Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Creating A Monster?

In a later chapter of Susan Tyler Hitchcock’s entertaining Cultural History of Frankenstein, the scholar/instructor/Frankenut notes how the rising popularity of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s classic novel in the mid-late 20th century spawned a legion of literary “adaptations” designed for a variety of reading levels, mostly the Scholastic Book Fair crowd – condensed versions that skip the literary whipped cream and present a bare-bones story in a simplistic fashion: guy makes monster, monster kills guy’s wife, guy and monster go ice surfing. As I considered the proliferation of these, it occurred to me that I couldn’t remember for sure if I’d ever actually read the real novel, or just some Golden Books knockoff.

While exploring the labyrinthine recesses of a recently released DVD, desperately wishing for a trail of digital breadcrumbs, I started wondering if the same thing could someday happen with movies – if it hasn’t already. Last summer, following the release of Rob Zombie’s Halloween The Michael Myers After School Special, “the boards” predictably filled up with fan reaction and commentary, but the bulk of the horror kids weren’t LOLing about what was shown in theaters. A significantly different “workprint” of the film that had leaked online a week prior dominated most of the chatter. Even some major news sites slanted their coverage/reviews toward the workprint, most of them citing it as a superior film. I didn’t see the workprint, preferring to spend my time studying the art of noodling rather than waste another 90 minutes on Rob Zombie’s vision of Haddonfield, but I couldn’t help but wonder about the origin of the workprint and how its widespread exposure might affect the overall legacy of the film. Was it Zombie’s initial cut? A test print used to gauge audience reaction? And what happens if the workprint becomes more popular and commonly regarded than the “official” cut? What makes the “official” cut… official?

The matter was muddied even further when the film was released on DVD, including one disc that presents a version that incorporates some of the elements that appeared in the workprint, but not all – a hybrid cut. Is this now the definitive cut? Is Zombie going to pull a Blade Runner and wait 25 years before he makes up his mind? By that point, Halloween will have been remade four more times, each with fourteen different home video releases featuring variant holofoil/scratch-n-sniff covers. How can one be bothered to even watch a movie when there’s a scratch-n-sniff cover?

The new I Am Legend DVD raises similar questions by providing the film’s original ending as part of a second full-length presentation of the film. Those who prefer the original ending can now throw out Disc 1 and pretend like the theatrical version didn’t even exist. But what happens if their tastes change over time and suddenly they decide they want to like the theatrical release better? Do they remain faithful? Do they develop split personalities, each with his or her own favorite version of the film? Will Pop Rocks and Coke kill you?

While we wait for the answers, check out Hitchock’s Monster Sightings blog, which chronicles the appearance of Frankenstein references throughout culture and society. I wonder if this post qualifies.