Editorials, Everything Else — July 19, 2011 at 3:00 am

EDITORIAL: THE BOOK IS NOT “BETTER”!

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This past week marked the end of an era. After charming millions with his brooding, wizarding ways, Harry Potter has beaten The Dark Lord in novels, audio books, action figures, musicals, and, finally, film. Though only first introduced to the world in 1997, the Harry Potter franchise has been adapted into countless forms. And, really, there is nothing I love more than seeing fans manipulate their favorite pop culture material into something new and weird.

But how to critique these various adaptations? As I was coming out of the film (before any of you bitches! Thursday AFTERNOON! Bazinga!) I heard a girl tell her friends (and, in answer to your questions: yes, they were adults, and yes, they were nerds) that had the studio made the film she wanted it would have been 4 hours long. I assume she meant the movie we just watched - Harry Potter 7.2 – which seems to mean she wanted a 6 hour and 26 minute adaptation of the J.K. Rowling book? Now, not only would this version of the story be economical and budgetary suicide, but I wonder if such an adaptation is necessary or even appropriate.

Be honest. Could you look at this face for over 6 hours in a row???

I have often heard/read the phrase “the book is always better” when referring to adaptations. Usually, when questioned further, the critics behind this statement usually point out that the book included “more.” It’s true that quantity of material can help the reader form complex judgments of characters and situations, but is that always the case? Look at A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh, a classic, very short children’s book that has – like the Potter books – created an empire, the most recent edition competing with Potter at the box office this weekend. It seems that tone, rather than length and intricacies of plot, is the more important aspect of close adaptation. In tone, I believe both Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and Winnie the Pooh stay true to the original source material.

Rather than comparing and contrasting what parts of what novel were left out (I remember outrage over a certain house elf at some point), it seems more important to compare what emotions both versions of the story evoke, which themes are apparent in both, and why changes should be made depending on the medium.

A famous film theorist, Dudley Andrew, has pointed out the absurdity of comparing film to literature on an evaluative basis. To say one is better than the other is like saying that Shakespeare’s version of Romeo and Juliet is better than Tchaikovsky’s is better than Baz Luhrmann’s. Yes, these men tell the same story, but a play, a symphony, and a film are so different that it’s impossible to compare the three. What is it about film and literature that makes us think they should mirror each other so perfectly? How do we compare editing to paragraph breaks and prose to cinematography? It seems a pointless endeavor.

This post is the beginning of a series I’d like to do on adaptation in general and specifically. It’s a selfish project because it’s the area of study I’ve been most interested in over the years. But, I think it’s also important for casual film viewers to consider how they think about different stories in different mediums. To start with, I think it’s fair to say that you enjoyed your experience with one version of the story more than another (maybe you like opera so much, Berlioz’s version of Romeo and Juliet is your favorite) but let’s stop there and figure out why. Why you enjoy it more and why certain adaptations made certain choices.

This is going to be so fun!

Hey, look! A happy geek!

10 Comments

  • I recently wrote about books that I read after seeing their respective movie versions,

    http://widescreenworld.blogspot.com/2011/05/five-books-i-read-after-seeing-movie.html

    and there are some cases in which I liked the movie over the book instead of the other way around. Hollywood has adapted books into films for so long that I think at this point people naturally link the two media in their minds.

    Books are just words on paper, so when you read them, it’s easy to imagine the events of a story unfolding in your mind like a movie. As a result, you build a certain image of how a movie version would look – and when the actual movie version comes along and it doesn’t match the one in your head, it’s disappointing. That’s why people can be so passionate about this sort of thing.

  • True Rich. I wasn’t disappointed with HP 7.2 though. I think they summed it up nicely. If you want more read the books.
    Like this girl who mentioned more (6 hours), I also would, like any diehard fan be fine with more… “We” want to live in this world. But she’ll get over it when Breaking Dawn comes out ;)

  • “I have often heard/read the phrase “the book is always better” when referring to adaptations. ”

    That’s like how people say everything is available on DVD nowadays. Only true if all you care about is a very limited universe.

    Movies have been around for well more than 100 years and movie-makers have been adapting books for just as long. After so many movies some of the adaptations were bound to improve on the originals, especially given that a lot of the originals weren’t anything special to begin with. People focus on the Pride and Prejudices and War and Peaces and Hamlets, when most adaptations are of forgotten- sometimes unjustly but usually for good reason- popular novels and plays.

    Excellent topic for a series. I’m looking forward to it!

    • But I don’t think the films necessarily “improve on the originals.” I think to compare the two is a little unnecessary. Instead, why not look at why they changed what they changed and why we enjoy our experience with one more than the other. Audience, form, sound, movement, etc etc – it all makes a difference.

  • I find the whole book purism thing to be kind of stupid. Sure, I’ll argue that certain things about, say, Lord of the Rings or the Game of Thrones show could have been better– they really could have nixed the whole “elves at Helm’s Deep” thing to save themselves some time and made the battle matter a bit more, and they could have had Syrio Forel’s final “dance” be as violent as it is in the books. There are always things about adapted books that stand head and shoulders above their screen cousins.

    But I don’t think that that means the books are always better. Going back to GoT, the show wisely lets us witness how Drogo receives the wound that ultimately leads to his downfall. And Deathly Hallows pt1, for all of the exposition and filler burdening it, manages to SERIOUSLY parse down a whole lot of sitting around in the woods.

    For me, what’s important when adapting a book to screen is keeping the necessary stuff of the plot and the essential emotions and spirit of the story intact. As long as what makes the book so great is retained in the medium transition, the adaptation should be successful– or at least adequate. But I think people want to see carbon copies of their favorite properties transplanted to the screen, which I don’t understand. If I wanted the exact same story, I’d just read the book again. What I REALLY want is to see the director filter the narrative in question through their own vision.

  • Whoa, there’s a job title for film theroist? I wonder how much that pays for? Where can I apply for such a job? I’m totally in!
    -Jason

    • Well, to start with, publish an influential study on film theory. That may sell a couple copies (most importantly, to film students)! Or, you can go the other route, and get a PhD and teach at a university, in which case you’ll make a few thousand a year. In other words, it doesn’t pay much.

  • YAY! Whitney decided to write this week! haha
    I love this post. As some one who wants to be a screenwriter and has studied screenwriting, I’ve learned you can rarely do a faithful adaptation. It has happened and has worked but is not advised. The key is to capture tone and take a “tell” medium and convert to a “show” medium. You don’t have the luxury of going on side tangents in films which is one of the great things about the book medium where we enjoy those sort of things. You WILL lose your audience in a theater.
    Now, I also agree that it is OK to like one more than the other and I HATE the “the book was better” people. Often times they are better. Some adaptations suck. It’s rare to get something like Watchmen or Fight Club where I actually like both because the way they deviate from each other actually makes them both really interesting… but I love when that happens.
    Ultimately, “the book is better” should be allowed to be said and thought but the air of snobbery that comes with it needs to be abolished.
    Oh, and on the Dudley Andrew thought, I see his point but it is also human nature to compare. We compare everything! It’s absurd but it is what we do.

    • You get me, Kair! It is a pretentious thing to say, even when the book you’re talking about is Harry Potter, which is ridiculous.

      I think comparison is very helpful, but not an evaluative comparison. Saying one is better than the other without any kind of thoughts on why one might have made one choice and one different choices.

  • I’m just a “whichever I experienced first is better!” type of person. :D Sad, but true, and with few exceptions. Which is why I generally just don’t read the books if I’ve seen their adapted films first.

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