After suffering through Kenneth Branagh’s version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein with my good friend Mike Thompson, he passed along some words of wisdom from his father, "Good books generally make bad movies and vice versa." Why the sweeping generality? One might as well question why good books are entertaining. This usually comes not just from the general plotline but, moreover, from the writing, the characterization, and the details of the story. Personally, most of my favorite lines and moments might be considered "throw away" if the story they were in were brought to the screen. They don’t move the plot along and they don’t necessarily paint the characters with broad brushstrokes, the kind that are necessary to tell a story in two hours or less. To give an example of this, my mind immediately turns to a book that I loved in High School, Stephen King’s The Stand and a line that comes to mind about Nadine Cross, "You would find yourself wondering what she would look like with that hair unpinned, freed, spread over a pillow in a spill of moonlight." We never see her hair spread out, and it doesn’t necessarily tell us about the color or quality of her hair. But it adds to her and the richness of the story all the same. This is exactly the kind of line that had no place in the adaptation of King’s work from hefty tome to TV mini-series. One never became as familiar with the characters as one does in the book. Certainly, no casting director will ever find actors who resemble the people our minds create when we read books, but Laura San Giacomo’s cornball wig did not inspire me to think of her hair spread out anywhere.
So what about the converse? Bad books most often miss the mark. Some read like outlines that have never been properly nurtured and developed. Some peter out before the conclusion, making wrong or unnecessary twists and turns. Filmmakers can then take these seeds and harvest them into something better. Thus, the movie version of Ann Rice’s Interview with the Vampire was bereft of its obsequious schoolgirl prose and static tortured characters and given a good kick square in the pants. Often times, poorly written/conceived books are the blueprints for masterful motion pictures.
To be fair, this principal isn’t foolprooffew hypotheses among the arts are. Terrible books often produce unwatchable films just as magnificent novels can transcend to the medium of film. For an example of an exception to this "rule" where a good story was made into a good movie without the sacrifice of the prose we look again to the work of Stephen King. With The Shawshank Redemption Frank Darabont had respect not only for the story but that way it was written, managing to inject sections of the novella into the voice over and, thus, getting the best of both worlds.
Unfortunately, in the case of Carl Sagan’s Contact (ISBN: 0671004107), this was a clear-cut case of a wonderful novel being hacked to pieces and misrepresented on screen. Not only have nuances of characters been stripped away but also the plot and theme of the book have been maligned.
Oh, certainly, the basest elements of the plot remain. In both novel and film the protagonist is Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster), a scientist working at the Argus Research Facility in New Mexico where a message being beamed from the star Vega is first discovered. The message is a complex electronic palimpsest comprised of prime numbers, a television signal beamed back to Earth, and schematics for a machine. After much debate, the Machine is built, a crew is selected, and a journey undertaken where Ellie encounters an alien who manifests itself if the form of her long-dead, beloved father. She returns to Earth at exactly the same moment of her departure, causing folks to doubt her terrific tale.
In his 1985 novel, Sagan attempts to predict innovations and political climate over fifteen years. He’s often off the markbeing written two years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Soviet Union is portrayed as a major political and economic force. Meanwhile, Robert Zemeckis firmly sets Contact in 1997. More than giving the film a heightened sense of reality in its use of celebrity newscasters, it is my opinion that it was done for no other reason than to appease Zemeckis’ thirst to implement archive footage as he did with Forrest Gump.
The book deals more with Ellie’s familial conflicts (her mother being alive and remarried), world politics, sexism, interpersonal relationships, and scientific practicalities (Sagan puts equal emphasis on both the science and the fiction). Meanwhile, the Robert Zemeckis film eliminates numerous characters (her mentor, colleagues, lover, mother and stepfather) and changes those that remain. Ellie is surrounded by a rag-tag group of wacky Hawaiian-shirted, blind, or just plain geeky scientists, reminiscent of the gaggle of goofballs in Twister. She’s pitted against her former professor, David Drumlin (Tom Skeritt), who considered the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence project tantamount to career suicide until the Message arrives and he takes over the project.
In the Sagan’s novel, the religious zealot, Palmer Joss, is a former carnival roustabout with a tattoo of the Earth on his torso who, after being struck by lightning, had a vision of the afterlife and awoke reborn as an ardent Christian. To continue with the Stephen King motif, Joss reminded me of Greg Stillson of The Dead Zone, a travelling lightning rod salesman turned politician. Joss made his way into a scant number of chapters, a far cry from the ever-present Joss of the film.
Matthew McConaughey’s Joss is portrayed as a dashing young missionary-nobly documenting the influence of technology on the Third World-who meets Ellie very early in the film at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico (a position that lasted all of six pages in the book but nearly the entire first act of the film). The two seem to hit it off, hopping in the sack before a week is out.
After a one (or more) night stand, Ellie finds herself turned off by Joss’ blind faith, doubting his epiphany. Her malaise about Joss’ unfaltering beliefs may originate in the resentment she feels about the death of her father (David Morse) and the assurances she received that his passing was "God’s will." We witness this moment in one of the many flashback scenes that pepper the film that are reminiscent of another Foster flick, Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs.
Foster’s character of Ellie Arroway is similar to Clarice Starling in her search for a replacement father figure and by being at odds with her sexist surroundings. However, Contact is a much more frustrating film, as Ellie seems either unable or unwilling to stand up for herself. In a rare moment of empowerment, Ellie tells Joss to leave his number and she'll call him to set up another date when time permits.
Four months later we find Ellie relocated to New Mexico, scanning the sky with a large array of radio telescopes. Across the country Joss is serving as the President’s spiritual adviser and hawking his book on "Larry King Live." Other than moving around some radio telescopes with her PowerBook™, the film keeps Ellie’s role in the entire scientific process of finding, decoding, and implementing the Message and Machine ambiguous. Whatever her part may be, Ellie vies for a spot in the alien spacecraft.
In the novel, the Machine has room for five passengers and the scientific community is, more or less, given authority to determine the occupants from among their ranks. In order to condense the scope of the story and to add "drama," the film features televised hearings to determine the merit of the candidates to make the maiden voyage. It is here where Ellie is publicly humiliated for her dubious views of God. Ellie is forced to prove herself and stand by her healthy skepticism of Christian dogma. However, as with each encounter with Joss, he is given the last word and she is left slack-jawed.
She’s informed that ninety-five percent of the world’s population believes in one Supreme Being or another. Hey, Ellie, fifty million Elvis fans can’t be wrong! Her agnosticism prevents her from putting the World’s "most cherished beliefs" first. It’s Joss, no less, that brings the relevance of her faith to the forefront of the inquiry, thus assassinating her opportunity of career advancement and denying her a lifelong dream of encountering another life form. Of course, Joss is doing all of this because he loves Ellie and doesn’t want to lose her. Aw, isn’t that sweet? Does love mean never having to say you’re sorry for fucking a silly girl scientist over?
But the real reason Joss wants his gal to stay at home? Despite his talk of love it all boils down to Faith. "I just couldn’t, in good confidence, vote for someone who doesn’t believe in God and who thinks the other ninety-five percent of us are suffering from some kind of mass delusion," Joss tells her. Ironically, it’s a religious nut, Joseph (Jake Busey) who sabotages the Machine, killing Drumlin and countless others. It appears that Ellie is being taught a lesson in moderation of Faith as both agnostics and frenzied devotees are undesirable. The issue of Faith is not lost in the pages of Contact but it does not play the prominent role it has in the film where it is the crux of the story, demonstrated by Joss and Ellie’s relationship.
For such an allegedly brilliant scientist, it is apparently necessary that Ellie be schooled in not only the ideals of Belief but about the "proper" roles of women in society. Perhaps the audience is to think that this social retardation is due to her lack of a mother. Ellie is so unfamiliar with the expectations of femininity (Foster looks as tomboyish as she did in early roles like Freaky Friday) that she turns to the only other female character in the film, Rachel Constantine (Angela Bassettin a role not present in the novel) to inquire about dressing properly for a Presidential ball.
Ellie Arroway is constantly at the mercy of the powerful men around her: her father, Joss, National Security Adviser Michael Kitz (James Woods), President Clinton (a woman occupied the White House in the book), and her eccentric sponsor, S. R. Hadden (John Hurt). She is only allowed what the men in Contact concede her. She is portrayed as the deific Hadden’s lackey. After having given her the key to translate the alien document earlier in the film, Hadden gives her the chance to pilot a second Machine (secretly built in Japan) after the first was destroyed.
In an anticlimactic journey to the center of the Milky Way, Ellie confronts an alien in the form of her father, ("dear Father who art in the Heavens") demonstrating his long-standing power over her. They speak briefly before he sends her on her merry way.
While monumental conversation in Sagan’s novel lasts a mere ten pages, the script is even more condensed. There is little mention of the system of Einstein-Rosen bridges that provide expedient interstellar travel or their creators. The idea of an interplanetary collective working to improve and study the universe is glossed over. Most importantly, Ellie is not bestowed with the one piece of information that might serve as empirical evidence of a larger order to the Universe and provide hope for the human race. The alien/father discloses that deep within the recesses of pi that order has been discovered, implying that within the fabric of the Universe that a message exists. Sagan likens it to the artist’s signature. Why omit this crucial detail when it lends itself so well to the film’s theme of Faith?
It’s apparent that screenwriters James V. Hart (who’s adapted classics such as the aforementioned Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the equally awful Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Hook [an "update" of James Matthew Barrie’s Peter Pan], and also blessed the world with the script for Gimme an ‘F’) and Michael Goldenberg attempted to make the script palatable to a wide range of audiences. In other words, they dumbed it down. More than that, they felt compelled to alter details that weren’t even fundamental to the story such as making Ellie a graduate of MIT instead of Harvard.
Hart and Goldenberg have Ellie returning to Earth where it appears to everyone else that she never left. Ellie’s tale of visiting another part of the center of the galaxy is regarded as a far-fetched product of her imagination. Making her the lone voyager serves to rob her of any shred of credibility and pits her against the rest of the world.
In Sagan’s novel, Ellie and her compatriots are extensively "debriefed"their stories privately debunked. Yet, there is an undercurrent that the truth will eventually come to light and that their tales will be verified, especially when the message within pi is uncovered.
Thus, the Ellie of the film has been given her once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to visit the stars. More than that, though, the film is providing another circumstance for her to be put on trial for her beliefs, to have aspersions cast on her sanity (Freudian Hysteria?) and be publicly derided. As if she is being punished for her heretical stance on the existence of a Higher Power, it is suggested that Ellie’s outer space experience is a self-enforced delusion. At the trial she is completely alone and in a state of epistemological panic.
Shown the error of her lack of Faith, she can now be redeemed. Joss can now love her without hesitation. In fact, his words to reporters after Ellie’s McCarthyist trial serve to vindicate her, "Our goal is one in the same: the pursuit of truth. I believe her." With that, they drive off into the sunset.
The film boasts two denouements that serve to prolong the interminable running time of the film as well as further undermine Ellie’s self-worth. In the first it’s revealed that the government withheld evidence of Ellie’s journey (proof that I hoped to appear at Ellie’s trial) and in the second she is asked directly about the existence of life on other worlds. She skirts the issue, despite her knowledge and informs the child who questioned her to "keep searching for your own answers." The once confident Ellie Arroway’s expression of self doubt is a triumphal momentshe’s been broken. Her scientific mumbo jumbo is no longer threat to the patriarchal True Believers of the world.