Inventing Chell: How J.J. Abrams’ Portal Film Could Take Shape
It’s true that a film based on the Valve game Portal is just a twinkle in J.J. Abrams’ eye at this point, but I’m already curious to see how it will turn out. Portal is an amazingly funny and clever puzzler. In the original game, you play Chell, a woman trapped in a testing facility run by a psychotic computer named GLaDOS, which forces you to run around solving puzzles using a portal gun, taunting you as you go.
I wasn’t convinced that Portal would make a good movie until I saw this video:
Here, we see Danielle Rayne as Chell, outrunning agents of GLaDOS (who don’t exist in the game, but work here to increase the tension). The portal gun is just like the one in the game, and it’s even used to perform the same tricks that you use to advance through Portal‘s levels. The game’s aesthetics work well in live action — there’s nothing like a dimly lit, drippy warehouse to build suspense! The one problem? Chell doesn’t speak. Not one word. Chell is a genuine stand-in for any player, and that makes sense in the game. But, in a feature-length film, Chell is going to need to say something every so often. How do you create a personality for a beloved character that doesn’t seem contrived?
There are plenty of adaptations of books that give clues as to how Chell could grow into a fully realized character. In The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen barely speaks, particularly during the time she is in the Arena fighting off her competition. Her stubborn silence is a huge part of her character, and most of the story is told through her inner monologue. In the film, Katniss has to talk more to keep the plot moving. But, instead of the heady emotional speeches you might expect from a heroine, Jennifer Lawrence speaks volumes with her facial expressions instead. The scene in which she silently enters the Arena, shaking from head to toe, is one of the best in the film.
In the case of The Hunger Games, the writers had three novels worth of information about Katniss to develop her character. In 2005, Ang Lee adapted a 30-page short story by Annie Proulx into the feature Brokeback Mountain. Like Chell and Katniss, Ennis Del Mar barely speaks. Lee populated Ennis’ world with sweeping vistas, swelling music, and chattier co-stars. The two wives in the story have one or two lines of description each, but become major characters in the film (where they’re played by Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway). In Portal, there are hints that other test subjects came before Chell (every so often you pass markings on the wall, particularly “The Cake is a Lie”). It’s possible Chell will need human allies to give her someone to push against as she bounds her way through acid, moving platforms and weighted companion cubes.
With a terrific villain like GLaDOS, it’s not necessarily important that Chell have equally snappy dialogue. If you go far back enough in film-adaptation history, you come to Rebecca, Alfred Hitchcock’s Oscar-winning adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s novel. In the book, the protagonist doesn’t even have a name. She arrives at a creepy old mansion as the second wife of Maxim de Winter, after his first wife Rebecca mysteriously vanishes. The new wife timidly floats around the house, hardly speaking a word. The most memorable part of Rebecca is creepy Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper who is more than a little obsessed with Rebecca. Mrs. Danvers is on par with GLaDOS as an ultra-manipulative evil genius. She’s really the star of the show, and all we have to do is sit back and watch the new Mrs. de Winter helplessly flail in her presence.
A Portal film is a long way off, but I’m hopeful that the adaptation can maintain the fun and suspense of the original game.