27 April 2017

Evolutionary Adaptation?

I'm sad to conclude that yet another H'wood figure of some notoriety has demonstrated that he is unfit for purpose. The chief "TV advertising affiliatecritic" at one of the two main trade rags has weighed in on the forthcoming American Gods TV adaptation and demonstrated his tunnel vision yet again:

However, after four of the eight episodes that will make up the first season, American Gods is still floundering. In the early going, the most pressing distraction — more so that [sic] the buckets of blood and intense sexuality — is trying to understand what's going on and what the series is all about, beyond the fact that old gods and new gods are about to go to war. The series is both rooted in realism and rife with otherworldly activity. It's as visually appealing as it is mystifying, like a comic book come to stoned life.

(Go ahead, read the rest of the review. It really wasn't unfair to take that paragraph away from what passes for the context of the rest of the review.)

If that is indeed what one is left with after the first four of a projected twenty-four episodes to cover a novel that even at first glance on the page operates by the kind of inference and allusion that turns two pages of book into twelve minutes of screen time, then it's a faithful adaptation and not a "problem." This particular critic's longstanding hostility to literary structures and techniques more sophisticated than found in a sixth-grade book report delivered orally to the class may serve him well in dealing with material no more sophisticated than that, such as the typical sitcom or dramedy or police procedural (which, despite any "adult themes," are not structurally or technically complex). Yes, there are certain precepts to adapting written material to audiovisual media, and yes, it takes both better source material and better adaptation/adapters (especially at the screenwriting stage) to violate those precepts. Examples include The Stunt Man, Apocalypse Now (original release only; the later "Director's Cut" demonstrates the undervaluing of editors!), and All That Jazz — from one twelve-month period. This critic's other snide remarks complaining that this is a slow-building show that does not comport with his preconceived notions of appropriate-for-TV-series pacing ("the fact that series on subscription channels tend to have viewers who, having already paid for the content, are more forgiving of slower starts") just reinforce the underlying problem.

And that underlying problem is that the "chief critic" (even within a department) is not always going to be the most appropriate reviewer, even for a headline/big budget work that "deserves" the "notoriety" thereby achieved. Or, more likely, that various ego-stroking is satisfied by that assignment — of the critic(s) involved, of the producers/production company, of the venue's management that has bought into the myth that "notoriety" is always congruent with "skill at execution," of the various publicists afraid to allow any work to stand or fall on its merits (in a semicomedic take on mutually assured destruction that is disturbingly parallel to Dr. Strangelove). In this particular instance, there isn't much indication that the reviewer had read the novel first (perhaps he did, but the review doesn't show that he read more than a synopsis). There were longstanding indications that only certain kinds of ambiguity are ever considered appropriate by this critic… and since the ambiguities at the core of American Gods (and, more generally, 1980s Latin American-tinged magical realism, one of the overt source systems of American Gods) are not to this reviewer's taste, putting the review in his hands was a mistake. It just enabled yet another instance of "not to my taste" being misstated as "inept" by someone without the theoretical and critical distance to acknowledge that "taste" is not congruent with "merit."