In 2003 a bunch of dumb college kids (my girlfriend, our friends, and I) gave up $10 a person to go see a movie that all of us loved in theory. I was studying history, actually enjoyed Michael Crichton, and wanted to spend time with the woman who would one day be my wife. My wife had a not so subtle crush on Paul Walker. The movie we had to see was Timeline.
It was bad. Not in the funny way either.
Timeline starred every one who should be amazing. Gerard Butler, Billy Connolly, Anna Friel, David Thewlis, Neal McDonough, Ethan Embry, all brought together under the directorship of Richard Donner (Goonies, the Lethal Weapon series) to bring to life another Michael Crichton book. On paper (and trailers) the concept is gold.
The movie is on Netflix and when I saw that terrible cover art fly by I decided to hate watch the ever living daylights out of it. I make poor choices with my time.
Honestly, there’s not much to learn from the film other than…well, here’s what I took away:
Adaptation is a Fine Art
So the book Timeline and the movie Timeline could not be more different. There’s depth in the book. There’s character development in the book. The audience cares about the book. The film adaptation was rushed (the book released in 1999, the movie came out in 2003). Characters were cut, meshed, trampled. Subplots were woven together, missed, burned to the ground by flame throwers.
My kids and I are listening to the Harry Potter audio books right now when we are taking drives. I had never read the books before, but went to nearly every midnight release of the movies. So I’m of the Harry Potter movie camp. Listening to the books now, the movies are even more spectacular in how they adapted the enormously in depth books to hour and a half servings. Characters in the movies were cut, meshed, trampled, and yet nothing felt missing (for me at least, the guy going in without book knowledge). Someone going into the movie does not know they are missing the tremendous prose of Rowling. The experience of those movies still feels whole. The books provide a ton and I now wish Peeves had an on screen presence, but the movies do not detract from the books or vice versa.
The Timeline adaptation makes you want to burn the Hollywood sign to the ground and swear off ever seeing a book adaptation again.
I don’t know how many writers are going to work with adapting existing material for new mediums, but if any of us finds ourselves in that position let’s all try for more Harry Potter and less Timeline.
Flavor of the Week Character
Paul Walker’s only dialogue through this movie is repeating what he just heard. Paul Walker was billed as the star of this movie. Paul Walker was a tremendous talent as proven in his other work, but he was in this movie because he was an attractive box office draw in 2003, not because he brought nuance to a roll only he could fill. He was not trusted to actually perform, something we all know he could do very well as seen in basically every thing he did after Timeline.
I am calling this a “flavor of the week” character. Now, I’m still, in my heart of hearts, a steampunk writer and right now it is certainly difficult to not call steampunk a flavor of the week genre (even though it is older than I am and has a fantastic community of smart people involved with it….I digress). If you are going to write something trendy, or use a popular motif, know how to use it. Do some research, figure out what will make a character work or why a character type is so popular. I could write a thousand variations of “The Fault in Our Stars” story lines, but it will be incredibly hollow because I still have no idea what that insanely pretentious title means.
Write what you want to write.
Asking “is this necessary?” Is Quite Necessary
A few minutes into Timeline and Paul Walker is already trying to reconnect with a lost love. It is impossible to care about this relationship. Creating a back story for the two was frustratingly useless. We all know where the relationship is going; Paul saves day, wins the girl and they live happily ever after knowing they directly affected an important point in history and now have to deal with a god complex that makes psychiatrists’ eyes actually turn into dollar signs and pop out of their skulls as drool just flows from the mouth.
Actual screen time was dedicated to making the back story seem important. Had there been any real character development, had Paul been able to say anything more than “yeah, that’s a good plan,” or “hey Gerard, don’t do that,” the lead characters would have been worth caring about.
Timeline is not a movie for character development. It exists to show things blow up, have some folks sword fight and give the world a little more Billy Connolly.
What I took away from this is that writers need to consider if some minor tidbit is going to affect the story or pad the word count. If something exists for word count, ask if it is necessary. If not, cut it and find something fun for the audience. Of course, nothing I write really expands the reader’s understanding of the human condition, but that’s my problem.
I strongly suggest not watching Timeline, but if you do, come back and tell me what you learned from the ‘experience’.
Thanks for reading!