Let’s Talk About That Movie

(Mainly I want to talk about it because it was so weird in comparison to the book, and I want to sort of muddle through my thoughts on that weirdness)

So Absolute Beginners is both a novel and a movie. The two are related, really, only in title, having been published, what, about 30 years apart or so? Sure, both stories feature British postwar teenage cameramen in love with fashion gals who do whatever it takes to get ahead–but after that basic setup the book and the movie go in quite different directions. We might be able to blame part of this on David Bowie–apparently the guy’s stipulation for allowing the use of his music was him having a part–but that seems rather unfair to Bowie, at least in the sense that it is very difficult to blame production decisions on just one person when it comes to film (or video games, or TV shows). It is a bit safer to say that the plot alterations to Absolute Beginners between the novel and film originated from numerous separate individuals. The question then arises, however, as to why the plot was altered so dramatically. Our unnamed narrator/Colin’s father, for instance, has next to no role in the film, beyond a musical number about how he knows his wife has “relations” with their tenants, but says and does nothing so as not to rock the boat. That’s a pretty dramatic role alteration from, you know, “near-central cause of the narrator’s abortive decision to leave the country.” As a whole, generational themes (that is, how the teenager subcultures interact with/react against their parent cultures) are almost entirely subsumed by racial themes when comparing the film to the novel. One might be able to presume that this is a result of the differing time periods of the two media (the novel is postwar, where generational identity was a pretty big deal, whereas the film is a product of the 1980s, where racial tensions were… high, to say the least), but I don’t know. Something feels rather reductive about effectively just saying, “Oh, they’re each a product of their times,” and leaving it at that. I feel like there has to be a bit more to the changes.

Of course, by “a bit more” I don’t necessarily mean “a deeper meaning.” One of my main thoughts about the changes made in the film is that they are quite hamfisted. The race riots become West Side Story-esque dance numbers, and the “corrupt corporate executives seek to tear down local housing for a fancy resort” plot feels more than a bit cliche (let’s put it this way: If Emperor’s New Groove did it–as great as that movie is–then it’s been done before). A big part of me honestly believes that the changes came as a result of everyone on the production board getting really excited about converting the book into a musical, and forgetting what the hell the book was trying to point out. For instance, we talked in class about the rather uncomfortably imperialistic undertones of the narrator’s actions in the final pages of the book (when he is greeting the black plane passengers). This moment (and others earlier in the text, like the chat between Cool and the narrator where the narrator finally learns that racial tension exists) provided incredibly strong commentary about privilege and how privilege drastically skews the perception of even the most well-meaning of individuals. That moment is completely gone from the film, replaced by a neat bowtie ending where a single street fight apparently ends all the riots–though, keep in mind, that street fight only ends by Cool deciding not to kill his white opponent, after a clear struggle, as though a black man must actively restrain “violent impulses” or something. Yeah, that’s… problematic, to say the least. What I’m trying to say is that, even though the film decided to focus on the racial themes of the book, it did so in a manner that is less sensitive and respectful of those themes. Why? How? How does one fixate on a theme and work with that theme so poorly compared to a text that splits its attention between multiple themes?

Well, part of the explanation might be that focusing on the racial themes was the movie’s downfall. Absolute Beginners the movie wanted so hard to tell its audience that racism is bad and everyone has the same gooey nougat/caramel/Bavarian creme filling (pick your favorite)–but by fixating so heavily on those themes, the movie went from “biting commentary” to “hitting the audience over the head with an anvil” levels. It is hard to be delicate or precise with an anvil, to say the least.

-Eliot

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