Like we always say here at Gorilla, “Don’t judge a book by its movie”. (Other Gorilla catchphrases include “5pm, it’s drinks-o-clock!” and “Stay out of the basement!!“) But should you judge a movie by its book? In this week’s Film Theory article, George East considers the path taken by adaptations of popular novels, and how their status as low-rent prole-feed has risen over many hard-fought years. Maybe adaptations can be valuable in their own right…
“The book is always better than the movie”
We’ve all heard it. Walking out of films based on popular, best-selling or classic novels we’re often surrounded by a procession of complaining fans, annoyed, heartbroken and personally offended that their favourite scene of their favourite book didn’t make the cut. This month The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies will bring to a finale Peter Jackson’s critically and commercially acclaimed, decade-defining Middle Earth franchise. While it is expected to round up The Hobbit series in epic style, the unquestioned consensus will be that “It was good… but not as good as the book”.
When watching an adaptation, some of us have an inescapable preoccupation with the source material. Last month I went to see Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part One, which I loved apparently a lot more than most critics. But one question lingered with me throughout like a bad song stuck in my head: why did they decide to portray President Coin as grey haired? Because when I read the book, it was blonde. I checked back, and it says in plain Garamond, “she’s fifty or so, with grey hair that falls in an unbroken sheet to her shoulders”, a description which perfectly describes Moore’s Coin. But I found the filmmakers’ disregard for my imagination/misreading of Coin to be highly disrespectful and very distracting.
Peter Jackson has at times shown a distinct lack of closeness to Tolkien’s books throughout his thirteen years with Middle Earth, especially in the Hobbit trilogy. If you read the book as a child or have caught up since Jackson’s Middle Earth, you’ll notice that characters and storylines have been added, Jackson borrowing them from other Tolkien books and even fully making some up.
Adaptations are a major part of today’s film industry. They always have been of course – some of cinema’s greatest offerings have been adaptations of popular novels: Gone With The Wind, Jaws, Apocalypse Now and Shawshank Redemption to name a few. Over half of all feature films are adaptations, and with the number of sequels out next year, a summer trip to the multiplex might suggest the major studios are struggling for ideas.
Adaptation theory – like much of film studies – evolved from earlier literary theory. Cinema is relatively new compared to the written word, an enormous understatement when you think of the source material for some of this year’s biggest blockbusters. The summer’s Hercules was based on ancient Greek mythology, while Ridley Scott’s upcoming Exodus: Gods and Kings takes its subject matter from the world’s all-time best-seller, The Bible. Literature and its study has been around a lot longer and has always been privileged as a ‘more legitimate’, ‘worthy’ form for study. It makes sense that early adaptation critics prioritised the original text, praising close fidelity and condemning betrayals of the original.
Surely the task of rewriting a beloved classic of literature into a film is a piece of metaphorical cake? In the age of postmodernism, where we are apparently to believe all ‘new’ art has already been recycled, the hardest feat to achieve must be originality? Something an adapter need not worry about?
But as the study of film found its own voice, film theorists began to jump to the defence of adapters. Technically, it can’t be an easy gig. Novels, comics and video games are different from films in obvious ways. The average screenplay is around 120 pages, and most novels are double or triple that. Sure they’re crammed with the kind of description that’s delivered in a couple of seconds of screen time, but still a literal, word-for-word adaptation of a novel would take hours and hours, especially texts as convoluted as Tolkien’s. So an inevitable part of an adapter’s job is to choose what parts are essential and what’s disposable – an enormous pressure, what with the likes of Tolkien, Potter, Twilight or Hunger Games fans ready to pounce.
So, perhaps more aware of the challenges faced by adapters, film theorists have found other ways of thinking about adaptations and fidelity, assessing their success beyond how many lines of dialogue have been repeated from the book. Linda Cahir describes adaptations as ‘translations’, a story moved from one language to another having to find new ways to say the same thing. Dudley Andrew talks about the borrowing of material from earlier texts (Stand by Me, Curious Case of Benjamin Button), while Geoffrey Wagner says some adaptations can simply be analogies or commentaries of earlier texts. Similarly, others have proposed different types of fidelity; more than anything filmmakers should aim to be faithful to the spirit of the original. A good example here is the enormous Vietnam classic Apocalypse Now, adapted by Francis Ford Coppola from Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novel Heart of Darkness, set along the Congo river in Colonial Africa. Apocalypse Now embraces the spirit of Conrad’s novel – as well as the general premise – to comment on the immorality of the Vietnam conflict, where Conrad once did the same with colonial Africa.
Another key theorist, Linda Hutcheon, teamed up with a biologist, Gary Bortolotti, to point out the scientific origins of ‘adaptation’. When things in nature adapt over millions of years, their forms and functions change to best suit their altered surroundings. Likewise, the environment of a story changes as it is adapted, often calling for a new set of wings. In Hollywood cinema there are certain guidelines and downright unavoidable laws to adhere to, including the rigid three-act structure, and arguably the most inescapable: the love story. It’s surprisingly hard to think of a Hollywood film – and many more with commercial, mainstream appeal – without a love story in some shape. Enter, two elves, one dwarf love-triangle in Tolkien’s beloved The Hobbit. Tolkien fans are of course shocked by this sacrilege, but cinemagoers heads would purportedly explode if a guy and girl didn’t hook up in the end.
These days, the general consensus among film critics is that, once made, a film adaptation becomes a separate entity from its original, and should then be saved from comparison. Understandably, such critics want films to be regarded on their own merits after decades of defending cinema as an art form and social phenomenon worthy of its own discussion. If you’re a film student, you might be familiar with such a discussion.
But is it fair, or even moral, to discard the original in this way? ‘Immoral’ might sound harsh, but it arguably becomes ground for moral debate when you think about why so many adaptations are made in the first place. Something tells me it’s not because of a cinematic celebration of literature or because the flow of original stories has actually run dry. In the unsteady times of modern cinema, where even the biggest studios like Disney can’t afford another flop, adaptations are safe bets. Adaptations come with proven storylines and pre-existing global fan-bases, so even before marketing begins studios are guaranteed to sell tickets.
Early marketing for the first Hunger Games film was aimed directly at the books’ lucrative fan-base, slipping in the Mockingjay symbol here and there for fans in the know. With all films the marketing must be right, and some adaptations don’t come with the right kind of audience. Disney’s recent big-budget adaptations and gargantuan flops John Carter and Lone Ranger are evidence – maybe their audiences were too old or too narrow, or the originals too forgotten. Both flops have contributed to Hollywood’s ever-growing commitment to safe bets and the reason we’ll be seeing Marvel and Star Wars until a very far, far away date…
So while we should make room for the inevitability of form differences and the evolution of stories, we should always measure a filmmakers’ respect for the original against their willingness to exploit fan bases. Take Hitchcock, a regular adapter of popular novels. He once told Francois Truffaut that he read The Birds once, before throwing the book away and doing what he wanted with the story. Talk about disrespectful. Hitchcock probably gets away with it because, well, he’s Hitchcock. At the time it was probably every thriller-writer’s dream for the Master of Suspense to adapt his or her work. I imagine most would’ve bowed down and said ‘do what you want with it’, with a submissive, sadomasochistic demeanour.
Following the commercial and critical success of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Peter Jackson too was perhaps offered more freedom with The Hobbit. But then Jackson’s greatest betrayal of Tolkien undoubtedly stemmed from financial exploitation, expanding the modest children’s classic into three epic movies. Although lots of what Jackson added to the films came from other Tolkien stories, his lack of literary respect resulted in the aforementioned made up characters and interspecies love-triangle.
It really can’t be easy though. Think of poor Jackson, sweet-talked into returning to Middle Earth after trying to push ring-bearing duties onto Guillermo Del Toro. The making of this trilogy had him not only up against Tolkien and his fans, but also in stiff competition with himself after the enormous success of The Lord of the Rings.
Still, filmmakers should think about their morals when ‘borrowing’ the storylines, characters and the billion dollar titles of everyone’s favourite book. As many academics will continue to say, books and films are separate entities and should be considered for their own merits. But as studios remain keen to exploit lucrative franchises they should bear in mind the fan-bases filling cinema seats. Have some respect for those buying the DVDs, the posters, the games. Have some respect for fans visiting the studio exhibitions, the theme parks, New Zealand. Have some respect for the fans buffering leaked adaptations of their favourite books from their favourite streaming site.