“The book is better than the movie.”
According to many in the reading community, truer words have never been said. I admit that this phrase has found its way past my lips on more than one occasion, though with building apprehension as I have grown older. The situation of adapting a story from the written word to the silver screen is a precarious one at best and a horrid affair at worst. I have seen comments on Facebook and YouTube expressing the sentiment in the image above and feel obligated to make a case for adaptations.
Are there bad adaptations? Of course; but there are also film adaptations that are successful in their storytelling despite how they wander from the source material. In fact, I would argue that if a film adaptation were as described in the above image, it would not be enjoyable. A successful adaptation takes what is good about the original story and puts its own spin on the material; there should be a reason to watch the movie besides wanting to see rather than read.
I understand the frustration of those who feel movies don’t include enough from their literary predecessors. Plot points, characters, and even entire story lines are often cut from the film script due to time constraints but film and literature are, at their cores, two very different types of media. While they overlap in the stories that they are able to tell and their prominence as forms of entertainment, it is in how they tell the stories that their differences come to the forefront.
As anyone who has taken a beginning creative writing course will tell you, the goal for writing fiction is to be able to show without telling. For a movie, this is achieved by simply pointing the camera at a subject and filming it. With the written word, however, this is attained through years of practice with deliberate word choice and careful description. Where showing is second nature in the former medium, it is a challenge in the latter.
A direct adaptation shouldn’t be the end goal because people watch films and read books for different reasons. With reading, we are actively engaged and our attention is required for the story to continue. Throw a movie in and walk away without pressing pause or focus more on your phone than the film and the story continues without you. This may seem like common sense, but the underlying difference here is that reading is a very intimate act that allows us to inject our own imagination into the space between the lines.
Now, that isn’t to say that we can’t put meaning into films as well. Both film and literature are able to be analyzed for their themes, imagery, and hidden meanings; where their analysis differs is in what we focus on. When studying literature, students are taught to look for imagery, writing style, theme, voice, point of view, symbolism, and narration. Film analysis focuses on imagery, mise en scène (how everything visible in the shot is arranged), sound, camera angle, symbolism, and visual motifs among other elements. While there is overlap here, some aspects are more present in one medium over the other.
When we read, we are the directors as well as the observers of the story and this allows us massive control over everything except for what is written on the page in front of us. This often endears books to us because they take on a small part of us through their consumption. Films, however, are completely separate entities unless we were directly involved in their production. That doesn’t mean we can’t impart meaning in them, but it becomes a conscious effort rather than part of the process of ingesting the art.
I don’t believe that anyone would be truly content with the movie described above because the medium’s strengths simply don’t lend themselves to such a piece of art. A direct adaptation is not viable because, despite their similarities, books and movies are simply too different how they are consumed. In order to enjoy a movie adaptation we must accept the changes in form, attempt to avoid comparison (as difficult as that may be) and enter the theater without preconceived notions.
Two of the most glaring examples of bad and good film adaptations can be found in Zack Snyder’s Watchmen (2009) and Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring (2001). I realize that one is a graphic novel and the other a novel, but these are two films that I saw before I read the source material and both have extended editions. I think these similarities lend a necessary singularity to my perspective and I plan on releasing blogs dedicated to these two examples in the coming weeks.
So what do you think? Would a “17-hour-long spectacle” fill the void in your heart that bad movie adaptations have left or do you prefer your movies to be familiar but different? What are the best and worse movie adaptations that you have seen? Feel free to comment!
The images featured in this post can be found through the hyperlinks below.