Friday, 16 December 2016

"Westworld" (2016) - Adaptation - A review.

Fig 1. Westworld Poster

*spoiler warning - Mild spoilers, don't read any further if you want to watch Westworld unspoiled.

 (2016) produced for HBO by J.J. Abrams and created by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, based on the 1973 film on the same name, written by famed author Michael Crichton. Westworld centers on the titular theme park that enables its visitors free reign within a the safe confines that serve as a perfect recreation of the "Wild West". Part re-enactment, part simulation, part alternate reality, amongst the visitors are the 'hosts', robotic actors that serve to maintain the narrative of the park, and sell its authenticity. It's guests are encouraged to 'find themselves' within Westworld which, by and large, means treating the hosts however you so wish, often ending in graphic or sexual violence as the guests embrace their darker sides. Westworld is a hedonistic kingdom that's just 'asking for it', and as the Hosts begin to awaken to some form of sentience, the fall of the indulgent cavalcade of pleasures that is Westworld, is set in motion.

Keeping spoilers to as minimum as possible as the show is so recent, there is much to be said of TV shows being upscaled to films, but it is certainly a newer trend, bolstered by the likes of Netflix and Amazon Instant that sees films being remade and rethought as TV shows. To name a few, "From Dusk Till Dawn" (2014), "Limitless" (2015) etc. Adapting the shorter narratives of a film which, averagely hover over the 2 hour mark, into much longer form shows means having to change the formula around as there is more time to devote to character development, sub-plots and "Maybe that’s why it seems much easier to adapt other works for TV. Why start from scratch when you can adapt another property, with all of the heavy lifting done already and a fan base already built in?" (Harley & Longo, 2016)  In adapting Westworld from the original film, changes had to be made to adhere to this much longer form of narrative, and as such, things became much more 'fleshed out' as a result.

Fig 2. Gunslinger (1973)
When considering this further, in particular the expansion of the narrative, Kelly Konda writing for weminoredinfilm.com says "the original film’s premise is entirely predicated upon the surprise of the androids turning evil and the brief disconnect between how much the audiences knows vs. how comparatively little the two protagonists know. So, one would guess that a TV show version would have to be about more than just a simple futuristic amusement park run amok with murderous androids." (Konda, 2016) and indeed, they have expanded on this in interesting ways. Namely, by exploiting audience expectations based on tropes typified in the original Westworld (1973). Even for the most ignorant, Westworld is part of the cultural zeitgeist, and even the most unaware would be familiar with 'The Gunslinger' or at least the concept of Westworld as it was successfully lampooned in and episode of "The Simpsons" (1989) called "Itchy and Scratchy Land" (1994). The 'Gunslinger/Man in Black' may not have been considered a trope to begin with, but it does seem quite clear that Ed Harris's current take on the role is a clear throwback to Yul Brynner's terrifying take on the Gunslinger character, and as such, there are certain expectations in place, certain codas that make the audience feel a certain way towards a character. And when it is revealed over the course of the series, that his character is in fact human, it shows Nolan and Joy's ethos behind the adaptation clearly. Forget everything you think you know about Westworld

This is of course true for other characters in the show, Maeve (played by Thandie Newton) is a riff on Majel Barrett's "Miss Carrie" in the 1973, and there's even a cameo from Yul Brynner's Gunslinger in the background of a scene in a later episode of the show. Setting up the cursory idea that perhaps Westworld (2016) isn't an adaptation at all? But perhaps a sequel to the 1973 original, though this has been denied by showrunners as just being a nod of respect to the original.

Fig 3. Miss Carrie & Thandie Newton (Maeve)

In many ways, the TV show plays exactly like its filmic forbear, albeit at a much slower pace, allowing for increased depth in both character complexity and audience participation in the meta-investigation that occurred during the first seasons lifetime. Though there are many more instances where expectations are subverted in absolutely captivating fashion. And it is within this that the crux of the series is really found. Everything else is an addition, the fractured timelines, seemingly disparate characters and the much more developed narrative of the Hosts and their creator, Robert Ford (played here by Anthony Hopkins) developing sentience and their difficult struggle against the - oft depicted as more machine than man - guests/park officials. They are very much inspired by video game culture and tropes as much as tropes of the Western. It's creators likening the hosts to NPC's (being stuck in endless loops), and praising Crichton for the forward thinking narrative of the original when considering the cyclical nature of video games. "In the show, day after day, Westworld’s hosts wander in preordained narrative “loops,” which the park’s guests are free to unsettle, join, or terminate at their leisure. Joy told me that the moment they began pondering what a revamped “Westworld” could do, “I just couldn’t get it out of my head. It seemed to be at the nexus of a bunch of ideas that we were interested in.” Nolan agreed: “We got stuck in a loop—our own loop—" (Bissel, 2016) And of course, these are all additions to the original narrative of the 1973 original, servicing to bolster the contemporary nature of the show to make it relevant to modern society and worries over future technology.

Fig 4. 3D Printed 'Man'
It is interesting to consider the idea of adaptation when considering the way in which Westworld was made, it's very artiface coming from previous shows and films utilising the same barebones set over again. "Much of “Westworld” is filmed in the dusty confines of Melody Ranch, which was established in 1915, making it one of the oldest studios in the world. It provided the backdrop for numerous episodes of “Gunsmoke,” “The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin,” and “The Lone Ranger.” For many years, Gene Autry owned the venue, which was burned to the ground by a wildfire in 1962. In recent years, Quentin Tarantino shot portions of “Django Unchained” in the town saloon, and the set’s rows of bespoke little buildings were transformed into the eponymous town of a show now doomed to be regarded by many as HBO’s second-greatest western." (Bissel, 2016) Which fits narratively, as Westworld itself is a patchwork amalgam of the entire archetype of the 'Western', so in a way, Westworld is not only an adaptation of its own material, but it also cannibalises much of the legacy of other famous Westerns in order to build on its own narrative. In a sense it is "a town calculatedly built to look like it had been calculatedly built" (Bissel, 2016) which certainly adds to a degree of self awareness, echoing the point of the narrative. If the idea of artificiality is so interwoven into the premise of Westworld then the knowledge that the sets have such history is another layer of importance interwoven in the visual story at play. In a sense, Westworld is as much an adaptation of itself as it is the 'west' in general. 

Westworld (2016) is a bold new show, complex in its narrative and stark portrayal of violence, packed with stellar performances from its title cast. Using the basic outline of what made the original film so striking, and delving into far more contemporary territories in doing so. In deconstructing and then rebuilding what Westworld 'is' writers Nolan and Joy have produced an absolutely relevant examination on narrative as a whole, the pomp of humanity and the notion of finding the 'real' and authentic. In focusing on that sense of the 'interactive narrative' in both the basic set-up of the park where humans find their true 'selves' in a completely fabricated environment, and in the nature of it's roots within video games themselves. Westworld has become more than itself. What it does, it does well, particularly at making such a complex plot bursting with philosophical debate on what defines one's existence as authentic. In that sense it's a surprise that it has been such a mainstream success for the worry of it becoming a bit too 'heady'. But the joy of it really is that it can also be enjoyed on a baser level as high quality drama, as the machinations of the park and what it represents to humanity inevitably, slowly and surely come to a halt.


Bissel, Tom. (2016) "On the ranch with the creators of Westworld" Newyorker.com [Online] At:
http://www.newyorker.com/culture/persons-of-interest/on-the-ranch-with-the-creators-of-westworld [Accessed on 16/12/2016]

Konda, Kelly. (2013) "J.J. Abrams & Jonathan Nolan Adapting Westworld Into a TV Show at HBO. Wait, What?" Weminoredinfilm.com [Online] At:
https://weminoredinfilm.com/2013/08/30/j-j-abrams-jonathan-nolan-adapting-westworld-into-a-tv-show-at-hbo-wait-what/ [Accessed on 16/12/2016]

Harley, Nick & Longo, Chris. (2016) "37 Movies Being Adapted For TV" Denofgeek.com [Online] At: http://www.denofgeek.com/us/movies/movies-adapted-for-tv/240179/37-movies-being-adapted-for-tv [Accessed on 16/12/2016]


Fig 1. Westworld Poster [image] At: http://assets1.ignimgs.com/2016/09/01/1274080mktpawestworlds1keyartpov1jpg-42cbc1_765w.jpg [Accessed on 16/12/2016]

Fig 2. Gunslinger (1973) [image] At: http://img.wennermedia.com/article-leads-horizontal/rs-175761-HTRA153_VV297_H.jpg [Accessed on 16/12/2016]

Fig 3. Miss Carrie & Thandie Newton (Maeve) [image] At: http://www.geeksofdoom.com/2016/10/12/violent-delight-reviewing-westworld-1973/majel-barrett-in-westworld-vs-thandie-newton-in-chronicles-of-riddick-650x432 [Accessed on 16/12/2016]

Fig 4. 3D Printed 'Man' [image] At: http://cdn.collider.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/westworld-tv-series-image.jpg [Accessed on 16/12/2016]

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