When I read that Harry Potter and Hudson from Aliens were teaming up to tell the story of the controversial battle between rebellious Rockstar Games and righteous attorney Jack Thompson in 2002, I had mixed feelings.
‘The Gamechangers’ was produced by the BBC as part of a season to promote some digital initiative or another, and aired last month to a general negative reaction.
While there’s certainly a good story to be told about one of the most controversial games of the new millennium, for me it needed to be drawn from as wide a range of sources as possible in presenting the tale of Rockstar’s ducking and diving, their colossal PR blunders and Thompson’s overzealous efforts to clean up the act of American pop culture.
Sadly, what we got was Jacked: The Movie Of The Book – less than that, even, considering its running time and what they had to try and cram in.
‘Jacked’ – poor source material
We’ve covered my issues with David Kushner’s book Jacked in a previous post; the lack of depth, the poorly-woven conflict between the two sides – so much that readers could be forgiven for thinking there was none – and, most damningly, the big Rockstar-shaped hole in the story due to their refusal to participate.
So when the quality of storytelling is found lacking in book form, god knows how the BBC thought it would translate to a 90-minute TV movie.
You can’t doubt the acting credentials of the two leads; Bill Paxton has turned in some fine performances of late including a first-season stint on Agents of SHIELD; while Daniel Radcliffe won me over with his brilliant performances in A Young Doctor’s Notebook. They’re competently backed by a cast including Skins’ Joe Dempsie and Ian Keir Attard, playing fellow Rockstar employees Jamie King and Dan Houser.
I mean no offence when I say their work was only ‘competent’ but there were some absolutely massive issues with the plot, pacing and especially the dialogue, which meant that nobody was going to come out of this one well.
Show, don’t tell
I’m no expert but I do fancy myself a bit of a scriptwriter and storyteller, and for me the First Rule of Storytelling is (we’ll skip the Fight Club joke here) ‘show, don’t tell’.
I appreciate that, given the limited time they had to flesh out the characters and focus on an ever-developing plot, that there wasn’t much time to establish personality and relationships before we got cracking with the multiple murders and terrible programming montages.
But when Radcliffe turns to Attard and says something like ‘you were always the smart one, little brother’, it absolutely reeks of poor setup. Anything would’ve worked better here to establish the Housers’ relationship. “Sorry, this letter’s addressed to my brother Sam; I’m Dan.” There you go BBC, you can have that one.
I’m feeling generous so we won’t dwell on that particular example, but if you’ll allow me a little bit of presumption then we’ll head straight into the egregious violation of exposition that is Jack Thompson’s brief dalliance with preamble.
He’s in the garden practicing his golf swing one-handed, and he’s talking on the phone to someone called Margaret. And this is pretty much what he tells her – I’m paraphrasing but check for yourself:
“I’d love to help you out but I’m sort of a ‘toxic’ lawyer these days. Yeah, nobody wants to deal with me because I got Howard Stern and the 2 Live Crew rap album banned for violating obscenity laws, and subsequently, nobody wants to be represented by a kooky moral campaigner.”
“Why do I do it? What can I say, cos I’m Batman. And god rose this asshole up to do good.”
The woman he’s talking to is called Margaret.
Stick with me here, because here’s the presumption: how the fuck has Jack’s mate, Margaret, EVER heard of 2 Live Crew? Was that particular group ever popular amongst a demographic containing people called Margaret?
Secondly, how is it remotely believable of an everyday phone conversation that Thompson can refer to himself three times, using three different titles? “Kooky moral campaigner”. “Batman.” “This asshole.”
(Tell you what, I’m going to try this tomorrow at work and see what happens. “Yeah, thanks for sending that email, god knows this douchebag could’ve done with it sooner. What can I say; everyone loves working with a diligent researcher. I’m basically The Flash.”)
And thirdly, during this phone call with a woman named Margaret who’s just trying to hire a lawyer, does she really ask him the question “why do you do it, Jack?” No, she probably says “that’s nice, dear, but I have to go – my medical malpractice case won’t make itself.”
I’ll assume that what the script tries to put over here is Thompson’s wavering credibility for making those moral stands, and that he’s only repeating what he’s heard, rather than what he knows to be true – yeah, I’m that guy – because otherwise none of this has any fucking relevance in a real life phone call to someone called Margaret who just wants to hire a lawyer.
You can have this for free as well, BBC – try just running a few newspaper headlines past us while we see Jack practicing his golf or something, instead of this contrived phone call.
More like The Channel-changers
If you’ve read Jacked or know about this case, then you know what happens here; Rockstar gets into bother over some Hot Coffee, Thompson gets himself disbarred for an overly aggressive pursuit of the scumbags who made the game, rather than the people who committed the violent crimes it allegedly directly caused, and life goes on with a renewed focus on regulating the naughty stuff in the entertainment industry.
But as I’ve said before, there’s precious little overlap – and precious little detail when it does – between the two parties. Everything’s relayed to each character by a different supporting character – Houser’s colleagues and Thompson’s family – and there’s even a subplot about Dempsie’s burning out on the job just so there can be genuine interactions and feelings between characters, instead of reactions to things which aren’t physically happening in the room we’re in.
The whole thing was like watching an episode of Law & Order – you know the bit where Jack McCoy’s about to prosecute based on the findings of a blood sample, but then the extra walks in and dramatically hands him a motion to dismiss? Watching The Gamechangers was like we’re following that extra about for an entire episode while all the good stuff happens elsewhere.
I must admit I was intrigued by a new take on the dawn of a new era in gaming, but not even the decent casting helped get this patchy story off the ground.