Welcome to Marwen and Marwencol

Adapting true stories into feature films is a tricky task. It’s even more difficult when audiences have already seen the actual subject – in documentaries, for example. More difficult again is the process of adapting a story that does not conform to conventional story structure. Robert Zemeckis’ Welcome to Marwen, which arrives on Blu-ray and DVD today, is a prime example: a film with admirable intent and concept, but devastatingly clumsy execution that does a disservice to its subject material.

Jeff Malmberg’s documentary Marwencol follows Mark Hogancamp, a man suffering brain damage after a brutal attack at the hands of several men intolerant of his professed love of crossdressing. Shorn of his memories and sense of identity, Hogancamp found solace in building a fictional town in miniature: Marwencol, a portmanteau of his own name plus those of two prominent women in his life. A small Belgian town in World War II, Marwencol became the centerpiece of Mark’s life and of his eventual art career, as his vibrant, dynamic photographs became known to the world.

Marwencol is a sad, quiet story, exploring Hogancamp’s work, his trauma, and the characters within his real life and his miniature one. It does this without really ever passing judgement, and without making overt claims as to the meaning of Hogancamp’s fictional world. It’s mostly interested in Hogancamp himself, and his relationships with the people around him.

Zemeckis chose to adapt this story into a major Hollywood motion picture. His film has not been well received, with a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 30% and box office takings well under what was hoped for, and its failure is an interesting case study in creative license. Zemeckis took liberties telling the story, as many storytellers do, both stylistically and narratively. Some of those liberties don’t work. Others do. And some are terrific in theory, but executed so messily as to work against their apparent intention. Incredibly, though, the most outwardly garish (and outwardly Zemeckis) choice Zemeckis made is one of the best. In theory.

The biggest decision made by Zemeckis in Welcome to Marwen not a bad one. Using visual visual effects (but notably not full performance capture; the characters’ lips and eyes are live-action, mapped onto CGI action figures), Zemeckis dramatizes the narratives within Hogancamp’s tiny town. The World War II narrative becomes an exciting, action-packed war movie, albeit enacted with dolls, and it is interwoven explicitly with Hogancamp’s real life. The figures bear the faces of the people in Mark’s life, and his protagonist Captain Hogey goes from an implied stand-in for Mark to a literal one. As the film goes on, the lines between the real world and the fictional one blur, with Mark relying more and more on his characters for support – while also being psychologically abused by the more negative figures in his fantasy.

That’s a pretty clever way of turning this thing into a movie! Indeed, Zemeckis manages to create some transcendent moments from this conceit. A scene mid-film, where Mark faces his attackers in court as they transform into toy Nazis, is genuinely affecting. Likewise, there’s a lot of emotional truth in explicitly casting Mark’s real-life friends as his saviors in Marwen. They are a crutch and survival mechanism for Mark, and despite the faint creepiness of his behavior, when you consider the psychology involved, it makes a lot of emotional sense.

Were this conceit made more central to the film, as opposed to telling a fictionalised and somewhat forced story, Marwen could have become a truly affecting film about trauma and art therapy. The two narratives could have become more tightly fused as the movie went on, then separated as Mark learned to deal with his anxieties in the real world. Sadly, the movie we got is a total mess, stemming from a screenplay that feels lost among all the moving pieces. It tries to do so many things, and shoehorn in so many elements, that it fails in having a solid structure or even really a theme.

For one thing, the two stories don’t match up in their narrative beats, with the World War II scenario in particular coming off more like a disconnected series of episodes than a story. Granted, Hogancamp’s own photography is mostly comprised of independent tableaus, but if you’re going to fictionalise the story anyway, why not go all the way? One of the documentary’s more intriguing elements, the inclusion of Dejah Thoris as a character within Marwencol, is extremely poorly handled – and not just because Zemeckis never reminds the audience that Thoris is the title character from the Princess of Mars series. Rather than being presented as an enigma, she’s a direct metaphor for Mark’s painkiller addiction – a choice that feels overly didactic and clunky, even without the overt Back to the Future reference Zemeckis creates out of the “time machine” Hogancamp actually built for this character.

Honestly, I think Zemeckis’ visual impulse was the right one. He just screwed it up in a multitude of ways. It’s a big, bold expression of creative license that had great potential to bring the audience into the mindset of its subject. That’s a difficult thing to do, especially with a story as unusual and psychologically strange as this one, and it’s evident in how rarely Zemeckis actually pulls it off, but it’s not the wrong thing to do. It feels like the kind of approach many directors would have taken, given the same adaptation task. Imagine the same technique being used by Michel Gondry or Spike Jones, for example.

Even coming from a director as commercial and mainstream as Robert Zemeckis, there’s an implicit personal element in this style of adaptation that speaks to the relationship between the filmmaker and their work. Most filmmakers have not suffered the traumas that Hogancamp has, but there’s definitely common ground to be found in Hogancamp’s use of fictional storytelling to tell his own story. Sylvester Stallone was a struggling writer in the ‘70s, not a boxer, but he told his story through Rocky regardless. So it is with Hogancamp, and so it could have been with Zemeckis. This is what filmmakers do: they find the elements of a story that connect with them, and use those as their thematic or visual pillars.

It’s worth noting that documentary filmmakers take creative license too. Sure, they’re made up of real footage of real events involving real people, but in the process of making a film, editorialising inevitably takes place. Documentarians choose what to include and what not to include in their films. They focus on some aspects of a story more than other aspects. Sometimes they twist real events to make the points they want to make. Some documentaries even outright lie. In that respect, at least fiction is clear in what kind of truth it’s telling.

Welcome to Marwen is based on a true story, but it isn’t a true story. It’s the same with Marwencol. Ultimately, only Mark Hogancamp knows what it’s like to be Mark Hogancamp. Both Malmberg and Zemeckis merely tell versions of that experience, filtered through their own.  They’re vastly different in approach, and vastly different in results, but neither approach is inherently better than the other.

Sadly, Welcome to Marwen is not a very good movie. But to lay the blame at the approach taken by the film is unfair. If anything, we could use more films that take these kinds of liberties to tell true stories: films that use fantasy and abstraction to get inside the psychology of their characters. That’s what makes cinema such a powerful art form, and it’s how some of the best films connect so deeply with us.

You just have to do it well. Welcome to Marwen has a strong idea at its core, but it feels like Zemeckis never truly realised what it was. As a result, it joins Downsizing to form a loose trend of high concept, high-budget movies that utterly miss the mark in what they’re aiming for. Somewhere between Marwencol and Marwen, there’s a great motion picture. But it looks like we’ll probably never see it.

Cool Posts From Around the Web: