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.
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?