I saw the trailer for Transformers on a big screen for the first time this weekend, at a showing of Pirates of the Caribbean, and the groaning/ giggling reaction of the pumped crowd seemed to agree with me that this looks like the biggest-dumbest-movie-that’s-gonna-be-a-whole-lotta-fun ever made. And a geeky friend who was with me started yakking about Optimus Prime and Megatron and other ridiculous-sounding names: these are apparently major characters in the Transformers universe. And suddenly I thought, What? There’s an actual story to the Transformers? I thought they were just toys and the cartoons just long advertisements for them…
And then I thought: Oh no. Are there Transformers nerds out there who are going to be upset if Michael Bay “ruins” their most favoritest cartoon ever? Like maybe the people who write Transformers fan fiction? (Yes, it exists.) Isn’t a fictional universe that includes something called “Super-God Masterforce” kinda already ruined?
I’m not sure that geeks will care overly much about whether Transformers adheres to some two-decades-old canon that only ever existed in the first place to separate our parents from their money. If there’s a spirit to the original Transformers that the film might hope to capture, it’s that one: the purely mercenary one. As long as the movie delivers what that noisy trailer seems to promise — giant robots beating the crap out of one another in a Michael Bay-a-riffic orgy of fake violence and indulgent slo-mo — I think we’ll all be happy to throw our ten bucks at it, maybe even more than once.
On the other hand, if The Simpsons Movie dares to give Smithers — or Comic Book Guy — a girlfriend, or defies canon by giving Homer a brain, tries to provoke us by suggesting that perhaps the citizens of Shelbyville or North Haverbrook aren’t the kitten-killing monsters we’ve always known them to be… Well, there could be rioting.
It’s hard to put a finger on exactly how much a movie should respect its source material, or whether a movie should cater more to diehard fans than ordinary moviegoers. There’s no general rule that I can see: some movies do extraordinarily well by both the most dedicated geeks and the casual fans when they deviate somewhat from the source material. Peter Jackson, for instance, in his Lord of the Rings films, made some major deviations from Tolkien work extraordinarily well, creating some narrative urgency necessary for film that isn’t necessary in the written word — and those changes were so vital to the storytelling success of the films that even someone like me, who practically has the films memorized, enthusiastically appreciates what Jackson did. Likewise with Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the one book that Harry devotees figured would have to be divided into two films, there was so much going on. But the story that showed up on film, though greatly truncated from the book, worked perfectly.
The unforgivable sin for movie adaptations? Losing the spirit of the source material. Jackson brought Tolkien’s spirit beautifully to film. The Harry Potter movies, for all their many ups and downs, have done the same. (I’m keeping my fingers crossed for the next one, but the trailer looks pretty darn in keeping with that magical spirit.) Sam Raimi failed with his new Spider-Man because the sweet spirit of the first two, of Peter Parker’s story across all media, got lost in the crazy quilt of villains and CGI and too-fast-to-follow battles.
I hate to admit this — me, the Michael Bay hater of long standing — but Transformers might actually be the first Michael Bay movie that I’ll actually, you know, like. There’s no pretense to these giant violent robots: they just fight, and morph, and represent nothing more than unrepentently brainless sensory overload. Who better than Michael Bay to capture that spirit, and not even have to pretend that there’s supposed to be anything more to it?