A few weeks back, I wrote here about the new BBC production of Around the World in 80 Days running on PBS. I explained my love for the Jules Verne novel and the Oscar-winning Best Picture, and my wariness about this new adaptation which appeared to have little to do with the source material, other than the title and the names of a few of the characters (even if they changed who those characters were, like making Inspector Fix – who’s tracking Phileas Fogg, mistaking him for a bank robber – into “Miss Fix,” a newspaper reporter who joins the expedition to write about it).
It was all written before I’d seen one second of footage, and so my opinion was absolutely premature. That didn’t make it wrong, though it didn’t make it right. Just an early "This is what my perception is" kind of thing.
I got into some discussion with others about this. They were defending the series – again, not having seen it either – making the point that it’s fair to adapt stories in their own unique ways, and this sounded interesting to them.
And in part, I completely agreed with them. It is fair to adapt stories in their own unique ways. But when doing so, you still have to keep the foundation of what the story is, who its characters are at their foundation (it would be fine, for instance, to make Inspector Fix a women, as long as she's someone, not even necessarily a detective, tracking Phileas Fogg) and the underlying point of it all. Otherwise, why adapt that story and why call it that same title.
If you want to tell a story with a similar starting premise but then goes off in a totally different direction and tells a separate story that overlaps the original in various ways – that’s fine. And it can even be a wonderful, rich tale of its own.
For instance, the classic movie Western Red River is loosely based on Mutiny on the Bounty. (This isn’t my opinion, in the book The Screenwriter Looks at the Screenwriter by my grad school professor Bill Froug, one of the interviews quotes the writer of the film saying that.) They changed to the story and the characters completely, but the foundation of it all is the same – a cruel boss of a cattle drive gets so out of hand that his young second-in-command leads an uprising, and they throw the boss off. At which point he vows revenge. And all that is fair – and the resulting film is brilliant. But they didn’t call it Mutiny on the Bounty.
The science-fiction thriller Outland with Sean Connery is about a Federal Marshall at a prison colony on one of Jupiter's moon, he uncovers an uprising but no one will help him. It's obviously based on High Noon. But called Outland.
The movie Notting Hill is very-inspired by Roman Holiday. But they went off in their own direction and made a very different movie. Which wasn’t called Roman Holiday. Because – it wasn’t Roman Holiday.
There are a great many other examples, but you get the point.
I have no problem with adapting a story differently and making it your own. I just have a problem with telling a different story and calling it the same as the original, just to cash in on the fame of the original title.
I thought that might be the case with this new eight-part Around the World in 80 Days – but didn’t know. And to be fair, I did check it out.
It’s an absolutely beautifully-made production. Rich, vibrant and expansive. And the acting is very good, especially David Tennant in the lead as Phileas Fogg. And it tells a perfectly interesting story.
It just isn’t Around the World in 80 Days. It has different characters and tells its own story, focusing more on the personal problems each of the main three characters have – Phileas Fogg, his manservant Passepartout (who here seems to be the brother of a black revolutionary) and “Miss Fix,” the reporter. And the story appears to be about how they each deal with their personal demons to get past them. And that’s perfectly legitimate and can be interesting (and is, in parts). It’s just not Around the World in 80 Days.
By the way, having said this, they actually have a moderately-interesting storyline with the new “Miss Fix” character and her participation on the journey writing about it for the newspaper. Her character is clearly based – not on anything in Jules Verne – but the real-life reporter Nellie Bly. In the 19th century, not long after the Verne novel was published, she set out to see if she could beat the fictional “record” of Phileas Fogg and travel around the world herself in fewer than 80 days -- all the while filing newspaper reports back home. And she succeeded, though I forget how long it took her (I read a fascinating biography of her years ago), but I think it was about 76 days. At the time that I read the biography, I thought her life would make a wonderful film and even considered adapting her life story and various remarkable adventures into a film. I couldn’t get a handle on it to my satisfaction, so didn’t go forward. But I’ve still always thought that her story should be a wonderful. And there’s a touch of that here, although she’s not the driving character. But a movie or mini-series about Nellie Bly in full – or about her effort to go around the world in 79 days would be an absolutely valid, wonderful thing to try. But it wouldn’t be called Around the World in 80 Days.
In fairness, amid my reaction to all this, I’ve recorded the weekly episodes, and find myself fast-forwarding through much of them. That means I’m not seeing the full thing, of course. But the reason I’m not seeing the full thing is because I find it a bit tedious and annoying.
And that’s the other thing – why I find it somewhat tedious. If they want to tell a different story, that’s one thing. But you still have to tell it well.
In the novel and movie (and other filmed adaptations I’ve seen), the core of the story is always the ticking clock. Those 80 days. Phileas Fogg has to get around the world in 80 days to win his bet and to prove it can be done, that science has actually progressed to that point. So, everything that happens in the story is pulling you on, relentlessly. Even when they have to make a tangent side adventure – like to save Princess Aouda, or they get separated and need to somehow find each other again – it’s always with the awareness that the clock is ticking. Always. Always. And it’s what gets the reader anxiously turning the page, or watching with excitement, caught up in "Will he make it??!". So, every action has a meaning, even when it gets them off the track.
In this new “adaptation,” the trip around the world is secondary. Occasionally they mention how many days they’re in. And that, oh, we have to make our connection up ahead. But it’s almost off-handed, not what’s driving them. In episode four, we even find out that Fogg doesn’t even especially care about the bet or to prove it can be done, he has a different motivation. And Passepartout is always thinking of leaving because he has other, more important revolutionary interests. And “Miss Fix” just wants to write a story, whatever happens – and even that later changes directions. So, if the main characters don’t care much if they make it “around the world in 80 days” – why should the viewer? And if we don’t care about that, the only thing left to care about are these characters, who – while I’m sure they’ll grow and change and get over their angsts – for the longest time are pretty annoying. And without a clock ticking, driving it all, they’re just meandering.
I mention this all here because I recorded yesterday's fifth episode – out of eight – and later that night, I realized that I just don’t care about what’s going on. And so right now I have no expectation of watching it. I’ll tune back in for the final episode, to see how they finish the series. And maybe, possibly might watch the penultimate episode to see how they set up the finale – though maybe not, we’ll see.
But even that that, I’m wary. Because I read that they’re planning a Season Two. Wait, hunh? A Season Two? That either means they don’t finish the trip around the world this year – which if that’s the case, would have been seriously bothered to have watched eight hours only to find out it won’t conclude for another year – or they do finish (which I expect) but then have another adventure. But…another adventure? What else will they do?? Clearly they have an idea, and it may be a great one...or not. But the main characters just did what was thought “impossible” – traveled around the world in 80 days? What other adventure will they take to expand that? Perhaps, because the next series will not have the 80-day ticking clock, but will focus instead on the characters, they’ll just have a new story that has the characters building on that. Which is..whatever, fine. But it will hardly be Around the World in 80 Days II. It’ll be…something else completely.
(Oddly, if I do decide to tune in, I can surprisingly see myself enjoying a Second Season, weird as that may seem, more than this current production – since a continuation, despite the galling title, will clearly have absolutely nothing to do with Jules Verne and no pretense that it does.)
As I said, this series is beautifully produced, well-acted and has an interesting perspective that sometimes works very well – and sometimes falls flat. What I also find, beyond being bothered that they call this Around the World in 80 Days when it’s instead telling its own story with different characters separate from Jules Verne, is that overall how they’re telling their story is too tedious for my taste.
I can see some people enjoying this production for what it is and not being bothered that it is not actually Around the World in 80 Days and purloined that title to grab their eyeballs. But that is not me.
The other day, when discussing something I’d written, a friend said that the only thing he took issue in it was my referring to someone in the piece as being “far right. My friend didn’t think that was a totally correct portrayal of this particular person.
(I’m not being coy leaving out this political figure's name – it’s that his name doesn’t matter, it could be anyone, indeed in many other articles here it has been “anyone,” others. Referencing his name would make it seem like my point is only about him which, as will be very clear, it’s not.)
I understood what my friend was saying. And in another time, I would have agreed with him – but then, in that other time, I wouldn’t have written the description of this person as I did.
In another time, “far right” was the lunatic fringe of the Republican Party. The John Birchers and “Right Wing Nut Jobs” sort of folks. There were moderate Republicans and even liberal Republicans like Jacob Javits, Nelson Rockefeller, Margaret Chase Smith and Lowell Weicker – not to mention Theodore Roosevelt. And more.
But we’re no longer in another time, and today moderate Republicans in Washington are an endangered species, and liberal Republicans are extinct. And across the country in the GOP this is close to the same for elected officials. As I’ve noted here for the past 3-4 years, today’s Republican Party has become fascist, and if there are some Republicans who don’t hold those views, they are still enabling the party, not fighting its foundation. They may not be fascist, but that doesn’t make them moderate. They’re only “moderate” for today’s fascist GOP, which means most are still very conservative.
(Just for perspective, Liz Cheney is nobly fighting against Trump. But make no mistake, she supported him 90% of the time when he was in office and was part of GOP leadership before she dared vote to impeach him. She didn’t quit the leadership, they dropped her. Liz Cheney’s issue is with Trump – to her great and admired credit. Her fight, though, is not with today’s Republican Party.)
So, when I referred to this one political person as far right, it’s because that’s what today’s Republican Party is.
When discussing today’s Republican Party and its members, referencing them as “conservative” or “right wing” doesn’t do it justice. They moved the goalposts. The end zone filled with the “Right Wing Nut Jobs” that used to be 50 yards away from mid-field is now only 10 yards off. In fact, in today’s Republican Party, the RWNJ’s of yore aren’t even the party’s Lunatic Fringe anymore, like they were referring to in the 1950s. That’s how far-right the GOP has moved. Not long ago, the Republican Lunatic Fringe was as far as you could go before falling off the edge. But now, they’ve actually elected people to the U.S. Congress like Marjorie Taylor Green, Paul Gosar, Madison Cawthorne, and Matt Gaetz. So, that’s no longer the edge. That’s part of the foundation. Today’s edge of the Republican Party are terrorist groups like the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, Boogaloo Bois and the neo-Nazis. And QAnon conspiracists who think Democrats eat babies, and John F. Kennedy will be coming back to life and dead son will be resurrected to run with Trump. And though that’s “the edge” of today’s Republican Party, keep in mind that whole “they moved the goalpost” thing – the edge is no latter as far from the center as it was.
(In fact, that’s a large part of why so many Republicans today refer to Democrats as radical liberals. When much of your party is so far right that Attila the Hun is moderate, then all Democrats “look” radical to you.)
So, though some Republicans in Congress and across the country are, in what we might call society’s political terms, “conservative” in their specific positions on particular issues – the party they represent is far-right, and they enable it. They’re Republicans – and today’s Republican Party is far-right.
On those rare occasions where it’s just clearly not proper to call someone “far right,” I don’t. Or try not to, and try to explain who they are in today’s GOP. (For instance, Adam Kinzinger, also on the House January 6 Select Committee. I would not refer to him as “far right” – but he’s very conservative. He only “looks” moderate because the rest of the GOP is out of range.) But these people like Mr. Kinzinger are the exception. Because…the Republican Party is far right. And to position it and its elected leaders as anything closer to the center is normalizing them. And ultimately normalizing fascism.
Today’s Republican Party isn’t right-wing – it’s far right.
If only it stopped there and didn’t spill over past the Lunatic Fringe and RWNJs and fascists and embrace the white supremacist terrorist groups trying to overthrow democracy.
From the archive. This week's contestant is Mirabai Knight from New York, New York. At first, I thought I knew the hidden song right off, but then it went off into a different direction. And in fact, the contestant had the same guess. But then halfway through I figured it out right and got it. And the contestant's guess on composer style was mine, too -- and wrong. But close. In fact, the correct answer was my first thought. So,.yep, I should have stuck with my instinct. Especially since it quotes a well-known piece.
On this week’s episode of 3rd and Fairfax, the official podcast of the Writers Guild of America, the guest is screenwriter Rawsom Marshall Thurber, who wrote such films as Skyscaper and Central Intelligence. He talks about his new action-adventure thriller, Red Notice.
On this week’s ‘Not My Job’ segment of the NPR quiz show Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me!, the guest is six-time Tony-winner Audra McDonald. It’s a very ingratiating interview with host Peter Sagal, particularly since she has such a self-effacing good humor, notably when she talks about her early days beginning with dinner theater in Fresno, California, while she was in high school.
This the full Wait, Wait… broadcast, but you can jump directly to the “Not My Job” segment, it starts around the 19:00 mark.
As the folks at The Problem with Jon Stewart describe this episode, titled “War: You Break It, You Buy It.” Like the annoying guy at a party who won’t shut up about Bitcoin, we have some investment advice: America is not investing enough in our veterans, both emotionally and financially. So today, Jon sits down with some staff who are very emotionally invested, and also talks to Professor Linda Bilmes about her proposed solution for investing more financially.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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