Reading the Screen: Timeline
Posted by: David Pitt
In Michael Crichton’s Timeline (1999), a trio of graduate students travel back in time to medieval France to bring back their professor, who’s stranded in the year 1357. It’s not Crichton’s best novel — he has to work uncharacteristically hard to sell the scientific premise of the story — but it’s exciting, well written, and, as usual, exhaustively researched.
The inevitable movie was released in 2003. Richard Donner was the director, and on paper he was a good choice. He’d done the history thing before, with Maverick and Ladyhawke, and he did it pretty well. The Lethal Weapon movies — well, the first two, anyway — demonstrated his knack for mixing character and action. And what can you say about Superman other than Donner really did make you believe a man could fly?
Well, the movie is appalling. There are too many things wrong with it to enumerate them all here, but let’s start with its hero. The book’s lead character is grad student Chris Hughes, an expert in medieval science and technology. The movie turns him into Chris Johnston, the professor’s son, whose knowledge of history, and interest in it, are approximately zero.
This could have been an acceptable and even clever deviation from the source material. Plunked down in medieval France, Chris could have asked lots of questions, trying to get his bearings in this unfamiliar place — he could have been the audience’s stand-in, a clever way for the filmmakers to get vital historical information to the audience.
But apparently nobody connected with the movie considered that this 21st century man, transported back to medieval France, might be overwhelmed by the shock and spectacle of it all. Chris just blunders around, a standard-issue action-movie character. Eliminating the book’s Chris Hughes, and replacing him with this bland and uninquisitive character, is a pointless alteration. The book’s lead character has been made irrelevant to the story.
I don’t want to sound like a movie critic here, but the primary cast is almost uniformly awful, and there’s no good reason for it. Crichton’s characters are carefully drawn, but the actors seem to have no idea who they’re supposed to be. Paul Walker plays Chris like an action hero, and Billy Connolly, as Chris’s father, plays most of his scenes as though he thinks the movie is a comedy. Frances O’Connor, who plays Kate, one of the grad students, frequently wears an open-mouthed, goggle-eyed expression that is wildly inappropriate for her character (who’s supposed to be an expert in architectural history, at least according to the book). When the source material is so rich in character, so precise with dialogue and motivation, this sort of sloppiness is unforgivable.
Of the primary cast only Gerard Butler, as Andre Marek, resembles the character Crichton wrote. He plays Marek, whose love of medieval history leads him to make a momentous decision, with the right amount of enthusiasm and wonderment, even if the script gives him almost nothing of consequence to do for most of the movie. Most of the character’s best scenes in the book are eliminated.
Key story elements are inexplicably omitted, too. Crichton’s characters wear little devices in their ears that translate 600-year-old languages into modern English; some of the book’s dialogue is a reasonable facsimile of an ancient language. The filmmakers had a wonderful opportunity to make the audience feel like they’ve stepped back in time, by having its historical characters, at least at the outset, speaking in an unfamiliar tongue (the way the Russian characters in The Hunt for Red October spoke actual Russian, before the camera zoomed in and Russian turned into English).
But the movie dumps that whole idea, and makes Middle English and 20th century English sound the same. That’s preposterous and unnecessary: Crichton’s entirely plausible plot devise is essential to the story, and it could easily have been included in the movie.
The book has a rousing jousting scene which pits Chris against one of the story’s key historical characters. But it doesn’t appear in the movie (neither does the key historical character, for that matter: he’s been cut entirely). I can’t think of any reason why somebody who’s making a movie set in medieval times would not include a jousting scene, but there you are: another inexplicable alteration.
Crichton immerses us in history; in the movie, the historical setting is treated almost as an afterthought. Virtually every scene that teaches the reader about the historical setting is eliminated, or replaced with familiar action-movie stuff. Crichton’s dialogue, in which his characters talk about this wondrous time and place they’re in, is replaced by…well, nothing. The movie’s characters barely seem to notice how amazing it is to be here.
I could go on, but I think I’ve grumped enough about the movie. Let me just add this: to veer this far away from the source material, the moviemakers had to make a series of considered, deliberate decisions: let’s cut this, let’s change this, let’s ignore this. It’s no accident the movie is a slick, superficial, disrespectful version of the novel. They did it on purpose.