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Books to Film, What’s the Problem?
When genre fans get together, as they are wont to do, you can almost count on having the subject come up of books being translated into film. It is a favorite discussion topic because there is a common enemy, the careless filmmaker, and common ground, the beloved book. Inevitably, the conversation will wind down through all the hated adaptations into a disconcerted grumble of agreement: “It’s a TRAVESTY!” I can’t help but agree, for the most part; and I then wonder (because that is what I am wont to do) why it is nearly impossible to interpret a good book into a good film?
My musings have come up with several reasons, and because I am fond of torture, I will lay them out for you like shiny new gadgets you can ooh and ahh over. You can thank me later.
The most basic reason that books are so hard to convert into a normal-length film, is that a book generally covers a lot of ground. A novel can cover several days’ time, or centuries. Take as an example Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind. This 662-page tome covers mere hours in real time. Of course, this is sort of an extreme example, but you see where I’m going. Even shorter books still cover more ground than your average two-hour movie. Some people will say that a great deal of book is description, and the visual media can do this shorthand by just showing us. This is often true; however, those descriptions carry more information than just what is visible. A description of a room says a great deal about the main character who is viewing it as well as the character who owns it. So description may be cut down to a shorthand of a panned shot of a nicely prop-filled room, but the additional details also have to be added somehow or the viewer is shortchanged and may miss vital information. The sheer amount of information put forth in a novel, much less a fantasy or sci-fi novel, leads filmmakers to slice out as much of the story as they feel they can get away with. Unfortunately, this not only causes problems with the storyline but also with the continuity of each scene to the next. Additionally, what the filmmaker may feel is unnecessary and easily slashed could very well be a reader’s favorite scene. Comic books and graphic novels tend to fare better when being translated into film–by their very nature, they combine visual storytelling with literary storytelling and are therefore much closer to filmmaking than a non-illustrated book would be. But, that does not necessarily mean they will be good translations. There are many slips between the page and the screen even there.
Another reason for the difficulty of book to film adaptations is that books, by their very nature, have the leisure to allow the reader to explore the innermost thoughts of certain characters or to know more than the characters via a friendly narrator and to pass along ideas that can be stated easily but are not as easy to interpret into a visual. A filmmaker (I am lumping in screenwriters and all the other people who do the work of creating a motion picture with the word “filmmaker,” here) must decide if Joe Maincharacter’s thoughts on the theory of relatively short skirts is important to the narrative or if those thoughts can be somehow translated into a visual scene. Additionally, if the story has a narrator, Mr. Filmmaker has to decide either to get rid of him/her altogether or to incorporate short narration in some way. Getting rid of the narrator means there is a lot of information that now has to come through to the viewer via visuals and action or dialogue, which means more of the storyline itself will probably get cut. I can just see some frantic filmmaker pulling out hair, screaming, “What to cut? What to cut?” And who hasn’t seen a movie that missed all the best parts of the book? Or even just some of the more interesting? I’m sure at least two come to mind immediately.
Personally, I believe that the most frustrating and annoying reason books to movies tend to fail the original book’s fans is that filmmakers will often change the original stories for their own various reasons: perhaps they prefer blondes to brunettes, maybe they want their cousin John Doe to play the lead even though he has none of the characteristics of the novel’s protagonist. Or, they might want to make a political statement by casting a girl in place of a boy (see Jurassic Park) in the story or making one character gay even though in the book he’s a skirt-chaser or she’s a man hunter–or taking out gay characters completely or just making them appear straight. Or even worse, they didn’t like the original ending and changed it to fit their own ideas. When filmmakers make these kinds of drastic changes, they’ve irrevocably changed the plot, even if they follow the rest to the letter. This means that as a book to film adaptation it is a fail. A character’s basic makeup is a part of any plot. Can you imagine Hermione as a shy wallflower? Nope; me, neither. However, often movies that make such changes can be terrific in and of themselves even though they have altered the original material (see the most recent Bourne Identity–I suggest never seeing any of the other three adaptations of that book that I personally suffered through.) Additionally, some of these movies can be enjoyed on their own even by the original source’s fans; for example, Stardust was a good movie that I enjoyed, though it did muck about a bit with Neil Gaiman’s original story.
And there is one more problem that can never be overcome and will always be a bar to our beloved novels then becoming beloved films. What is it? Our own imaginations. Yep, it is our fault! A good book is like alchemy; the author stirs up one part imagination and one part skill and transmutes those into a shiny thing of joy. The reader then heats that book with the fires of their own imagination and the end result is gold. A nugget of gold that can never be replicated. Each reader adds his or her own personal fire to the mix, and without that the book is just a book. Each reader’s imagination is as individual as their fingerprints. This is the biggest issue when it comes to rendering a book into a movie. What we, as readers, visualize while reading is so personal that it cannot truly be translated. Sure, everyone complains about small changes like hair color or skin color (though skin color can also change the plot) or the sword being the wrong shape, but in the end, their imagination can never be measured or matched. So, waiting for your favorite book to become your favorite film? Don’t hold your breath.
All that being said, can we enjoy movies that are made from books? Of course we can! We have to accept that our personal vision will not be up there on the big screen. We have to accept that some details may vary, certain scenes may be changed and others cut completely. If we accept all of that, and the filmmaker does a good job of giving us the story, we will most likely enjoy the movie. Additionally, in rare cases the filmmaker may make some changes that take the storyline away from that of the book itself but still make for a good movie.
So tell me, in your eyes, what movies did their original source justice and which ones stunk up the projection room?