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Read to Me Thursday: Page to Screen

March 18, 2010

Though I don’t have the statistics to back it up, I’d wager the majority of movies are based on a book/graphic novel.  Even some you wouldn’t expect were adapted from books.  Did you know the action classic Die Hard is based (loosely) on a novel?  I kid you not.

There are some people who like to whine that movies are never as good as books.  I disagree with that.  I think there are some movies that are better than their source material.  And there are many books that are better than their adaptations.  To put it simply, it depends on the filmmakers adapting the book.

Before I get any deeper into that, let’s do a little “Pro vs. Con” here.

Books:

Pros

  • Can expound more deeply on subjects
  • Can focus on the internal lives of characters more
  • Are far more cost effective (no needing to spend millions for actors, computer effects, and so forth) and thus can have broader scopes.
  • Require the use of imagination
  • Don’t require 3D glasses.

Cons

  • Can be far too long, such as the last Harry Potter, Stephen King’s The Stand, War & Peace, etc.
  • Can focus too much on internal development–more a problem for “literary” novels
  • Require the use of imagination–a problem for generations raised on TV and the Internet
  • Don’t require 3D glasses–I have to turn the pages myself?  That is so 300 years ago!

Movies

Pros

  • Tend to be shorter, thus less investment of time
  • Can paint a picture in sight and sound (and I’m sure James Cameron is hard at work on Smellovision as well)
  • Can be more focused
  • A DVD can be rented for as little as $1, a movie in the theater with 3D goggles runs about $15-$20; a new hardcover is $25-$30 so you do the math.
  • 3D!
  • And popcorn!

Cons

  • Inevitably will cut out someone’s favorite part of the book
  • Lack the ability to provide inner life of characters
  • The risk of bad casting (just ask my sister about Renee Zellweiger in Cold Mountain)
  • Inevitably the jerk behind you talking loudly, usually on a cell phone
  • 3D goggles can also give you headaches or seizures.

So overall there are good things about books and movies and bad things.  The most important thing to remember is they are two different art forms.

The main reason I think movie adaptations fail is the filmmakers forget about this.  They employ the Cliff Notes approach where they try to make the movie cover as much of the book as possible.  A recent example I saw was The Kite Runner that covered the highlights of the book, but didn’t add anything.  That’s fine if you haven’t read the novel.  If you have, though, it’s boring.  After all, I’ve already read the book, I don’t need a summary of it.

Really the filmmakers need to approach the adaptation as a separate entity.  In my opinion what you need to do is distill the various elements of the movie and decide what’s important and what’s not.  What’s the “theme” of the story?  What events bring that out?  What characters are needed to demonstrate this?  If you focus on that, the adaptation will work a lot better than simply regurgitating as much of the book as possible in 2-3 hours.  Of course I’ve done 0 book-to-movie adaptations so consider this another Terrible Tip a couple days late.

The point though is that in my mind the adaptations that work best are those that aren’t afraid to take some chances and make changes to the material.  One of my favorite book-to-movie adaptations is Curtis Hanson’s film version of Michael Chabon’s novel Wonder Boys.  In the book there’s a lengthy sequence of a Passover dinner between philandering English professor Grady Tripp, his “protege” James Leer, and his soon-to-be-ex-wife’s family.  All of this is removed in the movie.  In fact we never actually meet the soon-to-be-ex-wife; we just see her in a picture at her parents’ house.  And you know what?  That was perfectly OK to me.  The relationship between Grady and his ex-wife wasn’t important to the overall story, so there was no need to waste a lot of time on it.

If the filmmakers had simply employed the Cliff Notes version they probably would have needed to include at least an abbreviated version of that scene.  Instead they took a chance, creatively made a few changes, and in my mind it was an improvement.  Actually it created one of my favorite moments of the movie where James Leer is lying on the couch in the parents’ house, smoking a joint and watching TV when the soon-to-be-ex-wife’s parents walk in behind him with a WTF expression.  Funnier still is the soon-to-be-ex-wife’s mother makes James some cookies and milk like he’s a grandkid dropping in for a visit.  There’s then a brief conversation between Grady and his soon-to-be-ex-father-in-law and it’s done.  A scene that was probably 50-100 pages in the book dealt with far more swiftly and effectively.  (Others might disagree about that–and they can write about it in their blogs.  So there.)

Another good example is the adaptation of The Cider House Rules.  It took the book’s author John Irving about fifteen years and a half-dozen drafts before the movie was ever made.  But since the book is nearly 600 pages long, some creative changes were needed.  My favorite was eliminating the 15-year jump in the book and orphan/apple-picker Homer Wells knocking up his love/employer Candy.  Eliminating this significantly sped up the plot, not to mention eliminated the unsavory element of Homer/Candy lying to the kid about his origins for 15 years.  That might have been someone’s favorite part of the book, but it wasn’t mine.

The old writing expression is that “you have to kill your darlings” and that holds true when you’re adapting a book to screen as well.  No matter what you do, someone’s probably going to be pissed off that you cut something they liked.  Well, f**k them.  You want that part so bad get your video camera and film it yourself and put it up on YouTube for you and your buddies to watch.  That’s probably harder to do though if you’re the one who wrote the book and are trying to write the movie.  It’s got to be tough to kill a part you really liked from the book because there’s not enough time to put it in the movie.  Still, it’s a necessary evil because unless you’re Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter you don’t get 3,4, 7 hours to adapt the book.  The advantage of having the author doing their own adaptation, though is you can be reasonably assured the author will care about his/her own project, maybe to a fault.  If you wind up with a Cliff Notes version, I’m willing to bet the author’s name won’t be attached as a writer of the film.  It was probably just hired out to someone, treated like a “product” instead of a piece of art.  I have no proof of this; it’s just my possibly crackpot theory.

Usually it’s easy to say whether a book is better than the movie or not.  Sometimes you get a push.  That’s what happened when I read/watched The Hours.  I actually did this at nearly the same time so they were fresh in my head.  This is what I said in my review:

The book does a better job, as books do, of giving characters internal life. The movie conveys much of this through dialog between the characters, which makes for better drama, especially when Virginia Woolf and her husband are arguing at the train station. It works much better in the film version when they’re talking than in the novel where most of it occurs in Virginia’s head as she sits on a bench. Some of the background characters like Sally, Clarissa’s lover, and Julia, Clarissa’s daughter, are given more depth in the book than the movie while Virginia’s husband Leonard and her sister, niece, and nephews seem to get more time in the film. So it’s hard overall to say which is better.

That I think demonstrates the difference between books and movies and why some movies based on books can fail and others can succeed.  As noted in the Pros & Cons section, novels can have a lot more internalization that is difficult to bring across on the screen.  So when making a movie you can lose this if you’re not creative like in the part about Virginia Woolf at the train station or the examples I mentioned above.

The important thing is to remember that these should be two distinct entities and the movie shouldn’t be treated as a product to cash in on the popularity of the book.  The movie should retain the essence of the book, not merely be a summary of it.  Those that succeed find a way to do that while those that fail do not.

(I have not read or seen Harry Potter or Twilight so I have no idea about these.)

Though of course in the end the best filmmakers around can’t necessarily make a crummy book shine and the best written book isn’t a guarantee of a great film.  You still need people who know what they’re doing on both ends to make it work.

On Sunday I begin a two-part discussion on which author I would take to the bomb shelter with me at the end of the world.  In honor of March Madness we’re going to do this bracket style with 32 of my favorite authors.  This Sunday (3/21) will feature the round of 32 and the Sweet Sixteen.  The following Sunday (3/28) will crown the champion.  If you can pull yourself away from the real March Madness on TV, check it out.

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