Saturday, April 30, 2011

HTTPresents--Adaptations: You're Doing it Wrong

Film adaptations are a very polarizing subject, and for a lot of people it goes beyond the movies themselves, with the supposed increase in the quantity of adaptations signaling a proportionate decline in the quality and originality of Hollywood as a whole. However, this “plague” of book and television adaptations, reboots, and remakes is about as new as the lightbulb. A brief glimpse at the 83 year history of the Academy Awards reveals that the overwhelming majority of films that received the award for Best Picture are adaptations of some kind. I'm well aware that not all adaptations are Oscar-worthy, but my point is that they are nothing new, they are not going anywhere, and like any other movie they can run the gambit from inspiring art to something you might find in a diaper. What I'll be discussing is not so much what separates the Oscar winners from the diaper contents, but how our experience with the source material can color our views of a movie, and how adjusting your perspective can help you better appreciate a solid adaptation.

Making a successful adaptation of well-established source material is a much larger challenge than just making a good movie. It's a constant tug-of-war between faithfulness to the source to appease the hardcore fans, while still having something to offer to those that are unfamiliar with the original work. From this balancing act comes the greatest problem encountered by anyone attempting to adapt a beloved franchise: making the movie good isn't good enough. Maybe it's just that the section of the movie-going population that I'm exposed to is overly cynical, but even when a movie is undeniably well-made, the gripes vastly outweigh the praise that I hear. As much as I would have liked to see Unnamed Wizard #43 pick his nose in the back of Snape's classroom just like in the book, it didn't ruin my experience to find that they left that detail out of the movie. The wealth of such details in the source material adds tremendous depth to a fictional world, but problems arise when the filmmakers or the audience lose themselves in the minutiae, though it happens more often than not. The number one enemy to a person's enjoyment of an adaptation is an excessive knowledge of the source material. Ironically, number two is a lack of knowledge in the source material, but this is only a problem when the filmmakers haven't told the story effectively. What I find interesting is that the quality of the adaptation is a secondary concern to the viewer's perspective. Of course, this isn't always the case, as fan-goggles can only do so much for utter garbage, and even the most cynical have difficulty denying a true masterpiece. I realize the above point can be made for any movie, since the “quality” of art is highly subjective, but with an adapted film a viewer's expectations exaggerate their perception of quality far beyond the realm of rationality.
So how do you keep your expectations for an adaptation realistic? Maybe more importantly-- why would you want to? I adjust my perspective because it helps me enjoy movies more. I appreciate beautiful art, but for the most part I want to be entertained by a movie. I want to enter a different world or be emotionally moved. It's extremely difficult to be drawn into a movie when all you can think about is how Gandalf's left eyebrow didn't twitch the same way you remember from the book. Getting over the minute details isn't a huge problem for most movie-goers, and certain things can be overlooked quite easily, but when it comes to the deletion of entire scenes people start to get their panties in a twist. To deal with this, one has to understand the inherent difficulties of taking a book, an experience that resides in your imagination, and transferring it to the visual medium of film. 
While reading, you have as good a view of the action as the author is willing to afford you, you can often literally read a character's mind, and most importantly you can read at whatever pace you wish. A filmmaker, however, is showing you the world through a limited window that not only has to grant understanding of the events as they unfold, but has to do so in a visually interesting manner, and all at one speed. Some scenes from books just don't lend themselves well to a visual interpretation, and others aren't important enough to the story to warrant a break in the pace of the film. A good example of an entire segment that just couldn't make the transition from paper to celluloid is in The Fellowship of the Ring-- namely the Tom Bombadil section. In a film pushing three hours, there just isn't time to spend watching people eat, talk, and sing about things that have little to do with moving Frodo toward Mount Doom. I find the ability to forgive this type of streamlining greatly increases my enjoyment of adaptations, and even increases my appreciation for the work of the filmmakers. 

While acknowledgment of the challenge in trying to represent something in an entirely different medium is helpful in getting the most out of an adaptation, I find the most effective method is to separate the movie and its source material entirely. A film is no longer the work of the author of the source material, despite their involvement or the filmmakers' dedication to honoring their original vision. Ultimately, the film is not created by Tolkien, or Rowling, or King, but by Jackson, and Yates, and Kubrick. Accepting this disconnect requires the realization that no amount of adaptations, good or bad, will ever change the original material. A lot of people seem to feel otherwise, which is what I believe causes a lot of the excessive criticism directed toward adaptations, but if you can no longer enjoy a piece of literature after having seen someone else's interpretation of it, it must not have been very good to begin with. 
So there you have it-- my take on how to get the most out of your movies. It may not work for everyone, and there is probably a good percentage of cynics out there that just enjoy complaining, but I find it helps keep me entertained. Feel free to discuss your take on adaptations, what you expect of them, and how you view them with regard to the source material in the comments below.

                           - Scott C.

1 comment:

  1. I agree that if you really just want to enjoy the film you should try to separate it from the original source material, but at the same time I think it can work the other way where caring about a novel so much and then seeing it on the big screen, as if straight from your imagination, can be a very amazing experience.

    Another point I always like to make when talking about this is that not only do time and story constraints have to be taken into account, but you also have to realize and accept the reality that no one perceives a story, especially when it gets fantastical like Potter or Rings, the same way. I read Harry's journey differently then a evangelical Christian would, or even a moderate theist. I was reading the other day about Rowling's faith and how much of an impact it had on the Potter story, none of which I picked up on but others might have, changing how it read to them. Meanwhile, the screen-write sees it different, the director, D of Photography, Editor, and on and on. One of the greatest things about film is how many different perspectives on a story are all merged into a single narrative. It's great.

    I love how you mentioned Kubrick and the Shining, since those two stories are so different, to the point of King himself admitting to hating the film. Adaptations aren't a bad thing, but they are a tricky thing.