Okay, look – you’ve told me a few times that the book is better than the movie.
Did you know that I read the book, too? Honestly, I also like it better than the movie. I guess the folks that adapted it for the screen really left out a lot. Two of my favorite subplots, for instance. Yeah, the one with the unsigned letters? That was so scary in the book. Oh, and the scriptwriters added a bunch of stuff that wasn’t in the book, and, well, I sort of wish that all of the internal monologues made it to the screen, too. They added a sense of humor that just wasn’t in the movie. And I can’t believe that they changed the protagonist’s hair color.
But you know what? The movie was actually pretty good. Maybe really good.
Stop laughing! Think about this: no matter how good a book-to-film adaptation is, fans will have a one-up on whatever the filmmakers can put on the screen – their imagination. Your imagination does a lot of heavy lifting; regardless of what faults a novel has, the imagination fills in the blanks, splashes on the perfect atmosphere, gives all of the characters the best possible traits to tell the story. At least, all of the best things for the reader.
So in a way, movie adaptations are really sketchings of written stories, not photographs. And besides, film and literature are two very different ways to tell a story, with both strengths and weaknesses that don’t overlap as much as we wish they did. Trying to transfer one to the other without any changes just doesn’t work – it’s almost like trying to adapt an epic poem into a short folk song. As storytelling forms, the few similarities are crowded out by the differences that have to be taken into account. Otherwise, you’d have day-long songs that no one would want to listen to, let alone make.
There are some novels that translate easily to the screen. Cormac McCarthy’s recent No Country For Old Men is a good example; the Coen brothers’ film version from 2007 hewed closely to the book’s sparse text. But the movie still felt and looked like a Coen film, as it should have – the adapted screenplay was clay molded by them, and the fact that it worked well on its own is more of a credit to them than McCarthy. (Though I must admit, when I read the novel upon its release, I felt like the normally dense McCarthy had written a Coen screenplay!)
But a good movie doesn’t have to follow the book precisely – I’d go so far as to say that the less a movie is constrained by a book, the better. Of course, an adaptation will probably need to retain at least some of the source novel’s traits before it becomes something completely unrelated to the novel, but creative interpretation is a good thing.
Two very different examples of excellent movies that are considerably different than their literature roots:The Wizard of Oz and L.A. Confidential. The former is cemented as a film classic, so embedded in Western society’s subconsciousness that people quote the film without even knowing the source. Do you think it’s because of a long-standing cultural love of L. Frank Baum’s book series? As historically important as Baum’s Oz series is, the film has dwarfed his books. For a good reason, too: it’s a fantastic movie, and one drastically different from its literary source. The film has stood on its own, as there aren’t many Baum purists that dismiss the movie.
The same goes for director Curtis Hanson’s take on L.A. Confidential, from James Ellroy’s novel of the same name. Like many of his other works, Ellroy writes a dense, detail-heavy jungle of staccato dialogue, complex plot elements, and almost ghoulish overtones. Hanson’s movie takes the basic structure of the neo-noir novel (three unlikely cops, one murder, chaos ensues!) and runs with it. Characters are completely changed, entire plotlines erased, endings and motives overhauled and retooled. And it totally works. I’m a fan of both the book and film, and Hanson takes Ellroy’s story and tells it again in his own way. It’s still recognizable as an adaption of Ellroy’s story, but it’s a movie first and foremost.
There are plenty of examples of literary adaptations out there, especially considering that people have been adapting the written word into motion pictures for over a century. In fact, I bet you don’t realize that some of your favorite movies are based on novels, comics, or short stories. From The Princess Bride to Eyes Wide Shut to Die Hard, from Exit Wounds to M*A*S*H to Original Sin to Shaft to Slumdog Millionaire. How “faithful” the adaptation is to the source material varies from project to project, with varying results.
I’m realizing more and more that the main reason I felt let down with film versions of the Chronicles of Narnia is not because they changed things from the book, but because, well, they were just average movies. Cute looking English kids have some adventures, a lion dies (or something) and there’s a big, suffocating CGI battle that envelopes the latter third of the movie. What fantasy movie doesn’t do this? I have a feeling that if the movies didn’t have the C.S. Lewis connection, they would’ve been completely written off by critics and fans and given a quick shove-off to the bargain DVD section of a big box retail store.
Here’s something to try: go watch a movie based on a book you love, but try to take a step back and just watch it as a movie. Pretend that you’ve never opened the book, even.
And it really comes down to this – you love the book, and you’re always going to love it. But no matter what, the film is always going to let you down if you keep treating it like a facsimile of the version on page. It isn’t, and won’t ever be. But it is a separate work of art, and needs to stand on its own two legs.