Every so often, a film comes along that moves you to the core. The act of simply watching becomes something more, something profound, something life-altering, something unforgettable. Charlie Kaufman's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is one of those films, stunning in its uniqueness and bold in its execution.
Just like the hapless characters themselves, the film remains etched in the dark crevices of my mind, illuminated by the occasional rewatch. Many feel the same; as well as winning an Oscar win for Best Original Screenplay, the BBC recently declared it the sixth best film since 2000 in a poll of 177 critics worldwide.
So the recent announcement that Anonymous Content will be working on a TV spin-off has caused mixed emotions. As surprising as it is, it's an indication of the latest trend in Hollywood, taking a well-known and beloved feature and splicing it into a TV series. That process in itself has had mixed results, not all bad, as shows like Fargo and Bates Motel illustrate.
But Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a different beast entirely, a deeply personal film that, much like a photograph, captures a fleeting, moving and never-to-be-recreated moment in the lives of Joel (Jim Carrey) and Clementine (Kate Winslet). To understand the challenges the TV series will face in living up to its source, first we must delve into the DNA of the 2004 movie to unpick its greatness.
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What Made External Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind Great
Although I suspect most people reading this would've been enticed by the melancholic nostalgia of the title, for those unfamiliar with the film, first things first: Watch it. For those who have watched but need refreshing, the film centers around the dysfunctionally realistic love story of Joel and Clementine — with a twist.
The normality of their relationship is contrasted with the premise of the film, set in a reality where, with a simple operation, the memories of a loved one can be erased with the apparent simplicity of deleting a file from a hard drive. Shown in a non-linear fashion, chronological events start by Clementine erasing her memory of Joel on a whim; Joel then finds out, and opts for the same treatment.
What starts as an intriguing, Kaufman trademarked oddity then descends into a touching, unflinching and murky exploration at the nature of love and life through the sporadic and bewildering environment of the mind. As Joel is in the process of undergoing the procedure, he has second thoughts, and attempts to box away his treasured memories of Clemantine before all existence of their relationship is forgotten.
An Authentic Story About Love
The brilliance of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind lies in the magnetism between the two leads. As a couple they are deeply flawed, yet simultaneously an accurate antithesis to the Hollywood myth of love — a realization Joel faces, the true reflection that while love and relationships aren't flawless, it's what lies in the imperfection that makes it worthwhile.
In terms of direction, director Michel Gondry constructs a compelling visual representation of the make-up of memory (so much so, neuroscience backs this up). As well as a healthy smothering of sentimentality, the narrative runs an unpredictable, zany course through the recesses of Joel's psyche. These aren't just film clips of Joel's past; each moment is drenched with emotion as Joel re-experiences these long-lost feelings during his synaptic sojourn.
Ultimately, Joel uncovers the reality that all love harbors some sense of madness. His desperate attempt to cling on to his memory of times gone by — good and bad — is a life-like and philosophical look at the way in which we all handle the notion of romance, both present and past. Crucially, the impending realisation that time was running out was perfect for the feature film format, with only a few hours for the arc to reach its natural conclusion. Could TV capture the same level of intensity?
Can The TV Show Live Up To The Movie?
Having gushed about the original (and there is plenty more gushing that could be done) now is a good time to turn to the TV spin-off. Just how can it capture even a fragment of what made Kaufman's movie great? I'll assume Winslet and Carrey won't return, which essentially leaves two routes the show can go down: Focusing on characters or focusing on concept.
The crux of the film was less about the treatment itself, but more about the consequences undergoing such treatment has on those involved. Exploring the moral and emotional outcome through the dynamic duo of Carrey and Winslet almost makes picking up with new characters a no-brainer.
Although more episodes would equate more character development, the show would struggle to match the same tenacity and chemistry that Carrey and Winslet create with their performances as Joel and Clementine.
Alternatively a focus on concept could work. Because the spotlight was on the two lovers, there wasn't too much time spent on Lacuna Inc., the company who carry out the treatment. There is enough to raise interesting moral questions though, such as employee Patrick (Elijah Wood) exploiting the process by using Joel's memory to try and serenade Clementine.
A Focus On Concept Over Character
A TV show based around the wider societal and moral repercussions of such treatment would no doubt be interesting. And as skeptical as fans of the original may be, Anonymous Content — who also produced the original — have an impressive CV, most notably TV show Mr. Robot as well as last year's Oscar nominated Spotlight and The Revenant.
Production is only at the early planning stage, with a script that hasn't even begun as of yet (Zev Borow is still in talks to write the story). But although the show may be breaking the cardinal rule of not messing a classic, if the creative team behind the show can pull it off and focus on the bigger picture, it may well be a worthwhile journey down memory lane.