The Adaptation Problem: How To Go From Page To Screen

From time to time, I will deviate from my usual review format to write an article commenting on something dealing with the world of movies. Just want to mix things up once in a while. 

“The book was better.”

That’s a phrase we here a lot when talking about movies adapted from books (which a lot of movies are). My thoughts on the relationship between movies and the books they’re based on have evolved over the years, but the question is, what compels people to think books are better than movies? They are two completely different art forms, with different expectations and tools to use to tell a story.

One reason may be depth. Since books are a written medium and movies are a visual one, books have an added advantage in character development, as they can explain things that can’t be expressed visually. An adaptation where this problem arises is the 2007 movie Atonement. This movie, directed by Joe Wright and starring Keira Knightley and James McAvoy as lovers who are torn apart by a legal misunderstanding and war, was probably as good an adaptation of the Ian McEwan novel that could’ve possibly been made. The reason making this movie was such a challenge was due to the way “Atonement” was written. McEwan spends pages and pages describing the inner machinations of each character. There is very little dialogue for a 350-page novel, with McEwan’s focus being on each character’s past and thought processes. But to turn that prose into a movie would be close to impossible, since there would be constant voiceover narration and nothing happening in the story, so the filmmakers had to compromise, sacrificing character depth in favor of a plot-driven narrative. Books can take all the time they need to give depth to characters, but movies only have a couple of hours, maybe three in rare occasions.

Another problem that arises is accuracy. Movies based on popular books will always be scrutinized for how faithful they are to the original text. My own feelings on how accurate adaptations should be have changed over time. For example, I was 13 when I saw “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” in theaters. At the time, I thought it was an incredible movie, mostly because it was so faithful to the book. I felt the same way when I saw the second film, “Chamber of Secrets.” But when I watched each movie again when they came out on DVD, something didn’t feel right. Both movies, to me, felt like they were suffocated by their faithfulness to the original books. They didn’t have the liveliness or spontaneity that good movies should have, they were just going through the motions in preserving every line of dialogue and event word for word.

So here is the question: what makes a movie based on a book a successful adaptation? This answer will be different for everyone, but as I said, my thoughts on this changed. I used to think faithfulness was all that mattered. But now, I believe it doesn’t matter how faithful a movie is to the book, it just has to be able to capture the spirit of the book and, more importantly, be good.

Good adaptation:

Bad adaptation:

 

Take the Harry Potter series for example. I know the books like the back of my hand and I think their masterpieces, but of the first seven movies (I haven’t seen the newest one yet) the only ones I really like are “Prisoner of Azkaban” and “Half-Blood Prince.” There are some things I like about these movies. I think the acting is tremendous and they did actually try to make these movies good instead of just cashing in. I don’t care that they aren’t completely faithful to the books; the problem is they are not consistent from movie to movie with what they change about the story. The books combined to make a seamless, sprawling narrative that answered every major question. The films, however, are a freaking mess. There are plot holes all through the first seven movies because they broke the first rule of adapting the books: DON’T ASSUME EVERYONE WATCHING HAS READ THE BOOKS. For example: at the beginning of “DH Part 1,” they have the scene where Harry sees the eye in the shard of the two-way mirror he owns. There is just one problem: the movies never show where this mirror came from. Sirius gave Harry the mirror at the end of the fifth book, but that scene was not in the movie. So if you haven’t read the book, how the hell would you know where that mirror came from? That is just sloppy screenwriting. If you’re going to change things, be consistent dammit. But with “Prisoner of Azkaban”, they do change some plot points but they are minor ones, and more importantly, the movie works because Alfonso Cuaron, the director, didn’t care about accuracy and just wanted to make a great movie, which he did. Same thing with “Half-Blood Prince.” Yes, the ending was tweaked, but they retained that book’s emotional power. But the series as a whole needed a more consistent narrative for me to enjoy the entire saga.

 

So what filmmakers and writers of adaptations need to do is find some element of the books and expand upon it to make it cinematic, accuracy be damned. Some movies do manage to be great and faithful to the books, while others reshape the dough of the book into something more powerful. “No Country for Old Men” follows the book word for word, but the Coen Bros. wanted to showcase its theme of moral decay and the corruption of mankind, and they didn’t need to change the story that much to accomplish that. “The Lord of the Rings” movies work because Peter Jackson cut out all of the whimsical nonsense that marred Tolkien’s books (if you’ve read them, this can be distilled into two words: Tom Bombadil. Good God) and focused on the main plot (even though “The Lovely Bones,” one of my favorite books, was turned into one of my least favorite movies by the same person). Francis Ford Coppola took Mario Puzo’s “The Godfather,” which I haven’t read but a lot of people have told me it’s a pretty basic gangster novel, and turned it into American Shakespeare. Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island” is also extremely faithful to Dennis Lehane’s novel, but the final line of the movie brilliantly adds some ambiguity to the ending that wasn’t in the book.

Filmmakers can’t be afraid to tweak the material they are given. That’s what made Zack Snyder’s “Watchmen,” a movie I actually do like even though it has one of the worst scenes in the history of movies (I couldn’t find it on YouTube, but I’m referring to the sex scene set to “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen, it hurts just thinking about it), a disappointment because he was afraid to  change a word of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ graphic novel. It’s just like the first two Potter movies; good adaptations happen when a writer and/or director adds his own element or reshapes the elements given to them to make something that can stand by itself as a movie and be a companion piece to the book.

Bottom line: They better not screw up “The Hunger Games.”

I want to ask everyone when they comment: Have some of your favorite books been made into movies? If so, what were they and how successful were the adaptations?

 

 

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Personal Pantheon: Goodfellas-1990

“For us to live any other way was nuts. To us, those goody-good people who worked shitty jobs for bum paychecks and took the subway to work every day, and worried about their bills, were dead. I mean they were suckers. They had no balls. If we wanted something we just took it. If anyone complained twice they got hit so bad, believe me, they never complained again.” -Henry Hill

There were a few years when I was a teenager where people would ask me what my favorite movie was, and I wouldn’t have an answer. At that time I was fairly obsessed with The Matrix (which I watched so many times on VHS the tape was starting to wear out) and the Lord of the Rings movies, but I had yet to see a movie that I could point to as one that stood above anything else I had seen.

But when I was 16, a saw a movie called “Goodfellas” on HBO.

I had heard of this movie before I saw it, anyone who has any connection to popular culture is at least somewhat familiar with it. But when I finally saw it, I was stunned. This movie had absolutely everything. A great story, engaging characters, awesome soundtrack, but the element I was mostly drawn to with this film was one I had never really noticed before: the directorial vision of Martin Scorsese, whose movies I’ve been obsessed with ever since.

The film, based on  a true story, is about Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), who for nearly 30 years was a member of a New York mafia family ran by Paulie Cicero (Paul Sorvino). We meet Hill as a 13-year-old child, and he becomes completely enamored with the gangsters in his neighborhood. Hill is stuck in poverty with blue-collar parents and a bunch of siblings, and he sees devil-may-care lifestyle of the mob as a perfect escape. Much to his parents’ horror, he gets offered a job running numbers for the family. He stops going to school, he makes more money in a few weeks than his parents probably did in a year, and he gets to know and befriend the other gangsters, particularly Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci).

The interesting thing about “Goodfellas” is that it is one of the only gangster movies that does not focus on the highest-raking members of  the family. Henry, Jimmy and Tommy are essentially errand boys, so being in this family is like a 9-to-5 job for them. Even though it’s a job that requires killing people and stealing money from wherever they can get it. Henry does eventually meet Karen (Lorraine Bracco) a young Jewish woman who steals his heart, which leads to their tumultuous marriage.

“Goodfellas,” based on the novel “Wiseguy” by Nicholas Pileggi (who co-wrote the script with Scorsese), is a rise-and-fall story, a chronicle of a man who starts out with the world at his feet, and then devolved into a paranoid, drug-addicted wreck.  and Scorsese employs a variety of techniques that make the movie feel almost like a documentary at times. The movie is heavy on voiceover narration from Henry and Karen. Voiceovers can be a lazy way to tell a story since it requires a character to talk about every single thing that is happening on-screen which can damage the audience’s involvement, but it is implemented perfectly here. Henry works as a guide through this foreign world of the mafia, and Karen offers her perspective as an unwilling passenger into this world. Gangster movies rarely focus on the women involved, but this movie does provide that perspective, showing how someone can gloss over the unsavory aspects of the mob life if it means having a comfortable lifestyle.

The characters are completely unromanticized. There is no attempt to apologize for the atrocities committed in this movie. Henry Hill is a charismatic screen presence, but he is still a thief who abuses and cheats on his wife and has no interest in living by a moral compass. It is a tricky balance for an actor to strike, but Liotta, who hasn’t had a worthwhile movie role since, does so admirably. De Niro as Jimmy is the same way. He is introduced as Henry’s closest friend, a smooth operator who does everything by-the-book, but deep down he is a monster who will do anything and everything to protect himself, even if he has to kill everyone he knows to do it. De Niro’s performance is a masterful exercise in restraint, since this role could’ve been overdone in the wrong hands.

But the film’s most memorable performance comes from Joe Pesci as Tommy. Tommy is short-tempered, homicidal and volatile, a man who tries to make-up for his short stature with barely-controlled rage. This scene is a perfect example of how Tommy can go from funny to terrifying in an instant.

But the biggest reason why this is my favorite movie, and the reason I became a cinephile in the first place, is Scorsese’s direction. The cinematography plays an important part in this movie. Not just because “Goodfellas” is beautifully shot (which it is), but because the camerawork plays an integral part in telling the story. The first half of the movie, which details Henry’s rise in the mob world, is shot with rich, exuberant colors, specifically the color red, a running motif through many Scorsese movies. Also, the camera glides through  every scene. Scorsese has said in interviews that the camerawork in this part of the movie was done in a way to demonstrate how Henry is gliding through life at this point, that everything comes easy to him. That point is best demonstrated in the famous scene where the camera tracks Henry and Karen into the Copacabana, all in one  take.

But in the second half of the film, when everything starts to fall apart and Henry becomes a drugged-out shell of his former self who decides to rat on his friends and leave the life forever, the movie changes. The visuals become more washed out and natural, and the camera, so elegant at the beginning, becomes more haphazard, moving around recklessly with a ton of quick cuts, to show the immediacy and paranoia of this section of the story.

The use of music is also crucial. “Goodfellas” has my favorite soundtrack, not only because it introduced me to Phil Spector’s music, and has selections from George Harrison, The Who, Henry Nilsson, and the Rolling Stones, but it is an example of how music can be used as cinematic language. When Jimmy becomes paranoid that his friends will rat him out after a heist, he starts killing them to keep the money for himself. The piano coda from Derek and the Dominoes’ “Layla” is used to dismantle every notion that this is a great lifestyle. It is an evil, desperate and sad way to live.

All of these elements coalesce into a masterpiece. Scorsese is one of the greatest filmmakers this country has ever produced, with films such as “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull,” and “The Departed.” His film deal with people struggling with harsh societies and their own inner turmoil. “Goodfellas” is his most complete masterpiece, combining his gift for analyzing these types of characters and his incomparable directing style. It helped me discover that movies were more than just moving pictures, they are visions of artists, which inspired me to see all of Scorsese’s other films and directors like him. It that isn’t the definition for what makes a movie someone’s favorite, I don’t know what is.

 

Bonus: The following is a fan-made tribute to Martin Scorsese. I love watching these, but this is by far the best one I’ve ever seen, due to how beautifully made it is. Enjoy.

Personal Pantheon: Almost Famous – 2000

The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what we share with someone else when we’re uncool. -Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman)

It is not exactly news that movies work best when we relate to the characters; when they possess qualities through which we see some semblance of ourselves. William Miller, the 15-year-old amateur music journalist in Cameron Crowe’s “Almost Famous,” is definitely one of those characters for me. I was about that age the first time I saw this movie, and I really responded to a lot of aspects of his character. He was smart, he was a writer, he loved books,and he sometimes felt that because of these traits, he didn’t quite fit in with his peers. But the relatability of William Miller is just one of many reasons why this is a great movie.

The film is loosely based on the life of its writer and director, Cameron Crowe, who started writing for Rolling Stone magazine when he was 15. We first meet William, his on-screen surrogate, in 1969, when he is 11. He has an overbearing college professor for a mother (Frances McDormand) who is obsessed with nurturing William’s intellectual gifts (she even lies to him about his age so she could move him up through middle school faster) and with protecting him from the evils of rock and roll. This creates a rift between William’s mother and his rebellious older sister Anita (Zooey Deschanel), who plays “America” by Simon and Garfunkel to explain to her mother why she is running away from home to be a stewardess. But before she leaves, she gives William a gift that will change his life: her record collection.

We then flash-forward four years and William (Patrick Fugit) is obsessed with rock music and is about to graduate high school three years early. He writes for local underground magazines and comes under the tutelage of legendary rock critic Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman in absolutely awesome performance), who gives him sage advice: never become friends with rock stars, and when you write about them, be “honest and unmerciful.” He ends up covering a concert by the fictional rock group Stillwater, (who sound like a combination of the Allman Brothers and Bad Company), who are led by lead singer Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee) and guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup). Also at this show he meets the Band-Aids, girls who follow bands on tour not just to have sex with them, but because of the music. The leader of the Band Aids is Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), who quickly steals William’s heart. Long story short, William gets a call from Rolling Stone, who want him to follow Stillwater on tour and write a story for them. A funny caviat with this development is that Rolling Stone doesn’t know William is only 15, so he has to pretend to be older when talking to them. Much to his mother’s horror, William departs on a road trip that will, unsurprisingly, change his perspective on life.

The core of this movie, as well as Cameron Crowe’s other films, are relationships. Relationships with people, music,  etc. There is William’s relationship with Penny, a free-spirit who has her own problems underneath the carefree exterior. William, finally broken free from the duldrums of high school, sees a kindred spirit in Penny. She also loves music, and is only a couple of years older than William, which makes her the perfect person to open William up to the world his mother tried to keep from him.

 

There is the relationship within Stillwater. Jeff is the brash lead singer, who can’t accept the fact that the reason their band succeeds is that Russell is a virtuoso musician keeping the rest of them afloat. No other movie really captures the essence of being in a rock band and the trials that come with it, perfectly exemplified in a hilarious scene involving some new T-shirts.

The third relationship that develops in this film is the one we all have with our favorite music. The members of Stillwater put all of their differences aside on stage when they make music together. The reason William wants to become a journalist is his love of music. This movie shows the feeling of transcendence and unity music can inspire, typified in what is probably the most famous scene in the movie.

The best part of this movie is, of course, Crowe’s writing and direction. Since he is drawing from his own life, he makes every scene ring with the authenticity of what the world was like in 1973. In a movie that is in love with music, his soundtrack choices, with music by Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, The Who and many others, add to the experience. His Oscar-winning script is also key because when you look on this movie on paper, all of its characters are cliches: the earnest teen, the free-spirited love interest, the rock star, the overbearing mother, etc. But what this movie does is transcend all of the cliches attached to these character types. William’s mother may hate rock and roll and is over-protective, but she is a good person who just wants what is best for her son. Russell is a famous rock star, but underneath he’s just as much of a kid as William is, uneasy with the responsibilities that come with being in a popular rock band. Crowe breathes so much life into everyone in this movie, and that is the key to what makes it great.

The acting in this movie is pretty excellent across the board. Fugit is  believably earnest as William, and he shows how this character absorbs the wisdom and experiences he encounters on this tour in a very natural manner. Hudson, back when she actually cared about acting and didn’t start appearing in some of the worst movies ever made, is also excellent, we see why someone like William or Russell would fall in love with her. But the two best performances here, other than Hoffman’s, are by Crudup and McDormand. Crudup nails every complicated nuance of a musician at a crossroads in his life, who feels like the rest of his band is keeping him from scaling new heights. McDormand as William’s mother turns a person who could’ve been the worst kind of overbearing shrew of a parent into a sympathetic character who doesn’t want her gifted son to be corrupted by the hedonism of rock and roll.

“Almost Famous” is an great movie even if you do not see explicit personal connections with these characters in your own life. It is a coming-of-age story that rings with the authenticity and honesty of someone who lived it, and that can be appreciated by anyone.

 

 

Personal Pantheon: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – 2004

 

“How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot! / The world forgetting, by the world forgot / Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind! / Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d.” -Alexander Pope, “Eloisa to Abelard”

 

Memories are important. They remind us of where we are in life, what we have learned, who we learned those things with, and what we need to figure out in the future. All of the experiences we have in life, good or bad, need to be accounted for, no matter how painful they are in order for us to develop further as people. This is the core lesson of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” written by Charlie Kauffman and directed by Michel Gondry.

“Eternal Sunshine” is a strange film. It has a plot straight out of science fiction, it plays with narrative structure, it has bizarre imagery, but at the same time, it is one of the most heartbreaking and romantic love stories ever told. I first saw this movie on HBO when I was 16. I liked it for the visual style and the performances by Jim Carrey and especially Kate Winslet, but it wasn’t until I saw it again a few years later that I fully grasped the emotional heft the film carries.

The movie is about Joel (Carrey), a lonely, introverted cartoonist who has just broken up with Clementine (Winslet) an impulsive, free-spirited woman. When Joel confronts her and notices that Clementine doesn’t even recognize him, he finds out she had her memory erased by Lacuna Inc., because she didn’t want to deal with the bad memories of her relationship with Joel. Joel is crushed upon hearing this news, so he goes to Lacuna and decides to have his memories of Clementine erased. The rest of the film mostly takes place in Joel’s mind, as we watch his relationship with Clementine play out in reverse, and see all of Joel’s memories of her get destroyed. But something happens during this process. Joel realizes that even though the relationship ended badly, he can’t stand to live his life without these memories. So he begins to fight back at the erasing process and try to hold onto his memories.

That brings up the theme of this film: all memories are important in some way. Removing bad ones removes pieces of the soul. It is true, bad things happen to everyone, but people need to carry these bad memories to remind us of why we treasure the good ones. It is  like bad memories put the rest of our lives in context.  Ignorance is not bliss, it is just one half of an unbalanced equation. Eliminating all traces of someone that was once loved will not fix anything. There are people who go their whole lives never feeling the intense love Joel feels for Clementine. To just throw that away to make yourself feel better is damn near criminal.

Other than the essential themes of holding onto our memories, the two other things that stand out on this film are Gondry’s visual style and the gallery of well-drawn characters. Gondry is an amazing visualist, and he uses every trick in the director’s playbook to show memories being destroyed. As I said, there is a lot of surreal imagery in this film, and all of it is used in service of the story. We see the settings of each memory destroyed in a variety of ways, from total destruction (buildings collapse, cars fall out of the sky) to objects and people vanishing into thin air. Every scene brings the promise of something strange and unusual happening.

But all of the surreal imagery would go for naught if the film did not have engaging characters. Joel and Clementine are polar opposites.  Joel is quiet, unassuming, but has a quiet yearning for someone or something to make him feel something and bring some purpose into his life. Clementine is wildly impulsive, demonstrated by her constantly changing hair color. But deep down she is lonely and does not have a very high opinion of herself. Carrey and Winslet are playing roles that are the complete opposites of what they play in so many other films, but their performances here are astonishing. Carrey, who usually gets lost within his broadly comic shtick and forgets he is playing a character in so many of his other films, brings Joel’s repressed personality to life. Winslet, on the other hand, has a much more difficult role. She has to play someone who presents herself as care-free but on the inside has many of the same problems as anyone else. As a result, she gives one of my favorite performances in any movie. Actually, calling this a performance is underselling it, she completely transforms into this character. It is still unlike anything she has done in any other film, and she nails every single neurosis and issue of Clementine. Another great thing about these characters is how deeply flawed and even unlikable they become at times. One mistake so many films that deal with break-ups is that they tip the scale in one character’s direction and villianize the other to the point where we never understand why these two people ever got together (“The Break-Up” with Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn is a perfect example of this). But Clem and Joel are deeply flawed people. Joel occasionally acts like a jerk towards Clementine, growing impatient with her impulsiveness. Clementine is immature, and sometimes unable to understand that this kind of personality is not always endearing. Even though they are completely different people, the love they once had is never in doubt. We empathize with Joel as he fights so hard to hold onto his memories of Clementine, even if he knows the chances of reconciling their relationship are slim.

There are many other interesting characters in this film as well, some of them can even carry their own movie if given the chance. Patrick (Elijah Wood) and Stan (Mark Ruffalo) are  the erasers. Patrick even  steals Joel’s memories to seduce Clementine in the present, further demonstrating the ethical problems with this process. Tom Wilkinson plays Howard, the doctor in charge of the operation, and Kirsten Dunst plays Mary, the doctor’s assistant who has a deep-seeded obsession with him. The relationship between Howard and Mary is another demonstration of the film’s theme of how removing bad memories does not fix anything.

But overall, what makes “Eternal Sunshine” such a beautiful film and one of my absolute favorites is that despite its fantastical elements, it deals with problems that are grounded in reality. It is a cliche to say “it is better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all,” but this film is the best demonstration of why that is true I have ever seen. Because it is impossible to look back on happiness if one has no recollection of unhappiness.

-image courtesy of friesian.com

Introduction

“If there’s one thing I hate, it’s the movies.” –Holden Caulfield, “The Catcher in the Rye”

I’ve always been a big fan of “The Catcher in the Rye,” but the one thing that bugged me the most about Mr. Caulfield was his absolute hatred of movies. Since he spends the entire book espousing his hatred for things that are fake or “phony,” this is not a huge shock. But the fact that movies are not reality, that they are just groups of people on a giant screen, pretending to be someone else, is part of their alluring nature. I have always loved movies. I have always been fascinated by the process in which they are made, the stories they are able to tell, the narrative methods used by screenwriters and directors, choices the actors make, etc. This blog, apart from being a class requirement, is something I have wanted to do for a long time. This blog will be devoted to essays that analyze some of my favorite movies. Don’t worry, I am not one of those film snobs that hates any and all things mainstream and popular. Great movies are great movies, and they come in all different varieties. Also, I will try not to use language so obtuse that you need a doctorate to understand what I am saying. So let’s begin. The first movie will be up shortly.

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