Akiva Goldsman is a name I dread. Goldsman is a screenwriter who has been working since the mid-1990s, beginning with the script for the John Grisham adaptation The Client (1994). He has had a close association with Ron Howard and wrote the scripts for Howards The Da Vinci Code (2006), Cinderella Man (2005) and Angels & Demons (2009), as well as won a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for A Beautiful Mind (2001) although I remain in a minority in disliking it as a film. Unfortunately, Goldsman has laid a trail of devastation whenever it has come to touching genre material Batman Forever (1995), Batman & Robin (1997), the worst film ever made on an A-budget, the much disliked but semi-okay Lost in Space (1998), Practical Magic (1998), I, Robot (2004), I Am Legend (2007) and Insurgent (2015). All of these are adapted from other works and widely betray their source material. No more enthusiasm can be found for Goldsmans work as a producer either, which includes Renny Harlin films such as Deep Blue Sea (1999) and Mindhunters (2004), Starsky & Hutch (2004), Constantine (2005), Poseidon (2006), Hancock (2008), Jonah Hex (2010), Lone Survivor (2013) and the tv mini-series adaptation of Arthur C. Clarkes Childhoods End (2015). To not entirely write Goldsman off, I will give him some credit for decent producing/writing work on the J.J. Abrams tv series Fringe (2008-13) and that he oversaw the first three Paranormal Activity sequels, Paranormal Activity 2 (2010), Paranormal Activity 3 (2011) and Paranormal Activity 4 (2012), the first two of which emerged not too badly.
On screen, Winter's Tale is a stripped down version of the book. What it ends up is akin to David Lynchs Dune (1984), which attempted to squeeze a massively complex story down into a two-and-a-half hour film and only ended up with fragments of themes and characters. Like Dune, which was far better told as the tv mini-series Dune (2000), you suspect that the better destination for Winter's Tale would be on the small screen. Akiva Goldsman has deleted whole sections, especially during the early sections of Peter Lakes life we jump from his being set adrift on a model yacht to his being pursued by Pearlys gang, removing the entire story of his childhood and street education and how he fell out with the Short Tail Gang. Missing are a number of major characters such as the bridge-builder Jackson Mead, the heiress Hardesty Maratta and Mayor Praeger de Pinto. There is also elimination of some of the later elements of the book such as Peters transmogrification into a character given the task of remembering all the names of the dead and as being instrumental in the millennial apocalypse that ends up restoring New York City. The film does however give us the addition of one character Will Smiths Judge, who turns out to be Lucifer, which Akiva Goldsman says he added to explain more about Pearlys character.
I did not read the book before seeing the film so I am, by and large, not concerned with issues of faithfulness so much as how Winter's Tale works as a movie. It is a strange beast. The concept of the urban fantasy a fantasy that takes place in an urban setting where the edges of the familiar city lurk with secret worlds and magical elements is something relatively unknown in cinema. You would have to look to the tv series Beauty and the Beast (1987-90) or the Neil Gaiman mini-series Neverwhere (1996) for any filmed equivalent. The publicity department has skipped the difficulty of labelling by simply selling Winter's Tale to audiences as a magical romance (it was released on Valentines Day of 2014), although you would argue that the romance is only part of the book. The film seems to exist in a blurred world where the fantastical hovers at the borderland of the real world horses that are mystical spirits with phantom wings, Pearly a demon tasked with preventing miracles from happening in peoples lives, and where mystical auguries, fate and predestination are very real things. Some aspects of the film are more clear when you read the novel here Beverly is constantly seeing patterns of light but in the book it is more clear that these are possible hallucinations caused by the heightened mental state of her illness; Peter falls off the bridge and loses his memory until he eventually regains it in the present where you gain the impression he was wandering around amnesiac for about a century, whereas in the book he actually succeeds in travelling through time.
Winter's Tale seems uneven at times. Part of this is the sprawling and difficult nature of the book. The other is some of the actors. Colin Farrell comes to the film with too much in the way of association with bad boy roles and I could never quite buy him as the hopelessly lost romantic. You keep expecting the sly Colin Farrell twinkle to emerge during the romantic scenes but he remains intently serious, something that never much suits Farrell as an actor. Similarly, Jessica Brown Findlay is a name on the rise as a result of tvs Downton Abbey (2010-5) but here she seems pretty but distant. The two never seem to much connect and ignite the screen with their passion and epic love story. By contrast, Russell Crowe excels at the role of the pursuing nemesis with shaven head and thuggishly broad Irish accent, he is like an angry bulldog champing at a short leash. Some of the films best moments are those between Russell Crowe and a surprise cameo from Will Smith as The Devil. If nothing else, the film is constantly surprising you with the number of name actors that keep turning up (all of whom have had successes in other films that Akiva Goldsman has written).
Nevertheless, where Winter's Tale succeeds is less as a broad and satisfying story, much of which is due to trying to make cinema out of a difficult novel, but rather in its individual moments. The leads dont spark much in their performances but what you notice is that the romance is beautifully written and crafted. It is, you feel, a story that Akiva Goldsman cared about and takes the time to invest feeling in the scenes, building everything around the two lovers in the lighting and the intimacy of his direction. The film works less well in the latter half set in the present-day where the story shifts from what Mark Helprin had intended as the apocalyptic and redemptive towards the schmaltzy and feelgood and its wheeling into place the happenings of fate, which take in too many chunks of New Age mysticism.