Monday, June 25, 2007

Movie adaptations of books

Prompted by seeing the imaginative Day Watch and by a question from this person, I've returned to a train of thought that occupied my mind constantly in December of 2005 (can't remember any particular reason why): movies made from books.

It's a subject I have strong feelings about, perhaps because I can be so precious about books I love. The first anguish I remember having about movie based on books centered on the much-beloved 1971 version of Roald Dahl's classic Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. (They didn't keep the title of the source book--is this a hint of things to comes?) As I said, this movie was and still is enormously popular; it's fun and colorful and features Gene Wilder and orange-skinned midgets. But for me, a huge Roald Dalh fan who had read the book multiple times, the movie was just confusing (and honestly, it still confuses me). Each child could only bring one parent--okay. But what was up with the kids being asked to steal the gobstopper recipe? Why did they replace Roald Dalh's wonderful, creepy Oompa Loompa poems about the fates of the children with (admittedly catchy) dopey, simple songs? And why did Charlie and his Grandpa Bucket break the rules? This last one was the clincher--the whole point of the story is that Charlie is absolutely good just because you are supposed to be (hello, Kant!) and is therefore rewarded. These changes made no sense and didn't add anything worthwhile to the story. (I didn't like Tim Burton's new version much, either; while better in many ways, it had its own attrocious additions.)

Worse than Chocolate Factory was 1995's Jumanji, which stole the name and a vague concept from Chris Van Allsburg's beautiful illustrated book (I'm not going to get into everything that was wrong with the movie version. Just read the book and you'll see for yourself why I won't use the phrase "based on" to describe the movie, even if Van Allsburg helped write the screenplay).

This angst over changes and additions to stories seems to cover my problem (and solution) with adaptations: just don't change anything, I seem to be saying. Remain absolutely faithful to my beloved source material, and maybe you'll have something. But why bother to take a good book and make it into a movie if you're just going to change some of what makes it good in the first place?

I usually put off reading books I haven't read yet if I intend to the see the movie release, just to avoid this kind of frustration and disappointment. I went out of my way to read Frank Miller's Sin City before seeing Robert Rodriguez' film of the same name precisely because it suppose to be an utterly faithful adaptation of the novels (the panels of the graphic novels were used as a storyboard), and it succeeded in that. If I just don't want any changes, that would explain why I liked Sin City so much.

However, I have enjoyed the movie versions of some books I've read. I suppose this could be because it had been a long time between reading the book and seeing the movie and I'd forgotten some things, or perhaps the books were ones i wasn't as precious about as others, and I had been a bigger fan of that particular book, I would have understood what was so horribly wrong with the cinematic version.

I want to think that it's more than just that, because that attitude just makes me feel childish. It's alright for filmmakers to take someone else's favorite stories and ruin them for him or her, but not my own? This is an unsatisfactory explanation.

My thoughtful answer comes back to the question I asked earlier: why bother to take a good book and make it into a movie?

(An answer--soon?)


Duff said...

Well, I have thoughts on this matter too.

Actually, I often enjoy it when books do get changed into movies, and think that should be a goal in making a book into a movie. For it enables one to see that ever so difficult phantom: how do others read this book? I mean, you can tell someone how you understood a book you read, with more or less success, (more usually means hours long conversations). But if someone just rewrites the story, one can see or read how they thought about the book. For instance, I can wonder what people have thought about an old story, say Beowulf, what about it appeals to them, what they think is important. Then I can go off and read various coded retellings of that story, like Grendel by John Gardner, or Lord of the Rings (or even more closely to Beowulf, The Silmillarilion), or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead versus Hamlet. Movies provide an interesting outlet for this also. A good story in my mind is worth retelling differently, over and over. I think with mechanical reproduction, we have become obsessed with exactness in retelling, the need for it to be verbatim. In a certain sense, one can harken back to older oral traditions which forced stories to be told anew each time.

So I would say that if a movie follows a book verbatim, it is a pointless movie if the book is good. Just read the book. But if the movie does deviate from the book, then it can be worth something in its own right.

That said, there is also the necessary condition for the movie to be a good movie in its own right, independent of the story it retells. Beowulf the movie with the Highlander, Christopher Lambert, is a bad movie not because Beowulf the peom is a great story, but simply because it is jsut bad in its own right. Same can be said of Dune and its 1980's film version, Starship Troopers and many others. Having a good book behind the story makes it worse, cause you know the underlying story is good, but that movies from books are bad are often independent of the comparison.

Part of the problem with retelling good stories in a different yet still good way is just that it is hard to tell a good story to begin with. Why else have so many lame fantasy novels since LOTR?

Just some thoughts I've had.

Ayn said...

Worthy thoughts (though I have to admit I just skimmed; I'll read in full soon). You didn't let me finish my argument yet. I'm going to redeem movies made out of books (well, some of them, anyway), and I'm going to make many of the same arguments you do. Like I said, it's something I've spent a lot of time thinking about, and I already know what my answer is...I didn't write it yet because I had to get back to work. But, now that I have internets at home, maybe I'll do that tonight...

Duff said...

Whoops. I'm sorry. Err, next time, I suppose, only allow comments on the last post in the series? I've a hard time controlling myself on topics I find really interesting, and you do bring up a really interesting topic.

Ayn said...

No, I was mostly teasing. I'd rather that you participate in the conversation, which you did! I just got defensive, my apologies.

Duff said...