follow the graphic novels to an astonishing loyalty, with many of the shots from the film being carbon copies of the books’ scenes. It’s project like that where the enthusiasm of the director and their dedication to both the source material and their own project shows and is really appreciated by the fans.

DC comics, unlike their competitor Marvel, has its heroes based in fictional cities that are in some part based on existing places, often being located in the same State as the real life city. The issue with the adaptation of these materials is obviously, these real cities aren’t always laid out in the same way as the comic counterparts. This can lead to interesting editing and special effects choices. One such edit was during the Dark Knight Rises; during the filming of the climatic fight scene between Gotham’s Police and Bane’s army a character is kicked in front of a court house.

The thing about that scene is that it was shot in two locations; the street was in one city, while the courthouse was in another making that, as the director Christopher Nolan said; One of the most powerful kicks in history.

Lord of the Rings is an excellent example of iconic setting choice; New Zealand has been so heavily influenced by the filming of both trilogies that the most recent air safety announcement featured characters from Middle Earth.

But to that end I have to approach an issue with the Hobbit films. For those who have read the hobbit you will be fairly aware that there’s an awful lot of travelling in the book, in fact the entire book is an account of set pieces linked together with Bilbo’s complaining about his lack of handkerchiefs.

The Hobbit trilogy, much like its predecessor, has some incredible establishing shots and some amazing scenery but, thanks in part to the time restraints of films that we spoke about last week, the first film is mostly these setting shots between set pieces. It’s often a case (once the film gets up and running) of ‘shots of the company travelling – set piece – more travelling – set piece’ etc. While these set pieces are fun, and the travelling is awe inspiring, it does mess about with the film’s pacing.

Since each events, however linked they may be, are quite self contained and can be seen as just another wacky situation, you never get a sense of the stakes being raised, that is until the final showdown on the cliff edge.

Pacing is important to the engagement of the audience no matter what medium you’re writing for, and indulging too much on using the gift of visual set up for the scenery has the potential to clog up the pacing, especially when it’s milked and over done. A picture paints a thousand words, but too many long establishing shots can become stale and lose meaning, like if you were to repeat the word ‘bowl’ a thousand times.

Film makers go to huge lengths to make a film look good and convince the audience that their world is the same that the audience was imagining while they were reading the source material, and scenery and shots like that Batman transition are just one of them.

It’s also no secret how great it is to see the world you’ve been imagining come to life on a screen, and while it’s not always good, and not always what we thought, when it’s done well and faithfully it can really add to the enjoyment of the adaptation, and quite importantly leaves our character with less exposition to churn out because the cinematography has done it for us, which allows better character development.

There is plenty more to the physical settings that we can talk about, especially regarding the atmosphere that a director is trying to create, so join us next week where we’ll be looking at the good and bad ways that a film can recreate the atmosphere of a book’s story.




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