To Be a Thing Is to Be Alive:
Ghost in the Shell and Its More Cautious Adaptations
Travis Hedge Coke
Your memories of Ghost in the Shell may paint it as serious, stoic, careful and articulate, but every version we’ve had was a rampant, counterintuitive explosion. And, they were all made on the relative cheap, compared to this or other Hollywood blockbusters. This is made for a Hollywood blockbuster audience. Not an art house audience. Not for fans of cartoons where people pull so hard on a hatch their arm rips off. Not for fans of the comics. And, even those fans, honestly, don’t all want the same parts re-adapted or to see them adapted, even, in the same ways.
This is not a case of Us vs Them, but a complex and transient web of thems and uses and the pursuit of the biggest overlap achievable. They don’t want this audience or that, but the overlap audience. The big pool.
There is no way they are going to take one hundred million dollars and make a movie where the protagonist has a graphic lesbian three-way, on drugs, with a fancy video game system, while the author tells the audience there are no men involved because he doesn’t want to see a male butt right now. The sex, toned down so it’s not x-rated, yeah, that could happen. The author intrusion, whether the director, the writer, whoever… that ain’t gonna happen in a big budget Hollywood action flick.
Maybe, that is as much a good thing as it is anything at all. Because that movie, under these conditions, would bomb. What they have going might actually make them their money back.
Audiences are fragile. They are hurt by tiny disappointments. They run from scary things. This is why we are sometimes told to “turn off our brains and enjoy,” like you tell yourself to close your eyes in the face of horror and everything will be safe.
The new Ghost in the Shell movie seems to have chosen, haphazardly or carefully, between upsetting a potential audience that Hollywood movies have traditionally upset without concern (people who get dead tired of whitewashing), a subset who never really make much difference in profits (people who want a remake to be exactly the same as the earlier, but also entirely different and are dissatisfied no matter what), and freaking out the real money in this equation (people who want to see cyborgs shoot robot tanks and giant glowing advertisements haloing city blocks to let us know this is the future).
Had people stopped talking, both those adapting Ghost in the Shell to a new movie and those simply speculating on the movie, I might have been unbothered enough by it to eventually see the thing, if someone else put it on. I wouldn’t have turned away out of reflex. It was never going to be a complex or revelatory piece of work. Let’s not pretend. But, the action could be good.
The movie is a Hollywood blockbuster. The majority of the reason the original film adaptation was treated as some artistic achievement was because foreign productions have an air of art and mystery. It’s not a bad film, but it it’s a fairly steely-eyed, square-jawed action flick. It’s infinitely simpler than the source material, and excessively more predictable. Like the breakout success of The Matrix, something often mentioned in the same breath and that borrowed aesthetically from the Ghost in the Shell movie, it did exactly what it was sold to us to do. It surprises us only, at most, in the ways we are told it will surprise us. Which, to be fair, audiences often need to sustain themselves in good numbers.
Ghost in the Shell and its comics’ sequels highlight sudden death because a cyborg rolled over in her sleep and her ghost did not follow the body as a real possibility (except cyborgs don’t move in their sleep). Simulations are treated, repeatedly, as subjective but entirely valid reality. The protagonist has a full range of human emotions and an active business and social life. The city in which she lives is fully integrated into a complex nation with a history and plethora of businesses, subcultures, and concerns, enmeshed in a complicated world of nations, corporations, agendas and, well, weather. The universe and cosmogony are vast and weird from the very first pages of the first volume, continuing to get weirder and broader with Vol 1.5 and Vol 2.
It’s worth noting that, as a comic, upon first release in Japan, Ghost in the Shell did not do greatly. There had been a lot of hope for it. It was given a very good slot, good promotion, but it wasn’t catching an audience like people had wanted. It is an odd comic. Not as weird as the franchise would get by Ghost in the Shell 2, but for the time, it was overly complex in its narrative, it was paced and colored more like a European album than a Japanese comic, its politics were very definite but also full of humor and irony. It was not a super-serious comic, but it wasn’t a farce about serious things, either. And, Masamune Shirow would talk the whole time, as the creator, to the audience. Ghost in the Shell did not want its audience to pretend it was not manufactured, an engineered thing of colors and forms on two-dimensional planes.
And, that’s something you won’t see in a movie adaptation of it, even if they do six more of them. Because, the maker speaking to you, the maker(s) existing isn’t something on-message enough. It is not surprising in the ways you will have been led, in a work like this, to expect.
Let us look at The Matrix again. That movie told us the big surprise in its ad campaign and pre-release materials. We almost all knew, going in, and if we didn’t, we learned fast and there are no other big surprises in the movie. It follows suit from there.
What if, three fifths into The Matrix, the fx team left a note hanging on the screen saying they weren’t sure how to portray this next spectacle as scripted, but in the script it was beautiful? What if Keanu Reeves stopped being Neo for a moment and stepped off his mark and had a bottle of water and called is agent?
We would, undoubtedly, feel the shock of irreality more than we felt it seeing him zip through a phone line into a ship full of people who can’t weave well but wear designer kit in a fantasy. There is nothing in The Matrix that would be as shocking as that, and the dopey part is that, of course, we should have always known that the movie is a fake thing and there’s actually a special effects team and actors. The reminder of something true would, almost undoubtedly, throw us off our game more than any shocking turn or revelation we see in the movie.
And that movie, that Matrix, that would never have been a success.
And, you can’t get that Ghost in the Shell made, either. I would not expect it to be made.
The last Ghost in the Shell movie before this one, Solid State Society, is over two hours long and really talky. Compared to the getting-our-budget-justified explosion of giant advertisements (I’m sorry, I haven’t been impressed with this technique ever. Oooh! In the future we’ll have billboards!), most of Solid State Society takes place in elevators, in offices, standing in streets or on rooftops, in a very grounded way. Now, both are thematically relevant to their respective movies, no doubt, but one of those didn’t look generically like every other big budget future cyborg shooty movie.
The animated versions all kept the dialogue elliptical and open. The comics constantly had the author intrude to comment, vignettes bracketed by info-dumps, rampant political satire and progressively “magic” storylines. They’re going to replicate a comic that was made for, what a few thousand? or a tv show, or a made for television movie made for four million. The new movie cost them, at least, one hundred million dollars.
Hundred million dollar movies don’t have elliptical dialogue. They have dialogue where someone make sure to say the words of the title all in one or two sentences, to sum up the whole flick. “You are your ghost. In your shell,” or something like that. We can’t be disappointed when that happens, any more than you get annoyed when you go to see dolphins and they live in water.
For one hundred million dollars, they are not going to show us our main characters shrugging off helping orphans who’ve been used as slave labor because a) it’s not their job to help them and b) “the water filters they make are more important than their rights.” Especially not while Trump is the American President. No.
This is a commercial enterprise, not a spiritual ritual or a rallying for revolution. It’s a commercial enterprise by people who want a paycheck. And residuals.