This week we conducted an experiment.
As lovers of story, we at AdaptThat seldom watch a film adaptation without reading its source material first. We therefore review the film through this lens and as such it can be difficult to judge it fairly as an art piece, and not solely based on what we personally wanted the producers to include.
When Katharyn rewatched The Eagle for her post examining Rosemary Sutcliffe’s The Eagle of the Ninth adaptation, I asked to join in, though I couldn’t recall a thing about the book myself. The result was an evening of mirth, as I freely expressed my opinion of the testosterone fest. We confirmed that the lack of what Katharyn deemed necessary was indeed a problem for the book uninitiated—or me, at least.
It reminded me of a time when a friend of mine saw one of my least favorite films on the planet: the adaptation of Jeanne DuPrau’s engrossing The City of Ember. He adored it, and worse, his favorite parts happened to be what the filmmakers changed the most. Being a younger and ruder sort, I tried to tell him those scenes ruined the film because they diverged so far from the book. He replied simply, “But I haven’t read the book.”
Since then, I’ve wondered if personal prejudice should take all the blame for my dislike of the City of Ember. So I decided to try the impassioned fan/wholly ignorant audience viewing again, but a bit more controlled this time.
Katharyn hasn’t read the book and she didn’t know anything about the plot, other than what we read on the back of the DVD cover immediately prior to watching the film together. She may have noted that I didn’t much care for it, and since she’d never heard of it before she could likely surmise that it wasn’t anything incredible.
The book, however, was just that. Lina Mayfleet lives in the City of Ember, a place surrounded by darkness and powered entirely on electricity. But recently the city’s generator has begun to fail. Blackouts, which have always been a part of Lina’s life, have grown more frequent—and last longer. When she discovers an ancient piece of paper her baby sister has chewed up, she spots the word “Instructions” among the mess of sentences and knows just who to consult: her practical old schoolmate Doon Harrow who has been searching for a way to save the city.
So with those parameters in mind, here are some of Katharyn’s best comments during the duration (and post-credits discussion) of the film:
“Wait—wait a second. Are we seriously joining the story when the [teenager] gets assigned what they’re going to do for the rest of their life? #dytopiantrope!”
From our current perspective, Lina and Doon receiving their Assignment Day jobs and becoming Dutiful Members of Society likely induces some eye-rolls and callbacks to Matched or Divergent. In fact, with a 2003 release date, The City of Ember predates the recent wave of personality-driven YA dystopias by several years (Suzanne Collins published The Hunger Games in 2008). If the book or movie borrow from anything, look no further than The Giver, whose Assignment Day falls at the same age (12) and unfolds in much the same way, with everyone on a stage and the town leader there to hand out lifelong jobs.
However, most similarities to those “utopias” stop at this moment. Perhaps reflecting Ember’s political and physical deterioration, children can swap assignments with whoever they want, willy-nilly with no paperwork or telling of adults involved. Assignment Day is not the be-all and end-all it would become in later YA fiction.
Luckily for Lina and Doon, they each receive the other’s preferred job and trade papers, so Doon can try to assist their crumbling city in the Pipeworks’ plumbing system and Lina can run freely around the city as a courier.
“Oh hey, we have this ambiguous friendship [between the main characters] and it’s kind of like… ‘Whenever I need someone to process an idea or go on a life-threatening adventure, I’m apparently going to go get you!’ And you’re just going to come along, no questions asked.”
While I felt disappointment for lack of what I deemed key moments, Katharyn was able to hit upon the underlying reason why my beloved characters never made it out of DuPrau’s book.
We don’t know why they trust each other. We don’t even know why they’re friends. They apparently saw each other enough to know each others’ names, but it doesn’t seem like they knew each other well before exchanging Assignments.
“I had trouble figuring out their motivations–Besides blatant curiosity and realizing your world is dying. Like, are they out to save their community? Are they out to save their family? Are they out to save themselves?”
All excellent questions. With my prior knowledge of the characters, I had simply filled in these blanks myself. I knew Doon struggled to contain his temper, but that he cared very deeply for his city and wanted a laborer-type job in order to help fix it. I knew Lina didn’t think too much about it until she lost Poppy during one of the long blackouts. Readers will have seen how well she knew and loved her city by how speedily she could run through its streets and how easily she could find the recipients of her messages. We got to know the city’s inhabitants (Clary, Mrs. Murdow, Captain Fleery, Lizzie…) thanks to Lina, but via Doon we could see the imminent catastrophe in horrifying clarity. As their relationship develops the two motivations become intertwined.
This confusion also sparks a What Could Have Been moment for me. In the books, each of the story’s characters deals with Ember’s impending doom differently: Doon gets angry and tries to shout everybody into understanding their situation. Lina doesn’t understand the blackouts, but tries not to think too much about it. Despite her worry, the practical Mrs. Murdo thinks that as long as she works as hard as she can and helps as many people as she can, that’s all anyone can do. Captain Fleery believes the Builders will return to save them based on a dream she had, like the other Believers, and so does nothing. Mayor Cole decides he’s got the resources, so why not screw over an entire city so he can face the apocalypse with the taste of pineapple on his lips?
Why couldn’t they put these reactions on display?
“We’re only given brief, brief, glimpses into what our characters care about. Lina draws a blue sky for ten seconds. The first time I started to feel something for them was when they landed on the plot of ‘Our Parents Did This Together!’ That’s when I was like, “Oh, they have emotions!” So if that wasn’t in the book, then they completely failed at effectively adapting the characters.”
Both of us noted the lack of connection between Lina and Doon, but I thought it was interesting that instead of choosing to include the small, well-paced bonding between the two that made their friendship so excellent, the movie decided to create a subplot about their parents’ failed attempts to leave the city.
It doesn’t make much sense as the plot was never resolved outside Lina and Doon realizing that their parents tried to leave (which was illegal in the movie) in order to save them. It’s a bonding moment for them, but certainly not more compelling than book Doon’s reaction to Lina’s grandmother’s death: instant sympathy and a comforting embrace—especially powerful when juxtaposed against Lina’s best friend Lizzie’s remoteness.
“I was very underwhelmed by the puzzle. It was a little too put-together.”
This comment fascinated me, since besides the movie’s steampunk design, the more visually interesting puzzle was the only positive thing I could think about. Whizzing gears and clicking mechanisms fit well in the steampunk universe, and given film’s visual advantages, I thought it natural to embellish the Builders’ escape plan a bit from its rather basic “open this secret door” instructions in the book.
However, I understand why a more complex puzzle also brings the movie down further. For one thing, audiences have trouble understanding over-complicated mysteries. Particularly when those mysteries take time away from developing the main characters, whose struggles would otherwise hold attention if the audience began to question how puzzle pieces fit together.
Additional questions also spring to mind when considering the mechanical systems necessary to the film escape. Does it follow that, although the rest of Ember crumbles and fails, the mechanism to release the boats still functions perfectly? And the wooden water slide hasn’t rotten away over 200 years?
Despite the escape’s coolness, it just makes more sense for the Builders to have planned a more simple escape route, complicated only by the Instructions being destroyed and made into a puzzle.
“I connected more with the villains than the main characters.”
City of Ember gives Bill Murray top billing. That doesn’t mean he gets all the good moments, but his talent as an actor gives the character of Mayor Cole (a bit) more complexity than the screenplay ever could. He did get one wonderful moment of symbolic comeuppance when, panicking during an outbreak of chaos, he falls onto a still-wet portrait of himself and wipes his painted face clean off. Lina and Doon never receive such internal examination.
Looper (Mackenzie Crook) and Snode (Toby Jones) also feel more layered despite lack of development thanks to their actors’ portrayal.
“All the dystopian tropes that came later and became ultra ultra popular with books like the Giver, the Maze Runner, the Matched series…You could really say it was a stepping stone for all those movies. Which is interesting because all of those movies enjoyed resounding success with their adaptations whereas this one flopped even with talent like Bill Murray and Toby Jones.”
It is fascinating that despite the similarities in overarching theme and structure, movies as basic as Divergent found commercial success while City of Ember failed terrifically and didn’t even get a sequel. Some argue that the A-list performers in recent YA dystopias (Julianne Moore and Kate Winslet, for example) have greatly improved otherwise lackluster films, but why wouldn’t that also be true for City of Ember?
Perhaps because City of Ember was the first of its kind and ahead of its time, or perhaps because more recent dystopian fare worked harder to create their emotional cores while City of Ember forewent its own.