Desty Nova: A Villain Destroyed

Alita: Battle Angel is a movie about cyborgs punching stuff and the nature of the human experience. The story is theoretically a direct, big screen adaptation of one of my top ten favorite manga of all time, Battle Angel Alita. It’s also a very mixed bag.

This is not a complete breakdown of the adaptation, what I thought was good and what I thought was bad, as that would be an undertaking and I’m not sure I’m ready for it. Visually the movie is pitch perfect, but storywise it runs into some deep, deep flaws, tossing aside many of the themes of the source material in order to produce a trite, overused, downtrodden vs oppressors narrative. Nowhere does that failure come through more clearly than in the character of Desty Nova (just Nova in the film). As Alita’s greatest antagonist, Nova was a cruel and capricious character in the manga, and to an extent the film presents him as such as well. But in his adaptation of the manga, James Cameron throws away the questions Nova was trying to tackle and reduces him to a cardboard cutout of a cartoon tyrant rather than presenting him as the dangerous philosophical and moral threat that he should have been.

You see Desty Nova, the manga character, was trying to develop a scientific theory of free will and destiny. To do this, he would find people and offer to help them do anything they desired – unfettered free will – and then observe what happened to them, and whether they could overcome their circumstances – their destiny. In this process Nova was entirely amoral – he was as likely to assist a vicious serial killer like Makaku as a caring brother and conscientious sportsman like Jashugan, and he didn’t really care if he had to do things others might consider amoral to forward his goals. Eventually Nova would become more sadistic and arbitrary in his actions – Makaku and Jashugan seem to have been early and comparatively benign experiments – and he never hesitated to leverage his technical expertise to smooth his way and help himself survive the ever growing horde of people who wanted him dead.

Through Nova’s experiments we get a glimpse at the idea that our own desires can destroy us. He never gives his subjects anything other than what they want, to the extent of his considerable ability. But they invariably wind up self destructing. Makaku gains a robust cyberbody that can survive almost any situation but, with his limited sense of self, he can only understand pain and suffering and only communicates with others through them. He raises trouble until Alita finally destroys him in a tragic act that he perceives as love – affection from the only person who has ever cared about him in any way. Jashugan loves his sister and his sport, but he devotes himself to mastering that sport so fully that he gets his brain remodeled to make him a better player, ultimately leading to his brain shutting down a few years later depriving Motorball of its greatest player and Shimura of her only family. Nova did things for both these men that made their burnouts bigger and more spectacular – but there’s no doubt that they would have wound up in the same place regardless.

But the important thing about Nova is that he was fascinated with free will. He helped his subjects do whatever they wanted, and in turn he did whatever he wanted to get them there. Controlling people was never a part of his character. And Nova was a genuinely curious scientist. He wanted to understand things and answer questions, he didn’t really care about his own status so long as he could satisfy his curiosity. And he loved flan.

The adaptation of his character is practically the exact opposite.

In Alita: Battle Angel Nova is a tyrant. He rules the city of Zalem and oversees a network of servants on the surface to ensure no one there challenges his position. He is capable of controlling the bodies of those servants, completely overriding their free will. And when confronted with Alita herself, the most fascinating experimental subject for Nova of the manga, the foundation of a dozen experiments into free will over the course of decades, movie Nova orders her execution without expressing the slightest shred of interest. Alita is not a way to try and satisfy his curiosity, Nova just wants the power source in her cyborg body so he can make his own position in Zalem secure.

Makaku (or a very similar character with an unpronounceable name in the film) is just a pawn that does Nova’s bidding, we don’t even know why he took up working with Nova in the first place. Jashugan’s part in the story hasn’t come in yet but we do see Nova manipulating the Factory master Vector in much the same way. When these character die it’s a nonevent. They had no meaning, nothing to say about themselves or the nature of Nova’s desires and ambitions. They’re just fuel for spectacle, and props that show Nova is Bad. Hollow shells, nothing more.

It’s disappointing to see something you love translated to a new medium badly. It’s worse to see something that was trying to say something profound boiled down to something trite. In the character of Nova, Alita: Battle Angel manages both.

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Adaptations: Values Dissonance

What is values dissonance? This article from TV Tropes does a great job explaining it in long form (really long form if you wind up wiki walking) but the short version is, values dissonance is what happens when the structure and/or aesthetic choices of a work are presenting themes that fight against each other. It doesn’t always mean that values are directly opposed, but there’s only so much space in a given work (and the mind of the audience) for each story. When the themes of a story are too many or just don’t work well together it creates values dissonance.

The phenomena of values dissonance occurs most often when a story is a collaboration or an adaptation and the various parties involved don’t agree on what the major theme or purpose of the work should be. This doesn’t always have to be an open disagreement, they may just be trying to fit all their shared ideas into a package that isn’t equipped to deal with them or, as is often the case in adaptations, they may just have too much respect for the original work to want to change “sacred writ” and just try and shoehorn their own ideas into a story. And, of course, it can be any possible combination of those things plus any other number of circumstances such as studio/publisher interference or just not having enough time to work everything out.

What I want to talk about today is not values dissonance per se as it is adaptations and what makes them so difficult. It just so happens that the number one killer of adaptations in my personal opinion is values dissonance.

But wait! You say that I recently did another post on adaptations where I explicitly said thematic material was changed resulting in an adapted work that was just as good as the original, if not better? You’re right, I did. Edge of Tomorrow made huge thematic shifts to the story of All You Need is Kill. But more importantly, it then carefully extrapolated those thematic shifts to every aspect of the film, transforming characters, dialog, situations and plot to fit while, at the same time, producing a visually arresting film with a solid plot that would be more comprehensible than the original to it’s target audience.

Reread that sentence a few times. It boils down what the scriptwriting and production team did over the course of a year or so to it’s bare basics, the execution was much more complex – and that was not a simple sentence to begin with. Edge of Tomorrow was a phenomenal success in adapting a book to screen in part because it was so conscious of the changes it was making and their impact on the work as a whole.

Let’s look at two adaptations of the same famous work that strive to be faithful to the original work. My original urge here was to go with Shakespeare, since he’s pretty well known and his stuff has been translated to screen more than once. Problem is, I’ve only read a few of his plays and I’ve only ever seen them on the stage. Plus, theater translates more readily to film than books, so it might not be the best choice for this purpose. And I didn’t want to bring modern day reinterpretations into the mix, as good as I’m sure West Side Story is.

The solution? Do a work by a different author that has been reinterpreted for the screen more than once which I’m already familiar with in all forms! So today we’re going to be talking about Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

The two most well known adaptations of Pride and Prejudice are probably the 1995 A&E TV miniseries staring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth and the 2005 film version staring Keira Knightly and Matthew Macfayden. For purposes of clarity, since both share the same title, we’ll use their years of release to differentiate them.

This is not a review of Pride and Prejudice so I’m going to assume you’re familiar with the work – and I’ll wait if you need to go out and read/watch it before we continue. It really is worth your time, as all Austen’s work is, although I think my favorite adaptation of her work will always be Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility. (Yes, even though there’s no Colin Firth. Though Mr. Darcy is still my favorite male character of hers, largely due to Firth’s superior performance.)

Most of the caveats of my last post apply here as well – this isn’t about actors or costuming or any of that other stuff, just the way the story is presented.

So let’s get down to brass tacks! There’s three categories where I feel the 2005 version suffers from values dissonance which results in the film being slightly weaker than the 1995 miniseries. And they are:

Elizabeth Bennet 

Our main character. In both versions and the book Lizzie is a woman of solid upbringing, good character and strange family. With four sisters and eccentric parents Lizzie is bound to be something of a character herself but fortunately it manifests in nothing more damaging than strong opinions and the guts to stick by them, generally admirable character traits. But Lizzie’s strengths are often her weaknesses and her tendency in the story to make snap judgments about a person and then carry them forward causes her to misjudge the characters of Mr. Darcy and Mr. Wickham in spite of mounting evidence that contradicts her opinions.

Elizabeth is the perfect flawed protagonist for a morality play. She’s a great person, much better than many people we know, in just bout every respect but one – her tendency towards prejudice. This, much like Mr. Darcy’s high regard for his own station in life, leads her to bad behavior that causes her grief, first in failing to recognize Mr. Darcy’s good qualities beneath his antisocial behavior and second in failing to recognize Mr. Wickham’s caddishness under his guise of geniality.

Austen very carefully shows Lizzie’s brilliance in a number of ways. She spars with the dour and acerbic Catherine de Bourgh in a way that is both meticulously formal and correct but still slyly irreverent and witty. We can tell she isn’t intimidated by this so-called personage before her but rather confident in her own position and more than capable to use the mores of the times as both shield from Lady Catherine’s attacks and sword to prod the lady back into place.

While the 1995 version largely keeps this dynamic (something of a theme for this version) the 2005 version chooses to have Lizzie react in a more defiant fashion, more directly putting Lady Catherine in her place. While this is a very modern and fully understandable reaction it’s very modernity puts Lizzie at odds with the rest of the story. It creates values dissonance between her and the rest of the characters, including her own romantic interest and, at times, her own character.

Worse, the 2005 version chooses to focus on the reaction Elizabeth and her family have towards Mr. Darcy’s handling of Lydia’s elopement as the catalyst for their changing opinions of him when, in truth, it was Lizzie’s realization that she had misjudged Wickham that caused her to reevaluate all her other snap judgments in Austen’s book. Only when confronted with her own character flaw could she begin adjusting her understanding to take it into account. (In Lizzie’s own words, “Until that moment I never knew myself.”) Where the 2005 Lizzie is carried away by an emotion of gratitude the 1995 Lizzie can say that she has come to know and appreciate Darcy’s character better. One of these is engaging character growth the other is pure sentiment.

(That’s not a contrast, by the way. Engaging character growth creates sentiment, the reverse is only true at times – and those times are pretty rare. When sentiment from character growth and plain old sentiment compete, the former always wins out because it’s founded on something solid.)

Themes of Class Warfare 

This is one of modern Hollyweird’s favorite themes and at first glance it seems a natural fit. After all, there is a sort of class difference between Lizzy and Mr. Darcy, isn’t there? Well, sort of.

As Elizabeth tells Lady Catherine, “He is a gentleman, I am a gentleman’s daughter.” Or, in other words, the difference is one of degree rather than one of kind. Darcy’s own feelings of superiority to the Bennets come from his feeling that he is better behaved than they are when Lizzie serves to show that he is just as offputting in his own way. The problem is not that there is a difference in wealth but rather in how people react to one another, difference in wealth being just one aspect of that (embodied not by the main protagonists but by the relatively minor character Catherine de Bourgh.)

This isn’t to say that class conflict never occurs or that it has no place at the storyteller’s table. Neither is true. But it wasn’t the story Austen was trying to tell nor is it something that seems to have even been on her radar. Pride and Prejudice was a story of self discovery amidst social mores with romance as the result of the journey. Romance was not the cause of self discovery nor did the process cut across the standards of the time (much). This was in part because that was the time and in part because Austen was writing about the life she knew, a strong trait in an author. The introduction of class warfare as a theme creates values dissonance between Austen’s original work and the 2005 version that is sidestepped in the 1995 version by, again, hewing to the original story. Granted it’s not much, but both works were of good quality and so ever little shortcoming shows.

Treatment of the Bennet Family 

Let’s be honest – this is not a fully functional family in any version of the story. However Austen’s version and the 1995 version portray this largely as a result of the parents being less than ideal. While funny and intellectual, Mr. Bennet is also condescending and a little mean to his younger three daughters. He feels they lack sense but never seems to try and teach it to them, even though it is clearly his opinion (and that of most everyone else who knows her) that they will not learn sense from their mother.

And Mrs. Bennet… lacks sense. Sense of people, sense of propriety, sense of the moment, just about every kind of sense it’s possible for a person to have, Mrs. Bennet is without.

Never the less, the Bennets are a whole unit, supporting one another as best they can in all eventualities and forming a tightly knit family that stands in stark contrast to the nearly-solitary Mr. Darcy who, although born to excellent parents, now has no family to speak of save a much younger sister who he is in no position to confide in. It is in part the contrast between this family with its grudging solidarity and Mr. Darcy’s aloofness that leads to his own process of self discovery.

In praise of the 2005 version almost all of these family dynamics are left in place… except one. As Lizzie’s relationships with Wickham and Darcy become more twisted she lets the secrets pile up as well, rather than confiding in her sister Jane and thus giving herself an impartial mirror to view herself, in as well as cutting herself off from the support that so mystifies Mr. Darcy. In short, she behaves like a teenager of the modern day, once again creating values dissonance between the supportive Elizabeth, who fights for Jane’s happiness as well as her own, and the much more self absorbed character portrayed by Keira Knightly. On top of that, it runs counter to the original them of self discovery that permeates Austen’s original work, as Lizzie has fewer ways to see herself clearly since she has no one she can trust to give her an outside view of herself.

Now it’s not my intention to sit here and bash on the work of Deborah Moggach and Joe Wright in creating the 2005 film version of Pride and Prejudice. What they did was very impressive from beginning to end. The things I’ve pointed out aren’t the most important details of the story. But at the same time the difference between good and great, a strong impression and just vaguely memorable, is frequently in those details. Adapting a work, particularly a well known and popular work, only adds to the difficulty of getting all those details right because there’s an added layer of complexity, namely audiences already expecting certain things from your adaptation.

Where Edge of Tomorrow prospered was in completely reimagining the original premise, whereas the 2005 Pride and Prejudice (and so many other similar movies) stumbled when it tried to shoehorn in viewpoints that didn’t mesh with the story they originally set out to tell without that level of reimagining to make the new material work.

Adaptations: Kill/Edge

The subject of turning a book into a movie is one fraught with strong feelings. It happens a lot. Some of the most anticipated movies of the last year (and the year to come) are based on books. But it never fails that something gets left out, some character gets left on the cutting room floor, you name it. There’s a lot to the process of adapting a book and you can never make everyone happy. So it was with some surprise that I learned that the movie Edge of Tomorrow was based on a book.

And not just any book, a Japanese novel called All You Need is Kill. Naturally, I had to see it.

Of course, first I needed to read the book, which took some doing, then I took the time to track down both the graphic novel adaptations. One was a Japanese manga, one was a traditional American graphic novel. Both were extremely faithful to the book, the only real difference was the art style and how much got cut (it wasn’t a whole lot in either version.)

So when I sat down to watch the movie I was kind of weirded out because I knew that it was going to be wildly different. Did I like the movie? Yes, I did. It was a good movie that entertained and said something simply but forcefully about human nature, both good and bad.

This is not a review of the movie, so I’m not going to give you a full length breakdown of the plot or what I liked and didn’t but that’s what I thought in a nutshell. Now I’m going to talk about what I got out of the movie vs. book in terms of adapting fiction for the screen. And, since such things are totally unavoidable in this context be aware:

HERE THERE BE SPOILERS 

Let’s look at what changed and why I think it worked.

Okay, obviously a lot changed from book to movie and I do mean countless things, large and small. The appearance of the mimics, the alien menace of the story, was changed from what were basically big green blobs to something that would look more impressive on screen. Keiji Kiriya transformed from a Japanese person to an American and got renamed William Cage (although Keiji does get the nickname “Killer Cage” in the novel so this is not entirely a departure.) Rita Vrataski is now a Brit rather than an American. Things take place in Britain rather than Japan. The troops are on an offensive operation rather than a defensive one. The list goes on.

Mainly, though, I want to look at the big changes and they start off about as big as it gets.

Theme 

Kill is about determination against despair. When Kenji gets trapped in his time loop it wears him down and breaks his spirit until his humanity is dubious at best. Rita pulls him out of it by offering him companionship and a way out but, at the same time, she has to at least suspect that only one of them is getting out of the loop. In the end Kenji escapes but is still alone. His humanity is still very much in question.

But in Edge the theme is much more about courage overcoming fear. A fair argument can be made that Cage fighting with the certain knowledge of a do-over if he fails doesn’t count as real courage but that is exactly why his loosing the power to jump back in time before the final battle is so significant. We see that, even with no safety net, Cage has transformed from a man who flees from what needs to be done to a person who passionately pulls others along in their duties. As Sergeant Ferrell would say, he has been purified in the crucible of glorious combat. He has become more human, more willing to stand by others and sacrifice for them if need be.

More than anything, this thematic change is what lets the film adaptation get away with all the other changes being made. Determination and resolve are a big deal in the East but often Eastern philosophy puts an emphasis on pushing through until you find out what you’re working towards. On the other hand, courage is knowing what you’re working towards and putting aside personal fears in favor of what needs to be done. It’s more universal, easier for American audiences to understand and, perhaps most importantly, healthier for the audience.

Main Character 

Keiji is a raw recruit about to go into his first battle. He’s untested but honest and he knows what needs to be done and fully intends to do it. Over the course of the story he becomes jaded, to the point where he no longer cares whether the people around him live or die. They’ll just come back the next time around, after all. True, meeting Rita gives him renewed purpose for a time but we’re not sure what he’ll be after the close of the story, with Rita gone and the burden of winning the war with the mimics on his shoulders.

Cage, on the other hand, is an Army Major, a ROTC graduate and a man of business. He’s also determined to avoid the front lines if possible – in short, he’s a coward. He learns to fight much like Kenji does, by going through countless iterations of one battle, but to a certain extent it looks like going through the motions. He does change in some ways. Like Kenji he gets colder as he loops, at least for a while, but he also learns more about the people in his unit and what makes them tick. Courage begins then. Sure, it’s Rita who comes along and fans it into a fire but, by the end, Cage is fully on board.

The character of William Cage is where the adaptation really shines. All You Need is Kill tries to be a coming of age story but it leaves us unsure of what the newly minted man is going to look like. But Edge of Tomorrow clearly defines the character at all points along the way – who he was, how he changes and what that man is likely to look like in the future.

Presentation 

In the book much of the iterative nature of the story is told to us. We’re given the framework of the thirtyish hours Keiji lives repeatedly and then the differences are spelled out for us. This is the right call. Prose is one of the clunkiest ways to tell an action oriented story so cutting out as much detail as possible is where you have to start, not where you need to end up.

But Edge of Tomorrow is a movie and it exploits the fact that it can show us five seconds of action four times in only twenty seconds. These rapid replays of events, showing us how Cage is adapting to obstacles, aren’t in the book because they’d just be too clunky but they work for the movie. In them we see Cage doing the same things over and over again in rapid succession to show us how his thinking works, then later we see him working with Rita to set up ever more complex plans, then finally we seem him start referencing events we’ve never seen but we can now clearly tell he’s lived through before. It all culminates when Rita asks, “What do we do now?”

When Cage says, “I don’t know, we’ve never made it this far before!” We laugh because we’ve seen all the meticulous planning happen and we know what happens when Cage reaches the end of it – he goes from a prescient supersoldier to somebody a lot like us. And that means things are getting interesting.

What I like most about seeing a half a dozen slightly different iterations of the same scene is that we can see Cage’s character growth spelled out in his face. He goes from being caught up in his own affairs to aware of the army around him, then his unit particularly and finally his partner Rita in particular. And as he gets more and more used to the idea that he can die he becomes more and more disturbed every time she does…

Ending 

All You Need is Kill doesn’t have a happy ending. Edge of Tomorrow does. There, I said it. Are you happy?

Because I was.

Yes, I get that, unless the main character dies at the end of a book, technically the story isn’t over yet. That means there’s no permanent happy ending to be had because life naturally has ups and downs. But it’s okay to end your story on a moment of triumph. People do get those in life and it is okay to celebrate them.

Keiji never really gets a win in All You Need is Kill. It’s sad, really. He puts in the time and does the work but still comes out behind. Yeah, I know some people think that’s how the world works but if that’s all your story has to tell you then it’s not very useful.

So maybe Edge of Tomorrow is a little pat. Maybe Cage is getting off easy, walking out with the aliens defeated and a legit shot at the girl he’s come to know and love. But you can’t tell me he didn’t earn it. He passed through the crucible and cast off cowardice, he was sure he had no chance to get back and enjoy any of the fruits of his labors and he still chose to suffer and die in the hopes that others might live. And in the end only two other people on the planet would believe his story if he told it. So it’s not like he’s a big shot hero. Just a guy with some unpleasant memories and a shot at a slightly better life.

In the end, All You Need is Kill and Edge of Tomorrow are both about character growth. But the film adaptation took some major gambles in changing the theme and main character to make, not a story better suited to its target audience, but a better story on the whole. And I am of the opinion that they succeeded. Not because they made the protagonist American instead of Japanese, or made his name easier to pronounce, but because they made him a person more worth trying to be like.

In my book, that’s always an improvement.