The Hollywood toy story

Films based on children's toys are proving popular in Tinseltown, but are the commercial gains super

Earlier this week Warner Brothers announced that it is set to bring a film adaptation of Lego to the big screen in 2014. The Lego film will, excuse the pun, build on Hollywood's proven track record of making films based on children's toys. Michael Bay's Transformers trilogy has grossed a staggering $2.6 billion since the first film was released in 2007. While toy manufacturer Hasbro and Spyglass Entertainment studio will be hoping that next year's follow-up to the 2009 G.I. Joe film can match the $300 million box office takings of the first.

Though it would do both the film-makers and marketeers a disservice to assume that making money from films based on toys is child's play, Hollywood is certainly enthusiastically tapping a fruitful resource.

Next year will see the release of perhaps the strangest of these toy adaptations to date with Battleships. Liam Neeson may have "acquired a certain set of skills" throughout his acting career , but it is questionable quite how many of them he will need to draw on when he stars alongside Rihanna in John Berg's interpretation of a game many of us associate with long car journeys.

With a budget of $250 million dollars, headline writers may already be perfecting their variations on a box office sinking pun, but Hollywood's major studios seem to think they are onto a winner with the boardgames on the big screen formula. So much so in fact that a strategic partnership between Hasbro and Universal has put film versions of Risk, Candy land and Monopoly purportedly in the pipeline. Indeed the latter has even managed to get Ridley Scott on board as director.

Dorothy Parker is once thought to have said "the only 'ism' Hollywood believes in is plagiarism". It is certainly true that Hollywood has a voracious appetite for adapting certain genres to cinema and it is also true that over time the source of Hollywood's inspirations regularly changes. Books (Lord of the Rings, The Godfather), plays (Driving Ms Daisy, Romeo and Juliet), TV programmes (Star Trek, Naked Gun), comics (Batman, Superman, Spiderman), video-games (Tomb Raider, Resident Evil) even theme park rides (Pirates of the Caribbean) have all at one time or another been the stimulus du jour, and now it seems, it's children's toys and boardgames.

But isn't this latest development slightly different? Isn't Hollywood now fishing for ideas in such shallow waters, not because of their artistic merit, but because of their potential for commercial gains?

Professor Thomas Leitch, Director of Film Studies at the University of Delaware and author of Film Adaptation and its Discontents, believes this was always the case.

"I'd question the assumption that Hollywood used to be abrim with creative energy but has lately run dry, since it seems to me that Hollywood has always quite deliberately chosen to be in the business of manufacturing reliably reproducible mass entertainment, an enterprise in which originality is neither sought nor welcomed except insofar as original concepts can be readily replicated."

If Hollywood's methods haven't changed, what of its purpose? The overt messages in films like G.I Joe or Transformers seems more mass marketing than mass entertainment. What was once an ancillary function, even a necessary evil to fund a project - the merchandising - now seems to be the sole intention of some films.

This Leitch concedes to be true in some cases, but notes that it is not as recent a phenomenon as we might suspect.

"I think the pivotal figure here is Walt Disney and the crucial period the mid-1950s, when Disney was launching both his television program and Disneyland, the first of his theme parks. Each of these endeavours was clearly designed to promote the others, and to showcase both Disney's forthcoming projects and his impressive back list as well."

In 1995, another American professor, Janet Wasko, wrote:

"It is not inconceivable that in the future...manufacturers and joint promoters will demand more knowledge of the film and may even try to influence the production in order to maximise the benefits accruing to them."

Writing at a time when films sold commemorative toys and weren't based on them, Wasko's comments seem almost innocent now. Although avarice has probably always trumped art in mainstream cinema, it has never done so in a more apparent way than now, leaving the marketing tail well and truly wagging the Hollywood dog.

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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era