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The Windup Girl: Science Fiction's Next Hit Film?
One of my top reads of the year:
If there’s one thing that the last few years has shown, the time for science fiction film is now. –Excepting an uncharacteristic lack of ‘science fiction’-branded films in 2006, movie tracking sites such as the-numbers.com show that over the last decade, the profitability and market growth of science fiction has shown a trending rise in popularity. With the rumored live action adaptations of science fiction classics such as Neuromancer, Akira, Foundation, and Ender’s Game – on top of the countless re-envisionings, reboots, and sequels – it is also clear that Hollywood has fully tapped into the potential of the genre and backed it full force. Despite any grief one may have with Hollywood or claims of its cultural contamination through hegemonic force, those New World gNomes unarguably have their mind on the money at all times and if they’ve given so many fine (and not so fine) science fiction works the green light, it’s got to be go time.
Enter The Windup Girl – very new, but still successful, this quasi-first novel has all of the elements to make a mainstream science-fiction masterpiece. It’s got action, sex, conspiracy, politics, exotic locales FULL of potential for beautiful visuals and loads and loads of near/alter-future societal relevance. Tap into the environmentals, the human rightists, the pseudo-scientists, the Asian fanboys (not to mention fanboy Asians), mix, top with Tony Jaa – and you’ve got a very promising film concept that you could convince backers to, well, back. Get that funding, slip in just enough creative style past your executive producers, and you might even be able to do Bacigalupi’s novel justice.
In addition to the rising popularity of science fiction of all shapes and sizes in the world cinema – there’s the rise in world cinema itself, especially through online streaming services like Netflix. Scandinavian film has absolutely exploded, with films like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, its followup films, Let The Right One In, and Troll Hunter. Most of these were picked up and remade by Hollywood within a few years of their release. The Asian-to-American market is flooded with Korean films from companies like Tartan, specializing in science fiction and crime/revenge drama films, with directors like Chan-Wook Park and Takashi Miike leading the way. Even action-based Thai films have more recently dominated the martial arts market. Muay-thai legend-to-be Tony Jaa and director Prachya Pinkaew have lead several films to success in not only Asia, but the Americas as well. Ong Bak: The Thai Warrior and its sequels, Tom Yum Goong (released as The Protector in the States), and Chocolate have all shown considerable success.
Film is a strongly visual medium. With The Windup Girl’s exotic urban setting, we’re naturally set up to play off of that. Bangkok is an incredibly busy city, full of sights, sounds, and the press of people – throw in the majestic megodonts and their mahout drivers and you’ve got the blend of near-natural and fantastic that draws people in droves to films like Harry Potter.
Though the story of The Windup Girl is a strongly anti-globalization, isolationist one – embracing the globalization of media would be the key to making the mark with this film. Shooting on location in Bangkok, as much as possible, would provide that natural tie to the near-future setting of the novel. Using a blend of local talent, crews, and services with an American (or at least a Hollywood-minded) producer would not only allow for a bigger budget, more mainstream feel to the film while still capitalizing on a more natural foreign locale – but it would also provide a built in counterpart to one of the main themes of the novel – the invasion of the capitalist ‘evil’ into the Thai system. No matter the type of press on this, as soon as critics identify this ‘ironic’ postmodern comparison of reality with the novel, it would do nothing but generate word of mouth and internet conspiracy trollisms which – in the end – only help to promote the film. It’s guaranteed that this would be picked up on, so the choice of producer would have to be carefully measured to be one that could work closely with the Thai film system and the juxtaposed film/novel relationship would have to be allowed to naturally develop and not be forced.
Book-to-Film: Too Much or Too Little?
Filming in urban Bangkok would not be the only strong visual aspect – a Metropolis-style factory, run with genengineered pachyderms and flywheels provides no end of amazing visuals, as well as gigantic formations of muay thai practicing white-shirts, or columns of them – a block long – marching through the streets. Air ships and zeppelins have always been a popular visual, especially now with the countercultural explosion of steampunk. While the visual factor of Emiko’s ‘punishment’ scenes would have to be downplayed – the success of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has shown us that the American audience is at least somewhat prepared for the suggestion of sexual violence to women, especially when it’s used as a motivator for that woman to rise up and seek vengeance, or at least score a strike.
This factor of the female struggle, in this case created to be servile but fighting against it constantly, is another key to success of the film – not only in popularity, but in critical reflection, as well. I think that Emiko’s struggle would translate to film particularly well and that, most certainly, she would be the driving force in the film, even more so than the book. While it would be a challenging role to cast, the selection of an actress that could exhibit both the profound weaknesses and strengths of Emiko, one who could add that hint of unnatural without seeming robotic, could make this film. A source of inspiration for this could in one way be Delphine Chanéac in Splice, an intrinsically alien creature that somehow still manages to score considerable appeal, even though it’s much more of a primal nature.
In the theme of reality’s reflection of themes touched in the novel, an answer to Feminist film theory could be anchored upon, much in the same way that the topic of ‘capitalist invaders’ is. With the natural inclination to assume Hollywood’s ‘male gaze’, the film could carefully start out with the depiction of Emiko’s strength being strongly underplayed, and the suggestion the she’s merely a means to provide pleasure, both in the film and in the narrative being introduced, but strongly corrected early in the film. The story of an underdog, especially one struggling with such a decidedly non-P.C. opponent as gender bias in Asian culture, is a powerful one – look at Memoirs of a Geisha, for example.
Struggling to find meaning in a manufactured world?
In fact, all of the characters in The Windup Girl would translate to film very well. While all interesting, they’re in many ways archetypal and would easily allow any audience to understand their role and provide an easy connection to the science fiction setting, despite its initial strangeness, which is a consideration that sometimes needs to be taken when considering the general public. The wonderful thing is that the main characters provide a little something for every movie viewer’s tastes: Anderson (hopefully not a Keanu) for the romantic yet mysterious love interest, Hock Seng to provide that tie to the devious criminal society/function, Jaidee as our tragic action hero (Tony Jaa, as mentioned before, is a natural – as an actual Thai martial artist), and Kanya as our powerful near-paragon of violence, just in case Emiko seems too EMO-ko for those who desire a strong female role. Even Gibbons, used as sparingly as he is in the novel, would be a very strong translation to visual medium given the right actor.
Despite a strong play to the visual action and militaristic-style scenes in the later parts of the novel, this film would very much not just be ‘eye candy’ – even though that’s one of the main aspects you have to play to when pitching a film. I can very easily see this project being turned into quality science fiction, especially since it doesn’t have the cult fanboy-following like the Star Wars and Star Trek series. This novel, in every way, has a piece of everything for almost any type of film viewer and relevance on top of that. Bioengineering, stem cell research, genetically modified foods are all hot topics of today. The complete mapping of the human genome was news not too long ago and today, it’s quickly getting to the point that the common man (with enough credit) could get his own personal DNA map. We’ve harvested pre-historic DNA from mosquitoes preserved in amber, cloned sheep and reached the point where cloned humans, or especially designer humans – are very much on the table for discussion. These are all the makings for good science fiction, not just as an escape, but as a purposeful opening of communication.
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