It seems to be the time for adaptation discussions. First Joanna gives us a great article on race in The Hunger Games, then Heather furnishes us with some excellent choices for best book to film adaptations. And now, without even planning it like that, I want to weigh in on the adaptation problem.
Adapting books to movies has a long and varying history. Birth of a Nation was an adaptation of that seminal classic The Clansman that no one reads and no one ever should. Griffith based much of his development of continuity editing and parallel structure on the structure of the three volume novel. So cinema and literature are inextricably intertwined. It’s no wonder that there are so many book to film adaptations.
There’s always a measure of wariness when one approaches a film of one’s favorite book, or even just a book that you’ve enjoyed. I for one am shaking with fear at the prospect of the new On the Road, mostly because Kristen Stewart has an inexplicably large part. Also because On the Road really doesn’t have much of a story in the strict sense of the word: it is episodic in structure, and the problems of the narrative are glossed over by Kerouac’s exceptional command of language. It really does not lend itself to cinema, as far as I can see. But we’ll just have to wait and see.
One of the more high-falutin’ adaptation theories attempts to circumvent the problem of faithfulness in adaptation by stating that the film should stick to the ‘spirit’ of the original book, if not strictly the plot/characterization. This of course makes for some argument: what is the ‘spirit’ of the book, how do we define it and how do we think about it? I would call Hitchcock’s Rebecca, Huston’s version of The Maltese Falcon, and The Thin Man good adaptations, despite all three being markedly different from their source material. They interpret the novels, transfer them to a different medium, eliminate non-cinematic (or censorable) elements, and construct a new work. Same goes for Lord of the Rings, Shutter Island, Double Indemnity, and, as far as I can tell, The Hunger Games.
There are some great adaptations; there are also pretty terrible ones. The intensity with which some people feel towards certain books can, unfortunately, mean that a good film adaptation is almost impossible. So instead we sacrifice good filmmaking, even comprehensibility, because we want to get every single beloved character into the frame. I came across this problem while watching one of the Harry Potter films (sorry, I’m gonna hate some more). I honestly do not remember which one it was; let’s call it The Goblet of Fire, ‘cause I remember that title. Leaving the theatre, I expressed my deep disappointment that I could not follow a film that kept making references to things that were barely touched on in the last one and characters that had no backstory in the world of the film. My friend told me that she supposed “You really have to have read the book.” That bothered me. I didn’t want to read the book, I wanted to see a movie! And I did not like the assumption that I should have read the book in order to enjoy my viewing experience.
Obviously, I was not the target audience. I had no warm or fuzzy feelings towards the book series; at the time, I did not feel one way or the other. But the film was a total mess. It seemed so afraid of angering the fans by leaving out one character, one plot detail, that it lost sight of the fact that it was a film. It became a companion piece.
I don’t see why we have to sacrifice one good thing for the other. Hollywood has proven itself capable of making good adaptations; most of them are good because they have some degree of unfaithfulness. Plots are streamlined, extraneous characters removed, internal dialogues transmuted. The directors and screenwriters recognize that they are making a movie and that the movie has to come first; that movies cannot, and should not, do the same thing that novels can do. Was I annoyed that the Coens got rid of a subplot in No Country for Old Men? Yeah, but it made sense in the structure of the film, as a film. It seems to be a given that literature and cinema are two different mediums, but in the heat of the moment we tend to forget that.
Just because a book is popular and beloved does not mean that it SHOULD be adapted. Some things can remain as they are and that’s OK. If you read it, do you really, 100% have to see it? This is not to put a moratorium on adaptations; just ones that sacrifice good filmmaking for faithfulness. You can adapt anything, as Cronenberg proved when he did Naked Lunch. But that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea … as Cronenberg proved when he did Naked Lunch.
It seems that Hollywood has become increasingly in the thrall of the fans. Studios are afraid to make movies that maybe, just maybe, are a little unfaithful. The casting has to be just right, the script has to be just right. God save you if you leave out that one scene with that one character that we all liked but isn’t really important (WHERE WAS TOM BOMBADIL, DAMMIT?!). Even when it is all just right, someone will be dissatisfied, and throw a fit online. A movie will never be able to approximate the way we all saw a certain character, or event. Heather did well to point out those films that are good films AND good adaptations. What a film can do, what it should do, is produce a work of art all its own, capable of standing on its own, representing all the things the word ‘film’ implies. If you want a book, you shouldn’t be sitting in a dark theatre. It’s awfully difficult to read there.