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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Orhan Pamuk's The Red-Haired Woman is playful and unsettling

At times, the novel seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past.

When cultures collide or begin to merge, what happens to their myths? In Orhan Pamuk’s psychodramatic and psychogeographic tale of fathers and sons, the protagonist Cem mentally collects versions of the Oedipus story from across Europe – Ingres’s painting of Oedipus and the Sphinx hanging in the Louvre, Gustave Moreau’s work of the same name, painted 50 years later, Pasolini’s film adaptation, Oedipus Rex. But he also fixates on the epic poem “Shahnameh”, written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi; and in particular the story of Rostam and Sohrab, a reversal of the Oedipus story in which father kills son rather than vice versa. As Cem and his wife travel the world’s libraries to inspect copies, what they learn is “how ephemeral all those ancient lives had been”.

Nor is Cem immune to the act of readerly projection. “Like all educated Turks of my father’s generation,” Cem tells us, “what I really hoped to find on these trips wandering the shops, the cinemas, and the museums of the Western world was an idea, an object, a painting – anything at all – that might transform and illuminate my own life.”

Cem has more reason than many to seek clarification: his own father has been absent – whether for reasons of underground political activity or romantic complications is, for a long time, unclear – for most of his childhood; he and his mother become impoverished and, as he tells us at the very beginning of the novel, his dream of becoming a writer yields to a life as a building contractor. But these matter-of-fact bare bones are deceptive, for what unfolds is a far more fabular account of a life gone awry.

Even beyond his father’s departure, Cem’s life is shaped by his teenage apprenticeship to Master Mahmut, a well-digger of great renown. It removes him from his protective mother’s sphere of influence and immerses him in a world at once simple – long hours of physical labour – and highly skilled. As his and Master Mahmut’s quest for water on a patch of land slated for development runs into difficulties, so their relationship – boss and employee, craftsman and disciple, quasi father and son – becomes antagonistic, beset by undercurrents of rivalry and rebellion. Before too long (and avoiding spoilers) matters come to a head.

Throughout, their story gestures toward the fairytale, as underlined by Cem’s irresistible attraction to a travelling theatre troupe performing satirical sketches and classical scenes in the town near their excavation, and to the red-haired woman of the title. But Pamuk, in the style that characterises much of his work, fuses this material with political and social commentary. Over the three or four decades covered by the narrative, which takes place from the mid-1980s to the present day, the landscape of Istanbul and its surrounding areas literally changes shape. Residential and commercial developments spring up everywhere, many of them courtesy of Cem and his wife Aye, who have named their business after Shahnameh’s murdered son, Sohrab. Water shortages belie the sophisticated nature of these new suburbs, which eventually begin to form an amorphous mass.

Cem is preoccupied by the differences between Turkey and Iran, the latter seeming to him more alive to its cultural past. Turks, he decides, “had become so Westernised that we’d forgotten our old poets and myths”. While in Tehran, he sees numerous depictions of Rostam and Sohrab, and finds himself stirred:

I felt frustrated and uneasy, as if a fearful memory I refused to acknowledge consciously might suddenly well up and make me miserable. The image was like some wicked thought that keeps intruding on your mind no matter how much you yearn to be rid of it.

The extent to which individuals and societies suffer by not keeping their mythic past in mind is Pamuk’s subject, but it becomes more ambiguous when different stories are brought into play. What is the significance of a son who kills his father in innocence rather than a father who kills his son? Which is the more transgressive and ultimately damaging act and should both killers be regarded as guiltless because they knew not what they did?

But, as its title is perhaps designed to suggest, these accounts of fathers and sons omit a key element of the family drama: if paternity becomes a focus to the exclusion of all else, maternal energy must find an alternative outlet. As this strange, shifting novel edges to its conclusion – becoming, in its final act, a noir thriller – that energy makes a dramatic return, changing not only the story but the entire narrative paradigm.

The Red-Haired Woman is a puzzling novel; its intentions are often concealed, and oblique. At times, it seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past; it moves forward by indirection, swapping modes and registers at will. Playful and unsettling, it reprises some of Pamuk’s favourite themes – the clash between the past and the erasures of modernity, so charged in a Turkish context, and the effect on the individual’s psyche – without quite reaching the expansive heights of some of his previous novels. It is, nonetheless, an intriguing addition to his body of work. 

The Red-Haired Woman
Orhan Pamuk. Translated by Ekin Oklap
Faber & Faber, 253pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem