This year has seen the release of two films based upon Edwin Abbott Abbott’s great 1884 novella Flatland: A Romance Of Many Dimensions. One calls itself Flatland: The Movie, and is a half hour-long animated educational film featuring the voices of Martin Sheen and Michael York, while the other is a lower-budgeted 99-minute long film called Flatland: The Film, directed by Ladd Ehlinger, Jr. This is an independent animated feature that has many good points, but just as many bad points.
Neither film is the first adaptation nor re-envisioning of Abbott’s brilliant Victorian era satire. The book itself has spawned literary sequels like Dutch writer Dionys Burger’s 1965 novel Sphereland, and Ian Stewart’s 2001 novel Flatterland. The latter book has also inspired a forthcoming film, while the original Flatland has had, before these two latest attempts, two previous incarnations – a 1965 cartoon narrated by Dudley Moore and a 1982 short film by mathematician Michelle Emmer. The very concept of a Flatland-like world was also used by astronomer Carl Sagan in an episode of his 1980 PBS television series Cosmos.
This version of the tale tries the most to update the film to a modern audience, and that is its chief failing. The original tale was called a Romance, and this updating removes that very concept from the story. While it follows much of the novella’s narrative – in describing the way Flatland works (although the original’s King is replaced by a President - who oddly still wears a crown), it departs severely from the original at its most crucial moment, once A Square is visited by A Sphere from Spaceland.
In this version, instead of a mystical guide, along the line of the Three Ghosts Of Christmas from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, A Sphere is CEO of Messiah, Inc. Okay… if the mere mention of that plot point has you rolling your eyes, you are not alone. And the attempts at satire only go downhill from there.
Instead of Sphere’s lifting up of Square into Spaceland being a religious experience, in this film it merely serves as a ‘wow’ moment used to lead into some cheap gags, jokes, and a display of Ehlinger’s animative chops. The story dissolves. Then there is some cheap and rather predictable satire of consumerism and the current Iraq War, which will severely date the film in coming years, as well as a not so funny portrayal of a Spaceland Senator Cube who sounds very much like Ted Kennedy.
In the novella, the satire, while based in Victoriana, dealt more specifically with human foibles grafted onto the polygons of Flatland. Here, the polygons of Flatland and the solids of Spaceland are almost total caricatures – such as the gay sounding Flatland Senator who leads the dissenting Chromatist movement, and who is assassinated by President Circle’s henchmen.
The film is best when sticking to the book’s original points - like Chromatism as a way to individuate, and Square’s ability to eventually believe in more than three dimensions, while Sphere cannot, thus showing that the solid’s seeming superiority to the polygon was based not in any immanent superiority, but a greater range of knowledge. Once that is equalized — by Square’s appearance in Spaceland — he soon expands his mind well past that of any of the solids.
From online clips, and descriptions, the shorter film version of the book seems more faithful to the original, in narrative, and also more convincing in terms of look. The animation seems better, and, yes, not as ‘cheap.’ The animation in Ehlinger’s film smacks of too-'90s video game phoniness, especially in comparison to the visuals that The Movie offers.
For some reason Ehlinger also feels a need to display the innards of the polygons of Flatland. Yes, a thing from another dimension might be able to see them, but all it does is add distracting pulsations to the animation. Given his independent low budget, it seems Ehlinger is trying to gild his lily, to show his limitations were not as bad as one might infer – especially in places where the screenplay fails. The major failings of the film thus fall squarely on screenwriter Tom Whalen, for violating one of the oldest rules in film adaptation: Never change a story that’s great by too much!
The musical score, by Mark Slater, is sometimes apt - as in a whimsical salsa-like number once Sphere takes Square to Spaceland, but at other times it’s a mess. The same goes for the early overuse of annoying and condescending (not humorous) inter-title cards that tell us when ‘important’ moments are about to occur.
This is why a good screenplay is so essential. Whalen’s is too scattershot to leave a lasting effect. Instead, the jabs at racism, extremism, political purges, corporatism, bureaucracy, and other ills, are rather ineffectual, especially compared with the novella. Also, killing off A Sphere in the Spaceland War seems pointless, and departs too much from the original.
Finally, the ending is not only different from the novella, but muddled. In the film, A Square and his family try to flee to the Northern portion of Flatland, where Chromatism is accepted, but he is detained when the Northern Armies strike. He then loses his eye, which becomes a part — or container — of Pointland, not unlike a dream he had of Pointland, or the earlier one he has of Lineland. It’s a nonsensical ending that tries too hard for the relevance of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which is especially inapt because much of the film before it descends into an easy didacticism wholly antithetical to Kubrick’s great film.
The DVD comes with an autographed thank you from Ehlinger, but the disk itself has only the film and a brief trailer. Even though the film is low budget, couldn’t Ehlinger have included a commentary by himself and others? It would have at least made the DVD, if not the film, worth a bit more, on a level of interest. In this day and age, not doing so is a bit of a ripoff – small budget or not.
On a real world note, the slim case DVD package the DVD comes in also has a bad holder for the disk. The disk is far too small and the disk cannot stay in its holder. While a worthwhile effort, Flatland: The Film takes on too much, misses where the book succeeds, and its ending is just bad.
But, Ehlinger does show a flair and unique style. If he continues in animation, here’s hoping his next film is about the same quantum leap up from this one that Spaceland is from Flatland. If it is, then we’ll have a film truly worth all the praise this one has gotten.