Book vs. Movie: (The) Meg

Meg book cover and movie poster (Doubleday Books and Warner Bros. Pictures)

Meg

In 1997 I was touring my local Borders Book Store and saw a book titled Meg with a blue cover and what looked like blood in the water. I instantly knew what the novel was about the survival of Carcharodon Megalodon, a prehistoric shark thought to resemble the modern day great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias). When I was a teenager I became interested in marine biology because of Jaws. In that exploration I discovered the Carcharodon megalodon, and since it was a larger version of the great white thought there could be made a case for its survival into modern times. I immediately sat down with the book and started reading, and being a writer and knowing something of the subject I soon became disappointed.

Meg is about submersible pilot Jonas Taylor working out of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute who is working on a Navy project diving into the Mariana Trench reputedly the deepest part of our oceans. In that dive Taylor thinks he sees a Megalodon and blows his tanks in an emergency ascent to the surface killing two researchers. Taylor immediately quits being a submariner, so terrorized by what he saw or what he thought he saw and becomes a paleontologist with an expertise in Megalodons. Five years later he’s lured back to diving in the Mariana Trench by former mentor Masao Tanaka who has lost some equipment in the trench that he needs recovered, and a thriller soon Jonas finds himself in a sub back in the Mariana Trench. In the trench Taylor encounters not one but two Megalodons and all questions are gone. In the ensuing chaos one of the sharks makes it above the thermocline (miles of cold water above the trench) by being enveloped in the warm blood of her mate that is being pulled towards the surface by Tanaka’s ship. Once in the warmer waters off Hawaii the Megalodon soon starts attacking whales and then turns east heading for California and attacking ships and humans.

In Meg author Steve Alten has the basis for a novel with good characters and plausible action. Maybe not on the level of Jaws, but it could have rivaled a Michael Crichton novel (in fact a Los Angeles Times blurb calls it “Jurassic Shark”). The problem with Meg is that Alten passes up every opportunity to add a little complexity or even the slightest verisimilitude and stacks implausibility upon improbability, upon impossibility leading to disbelief. Characters are cardboard creations, there is no real depth to their motivations, plotting is simplistic and chapter ending cliffhangers are awkward. Meg seems like Alten wrote the book with the help of a plot generator, add character here, insert exposition, info dump here, add love interest, need some action here. A perfect example of the problem with Alten’s characters is how Taylor is convinced to return to diving in the Mariana Trench. Meg right from the start has Taylor frightened to the core of his encounter in the trench and what a life altering event it was. How does Tanaka lure Taylor back to diving? He simply says “you have to face your fears” and he’s off! In a thriller you know the hero will confront his fears and embark on the journey or quest he’s asked to, the thing is, for the reader to believe it you have to give the reader a plausible reason and motivation to do it and “you have to face your fear,” “oh, okay,” hardly seems plausible after we’re told how terrorized and afraid he is. Character’s motivations are also non-existent or swing wildly from one end of the spectrum to the next. Terry Tanaka at first can’t stand Taylor because he got her brother killed, then suddenly with no explanation or reason it seems they’re having an affair but nothing in book develops how that happened!

Meg is a fast read, for all the wrong reasons. It’s not a page turner in the sense that the action and or writing is compelling, but because there’s nothing to think about and if you do Meg falls apart in front of you.

The Meg

Throw out the book! The filmmakers did. I had great hopes for this movie when I saw that Jon Turtletaub was directing. Turtletaub has produced summer blockbuster movies in the National Treasure franchise two movies that had a lot of humor in them and great characters and above average acting, and Phenomena an underrated movie that has depth in the characters. It seems that even though Turtletaub and writers (Dean Georgaris, and Jon and Erich Hoeber) threw out the plot of the book they took all the shortcomings of the book and incorporated them into the movie.

Jason Statham plays Jonas Taylor the pilot of a deep-sea submersible rescue unit who in the course of a rescue has a terrifying encounter with what he thinks is a Carcharodon Megalodon, a shark that is thought to be on the order of a great white, although about three times as big and thought to have died out with the dinosaurs. Taylor is so frightened by his encounter that he retires to Thailand and tries to drown his fears and lost nerve in alcohol. When his ex-wife, Lori (Jessica McNamee) takes a submersible into the Mariana Trench and discovers a pristine marine environment that includes the Megalodon which quickly disables the sub and Taylor is needed to rescue her. He is taken to Mana 1 a research facility bankrolled by an Elon Musk like billionaire played by Rainn Wilson. Taylor is quickly put into a submersible and rescues his wife, but through a rare natural occurrence, an explosion of a thermal vent gives the Megalodon passage through the cold waters and into warmer surface waters, and the carnage and terror is supposed to begin.

The problem is Turtletaub and company took the implausibility and improbability of Alten’s novel and carried it over into the film. The characters and fleshing them out is non-existent, and there’s no chemistry between them, especially, between him and Bingbing Li playing Suyin as the obvious love interest, so that when the Megalodon starts chomping on people there’s no tension because we don’t care about any of the characters. There’s no tension in the Megalodon attacks, Turtletaub builds no suspense or tension, people fall off boats for no other reason than to become fish food and in one case caused me to laugh out loud at the improbability of the scene.

Statham’s Jonas Taylor seems neither like the professorial type of the book nor traumatized aquanaut who has been so terrorized by a monstrous creature that he won’t go back into the water. Which begs the question why does Taylor think he encountered a Megalodon at all? Because his encounter with the Megalodon takes place aboard a submersible that doesn’t have any windows, nor do they see any radar contact of anything “huge” outside the sub so there’s not the slightest explanation of why he thinks he saw a Megalodon. A bigger gaffe that filmmakers could have headed off is that they take for granted that the audience knows what a Carcharodon Megalodon is and what makes a Megalodon special or more frightening than say a great white shark. Rainn Wilson’s billionaire doesn’t seem to have any idea of what the research facility he financed does.

Jaws is one of the first movies in what are now called summer blockbuster movies but Turtletaub’s contribution to the genre in The Meg doesn’t add anything to the genre and probably won’t pull in the kind of money the studio had hoped for. Turtletaub is a filmmaker who is capable of making well realized films with great characters and has proven he can get very good performances from his actors, maybe he should have re-watched Jaws before undertaking The Meg.

What’s the verdict? Which is better the book or the movie version of (The) Meg? It’s a toss-up, both evince the worst of their medium and deliver unmemorable characters and action that is predictable and not very thrilling. Remember friends don’t let friends see a bad movie or read a bad book.

I’m a writer. You can find me in between the lines.

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