The following article originally appeared on Play Magazine's newly launched website. Adapting Webster's Dictionary for the big screen was an undertaking most feared would be impossible. After more than one hundred years of development turnaround -- including screenplay drafts by several well-known playwrights -- the top brass at the major studios declared the project dead around the late 1990's, concluding that perhaps, "there was no way to translate the book into a workable film," despite the fact that the original included the very definition of the word "Blockbuster."
But after the success of his most recent movie (another book-to-screen adaptation), director Zack Snyder sat down with the Dictionary and realized that the blueprints for a major success were contained within its pages. Tension, Romance, Drama ... all of the concepts were there. He drafted some storyboards of the opening sequence, decided immediately that Action would have to come before Abstraction in his rearrangement of the Dictionary's opening pages, and within a year, Warner Bros. was helping Snyder realize his dream of bringing the un-filmable book to theaters.
Obviously, there would have to be some changes. Though the picture would run more than two hours in length, key words like Metaphor, Subtlety, and Grace were left behind for more audience friendly terms like Sledgehammer, Latex, and Graphics. The ending of the Dictionary -- a combination of difficult terms Zeitgeist and Zenith -- would have to be changed in order to make it more palatable for the MTV audience. But the film wouldn't be exclusively composed of compromises; with a little work, Synder was able to convince nervous investors that an over-eighteen crowd would be comfortable with the words Visible and Penis.
A couple weeks ago, I attended a press screening of Dictionary. For months, I'd been assaulted by the marketing campaign; one could barely walk a block in Los Angeles without seeing the color-coded posters highlighting individual, iconic words. I couldn't shake the feeling, though, that these adjectives had already lost a little of their meaning as they were divorced from their greater relationship to one another. Waiting for the light to change at Hollywood and Sunset, I gazed out at an over-saturated poster of Vigilante, and wondered if it made any sense to someone who hadn't been exposed to Dictionary's more powerful Context.
Still, there were moments in Dictionary that were unsettling. Snyder is a master of words like Composition and Speed Shifting -- the film's look was defined early on by a capitalized, bold-faced Aesthetic. And much of the dialogue of Dictionary was taken straight out of the book itself (something that was a little distracting if you're familiar with the original). Snyder's reluctance to stray far from the source material meant that each frame was filled with Detail and Reference, choices which, despite their lack of definition, were sure to please Dictionary enthusiasts.
But all of Snyder's diligence left little room for Humanity in Dictionary. In an attempt to keep Dictionary Accurate, performers seemed stiff and constrained, as if the definition of Acting had been substituted by that of Reenactment. Surprisingly, some of the most poignant and human moments came from the glowing words Special Effect -- which had a brand-new font designed just for Dictionary. The power of these moments was, unfortunately, greatly reduced by Snyder's Dictionary in-jokes (which included the snickering inclusion of the word Gay on the arch-villain's desktop computer).
Perhaps the director's cut of Dictionary will provide more Patience to the film. The successes of Dictionary seem to stem more from Snyder's inclusion of terms like Imagery and Juxtaposition, despite his actual understanding of the words themselves. As much as fans of Dictionary would have disapproved, it would have been nice to see some Interpretation, as opposed to the much simpler Transcription. The power of Dictionary, it seems, is the brilliance of its source, not the attempt to convert it to film.
How well the film holds up after the opening weekend will determine whether Dictionary will make way for other un-filmable books to make it to screen. Though Webster has publicly renounced every and any attempt to bring his books to theatres, word is that Warner Bros. is eyeing Thesaurus as a follow-up.
It's curious to see the merchandising campaign of Dictionary unfold. Though the film is a hard R, toys and t-shirts are readily available to children -- ironic, considering that the film's complicated villain uses tie-in marketing to create the same action figures within the world of Dictionary. Though Dictionary redefined the very genre of books, Innovation doesn't seem to have made it to Warner's re-imagining.
Take, for example, the Dictionary game for Xbox 360 and Playstation 3. Synder is credited with some involvement on the title, but as he explained recently in an interview, his participation was a little more limited.
"The video game was kind of fits and starts a little bit," said Snyder. "They came to me and showed me, 'Look here’s our script for the video game.' And I looked at it and I was like "Really?" This feels like a Saturday morning cartoon.
"But you know it’s just not … it just misses the point a little bit doesn’t it? If we’re going to do this we should try to think of something a little bit, I don’t know, something a little darker."
Snyder continued, "if you can make a game that subverts like the video game world ... then maybe you can make an interesting game. And they just hemmed and hawed and I said okay, otherwise I really don’t have a lot of time for the game. Then they came back and they were like, 'We’re doing a game.'"
After a lengthy period of development, the game was inevitable. Set before the definitions of Dictionary, it provides an interactive (and somewhat unnecessary) back-story for the events of the book and film. Though Dictionary is equally concerned with words like Violence and Penitence, Dictionary: The End is Nigh erodes this magnitude, substituting Comprehension with Repetition. The Dictionary game may feature splendid use of Graphics but offers very little implementation of Elegance. And in their rush to produce the title, Warner Bros. seems to have sidestepped the word Why, as they remained concerned with terms like Back and End.
Some will embrace the execution of Dictionary, both in terms of what it brings to the multiplex, and also the accessibility of the endeavor. If seeing Dictionary on screen means that even one more person will read the book, then perhaps the one-hundred-and-fifty million dollars it took to bring the tome to the theaters will have been worth it. Out of the fifty-five million dollars Dictionary made in its opening weekend, perhaps ten percent will seek out the original Dictionary, and that means millions of new readers with a greater, more refined vocabulary. Maybe some will play the Dictionary video-game and see past its immaturity to become invested fans of the book.
I applaud the audacity of bringing Dictionary to the cinema. I appreciate the experiment. For those like me that left the theater feeling bewildered, there is always the original. For those without the patience to thumb through the thick, time-locked pages of the source, there is always Zack Snyder's Dictionary.
And for those who don't give a damn either way, there is Dictionary: The End is Nigh.
Please visit PlayMagazine.com for more articles by Heather Anne Campbell.