Take a peek inside The Great Wall: The Art of the Film book
The Great Wall is an example of negative hype and misinformation killing a movie before it ever got its legs, which is unfortunate. Regardless of the quality of the film itself, The Great Wall was doomed to fail for being everything it wasn’t, and it’s sad to see this one stir up controversy and essentially be forgotten so quickly. If you’re not familiar with the hubbub surrounding The Great Wall, the CliffNotes tell of a Chinese-funded and directed movie that was socially panned as a film guilty of whitewashing its cast with Matt Damon’s casting (even though the director made it clear the controversy was unfounded). After the initial backlash, it was all downhill. The movie was serviceable at best, but the real shame is that more moviegoers aren’t going to dig deeper to find the exceptional art book that was released to complement the film. I’ve got a growing collection of these art and making of books, and none quite captures the tone, texture, and cultural influence of its movie like The Great Wall: The Art of the Film. Whether you liked the movie or not, it’s worth finding a copy of this book and adding it to your own art and making of collection.
Take a look inside the book to see what makes it unique, and read a short review of the official novelization after the jump.
I was expecting a fairly straightforward art book from The Great Wall: The Art of the Film, and in a sense I wasn’t disappointed. Organizationally, the book follows familiar section outlining – a closer look at each important character, sections for various creature traits and mockups, behind-the-scenes photos – so fans of the film will still get to uncover fun character elements and production details. There are plenty of two-page spreads and close-up portraits/concept art renderings of what the movie could have looked like and how it eventually evolved, and as always flipping through this art book is a treat for those who enjoy seeing the craft and care put into production.
And The Great Wall is a movie that deserves a closer look. It’s not a mumblecore drama or a modern day action shoot ’em up. The movie is a period piece mixed liberally with a science fiction/fantasy story, and the look and feel of the film is enhanced by the sheer variety of meticulously designed props, costumes, and set pieces. Colors abound on screen, which means The Art of the Film book had lots to put under the microscope.
But what struck me most about this book specifically was how it was pieced together (not content-wise but artistically). Take a look below at the outside cover. Sure, you might see the same thing if you pulled the spine off of any other book, but here the design is intentional as a nod to the style of Chinese book binding. Also, the opposite spine shows each page is gold-bordered, further adding to the aesthetic. I like it.
The book also presents a few more unique elements, like using artistic transition pages, which is unique for these types of movie art books. Below, you’d think you were just looking at two pages introducing “The Nameless Order,” but that page on the right is actually completely transparent with just the gold label border detailed on the edge. You turn the transparent page then turn the background page to get to the Nameless Order section of the book. While sort of cool, these transparent pages are also kind of a waste. They break up the monotony of the book for every section (The Mercenaries, The Nameless Order, The Tao), but they don’t really add much. That said, the book does this again in a different way which does contribute to the book’s unique aesthetic design.
Take a look at the pages below. Rather than having the transition pages transparent for each corps group of The Nameless Order, the book instead takes the opportunity to include a silkscreen/waxy art print page that’s reminiscent of more traditional Chinese artistic expression. I remember doing something like this back in grade school as an art project, and the process involved melting different waxes onto a stretched cloth. There’s no way each book had these pages made in that or a similar style, and they’re surely mass produced copies on semi-transparent wax paper, but they’re still cool.
Flipping further through the pages of The Great Wall: The Art of the Film, more drawings and 3D renderings start to pop up. With the character details out of the way, the focus shifts to the creatures (aliens? underground monsters? their origin is never satisfactorily explained in the movie), and it looks like the design team went through more than a few iterations before settling on the final look of each creature. This section/sort of material is always a treat in these art books because it gives us a glimpse at the changes, big and small, that go into finely tuning fictional pieces of the puzzle. Does the queen creature look better with a flailing tongue? How about a big stomach? Now check out fifteen different designs that were scrapped. Concept art has always intrigued me, and the detail that goes into some of these sketches has to mean the artists put some time into each piece. I imagine an art director standing over a table covered with hundreds of drawings and renderings months before production begins, and what we see in The Art of the Film for The Great Wall is probably a fraction of what’s either been trashed or stored away somewhere long after the movie gets made.
Lastly, in sticking with the book’s style, there’s even a fun envelope nestled in the pages with film secrets and such inside (I won’t spoil the surprise), which was a nice touch. That’s not an actual wax seal you see, but it’s still a fun addition to an art book that’s set itself apart with a few quirky pieces and pages.
Overall, I’m happy with the book’s look and design, and I’m a sucker for these swords/sandals/sci-fi mashups even if most of them are silly and subpar. I’m sure The Great Wall will be an enjoyable re-watch on down days in the future, and I look forward to dropping this art book on the coffee table on occasion as a conversation piece or glimpsing it sticking out on my shelf with it’s unique binding. The same can’t be said with enthusiasm about the movie’s novelization though.
This will be short and sweet, because these official novelizations are always more difficult to recommend/review. I just tore into the xXx: Return of Xander Cage novelization for simply existing, but I won’t be as harsh on The Great Wall. Forgetting about the movie for a minute, The Great Wall tells the kind of tale you’d expect to find in a fantasy fiction novel, so the material works on the page for the most part. We’ve got our main character, a skilled archer and mercenary, thrust into a strange setting and forced to understand and cooperate with people he comes to respect and care for. It’s fantasy fiction 101 in a sense, and fans of the genre will enjoy The Great Wall novelization as such. It’s more traditional, appropriate novel material than The Return of Xander Cage, so I was more willing to give it a read and enjoyed it for the most part. We get to know the characters better, the faction groups and organization of The Nameless Order makes more sense, and the book sheds light on elements and moments that happen quickly on screen.
That said, after poring through the pages of the movie’s art book, I can’t help but mention the production design and attention to detail again. All of that is visually lost in a novelization. Sure, it’s the authors job to translate the beauty of the armor and elegance of the warriors to the page, but this is a movie that revels in the little nuances, colorizations, and uniqueness of each character and set piece. It’s easy to lose character details or gloss over important traits when they’re buried in a sea of text, but on screen these same elements can be shown and focused on in cinematic ways to connect the audience to the material. It’s a gripe I’ll always have with official movie novelizations, and one I just have to get over, but it’s worth mentioning for The Great Wall in-particular. From the various Nameless Order corps groups, each a different color and vibrantly brought to life in the movie, to the final set piece that sees Matt Damon’s character inside a building/temple that’s lit up brilliantly by multi-colored stained glass windows, the art design of the film deserves to be seen on the screen.
But, that doesn’t mean the book is a waste of space (sorry again xXx), and I’m convinced it’s a solid fantasy fiction novel on its own merits. Whether you’re a fan of the genre, enjoyed the movie, or have a collection of these movie tie-in books and can’t stop yourself from picking up another, The Great Wall – The Official Movie Novelization is worth the read.