Welcome to Adapt This!, a column dedicated to various works of fiction that haven’t yet been adapted into film or television…but that really should be.
Today, the spotlight is on a short story called “In the Colosseum,” written by Stephen Volk.
What’s It About?
This is the narrative of Marcus, a British TV network editor. While attending the premiere event of a reality series, the producer, Simon Guest, invites Marcus out for an after-premiere party. Wishing to make a good impression, Marcus joins Guest and his crowd of drunk, rowdy cronies as they head out the door and into the London Underground.
“I thought we were catching the Tube somewhere,” Marcus reflects during the initial (and literal) part of his descent. “That was the plan, wasn’t it? I was expecting to head down to one of the platforms. …That wasn’t the plan at all.”
Marcus soon discovers the true nature of Guest’s party plan when the group slips into a security control room, its walls covered with CCTV cameras. There, the group plays frenzied audience to the ultimate reality show: live broadcasts of assorted brutal acts of violence and depravity being committed throughout the Underground tunnels.
There’s a certain vicarious thrill of remotely witnessing a dangerous situation unfold; just look at every argument about the violence on TV and in movies and video games, and how addictive they can be, for all the wrong reasons. It’s a sensation that hearkens back to the days of Roman gladiator battles—of which this story is a grim, modern metaphor.
But make no mistake about the nature of this story; it’s nothing preachy or moral-driven. In fact, it’s as dark and dense as a black hole, a devastating meditation upon the intoxicating and addictive nature of voyeurism. The reader is locked into a cramped, sweaty room full of corrupt debauchery…and a dire need for a long mental (and moral) shower afterwards.
How Would It Adapt?
Other than possibly a few of the fight scenes glimpsed on the CCTV screens, none of the scenes in the story call for anything particularly action-packed or special effects-heavy. The majority of the action (such as it is) takes place in a crowded security control room; in this regard, it could almost be performed on the stage (if like a 21st century version of something put out by the macabre French theater Grand Guignol).
In fact, this story’s limited setting (and overall plot points) isn’t quite enough for a feature-length film unto itself—unless, of course, it were to be expanded a bit. There are hints and glimpses into Marcus’s life outside of the TV studio, including the fact that he has a wife and son; and of course, many questions could be raised about what happens in the aftermath of the story’s main events. In the right hands, this could make for an unflinchingly introspective and even postmodern film—one that perfectly speaks to, and about, the media-driven 21st century.
Alternatively, it may be a worthy candidate for a one-off TV episode. Of course, the violence alone would limit which networks could have a place for it. The BBC/Netflix anthology series Black Mirror would be an appropriate vehicle; and even there, one must wonder as to just how far the showrunners could take the explicit content—of which there is much.
There is violence and bloodshed, yes, but there are also copious amounts of profanity, drug use, nudity, and sexual content (for reasons best left unspoiled). This would make for one hell of a dark and gritty TV episode—or, should the plot be thoughtfully expanded upon, a sensational “post-exploitative” film.
Who Should Direct It?
Despite all its fundamental themes of violence and depravity, including some startlingly vivid descriptions, the story itself isn’t strictly an exploitation fest; it’s full of sex and violence, yes, but it’s because it’s about the carnal nature of sex and violence. For these reasons, not just any director with an extensive filmography of exploitative films would do.
David Cronenberg, for example, has defined his career with extreme cinema; and while earlier films of his specialized in effects-heavy visuals of metamorphic body horror, his more recent output has taken a comparatively subtle approach, examining all-too-human behavior and actions as sources of true horror. Cronenberg’s introspective, postmodern cinematic discussion of violence makes him an ideal, if high-profile, directorial choice for this adaptation.
Australian director John Hillcoat is another. His films, from his 2005 take on the western, The Proposition, on up through the appropriately grim adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2009), are showcases of the dangers of staring into the void, and how it affects its viewer (both for the characters and for the audience).
Finally, Nicolas Winding Refn, director of such acclaimed films as Drive (2011) and Only God Forgives (2013), has an eye for creating unapologetically tense and infectiously riveting films. His take on “In the Colosseum” would be absolutely haunting.
Where Can I Read This?
This story was originally published in The End of the Line: New Horror Stories Set On and Around the Subway (2010, Solaris Books, edited by Jonathan Oliver), and later reprinted in Volk’s own short story collection Monsters In the Heart (2013, Gray Friar Press).