Saturday, June 20, 2015

Trouble in Paradise

"There's so many things I don't understand, like why do the fish stop swimming and lie on top of the tide pools after a heavy rain? Why do you hear the waves inside the big shells? Why are all these funny hairs growing on me?"

Richard (Christopher Atkins)

In the weeks leading up to the premiere 35 years ago today of "The Blue Lagoon," I remember seeing many tantalizing and provocative movie trailers and TV commercials that emphasized the forbidden love aspect of two young cousins, a boy and a girl, being marooned alone on an island and surviving there for years, ultimately succumbing to sexual curiosity and the urgings of nature. I guess it wasn't quite as forbidden for cousins as it would have been for a brother and a sister. (They were cousins in the turn–of–the–century novel upon which the movie was based, too. The makers of this movie, as I shall discuss shortly, apparently had no interest in altering the original story in any way.)

Incidentally, film critic Roger Ebert said it was "the dumbest movie of the year," and that really is a difficult conclusion to contradict — especially when you read his summary of the story:
"It could conceivably have been made interesting, if any serious attempt had been made to explore what might really happen if two 7–year–old kids were shipwrecked on an island. But this isn't a realistic movie. It's a wildly idealized romance, in which the kids live in a hut that looks like a Club Med honeymoon cottage, while restless natives commit human sacrifice on the other side of the island. (It is a measure of the filmmakers' desperation that the kids and the natives never meet one another and the kids leave the island without even one obligatory scene of being tied to a stake.)"

Ebert's conclusion is rather remarkable, considering that, while 1980 produced some of the finest movies in recent memory, it also saw such bombs as "Can't Stop the Music," "Herbie Goes Bananas," "Little Darlings," "Motel Hell" and "Wholly Moses!" Competition for designation as the year's dumbest movie was pretty steep.

The girl was played by Brooke Shields, who was just barely 15 when the movie hit the theaters but was already an old pro in front of the camera. She wasn't even a week old when her mother declared that she wanted her daughter to be in show business. She was a child model before her first birthday and continued modeling even after she started appearing in movies.

In fact, it was around the time of the premiere of "The Blue Lagoon" that Shields appeared in a suggestive advertising campaign for Calvin Klein jeans. "You want to know what comes between me and my Calvins?" she purred. "Nothing."

In addition to sending Calvin Klein's sales into orbit, I'm sure the publicity didn't hurt the movie. It earned nearly $59 million in the United States and Canada after being made for less than $5 million. It was the ninth–most successful movie of 1980. It even received an Oscar nomination (Best Cinematography) — and, from what I could see of it when I watched it on TV several months later, it deserved it. How could it miss with all that great scenery?

Of course, there was the matter of nudity — as there had been a few years earlier when Shields, then 12 years old, played a prostitute in "Pretty Baby," in which she allegedly did some scenes in the nude. I've only seen that movie once — like "The Blue Lagoon," it was on TV — and my memory is that the scenes involving Shields were dimly lit, but that did not keep people from complaining about the implications of child pornography. At the time, I heard that Shields actually did her nude scenes wearing a flesh–colored body suit.

I guess Shields and her mother learned from that experience. Or maybe the makers of "The Blue Lagoon" learned from it. Perhaps both. There was nudity in "The Blue Lagoon," but it was indistinct and fleeting, like underwater views of the young couple swimming, or otherwise obscured, as in a scene showing them beneath a waterfall. Shields herself tried to put to rest the allegations by saying that older body doubles were used for the nude scenes of her and co–star Christopher Atkins.

I don't know if that is true or not, but it made a satisfactory story for those who desperately wanted to believe that no one would abuse underage people like that. That was kind of a strange mindset, given what was driving people to the theaters to see "The Blue Lagoon."

"Let's face it," Ebert wrote. "Going into this film knowing what we've heard about it, we're anticipating the scenes in which the two kids discover the joys of sex. This is a prurient motive on our part, and we're maybe a little ashamed of it, but our shame turns to impatience as [director Randal] Kleiser intercuts countless shots of the birds and the bees (every third shot in this movie seems to be showing a parrot's reaction to something)."

The two young versions of Shields and Atkins were shipwrecked along with a cook who gave them guidance until he died, leaving the children to fend for themselves — which they did quite well, thanks to his instructions. He warned them about berries on the island that he believed to be poisonous, but he used words ("never–wake–up berries") that 7–year–olds would understand. They sounded odd coming from the lips of teenagers later in the movie — until you remembered that they hadn't had any instruction from adults in quite some time.

That was one of the things Ebert either forgot or failed to comprehend for one reason or another. The absence of adult supervision could be seen in many ways, but the staying power of the cook's lessons was evident, too. For example, at the end of the movie, the boy and the girl and the baby they conceived were adrift at sea, and they ate some of those berries the cook warned them about, fully expecting to die. It just so happens that, after they had eaten the berries and, as the cook described, fallen asleep (or lapsed into unconsciousness), who should come by in a ship but the boy's father, who, according to the original story, had been looking for his son ever since the first ship was lost.

Ebert thought the movie left the viewers hanging because it was never determined whether the berries had merely put them all to sleep or fatally poisoned them. The movie did leave the audience hanging, but the problem was, so did the book.

"The movie cops out," Ebert complained. "The burden of contriving an ending was apparently too much for such a feeble movie to support."

He was wrong to blame that entirely on the movie. The original sin was Irish author Henry De Vere Stacpoole's more than 70 years earlier. But that certainly doesn't absolve Kleiser and everyone else in the cast and crew of all responsibility for giving their audience an ambiguous ending to the movie — they could have changed it if that had been what they wanted, and, apparently, it was not. They chose a faithful re–telling of Stacpoole's story — and it can only be interpreted as a choice. Stories are "re–imagined" in the movies all the time. Sometimes they are done well. Sometimes not. But it is a choice to do that.

It's a calculated risk, especially if the movie is likely to draw armies of fans who are dedicated to the original book(s). For example, it is my guess that millions of the people who went to see the "Lord of the Rings" movies were fans of the J.R.R. Tolkien books and were likely to notice even the slightest deviation from the original text. In this case, however, I doubt that there were armies of Stacpoole fans going to see how faithfully his story was told; apparently, the story was told as it had been told for decades — there were other film versions before the 1980 edition. I've never seen them, but it is my understanding that none of them changed the ending, either.

Would a different ending have improved the movie? I don't know. A movie is what it is, with the beginning, middle and ending — and all the other decisions — the director made. Speculating on whether a movie would have been better if any part of it had been changed is an exercise in hypotheticals. Suppose someone else had played Atticus Finch in "To Kill a Mockingbird." Would it have been better or worse?

That is a matter of personal taste and opinion. The only thing that could be said for certain would have been that the movie was different.

And that was what the makers of "The Blue Lagoon" could have given their audiences 35 years ago — something that was different from what previous generations had been given. But they played it safe. Ebert thought that was a copout. What do you think?