Goodbye, Big Screen
Remember when Hollywood kept trying to turn video games into films and the results were nearly always horrible?Once again the press is crying out that Hollywood is about to collapse – there are no new ideas left, digital spectacles have replaced all other kinds of film, leading to a top ten that consists of nothing but superheroes, cartoons and fan-servicing action blockbusters – and so on.
But for film that was only the start of the problem. The very way we consume entertainment is transforming so quickly that the venerable BBC has suddenly found itself in freefall with a core audience demographic of over-60s (that would include me now, except that if I watch TV at all I watch Netflix and Amazon on my phone).
I once gave a speech explaining that writers shouldn’t worry about how films and books reach audiences and readers via different delivery systems. We own the well, so it’s up to others to figure out the carriage. But a problem has arisen. I enjoyed ‘The Santa Clarita Diet’ more because it was a 10-part series than I would have if it had been a 90-minute comedy. Why? Because video games have taught us about story permutations. Like most other screen ideas, it would be a one-joke film (undead suburban mother!) but it ran with a set of ever-changing riffs on the concept, and in doing so pushed their writers toward places they would never have gone in a single version.
So TV shows have become the true legatees of the video gaming world, not films. Which rather leaves films between a rock and a hard place. Most affected by the squeeze are mid-sized personal projects, and as we live in deeply conservative times every story is pretty safe – and yet there are exceptions, from ‘Elle’ to Get Out’.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to have translated across to books. I have read so many ‘tasteful’ new period novels lately that I’m desperate for something shockingly original (and I don’t mean the Booker winner ‘The Sellout’, which I found a real struggle to finish). Books and films no longer share the same demographics; ‘Game of Thrones’ didn’t become a huge hit because of George RR Martin’s books, but because it became a TV series.
As US product swamps the carriage system we’ve also lost shows, books and films that reflect our own more localised interests. I grew up on mostly British and European fare, so that to this day very few of my top twenty movies are not from Hollywood. I’ve always enjoyed reading and watching political and satirical stories more than family sagas.
Will the Trump era of ‘beautiful walls’, AI, drones, intolerance and cruelty lead to a fiction fightback, as it did in the 1960s? We can only hope for more radical comedy and drama – but it looks as if it will come from the small screen now. And hopefully, smart new books.