Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Smallville, Lex Luthor, and the Superiority of Television

I am still often perplexed when people view scripted television shows as inherently inferior to film. The fact is that television provides some opportunities for creative storytelling that simply do not exist in the movie industry, due to the truncated nature of film. When a filmmaker wants to tell a story, he or she must compress that story into a two-hour time block, give or take. Much has to be sacrificed in the story in order to do that as anyone who has witnessed the transfer of a beloved novel to film knows well. Yet, a television series plays out over extended periods of time, with one season of an hour-long drama equalling about 15 hours of screen time compared to a two hour film. One thing that allows for is much greater character development on television.

I was reminded of this recently while watching the seventh season finale of Smallville. The steady evolution of this character over the course of seven seasons has resulted in the single most well-developed portrait of Lex Luthor in any live-action medium. Consider the various Superman Movies. Whether played by Gene Hackman or Kevin Spacey, the character of Lex Luthor in all of those films was exceedingly one-dimensional. He was a power hungry megalomaniac with a penchant for selecting dim-witted criminal associates. Now certainly those films could have developed the character with more depth had they chosen to do so, but nonetheless the possibilities would still be horribly constrained by the format.

Smallville, by contrast, presents a Lex Luthor who at different times is sympathetic, tragic, evil, misguided, noble, loyal, deceitful, and murderous. In other words, a complex and multi-faceted character. A character who at the beginning of season one was Clark Kent's best friend and who, for all intents and purposes, wanted nothing more than to earn the love of his father and live up to the person Clark Kent believed him to be. When the series started, I thought, Okay, this will be like every other series. Lex will seem like a good guy for a few episodes and then transition into the villain. Yet to my surprise and delight, that transition took seven seasons to be accomplished. We viewers were treated to the slow and methodical creation of one of the most iconic villains in all of popular culture. We witnessed the various competing affections that tore at his soul -- the tyranny of a demanding father, the ghost of a loving mother who died too young, the task of living up to an impossible ideal. And at his core, Lex always seemed like a person who really only wanted one thing -- the unconditional approval of the people he loved, most notably his father and Clark Kent -- but who had no idea how to attain it. By taking such a villainous character and making us root for him even as we cheer against him, Smallville provides just another testimony to the power of television narrative.


At 8:53 AM, Blogger Dan said...

These are interesting observations. It would seem that movies are comparable to short stories, whereas TV series are similar to novels in scope and plot development.

At 9:13 AM, Blogger Greg said...

Excellent observation. That's one of the reasons that short stories that are adapted into films often make better movies than novels do. If you think of Stephen King films, some of the best ones like Stand By Me, Shawshank Redemption, and 1408 were based on his short stories.

At 12:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


How refreshing it is to find someone who has a theology background, who will not send me to the enternal flame, just because I watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer or like to read Stephen King. The Ironman movie was GREAT!
My son collects comic books and this old dude reads the older versions while eating a great cheeseburger and a enjoying a milk shake. (strawberry) Nothing like lifes simplest things! Keep up the good work!

At 12:36 PM, Blogger Greg said...

I can't begin to tell you how many comic books I've read while eating cheeseburgers and shakes.

At 6:21 PM, Blogger Bruce said...

I saw Indy 4 this weekend. (Don't waste your time. See Narnia 2 instead, it was better than Narnia 1 to me) I left there thinking, "I'm not sure I ever want to go into a movie theater again." That's not an indictment on movies, but it is an indictment on the outdated technology of viewing shows on celuloid. To me that's the best reason to value TV watching over movies. Call me a snob, but after getting a widescreen HD set, I'll just wait for DVD's from here on out. The images are just scratchy blobs at the movies. But when I come home and turn on my HD set the images are bold, bright and with even just a cheap $200 surround sound system, the sound mixing rivals even new cinemas. And of course with NetFlix, home viewing is much cheaper than the $11 for a full priced ticket. Wait till BluRay is affordable. I don't see how the cinemas will be able to compete. I wouldn't want to own a cinema. It's days have to be numbered unless they go to a HD format. Our beloved movie houses have become as useful as 8-Track in our mp3 world.

Bruce from RI


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