BOOK REVIEW: “Serenity - The Official Visual Companion” by Joss Whedon (2005)

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Once upon a time there was a show called “Firefly” which was too brilliant and beautiful to live, and so it died. Like many genre shows before it and since, it was banished to the Fox Friday Night Death Slot to quietly starve for want of sustenance. Even then, it didn’t die fast enough for its master’s liking, so they put a bullet in its head and never even bothered to air the last three episodes. Two years later, the show rose from the dead, transformed in to a big screen movie; the first - it was hoped - of many. Alas, the beautiful caterpillar had transformed in to a somewhat drab moth. Despite an inventive promotional campaign, the movie was a bit of a bomb, and any future treks of the Serenity and her crew grow increasingly unlikely by the day. My thoughts on the movie are available here , but rest assured I come merely to bury Caesar, not to demean him. Don’t be offended, just read on: I have good things to say!

Shortly after the movie came out, a flurry of Firefly/Serenity tie-in stuff started hitting the shelves, some of it super-cool and shiny, some of it not so much. “Serenity, The Official Visual Companion, With an Introduction and the Motion Picutre Screenplay By Joss Whedon” is one of these, and despite the cumbersome title (What is it about script books that causes them to have unwieldy thirty-word names?), it’s a pretty good book with a lot to recommend it. It’s paperback, coffee table sized, and fairly hefty at 158 pages, and well worth the time it takes to peruse it. In fact I like it better than I like the movie.

We’ve got an introduction from Joss himself, followed by a lengthy and pretty interesting interview with him in which he details the twisty, frustrating road from dead TV show to Movie. We’ve got a “Breif history of the ‘Verse, circa 2507 AD” in which he details some of the never-mentioned backstory that leads up to the first episode of the TV show, which is fascinating reading if a bit thin on specifics in the first half. We’ve got a number of preproduction memos about technical aspects of the film, like camera usage, lighting, and music. The musical memo is extensive and particularly interesting to read, and answers a lot of questions I had about the film’s score, though it doesn’t manage to overcome my wish that Greg Edmonson had scored it, rather than David Newman. Edmonson’s score for the series was brilliant and complex and layered. Newman’s score was just kinda’ ‘meh’ by comparison.

We’ve also got scads, scads, scads of storyboard art, behind-the-scene shots, preproduction art, character sketches - including a mini-gallery of Inara (The drawing on page 111 kind of makes my mouth go dry. Hubba Hubba!) - and detail of some of the props, detailed images of the ships,.

And then there’s the script.

The script is, quite frankly, better than the movie. Yeah, yeah, I know I’ve sandbagged on the movie a lot. It was a mild disappointment for me. Better in every way than Star Trek: The Motion Picture it’s true, but it’s also true that TMP is a pretty low bar to aim at surpassing. There are flaws in the film, none in any particular scene, none in the dialog, nothing that you can point your finger at and say “There’s where they blow it,” but somehow, in some way, it just doesn’t hold together for me, or for a number of people I know that’ve seen it. And if I’m honest, I think we need to blame that on the director. Letting Whedon - who’d never helmed a movie before - direct this was a mistake. A more accomplished director could have made it dance and sing, but as it is, the movie never quite hits it’s stride.

Whatever shortcomings Whedon might have as a director, however, his talents as a screenwriter are unsurpassed. Things that don’t quite work on the screen click and jump out at you from the scrip. Scenes that barely simmer onscreen boil over on the page. It is a really, really, really good script and I have to say to my shame that I never quite realized that from the movie. It wasn’t until I actually read it that I got how brilliant this movie could have been, how close it came, and how just the tiniest ineffable variation can turn a thing of beauty in to a thing of ‘meh.’

The scrip is quite close to what we saw on screen, but its spirit is more full here. There are a few lines here and there that are missing from its cinematic offspring, nothing major. There’s a couple deleted scenes, most of which are available on the various DVD versions of the movie, complete with commentary from Joss explaining why they were cut. His reasons are valid, but you know what? I think he was wrong. There’s a clear drive here, and in the movie, to chop out as much transitional material and connective tissue as possible, leaving only the muscle. This is most evident in the admittedly brilliant opening sequence of the film. In some other places, however, he cut too deeply and second-guessed himself too much. The scene where The Operative figures out who Mal is doesn’t detract, and it adds a bit to our understanding of what’s going on. The ‘Fake Grenade’ scene got cut because Joss said it made the purple bellies look like idiots and detracted from their menace. I would argue that it doesn’t, that it simply shows how tenacious and resourceful Mal is, and it’s absence throws their escape scene somewhat off balance. There’s no particular reason they had to digitally edit Inara’s bow and arrow in to a gun, that’s just silly. Of course she’s going to use an ancient and elegant weapon…duh. It plays out better in the script.

Another advantage of the script over the movie is that we can re-visualize things in our own minds’ eyes, rather than rely on what we were shown. The Kaylee in the script is the ever-so-slightly-chubby and adorable version, not the slimmed down supermodel version in the movie. Mal’s darkness is jauntier on the page, more heavyhanded on the screen. Little mention of clothing is given, so we naturally imagine them wearing their cowboy duds from the show, not the weird plastic fantastic clothing from the movie. (What? Did the all stop shopping at Walmart and start going to a new store in the six subjective months between the last episode and the film?) The fight scene between The Operative and Mal is exciting and frightening, whereas the onscreen version is a wrestlemania fest that goes on too long. There’s even some intriguing mentions here and there that didn’t make the film, like Wash mentioning there’s 100 Reaver ships and more every year. Are the Reavers’ numbers increasing? How is that possible? Even the Shepherd’s near-total absence plays out better here than elsewhere.

But beyond all this, there’s just a structure, balance, and pacing to the script that the film is mostly missing. Everything fits, all the cogs mesh, nothing is extraneous, nothing is wasted. In the film version…well, you know how I feel.

So the bottom line here is that Whedon is a brilliant screenwriter who perhaps too close to his own material and second guessed it a bit too much. Beginners mistake. If he ever helms another movie, I’m sure he’ll do better. I would strongly recommend this book for anyone who’s a serious fan of the franchise, and I’d merely recommend it (But not strongly) to anyone who likes SF.

Neither here nor there, but it’s rumored that there were like twelve drafts of the script before they arrived at the finished one, including one that Joss mentioned was him trying to cram several years of show in to two hours of script. I know we’ll never get to see these, of course, but I really want to. I really, really would like to see the evolution the story went though before it arrived at this point, because on paper, it’s an unquestioned thing of beauty, and I’d love to know the process that led to it.