Every week in 2018, the plan is that my friend Rod is going to ask me some geeky question that will answer in a post. This week is Week #26, and this question is one that Rod has had out to me for a while but I haven’t known how to deal with:
How would you do a “gritty reboot” version of Peanuts, the famed comic strip by Charles Schultz, as if it were being created by Christopher Nolan?
I kind of assume I don’t need to explain Peanuts that much. It’s a daily newspaper comic strip that had an approximately 50 year run, from 1950 to 2000, with the last original strip ever being published on Sunday, February 13, 2000, one day after Schultz had died. The strip featured a series of children, headlined by perpetually hopeful loser Charlie Brown. But as it went along, more and more attention was given to Charlie Brown’s dog, Snoopy, who was full of imagination and creativity, and often more successful than any of the children at things like sport, love, and life in general.
Originally Rod had asked me to suggest a “Gritty Reboot” style adaptation of Peanuts, without mentioning Christopher Nolan. “Gritty Reboots” is a web channel that has made a few short films trailers which take beloved children’s properties and recast them with a harder edge. They have a really spooky version of Goodnight Moon and a great trailer for a grown-up Calvin & Hobbes which I would totally watch if it was an actual film.
Now, the problem with this suggestion is that I’d already seen something like this, I think done by Saturday Night Live, in which Peanuts was remade along the lines of Riverdale, which has taken the family friendly Archie comics and turned it into a story full of murder, drug use, and illicit sexual activity. So when I told Rod I didn’t want to dip into that well again, he added the “Christopher Nolan” angle to help me see what he was getting at.
Christopher Nolan, of course, is one of the most prominent filmmakers of the last 20 years. He’s only made 10 movies so far, and I’ve only seen 8.75 of them (having missed the first 40 minutes or so of Interstellar). He’s enjoyed massive amounts of success, with many of his films making it onto many people’s favorites list. Personally, my favorite of his have been Batman Begins and Dunkirk, and of course, The Dark Knight, almost by default.
So how do we reframe Peanuts as something like what Nolan would do? Indeed, what do Nolan’s films have in common with each other? Let’s have a gander at a few quotes on Nolan’s wikipedia page to consider what sort of things we should be thinking about:
Nolan’s visual style often emphasises urban settings, men in suits, muted colours, dialogue scenes framed in wide close-up with a shallow depth of field, and modern locations and architecture. Aesthetically, the director favours deep, evocative shadows, documentary-style lighting, natural settings, and real filming locations over studio work
OK, hmm, that’s all kind of interesting, but not sure how to apply that this write-up
He has continuously experimented with metafictive elements, temporal shifts, elliptical cutting, solipsistic perspectives, nonlinear storytelling, labyrinthine plots, and the merging of style and form.
Whoa…what? What’s a “solipsistic perspective”? Hmm, click on the link, and it seems to be about the idea that you can’t be confident that you know anything at all beyond your own thoughts. Ok…
Nolan’s work explores existential, ethical, and epistemological themes such as subjective experience, distortion of memory, human morality, the nature of time, causality, and construction of personal identity.
Err…ok, “existential” has to do with…existence? No, more that philosophical authenticity is found in the individual, apparently. Ethics is to do with right and wrong, that’s a bit easier. And epistemology seems to be to do with knowing things. So that’s in the same generally family as the “solipsistic perspective” mentioned above…
Drawing attention to the intrinsically manipulative nature of the medium, Nolan uses narrative and stylistic techniques (notably mise en abyme and recursions) to stimulate the viewer to ask themselves why his films are put together in such ways and why the films provoke particular responses
All right, sorry, this isn’t getting me anywhere, even though I’m supposedly a reasonably educated person who knows a thing or two about film, and likes Christopher Nolan. Chances are that since Rod used Nolan’s name next to the idea of a “Gritty Reboot”, he’s really just talking about the “grounded in reality vs. comic book fantasy” approach of his Batman movies.
In any case, I feel pretty ill-equipped to actually think about what a genuinely Nolanesque movie should look like. So instead, I’ll just imagine that it’s a movie being done by some hack who likes to think he’s Christopher Nolan…which all things considered, is a lot less of a stretch for me.
So…what’s our story going to be about?
(Now, personally, my daughter (who is a massive Peanuts fan) and I have a bit of a theory that Snoopy is really a Time Lord, but that doesn’t really fit the Christopher Nolan thing, so that’s not what we’re going to address here.)
I don’t have a full plot worked out, so we’ll just describe it broad strokes and see where it goes.
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Our story features a series of parallel plotlines:
• In the modern day, an author (Michael Caine), attempts to write his novel. His frustration grows as he rages against writer’s block. He even gets to the point where he throws his typewriter through a window. His difficulty has largely come because of his diminishing mental capacities. But he decides to leave the city and spend some weeks or months in a cabin in the forest, to see if he can find his creative spark again.
• In World War I, a fighter pilot (Cillian Murphy) takes to the air in his Sopwith Camel biplane. He confronts enemies in the sky, narrowly avoiding death even when he’s shot down. Escaping from behind enemy lines, he finds refuge in a French cafe, finding romance with a poor peasant girl, before resuming his trip back to safe territory.
• In the 1960’s, a disaffected college student named Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, playing very young) hangs around the Student Union, talking about what a drag his chemistry class is. He is experiences a large amount of late-teen angst, trying to figure out what his life is about and attempting to avoid just flowing with the status quo.
• In the 1990’s, an aging world famous hockey player (Christian Bale) fights on the rink and off to maintain his reputation. He deals with problems from his business manager and from his fans, while coping with the unbelievable pressure to perform for his own team. When he is forced into retirement, he attempts to find a sense of identity in continuing to trade on his celebrity to make a living.
In between these four disconnected narratives, we see our “main” characters. They are the “Peanuts”–a nickname given to the children of a particular neighborhood in an unnamed town which is overrun by gang activity. These kids seem to live without the care or attention of adults. They are dark and cynical for the most part, or semi-obsessed with different pursuits. But in the midst of this “grim ‘n’ gritty” world is one boy who manages to maintain a youthful optimism, even when life doesn’t give him much of a reason why he should keep on hoping. This is Charlie Brown.
He has a sister Sally who is selfish and manipulative, and two friends: the insecure intellectual Linus, and the musical prodigy Schroeder. But the individual that Charlie Brown is closest to in all the world is Snoopy, his dog. And Snoopy is missing.
Charlie Brown, Sally, Linus, Schroeder and some of the other neighborhood kids (Violet, Shermy, Frieda, etc) are scouring the neighborhood and eventually find him. Snoopy is injured, having been in some sort of fight…but seems weaker than the injuries would indicate. Nobody is sure what’s really wrong with him, but Charlie Brown is worried that his best friend in all the world is going to die.
Charlie Brown enlists the aid of Linus’ older sister, the cruel but connected Lucy, to find someone with the skills who can help his dog.
She leads a mission with Charlie Brown, Linus and Schroeder across town, into an unfamiliar neighborhood, to find someone who can help.
Along the way, Linus notices something strange–a small, odd bird seems to be following them. The bird seems to be traveling with but somewhat separate from a another flock of four birds who cavort merrily in the air. And occasionally when nobody is paying attention, the one bird descends and dances around Snoopy in particular. When Linus tries to share this with the others, he is mostly ignored.
But while going on ahead through a dark alley with just Charlie Brown, Lucy suddenly pulls away and abandons him, leaving Charlie Brown to be set upon and beaten up by some of the kids of this area. They are led by Peppermint Patty, as she is known, a tough girl who leads her gang with an iron fist.
But Peppermint Patty is a sucker for dogs, and seeing Snoopy’s dire condition, she takes them in. Her friend Marcie has some veterinary knowledge, but nobody can find anything wrong with the dog, except that he is wasting away, dying. Charlie Brown and Patty talk through the night, bonding over their love of dogs, baseball and other things.
The bird returns again. As Linus attempts to interact with it, he experiences a strange vision in which he sees that Snoopy came across this bird and four others when they were being attacked by a cat. Snoopy rescued them, but not before four of them were badly injured. Somehow, as they interacted with Snoopy, their injuries were healed, while Snoopy absorbed their damage, resulting in his present condition.
Linus is unable to explain any of this to anyone but he convinces the group that they must follow the bird, who is clearly trying to lead them somewhere. In the morning, the group set off, following the bird, which they name “Woodstock”.
As Woodstock continues to lead the group, they re-meet up with Lucy, who joins them again. Peppermint Patty and Charlie Brown continue to bond, and Patty even develops romantic feelings for the boy…but he is oblivious to her interest. He talks instead of his lady love, whose name he does not identify but who evidently has beautiful scarlet hair. Peppermint Patty swallows her disappointment.
• Around this point, in the other “disconnected” narratives that we have been seeing, something strange begins to happen. The college student goes to an exhibition game on his campus and ends up meeting with the hockey player (even though they supposedly live in different decades), and wind up discussing with each other their similar desires to escape from the expectations of society.
• And then the World War I fighter pilot takes refuge on his way back to friendly territory takes refuge in a house of an older man, who turns out to be the struggling author. They speak of their mutual desire to find a way to make sense out of a painful world.
The group’s journey takes them into the neighborhood of another gang, who threaten them. They manage to avoid an all-out open conflict by suggesting a competition, and Patty is able to convince these kids to fight the battle over baseball. She assumes that “Chuck”, as she calls him, is skilled in this game but is disappointed to learn that she’s wrong…he loves the idea of the game but is incompetent at it in practice.
At the same time, Patty learns that this “red-haired girl” is not somebody that Charlie Brown actually has anything to do with. She is simply one of the rich girls in his neighborhood, that he fantasizes about knowing and speaking to, reflecting his ultimate dream of being “accepted” by mainstream society.
Disgusted, she turns her back on him, leaving him to the mercy of this opposing gang, who grow violent when the game is abandoned. It’s only her love for dogs that make her change her mind at the last moment and help Charlie Brown and Linus escape with the still fading Snoopy. Lucy is injured in this fight and Schroeder remains behind to help her get back home again.
• And in our other storytelling framework, the Author and the Pilot end up driving to the local town in the Author’s car to get some supplies. They decide to sit in a city park for a bit before heading home, where they run into the Student and the Hockey Player. They continue their philosophical discussions about life and purpose.
Charlie Brown is finally able to see where Woodstock has been leading them, which is the abandoned remains of the Daisy Hill Puppy Farm, where Snoopy was first bought. Snoopy seems to rally his strength, and leads Charlie Brown and Linus on a walk through this building, where memories of the dog’s sad early life are played out before him–how first his mother, then his siblings, were all lost to him; how he was nearly adopted by a young girl who promised to love him, but then abandoned when she changed her mind; how he spent many years cold, dark and alone. Snoopy collapses to the ground, and appears to be dying.
• In our other storytelling framework, the four characters take a walk together, discussing whether life is worth living even though it is dark and bleak and sometimes hopeless. They are uncertain about their conclusion as they come across a building that they wander into: it is also the Daisy Hill Puppy Farm, even though it’s physical location is different to what we saw earlier. They enter, and see Snoopy, lying on the ground, dying, being cradled by the weeping boy Charlie Brown.
Charlie Brown speaks to Snoopy through his tears, telling him that he is his closest friend, and lamenting that he will never be able to make him supper again, or to complain about Snoopy’s strange habits. He says it was all worth it, even if he’ll be sad for the rest of his life, to have had those years together. As he pours out his heart, Linus sits vigil a couple of meters away, along with Woodstock. He looks up, and sees the four birds on a window sill nearby, looking at them.
• The four characters listen to Charlie Brown as he speaks, and are touched by his words. They move closer…
…the birds gently descend to Snoopy. Each one of them lands on him, and touch him in the face with their beaks. As they do, Snoopy seems to regain some of his strength, but the birds become weak again, even injured (as if by the cat), until Snoopy is completely recovered but all the birds but Woodstock are dead. None of the people are sure what has happened, but in a way it doesn’t matter, Snoopy is alive.
Charlie Brown, Linus and Snoopy return home, where they find Lucy and Schroeder are already there. All the kids in the neighborhood are overjoyed to see Snoopy, but for his part he just wants someone to serve him supper. After he does this, Charlie Brown goes inside, gets changed and then goes out to the baseball diamond. He stands on the pitcher’s mound, and imagines a game going on around him. Up at bat, he pictures Peppermint Patty there. She takes her stance. Charlie Brown winds up and pitches the ball…
Ugh. Some dreams, some parallel storytelling, some subjective reality, some grim ‘n’ gritty approach to stuff. But…akin to Christopher Nolan? Not really. Akin to a hack who wants to emulate Christopher Nolan but doesn’t really understand? Bullseye!