Swiftocracy!: Movies out of Books
For the next two weeks each of my posts will be based off requests. For more information about how that happened, look here.
“Review books that have become movies, books that should be and what that would look like, and find a way to go on a rant! Also, anything else you would like to add on this subject!”
A science fiction and fantasy author by the name of Roger Zelazny supposedly had this to say to an aspiring writer who asked him for advice: “Tell a good story and all is forgiven.” That about sums up my current view of film adaptations of books.
I love books, and I love movies. Movies made from my favorite books should be right up my alley. I’m a very visual reader. I can see everything in my mind’s eye when reading. Because of this I used to believe, when I was young, that making movie adaptations of any particular book would be a fairly simple affair. Naturally there are some books, where almost nothing really happens besides inner conflict, that would make terrible movies. But the books I liked to read were usually less cerebral. I liked science fiction, and fantasy, and whatever I could get my hands on from the Scholastic book fair when it visited my school. I dived into Holes, Harry Potter, I Left My Sneakers in Dimension X, Artemis Fowl, Frindle, and Maniac McGee. I’d read anything I could get my hands on by Bruce Coville, Jerry Spinelli, Neal Shusterman, Louis Sacher, or Andrew Clements. Each of these unfolded in my mind like a film reel, only better because it convey smells, touch, and thought. Making them into movies would be easy. You just take what’s there in the books (though really I mean what I can see with my mind) and you film it. Simplicity itself.
When they made a movie version of Holes I was eager to see it. The Holes adaptation was pretty good. Rotten Tomatoes gave it a 77%, which is an admirable score. My brothers liked it. My friends liked it. If I watched it today, I’d like it.
But when it came out I hated it.
Sitting in the theatre my mind was full of objections. Stanly Yelnats is supposed to be fat! Where did this grandpa character come from? That’s not right! That’s not quite how it happened! Zero is black? (As it turns out, that was just a mistake on my part. The book never specifically says that Zero is black, but it doesn’t say white either and all of the little implications seem to indicate that he is definetly ethnic. Still, in my mind’s eye, Zero was a skinny white kid.) I was outraged. How could they mess up the book so badly? I compared the movie on the screen to the one I had seen in my mind and it just didn’t match up. I was shocked to learn that Louis Sacher himself had worked with the filmmakers and gave the movie his seal of approval. How could he do that? They changed so many things!
Looking back on that I have to laugh at myself. The movie is actually quite accurate to the book by adaptation standards. They only changed a few elements and kept almost everything else the same. My problem was that I couldn’t understand why anything had to change at all.
After years of watching movies, reading books, and trying in my own clumsy way to create some of my own, I’ve learned better. The simple fact is that books and movies are different forms of media, and different mediums have different requirements. Movies are a visual and audible medium, while books are neither. They’re experienced in different ways. I can pick up a book, read it for a few minutes, put it down again, come back to it later, flip a few pages back, reread something, and put it back down again. Movies aren’t meant to be viewed like that. They’re meant to be watched from start to finish in one sitting. They’re different crafts and require different skills. The visual arts require a completely different set of skills than non-visual arts. They have their own needs, strengths, and weaknesses.
On top of that there are practical concerns. It’s unreasonable to find someone who both has good acting ability and looks exactly like the main character and has the name recognition to put people in the seats. A book may take hours or days to read but a movie needs to come in around two hours or nobody will want to watch it. In a book writing a scene that takes place on an alien planet with giant robot dinosaurs and crystalline aliens who occasionally explode takes exactly as much investment (that is, in time) as a scene where a lone woman sits in an empty room and cries. In a movie that first scene costs millions in special effects and will take months of work while that second scene can be done at a hundredth of the cost over the course of an afternoon. A movie needs a different kind of climax than a book. For example, in the last Twilight book the tension comes to a head when a bunch of powerful evil vampires face off against the good vampires and their allies. In the book everything builds up to this, and there is a lot of fear about who might die, whether there will be a fight at all, what will happen to their family, etc. The climax ends with the evil vampires deciding to leave after what amounts to a long and tense conversation. This works in a book; the conversation is tense, everything rides on it, etc. But in a movie it would be a flop. You can’t have people standing there and talking as the big third act climax. So when they made a movie out of it they actually showed a huge fight scene between the vampires with all kinds of craziness. I can’t blame them for this (and the way they pulled it off without totally going off the rails of the story was pretty clever). The book’s climax as it stood was unfilmable if you wanted it to be successful.
With all that in mind I began to wonder what the key to a succesful adaptation was. And that’s what brings us back to the quote. “Tell a good story and all is forgiven.” A movie can change almost as many details as it wants…provided that they actually make the movie better. Or at very least that the movie is a good one. Lord of the Rings is an almost perfect example of an excellent adaptation. The book was called “unfilmable” for good reason. It’s dense, it’s long, it requires a ton of backstory and exposition, there are too many characters, too many subplots, and too much going on for it to translate to film. But Peter Jackson did it. He did his best to keep the core of the story while streamlining it for filming. He added things, he changed things, he threw out a lot of stuff altogether. But in the end they are fantastic films and well loved by Tolkien fans. The majority of his changes made the film better. I like Tom Bombadil, but Jackson was right to cut him, the barrow wights, and Old Man willow right out. They would have made an already long movie longer, ruined the pacing, and were generally unimportant to the greater story. Now some changes didn’t work out so well (Frodo telling Sam to go home over lost bread? Are you serious?), but on the whole the trilogy works because they are good films executed well.
If you want to adapt a book you need to have two things as your focus. The first is that you must respect the original work. You must believe that the book contains a story in it that is worth telling. If you do then you must be committed to telling it well. Part of that is knowing that changes will have to be made.
Unless you’re one of the people behind the film adaptation of Eragon, in which case my advice to you is to never make an adaptation again. Also, thanks for ruining everything. I hope you’re happy.