Scott Westerfeld has posted on his blog a press release announcing upcoming film adaptations of his popular Uglies trilogy, set in a post-apocalyptic future where everyone, at age 16, is made “pretty” through an intense surgical procedure. When everyone is Pretty, the idea is, everyone is equal and happy, so there’s no reason for discord.
Why the Books Rock
Uglies is a powerful book which features some of the best of science fiction. It has action, but also deep thematic elements. It has social context, without being preachy. It has deeply realized characters and very human conflicts between them. It is a rich world that grows more complex with each book.
And, of course, being a modern young adult series, it also features a love triangle. (A couple of them, actually.)
The story of the first book, Uglies, starts with the main character, Tally Youngblood, who is nearing 16 (and her surgery) with anxious anticipation. One great thing about this book is Tally, because she’s not your typical hero. She’s fairly selfish and certainly short-sighted. It often doesn’t occur to her, especially in the first book, that she should take into account much beyond her own immediate wants and desires … which makes her a perfect teenage protagonist.
The transformation from Ugly into Pretty is not purely cosmetic, either. Your cells are tweaked to improve digestion. Any visual imperfections are repaired. Your spine is straightened. Asymmetrical features are evened out. Vocal cords are adjusted. You then move from Ugly Town into Pretty Town, a decadent world of parties, socialization, and other mindless pleasures.
The premise of a society that forces everyone into equality isn’t quite as old as science fiction, but it’s not far off. This series definitely picks up the fine tradition of Brave New World, Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron,” and even Animal Farm (because, as the reader learns, all Pretties are equal, but some Pretties are more equal than others), but updates that tradition for the modern generation of young readers.
What’s even more attractive in this series is that … well, it’s very attractive. Especially for teens, what’s a more alluring enticement than the promise that they will be made beautiful and flawless, cherished by everyone? They will be Pretty and, if lucky, be enhanced even more to become Special. It’s the ultimate temptation, and who wouldn’t at least consider drinking the Kool-Aid to buy into such a world?
The Uglies have a long tradition of playing pranks, as a way to pass the time until their surgery. The first novel uses Tally’s propensity for these pranks as a springboard into slowly revealing the society, including some hints at how it formed and what goes on behind the scenes to maintain it. It ends with a dramatic (though not particularly unexpected) cliffhanger, which transitions into Pretties and then into Specials, where things continue to escalate into a full-blown conflict. (There’s a fourth book, Extras, which takes place years later in Japan, focusing on a popularity-based culture instead of a beauty-based one. It’s fairly enjoyable, but it suffers in comparison to the trilogy and has a disjointed feel.)
I’m keeping the details vague to avoid spoilers, but I think the key elements of the world are fairly clear. The book isn’t a lecture about vanity, but rather takes our very human fascination with appearance to an extreme and tells a very meaningful story about where it could lead and how people might react to a world where everyone is Pretty.
Why the Film Will Rock
When reading the books, I remember frequently thinking that it would make a great movie trilogy, but I doubted that it could really be pulled off. Why?
The problem is how to actually make the Pretties work. The Pretties are described in the book as being unnaturally beautiful. The surgery widens their eyes, giving a sort of doe-eyed innocence. The face is made perfectly symmetrical. So, fine, for the Pretty adults, you just take some very attractive person, say Nicole Kidman, add some make-up to even out any blemishes, and it shouldn’t be a problem.
No, the problem is for the characters who start out as Uglies in the first book but are Pretties in the second book. If all they do is add some adolescent achne and skin blemishes for the first film, which they remove in the subsequent films, the entire premise is lost. There has to be a very real transformation when the characters are made Pretty. We’re talking about the difference between an awkward teenager and a high-born elf.
With all this in mind, I was thinking that the only way they could pull this film off was as some kind of CGI film, but it turns out that I underestimated the special effects magic.
According to the press release, the special effects are going to be done by Lola Visual Effects, the very same team that was responsible for transforming Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the creation of the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network, and transforming Chris Evans into a 90-pound weakling for the first part of the new Captain America movie.
If there is one special effects team out there which should be able to transform the normal Ugly characters into Pretty characters – and sustain it seamlessly for the second two installments of the film – I think it’s probably these guys. (The world itself, including the futuristic cityscapes, will be handled by Hydraulx, whose credits include Avatar among others.)
With that technical hurdle being dealt with, the question is only whether they can pull off the more important parts of the story.
Why the Film Could Fail
The Uglies trilogy is a very human story. Specifically, the story is about the interior world versus the exterior world, about how our inner life cannot be fixed just by fixing our outer lives. While the creative team has to pay close attention to getting the exterior world correct, they have to spend even more time on nailing the emotional world of the characters.
One look at a list of the producer’s previous efforts doesn’t seem very promising. It’s a wide range of films, some of them quite good, but few of them really well-done character-driven stories. Let’s look at the list:
- Mr. Popper’s Penguins
- Gulliver’s Travels
- Predator vs. Aliens & AVP2
- Grumpy Old Men & Grumpier Old Men
- I, Robot
- Dr. Dolittle
- Daddy Day Care
- Courage Under Fire
I’ve gotta admit that I’m not real comfortable with the guy behind Waterworld being given the reigns on one of my favorite intellectual properties, but it is what it is. Hopefully they’ll find a good director who can really nail the emotional requirements of the story, while also having the experience for the required special effects work.
One good thing is that the majority of the characters in the first film are Uglies, so there will be little need for the intense special effect magic right out of the gate. The actors will have to carry the first film as themselves, complete with facial expressions. (The Pretties in the novel show little emotional reaction in their faces, like full-time Botox, which will be a challenge to portray visually in the films while maintaining emotional connection with the audience.) This will help drive a character-centric approach to the trilogy, which will hopefully be retained through the full trilogy.