The Unrepresentable

A while back, my colleague Bob Rehak argued that the Harry Potter books appear over time to have been written with an increasing consciousness of their translation to digital special effects.

This is one of the big underlying differences between the way that the original Star Wars films and the Lord of the Rings films hit both geek and popular consciousness. The first Star Wars took the kinds of effects that we’d seen in films like Silent Running and repurposed them to an act of world creation. But I remember when I was a teenager in 1977 how my friends and I all agreed that you couldn’t do a story like Lord of the Rings with this effects technology, no matter how much money you had. We knew it would look cheesy, nothing like what we could see in our minds or even what we saw in the illustrative work of the Hildebrandts or others.

When Bakshi said it could only be done as a cartoon, we agreed. And then Bakshi went and did that goddamn horrible rotoscoping, not to mention making a hash out of the screeplay. I remember my pediatrician asking me in confusion what the hell was going on in that film, which he went to see what all the fuss about this Tolkien guy was.

This is why the Jackson Lord of the Rings was really the killer ap of digital special effects. It didn’t just do one amazing thing, like Terminator 2, it represented a narrative that most people had previously judged unrepresentable in the medium of live-action motion pictures. Lord of the Rings was the Brunelleschi architectural drawings of the new millennium.

So here’s the challenge: what’s still unrepresentable in speculative or fantastic fictions? I can think of a few isolated images or characters that I think are going to pose problems. For example, I think Aslan is going to get harder and harder to get right as the Narnia films go along, because Lewis insists that he becomes more and more ineffable, more and more variable in his presentation. He can’t just be a lion with Liam Neeson’s voice in some of the later books. Proginoskes in A Wind in the Door strikes me as being equally difficult to get right considering how strongly L’Engle insists on impressionistic, felt experiences of his presence and appearance.

I can think of speculative or fantastic fictions that would be hard to represent because of their narrative structure or the scale of the story. (Though the attraction of filmmakers to Phillip K. Dick’s work shows that you could overestimate this issue.) Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep would present a storytelling challenge that effects couldn’t simply surmount, for example.

Any suggestions of fictions that you think digital effects couldn’t surmount?

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24 Responses to The Unrepresentable

  1. Jeff Harrell says:

    It’s funny you should mention “A Wind in the Door,” because the first thought I had on this subject was of that book. Specifically, of the book’s whole final act. It’s been decades since I read it, but if I remember correctly the whole climax of the book takes place in a sort of metaphor which is inherently non-visual. The “action,” such as it is, is very much internal, consisting of thoughts and feelings rather than sights and sounds.

    While “A Fire Upon the Deep” would be very difficult to do practically, I think the notion of a collective pack-mind of dog-like creatures is more accessible than “A Deepness in the Sky’s” protagonistic spiders. No matter how you frame it, three-foot-wide tarantulas are just creepy.

  2. fraced says:

    the question confuses representation with visual verisimilitude. Since nothing is quite like anything else, all representation is false. What you’re saying is that these new movies are photomimetically ‘better than I thought’.

  3. nord says:

    I like to think that Starship Troopers broke the ground for LTR to follow. Great special effects, combination of updated technology as well … Plus Dougie Howser and the largest non-orgy nude scene in any sci fi movie i’ve ever seen… I’m not sure what Heinlein what have thought, but probably would have loved the controversy.

  4. Jeff hit the same thing I was thinking: the real barrier at this point is internality.

    I was reading Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys and thinking that some of it would be extremely accessible on screen, and some of it — some of the best of it — would be almost impossible to visualize. Haruki Murakami, as well: in addition to massively surreal elements, his descriptions often become quite tunnel-visioned, describing only that which is directly before the narrator (and his narrators aren’t always reliable), and a great deal of “thinking out loud” would be necessary on the screen. In at least one case, visually portraying the narrators of different sections would blow the ending in which you realize they are the same person, more or less.

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    Yeah, I think that’s the right way to put it. When internality is also fantastic, that’s the issue, maybe.

  6. Rob MacD says:

    How about Great Cthulhu, and Lovecraft’s more outre beasties and settings in general?

    In a way, this is another example of the fantastic/internality you and Jonathan have just highlighted: the technology certainly exists to represent a giant batwinged monster with an octopus head but not a city whose non-Euclidean angles make you go insane – or makes you think, yes, I can see how somebody confronted with that in real life might go insane.

  7. Bob Rehak says:

    Tim, great question — I often puzzle over it as I look back through 100 years of special-effects history. The baseline answer for me is that nothing is finally “unrepresentable” in Hollywood grammar, since the industry (A) is at heart a vast engine for visualizing things; (B) has a voracious appetite for material to “convert” (when it’s not finding new works to adapt for the screen, it’s re-visualizing previous films as remakes and sequels); and (C) will gamely make the attempt even if it’s doomed to failure. We *will* see some version of Proginoskes on screen eventually, even if the result displeases fans of L’Engle. I think here of Roger Corman’s flimsy version of Fantastic Four vs. the high-profile Tim Story films of recent years; or the many incarnations of Superman, both live-action and animated.

    If your question is about whether a given fantastic concept can be *successfully* visualized, that’s a matter of taste and aesthetics rather than filmmaking technology. Opinions will differ on quality, but nothing stops a high-tech filmmaker — or a kid making a home movie in her garage — from making the attempt.

    Another complicating factor: cinematic visualization always relies on sleight of hand. We’re given glimpses, sometimes even long takes, of fantastic scenery/objects/creatures, but the “vizzing” is embedded in a larger editing grammar of cutaways, reaction shots, and so on. The result is that spectators see more than is presented to them; think of the shark in Jaws, or the various atmospheric (but offscreen) horrors of Val Lewton’s films in the 1940s. True, current FX technologies and their associated budgets can pipeline increased numbers of opticals to the screen, resulting in more “direct” and less “implied” visualization, but even the LOTR films weren’t wall-to-wall digital mattes. For me, this is an artifact of a linear pre-authored medium like film. The circumstances would be different in a game engine, where you can look at (and interact) with fantastic visuals for as long, and from as many angles, as you wish.

    Coming back to Hollywood, though, my vote for steepest representational challenge — again in terms of FX technology measured against budget — is something like John Varley’s Titan trilogy or Niven’s Ringworld: world environments whose scale and topology are integral to the storyline, and whose narratives would rarely allow the tech-intensive scenery to recede completely into the background.

  8. Timothy Burke says:

    I suppose what I’m thinking is in terms of representational challenge–both what would be perceived by producers to be such, and where readerships or fan interpretations would set the bar in a particular way for “success”. After all, someone could have done Lord of the Rings in 1977: it’s just that virtually everyone who liked the books would have hated the results.

  9. Timothy Burke says:

    Lovecraft is a good example, by the way, largely because the horror of many of his stories depends precisely on not being visualized. We’re mostly told that his characters have gone mad, are seeing things that can’t be seen, that there is “non-Euclidian” geometry in view, and so on. Visualizing Lovecraft would almost certainly make it less impressive. Cthuhlu is funny when he’s made into a plush doll, but I have a hard time imagining a visualization of him that wouldn’t just be a Godzilla-size octopoid man. (I suppose something like the dark gods in Hellboy might work…)

  10. Neb Namwen says:

    I think we’re very nearly at the point where very little that is seen or heard is fundamentally beyond our FX technology — vast settings like Ringworld would be expensive, yes, but not in any real sense difficult.

    What’s hard is representing that which is felt, or as others put it, inward. Sometimes what is felt flows naturally from what is seen or heard, in a way that will work as well for the audience as for the characters. Film as a medium is pretty good at this sort of thing. On the other hand, sometimes the felt and the seen part company, or the link between the seen and the felt which obtains for the characters doesn’t hold for the audience.

    Rob brought up Lovecraft, whose work is, I think, an illustratively poor example of this phenomenon — Lovecraft’s stories work by stipulating, without really working to establish, that certain images, sensations, realizations, or knowledge intrinsically cause foreboding, dread, and eventual madness. To the extent that this isn’t the case, putting those images, etc., on the screen won’t work to recreate the feel of the story simply because the author’s idea that such an image will cause such a reaction was wrong to begin with.

  11. Timothy Burke says:

    See, I think Lovecraft is a good example (maybe because in this respect he’s not that great a writer): if you buy his stories at all, you do because he’s telling you what’s going on inside his characters in reaction to a very unvisualized external scene.

    In a way, it’s not just internality: it’s that we can’t expect digital effects to solve the representational puzzle of unvisualized narrative. Even antivisualized, where a writer specifies that something is happening which can’t be described in visualized terms but which is crucial to the feeling and affect of the fiction. Think the end of Lewis’ The Last Battle, where he explicitly buggers off the visual and says that the things which happened next were so wonderful that they can’t be pictured or even described. Or for that matter earlier in the book, when we see the “real” England and Narnia of Aslan’s endlessly Platonic Heaven, each more real and vivid than the last.

  12. Doug says:

    Or you get something like the end of 2010, where everybody’s all “Something Wonderful” and you can hear the capitals, but what ends up on the screen is just sorta silly.

  13. Tom Scudder says:

    On the flip side of the Lovecraft thing, any story where unworldly/overpowering/superhuman beauty is a plot point. Say, Orson Scott Card’s SONGMASTER.

  14. Tom Scudder says:

    (And if I’d read all the way to the end of the comments, I’d have realized Prof Burke himself had already weighed in on that point. Pwned, as the kool kids say.)

  15. Bob Rehak says:

    Remember too the ahistorical fallacy that all too often attends discussions of visual effects reception — that our current evaluation of their quality will hold true into the future. FX that wow us in one decade rarely hold up in another, which is what compelled Lucas to update the Star Wars FX in Special Editions. I remember when Forrest Gump was held up as exhibit A in the “photographic indexicality is dead” case. Nowadays the FX from 1994 look rather grainy and primitive, a fate to which contemporary spectacle — and spectacles to come — are also fated.

  16. Timothy Burke says:

    Yeah. Then what you get is people who have an investment in describing the state of mind involved in historical spectatorship who nevertheless insist that somehow that state of mind is transhistorical, or ought to be so. So you get one group of critics who insist, desperately, that the original King Kong still has an emotional impact that is a direct result of its effects, that it can and should have that impact on a new, “naive” audience viewing the film for the first time, as if all intervening history is transcended at that moment. Or as you say, we get Lucas trying to overcome that insistence by carrying his effects forward into the horizon of the future.

  17. Jeff Harrell says:

    I think Lovecraft, as mentioned, would be hard to translate to the screen. Not in the technical sense. Adapting something like “At the Mountains of Madness” — I’m remembering this, right? That’s the one with the geological trip to Antarctica? — would be pretty easy, technically speaking. It’s just that it’d be hard to capture the frisson through a dramatization without going all silly and hysterical with screaming actors and such.

    I think “Ringworld” would be difficult to render on-screen because sight isn’t sufficient to really capture the idea. You could model the whole thing out mathematically, saying that your point-of-view is six feet above a structure with such-and-such geometric properties, and let the computer handle the rest. But I don’t think it would look very impressive. You could go shoot the whole thing on location and track in a dashed line in the sky and get the same results, because the darned thing’s too big to see.

    Last night I was thinking about a book called “Ring” by Stephen Baxter. I don’t know if you’ve read it, but it concerns an unknown and unknowable alien race constructing an objection millions of light-years in diameter and setting it rotating to take advantage of the frame-dragging effects at the center to punch a hole in the universe. Such a thing would be incredibly boring on-screen, because it’s made of loops of “stuff” that are as wide as a proton and twenty million light-years long. Even if you could somehow fudge that to make it visible (flashes of blue light faking Cherenkov radiation, maybe) you’d either be so far away that it would be invisible, or so close that you couldn’t see the large-scale structure of the thing.

    I don’t remember the details of the book’s climax, but it has something to do with traversing the structure in a closed time-like path to avert some disaster or other, an idea so abstract I’m not even sure it can be visualized, much less visualized compellingly.

    I can’t remember who said it now, but I once heard somebody describe Stephen Baxter as the greatest living horror writer, because his ideas are so unimaginably big they’re either totally incomprehensible (if you don’t get them) or they chill you right to the center of your soul (if you do).

  18. Bob Rehak says:

    Jeff: Baxter’s work is a fascinating example, and makes me think of 2001 — the film version — which balanced “literal” visual FX with an “implied” sense of the ineffable and transcendent; its power comes from knowing when to stop with the mattes and miniatures, the lightshow serving as an exit strategy to the sublime.

    Interesting thesis about Ringworld’s sheer scale putting it out of reach of impactful representation. Though it seems to me that there are probably other ways of “selling” the concept and creating a sense of wonder (cue the John Williams music …) Star Trek: TNG pulled it off (more or less) with a Dyson Sphere in the episode “Relics.” And we see a fair approximation of the Ringworld in the Halo videogames. So I’m not convinced that size alone puts the Ringworld adaptation out of bounds.

  19. Jeff Harrell says:

    You know, I remember that “Dyson sphere” episode of “Star Trek,” though I probably haven’t seen it in fifteen or twenty years, or however long it’s been since it originally aired. I remember even as a kid thinking that they completely blew it. A Dyson sphere is supposed to be the size of a planetary orbit, for crying out loud; two hundred million miles in diameter or thereabouts. That episode of “Star Trek” made it look like just another big planet.

    I remember one shot in particular that showed the Enterprise “in orbit” around the sphere. The scale of the shot was just all wrong. The horizon was far too close, and there was a visible curvature to the sphere. That ignores, of course, the fact that that close to the sphere, the gravitational force on the Enterprise would approximate the force created by an infinite flat plate, making an “orbit” impossible.

    Okay, yes, I’m nerding it up here beyond any reasonable limits. But my point is that the presentation you’re referring to completely failed, in my opinion, either to depict a Dyson sphere realistically, or to toss realism in the garbage and capture the essence of the thing.

    Imagine this: a Dyson sphere built to the size of the orbit of Venus would be about 150 times the size of the Sun, and thus seen from Earth would subtend something like 75 degrees of the sky. What would it look like? Nothing. Just a giant black hole in the sky where no stars shone through. Or rather, that’s what it would look like for a little while, before the Earth was ripped apart by tidal forces.

    If you were close enough to the exterior surface of a Dyson sphere (assuming you had some magical way to illuminate it) to be able to resolve features smaller than a planet, it would look like an infinite flat plain, stretching out to the notional horizon in all directions.

    Not very interesting, in terms of movie special effects.

  20. Mr. Svinlesha says:

    Well, funny no one’s mentioned Burroughs yet. I can’t imagine a film version of Nova Express, The Soft Machine, The Ticket that Exploded, or pretty much any of his other cut-ups.

    Of course, this may be a bit off-base, since the challenge of filming a Burroughs novel is only partially related to digital effects, and is also connected to the lack of standard narrative traits (character, plot, etc) in his novels.

  21. Daniel Rosenblatt says:

    What sprang to my mind was Delany’s Neveryona quartet–not that you couldn’t represent it, but that I find it hard to imagine a satisfactory version–I think what’s at issue is the intersection between the possibilities of film and what fans of a book like about it. Neveryona on film seems likely to come off as sword and sorcery, which it sort of is (albeit in a pretty unusual way) but is not what I like about it. ( I suspect this is true for most of its fans.)

  22. Cala says:

    One candidate for an insurmountable visualization: in the extras to the DVD for Fellowship of the Ring, Jackson explains why Tom Bombadil didn’t make it into the screen version. Part of it is just that his story is an interlude, but there was also a worry that a jolly force-of-nature in yellow boots would be hard to render without making it comical. But surely he’s not harder to represent than Gollum, or the Balrog; but mere representation misses the point.

    I suspect screen versions of American Gods or Anansi Boys, as well as all of Lovecraft, would suffer from a similar problem. I think a weaker version of this problem hit the Narnia adaptation. I kept thinking, I knew this book had a talking badger, but I had never thought how silly that would look. Sure, we can make a giant Cthulhu with tentacles, but we might laugh at it.

  23. Timothy Burke says:

    Yeah, Neveryona is a great example. I tried teaching it once in my class on memory and history and it was too subtle even in that specific a context.

    Tom Bombadil definitely is a case of a character where visuals can’t capture what he’s meant to be very easily, and yet neither could exposition. He only makes sense (barely) in the total world-creating breadth of Tolkien. Though the Balrog is a good example on the other hand of a character whom we’re told is ineffable in some respect where some aspect of that was carried forward through an effective visualization. He wasn’t just a giant demon, I think.

    The wise thing that the Narnia filmmakers did was to recognize that no matter what they did, a talking beaver was going to look funny, so they might as well run with that through exaggeration of character and through choice of voice-actors. Another interesting place where they faced an interesting challenge was that Lewis insists (repeatedly) that centaurs are very grave, serious, grand characters and that this is communicated somehow by their visual bearing. They tried pretty hard to pull that off with the main centaur general (who I think is an invented character not in the original book).

  24. dukhat says:

    My understanding is that Tom Bombadil is Aulë the Smith, a Vala and one of the Aratar. If you haven’t seen it before, the url below holds some interesting remarks on Tom Bombadil.

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