Back in July of last year I read and reviewed a book by the name of ‘Winter’s Tale’. This 1983 cult classic by the author Mark Helprin was one of, if not THE, most rewarding reading experiences of my life. Glistening with such profound insight, backstory and spiritual subtext, this science fiction novel of the supernatural kind was such a surprise for me. Sitting down and opening up to page one, I had no idea what this story was about. All I knew was that it had to do with true love, a flying horse and a villain that Russell Crowe was going to be playing in a movie sometime in the near future.
Yes, Crowe was my inspiration for seeking out the novel.
Now, I am not a stranger to the concept that film adaptations of complex novels are just never as good as the novel from which they stemmed, and so I was pretty much aware before I even sat down to watch ‘Winter’s Tale’ that it was going to pale in comparison. I even made mention of that inevitability when I reviewed the novel last year. I knew halfway through reading this book that there was just no way it could truly capture the grandeur, the majesty and the importance of this truly inspired and revolutionary tale. I braced myself for epic disappointment, and based on the barrage of truly vitriol reviews, I had a feeling my premonitions were going to prove all too ‘on the nose’.
This movie is NOT awful.
Now, I’m not saying that ‘Winter’s Tale’ is a masterpiece, or even a great film. It’s heavily flawed, and a lot of that has to stem from the fact that the source material is just too complicated for a mere two hour film. The time allotted to tell this movie is not enough to contain all of the wonders in the story, and quite frankly, some stories are almost tarnished when the visual capacity cannot match the mind’s eye. In other words; some of the passages contained in Helprin’s masterful novel are better left on the printed page.
For me though, the film’s primary failings stem from writer/director Akiva Goldsman feeling the need to spell everything out for us. Most of the beauty found in Helprin’s text comes from the ambiguity of a lot of his subtext; the subtle way he was able to layer so much of the story with such rich spiritual undertones without ever once outright addressing them. It was all cloaked in such mystery and personal observation/interpretation/application that it became a truly personal experience. When I put the novel down for the last time, I felt like a changed man. The film feels too intent on defining Helprin’s prose, creating a literal adaptation that betrays the stories true contents. I blame Goldsman’s inability to truly understand Helprin’s book. This was a passion project for him, and so obviously he loved this story (he pushed very hard to get this made, and even called upon the help from friends Crowe and Smith to put their names behind it in order to get financing), but at the end of the day his approach was too straightforward, too simple and thus the wrong approach to take.
Now, those who have not read the book are probably going to think that everything I said was complete rubbish, since the primary complaint from most filmgoers was that the film was hard to understand/made no sense, but if you read the novel you’ll see exactly where Goldsman is coming from, and you’ll understand why I say his approach is too simple.
Add to this the fact that casting Will Smith as Satan was one of the worst ideas I’ve ever heard of; ever.
But among all of my personal complaints, I didn’t hate this movie. The romantic aspects of the storyline (the entire first half, basically) is beautifully rendered, and while I took issue with the direction Goldsman took concerning the main plot points, I did like the way he used visuals to alter his viewpoint (particularly with regards to Pearly Soames). Speaking of visual effects, while they are slight (or at least they may seem so, since they are far from garish), they are mesmerizing. The way that that white horse floats over the city is just spellbinding. The performances are hit and miss, with Farrell failing to really delve into the weight of this character (again, I think time got the better of this film in many areas, especially the second half) and Smith fumbling a plum cameo performance pretty epically, but Crowe was effectively evil and Jessica Brown Findlay is quite the find.
At the end of the day, ‘Winter’s Tale’ is a very ambitious film that was adapted from a very ambitious novel that failed to deliver on its potential mostly because the film’s director was just not…ambitious.
I'll give this a C+. I really wanted this to be something special, and maybe if I hadn't read the novel I would have liked this more, and then again...maybe having read the novel helped me to appreciate it for trying, and so maybe that's why I don't hate this like so many others did. Oscar will ignore this one, but quite frankly, it should at least be considered for those stunning visuals.