There are not many times I’ve ever said this.
Though I criticize books, movies, shows, and so on, and I can be a bit harsh in said criticism, I have no illusions about my own paltry capabilities. Thus, I have almost never said or thought that I, a complete amateur with zero experience, could have done a better job than the professionals who actually produced whatever it is I criticize.
This is one off those times.
The idea behind the Cats movie was simple enough, I think, but very badly executed.
T.S. Eliot’s book of feline-focused poems is world-famous, in no small part because Andrew Lloyd Weber totally cribbed off his work. He set the poetry to music, added an original song (or two), connected them with a threadbare plot, and that is how he produced a sensational broadway musical that has, over the course of a few decades, made a few billion dollars. With how musicals on the big screen are “in” these days, small wonder they decided to try and make a movie out of it.
Said movie bombed spectacularly, making only a handful of millions, compared to the many more millions which went into making it.
Evidently, even the sheer, overwhelming fame of a star-studded cast is not always enough to lure people to the theater. At least, it wasn’t for Cats.
With such a magnificent, outstanding failure before my eyes, I can’t help but ask the question: what could have prevented this? How might this movie, this musical, have been improved, and turned into a success?
Much of the answer, I think, is simply in how they handled adapting it. They tried to copy and paste the play, with a few little modifications, onto the screen. And when has that approach ever actually worked? By contrast, the likes of, say, Into the Woods, kept much of the plot and music, but also trimmed, edited, streamlined, and rewrote significant portions. It’s the same story, the same musical, but it’s not the same.
In that vein, they ought to have done something similar with Cats. It would have turned out so much better if they’d focused more on creating a coherent plot, addressed the themes, and, especially, handled the visuals differently. They should have drawn on the source material, but rewrote it a bit, made the tale evolve. And that is what I am going to do now.
I am going to rewrite Cats.
At least, superficially, in overview. I do not have time to do the entire thing, ya know? 😉 I suppose you could call this a collection of notes to be used in the rewriting process. 🙂
Full disclosure, I freely admit, I’ve not actually seen either the play or the movie. I’ve done a little research, and I think I have an overall feel for what it is, but this is more a discussion of what it might have been.
Obviously, this is only my own personal opinion, for whatever it’s worth. These are just ways I believe the end product could have been vastly improved, made more appealing and enjoyable for the audience, and more profitable for the people who made the movie.
People care about how things look.
Hollywood understands this idea in one way, but not fully. They don’t quite get that the decision to subject our eyes and our brains to a full-length movie can depend quite a bit on how comfortable it is for us to look at. They just go with the newest, flashiest, most “advanced” special effects and call it good.
A spectacle may be exciting, but there still needs to be some substance alongside the flash. Indeed, I would argue that spectacle ought to be the least of priorities, not the first.
So, first step in rewriting the Cats movie: keep the visuals simple.
Not everything needs to be CGI. Makeup and costumes work every bit as well, and sometimes better. We do not need to have our minds blown (or scarred) by a photorealistic (or an attempt at such) splicing of human/feline characters. From what I have seen and heard, that was just weird and disturbing and just wigged everyone out.
Speaking of which, keep the disturbing images to an absolute minimum, period. Humanizing the characters is fine, when done with a bit more grace, but humanizing what they eat? Not so much. No mice or roaches with faces or looking like babies and whatnot.
On a related note, don’t sexualize everything. One can probably place the lion’s share of responsibility for this on the original play (the Macavity choreography, anyone?), but, again, this is supposed to be an adaptation, not an imitation. It might work well enough on the stage, but on a screen, where there’s nowhere else to look, constant erotic movements and intimate closeness just comes off looking like everyone’s getting ready for a massive orgy that never happens.
Basically, there’s no need to overdo everything visual. Less spectacle, more meaning.
Which leads us to…
There are at least two themes I can see, and would modify.
The first is the desire for a new life, a better life. That is an urge which is thoroughly ingrained in the human soul, and it has been a driving force for much of our civilization’s advancement. There is nothing at all wrong with wanting something better. Indeed, I would argue that it is, on some level, nothing less than vital to have, and act on, that hope.
I would make one small alteration to how it is presented, however.
All the cats are competing in the Jellicle Ball, as it’s called, for the privilege of gaining that new, better life in a place called the Heaviside Layer. However, the very principle of competing for the chance to leave an old life behind is a bit off-putting to me. The exclusivity of it suggests that one must beat others down in order get what one wants, while the otherworldly nature of the happiness they seek suggests that such cannot be obtained here and now, in this life. Both of those are things I personally disagree with.
I might include the idea of it, as a contrast, but I would ultimately put forth that new lives of happiness begin wherever you choose to make them. It’s not just something you are given, it’s something you obtain, work for, earn… and share. And you do it now, in the life you are living now. You don’t have to go away, and you certainly don’t need to wait until you are all the way in Heaven/Heaviside to obtain happiness.
If you want a better life, then have one. It all depends on you. And you don’t have to wait to be “chosen” for it.
As for the second theme… well, it seems to go along the lines of: “We reject you (for some reason) and then we accept you (for some reason) so we send you away forever (in a way that looks a lot like killing you).”
I’m sure I don’t need to spell out just how confusing those mixed signals are.
The whole exclusivity thing can actually come into play with how the cats not only compete with each other, but actively exclude one particular cat. That would need a proper explanation, though, as would the act of accepting one who was formerly rejected.
More to the point, the strange and somewhat disturbing nature of this theme can be altered in the same breath as we alter the other, and by the same means, with a little reworking of the single most pivotal element of this entire effort:
Point number one: have one.
Next to nothing actually happens in either the original musical or the movie. It’s a nigh-unending series of introductions capped off by a brief, superficial conflict, quickly and easily resolved, though not entirely. This obviously needs to get fleshed out a bit, thoroughly edited and rewritten.
A natural, unavoidable consequence of this rewriting is a severe culling of musical numbers. I imagine one could have a medley-mashup of several songs, establishing various cast members quickly, perhaps as an introductory sequence, or perhaps as the Jellicle Ball gets underway. Either way, get it done, and move on.
While the cast can more or less remain as is, the central cast needs to be pared down to a more manageable number. Establish the main group and follow them among the background characters, toss in some interaction with the outcast to get them in the game, and, of course, the villains. Have these characters drive the plot, use the conflict within said plot to further the themes, and voila, you have a vastly-improved musical movie.
As for what that plot actually is…
I actually draw on what I know of the original musical, and it hinges on a question: what are villains really up to?
There are a couple of minions in the picture, but there’s one particular villain in the story: Macavity, the Mystery Cat, the Napoleon of Crime.
Of course Macavity is an imposing figure, with a fearful reputation, and formidable in a fight. But he’s also very clever, devious, and subtle. Or, at least he is in the original musical.
The movie has Macavity send his minions in to simply drug everyone, leaving him the last contestant standing, which… well, that has all the clever subtlety of trying to make toothpicks with a chainsaw. It also belies the fact that he is clearly a powerful crime lord, which makes it confusing why he would so dearly want that “better life” (which looks an awful lot like dying). This being so befuddling, that idea simply has to go.
In the original story, he kidnaps the patriarchal feline, Old Deuteronomy, and impersonates him. He’s quickly foiled by the one cat who sees through his disguise, and then he’s driven out and never seen again, but I have to wonder what he was up to.
Why impersonate the elderly cat who chooses the winner of the Jellicle Ball? What would he get out of that, of all things?
Being able to pick the winner might give him a chance to do something horrible to that particular cat, maybe rid himself of a nuisance, but that seems like an awfully slim prize to go to such lengths for. There’s not much Macavity can really gain from that.
But what if there were something else?
What if impersonating Old Deuteronomy gave Macavity something else entirely? What if there is something that the elderly cat gets out of the Jellicle Ball without anyone realizing it? What might it be that he gets, and which the crime lord wants?
What do we really know about Old Deuteronomy?
He (or she, because… whatever reason) knows many things, many secrets. He picks the winner of the Jellicle Ball and, himself, sends them off to their new life (which looks a lot like killing them). And he really is very old, said to have lived for many lives of men… which is a curiously long life for a cat, isn’t it?
Put those pieces together a bit differently, and something begins to emerge. Something… sinister.
How, exactly, has this cat lived for so long? What secrets does he know? How does he send the cats to Heaviside? For being so old, why does he not have any sort of successor in the works, as if he expects to last forever? Why does he bother to reign over the Jellicle Ball in the first place?
What is the Jellicle Ball, if not the means to find the fittest, strongest, most beloved and best cat out of the crowd?
And whose word is the only word the other cats have regarding anything that happens to the winners? Only his, Old Deuteronomy.
What if he’s actually lying? What if going to their next life really is just dying, as it appears to be, and he’s killed all the previous winners? What if Old Deuteronomy is somehow sacrificing and feeding on all these cats, the cream of the crop, every one of whom trusted him enough to literally put their lives into his hands, just to prolong his own life?
What if Macavity realized this and wants to steal that role and power, becoming a nigh-immortal Napoleon of Crime? And one who can betray and dispose of various enemies on a yearly basis with no one the wiser? The natural thing to do, then, would be to do exactly as he does: kidnap Old Deuteronomy and take his place. Thus, we have not one but two major villains, colliding with each other and with the protagonists, and the truth is unveiled.
With that truth comes the realization of the theme: that we may hope for a better life, but we need to start making this life better, here and now, by including everyone, instead of competing with and excluding others, the way Macavity and Old Deuteronomy do.
Obviously, there’s still a tremendous number of details to work out, but this is a good start. The plot gets reworked into something more compelling and intricate, and which carries the modified theme forward in a meaningful way. Top that off with simpler, less disturbing special effects, and voila! We have ourselves… perhaps not a masterpiece, but certainly an improvement! 😉
What do you think?