Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Birthday Wishes for the Dream King

Hi all, Tim here from Antagony & Ecstasy.

Today, somewhere outside Minneapolis, fantasy writer Neil Gaiman celebrates his 50th birthday (or not; birthdays don't seem to fit the persona the author has created for himself. But I don't have to care). And while he's better known for his comic books and novels than for his work in movies, his short cinematic career is filled with enough highs that it seems more than fair to commemorate the man's half-century.

Gaiman's film career got a rough start with his BBC miniseries Neverwhere: cheaply made and hurt by an underbaked structure, it's not half as memorable as the novelized version of the same story from the following year (the morbidly curious can find it on Netflix Watch Instantly). Fortunately, Gaiman first theatrical project was quite a bit more promising, as Miramax tapped him to write the 1999 English dub for Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke. The challenge of telling a densely mythological story in which details fly at the audience without pause was perfect for an author whose own created worlds were so rich, and his Mononoke script maybe remains the best thing he's done in the movies.

In 2003, Gaiman directed his first film, the mockumentary A Short Film About John Bolton; for a freshman effort it's not half-bad, but a bit stiff and overly talky. Better by far was his next project, the script for MirrorMask, directed by longtime collaborator Dave McKean. Gaiman's plot is a standard-issue Alice in Wonderland riff, but its simplicity is a virtue: McKean's incredible visuals are the true star, and Gaiman managed to walk the fine line of telling an elemental story with enough detail that the protagonist is real enough to like, without unbalancing the rest of the fantasy. The movie is unjustly overlooked, the script most of all.

2007 was a banner year: summer saw Matthew Vaughn adapting his book Stardust, and he also co-scripted Robert Zemeckis's Beowulf that fall. The first of these is fairly reedy and thin, through no fault of the author's; his delicate fairy tale was made leaden and obvious through clumsy filmmaking. Beowulf, while problematic, at any rate found Gaiman and Roger Avary bringing the ancient British poem to life with crisp, fresh language that is modernized without being idiotically slangy or informal.

Gaiman's finest cinematic moment came when Henry Selick adapted his children's book Coraline for the screen in 2009. Here we find the spirit of his prose captured perfectly, finding the exact blend of innocent wonder and literary worldliness that marks the writer's work. One of the best animated films in years, Coraline is a promising demonstration that Gaiman's work, no matter how overwhelmingly written, can be turned into the best kind of cinema in the hands of a gifted filmmaker.

Most of the rumored Gaiman adaptations in the pipeline are in one stage of development hell or another, some for more than a decade. So let's play producer: what Gaiman project do you want to see made into a movie next, and who would you have on either side of the camera?

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