Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Film Adaptations - When They Work And When They Don't

First a warning that this post may contain some ranting. I will try to keep it to a minimum but when I talk about things I'm passionate about I can get a bit holier than thou. I'll try to keep it down...

Today I watched the trailer for the new Three Musketeers film, starring Matthew Macfadyen and Orlando Bloom. You can see it here. I was not impressed. I know you can't judge a whole film by the trailer and I will keep my eyes open for the movie when it comes to theatres but the ninja moves, and apparently floating ship made me think one thing; Wild Wild West. In 17th Century France. Urgh.

I am a huge fan of Alexander Dumas' book and have really enjoyed other interpretations of it through the years (I even like the Keifer Sutherland one - I know it's massively flawed but I still enjoy it. Then again I was a teenager in the nineties so may be seeing it through a rosy mist). But I just can't see myself getting behind a version that has scenes more reminiscent of Resident Evil than the Renaissance. My main thought was; why? Why change a great story that is full of adventure, romance, drama and humour to create... something else. That got me thinking about Hollywood's habit of changing well loved stories for the sake of some demographic that only they seem to think exists. And judging by the box office success of some of these adaptations it's clear it doesn't often work when you diverge from the original story.

Where's your other head Zavod? Where!?
The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy - Not the BBC adaptation (that was great, in a hammy, cheap graphics kind of way) but the 2005 film version with Martin Freeman, soon to star in the film version of The Hobbit. Adapting Douglas Adam's works was never going to be easy, with so much of the original told through narrative that wanders around space and time (literally), but in the 2005 version they managed to make a real dogs' dinner of it. The scriptwriters unwisely chose to scrap the wit of Adams for their own slapstick and sense of the ridiculous, to terrible effect. It's enjoyable in parts if you're not familiar with Adams but overall is a forgettable experience, unlike the original tale which I still quote to this day. Particularly the bit about the babel fish and god.

He's as annoying as he looks. Trust me.

The Seeker: The Dark is Rising - Where to begin? Even the writer Susan Cooper was openly unhappy with the film version and when I saw it I could understand why. Confusing, and totally negligent of the original story, they took a quiet and thoughtful tale, where the child protagonist is more of an observer than a hero, and tried to turn it into another Harry Potter. And failed. They also inexplicably turned the English boy into an American teenager. Maybe it was to get the kids in. Whatever the reason it didn't work and a franchise failed before it even started.

Extremely beautiful - incredibly shallow.

Memoirs of a Geisha - I frickin' loved this book. Loved I tell you. So I was very excited when they announced a film version. My excitement was dulled when I saw that the cast were almost entirely Chinese (Japanese actors apparently aren't famous enough - thank the maker for Ken Watanabe), and after I saw it was left feeling very disappointed. While it's beautiful the film has no soul and Sayuri is no where near as compelling as she in the book. The original was subtle, romantic, educational and inspiring, most of which was missing from the film. Instead it played as a strange romance film, and felt as though no one involved in the script understood or was interested in the life of a Geisha.

When they get it right though they can get it really right:

Love. Love. Love this movie.

The Princess Bride - Brilliant film and brilliant book. Tellingly William Goldman wrote both, and so the main story, characters and dialogue is present in both works. The book is a little more complex, as books normally are, with a whole back story to where this tale has come from. The reason the film works, in my opinion, is it respects the original material while making the necessary changes needed to turn a book into a film. Then again you'd hope so if the author is penning the script. Sadly not all authors can do this or get the chance.

They just want to play. Honest.

Jurassic Park - Now I must admit I think the book is far superior to the film (despite the feeling that Crichton was not interested in realistic female characters - but that's a whole other post) but I love the film. It takes the story and scenes from the book and puts the most important ones on screen, with some characters changed to let the story flow. It captured the awe and the horror evoked in the original work and is all the more memorable for it. (Then Jurassic Park 2 came out and ruined it all, but then the book sucked too so one could argue it was a good adaptation.)

...mmmmm yum. Nuff said.

The Lord of the Rings - I could hardly talk about book adaptations without talking about the most epic adaptation of all. And I think it is a testament to what true love of the original material can do for a film version. Peter Jackson and the scriptwriters all loved Tolkien's tale and were loathe to change it too much, to the point that they use lines from the book as dialogue. But they also wisely cut out certain parts that didn't move the story forward (like Tom "Bloody" Bombadil

Clearly changing the story isn't the problem, as even the successful adaptations make changes - it is an "adaptation" after all. But I think what they do that the less successful versions don't is to stay true to the essence of the story. By keeping the main set pieces intact and just tying them together a film can remain faithful while making the tale more friendly for the cinema.

What films do you hate/love that are based on books? Do you have any books you'd love to be adapted - or any you would hate to see on the big screen?


  1. Jaws... the book has a horrendous subplot where Hooper has an affair with Brody's wife, and the ending is ripped right out of Moby-Dick... Spielberg stripped all that cheap romance and bad tension away and created a masterpiece.

  2. I do agree with you about the Musketeers - it has been done to death, and generally poorly. Although not close to the original story, at least in plotting I find ridiculously exuberant Richard Lester 1970's pair the most fun, and at least they claim the essence of the story. Oddly, Dumas's Les Miserables seems to transfer better to celluloid and I think several faithful adaptations exist.

    With you on JP2 - although I quite liked the book, but the film - well, let's say "featuring soon in a worst 10 movies of all time list". Dreadful tosh.

    I've not watched all of the Narnia adaptations, and these do fair a little better on the big screen, but I'm still a little uncertain whether they should have stayed only on the page. They ought to be a part of every childhood, and best experienced by torchlight of an evening. Some fantasy is best retained purely for the imagination.

    I'm happier with several of Stephen King's books on film. Most notably I think in the ironic 'Misery' ... although one or two aspects were changed, the two major characters remained faithful to the excellent book. Both Caan abd Bates excellent. I much prefer King's less 'horrific' works, and the tone of Dolores Claiborne was close to the books, but a lot was left un-filmed that was in the book. And without it's companion novel there is a lack of fulfilment. Not a bad film, but not great film material, and not quite 'there' for me.

    I've also found all adaptation of Dracula poor in attempts to re-create the atmosphere of the book. I think there is a film short somewhere of 'Draculas Guest' which is pretty good, but all of them - from the ashen 30s, up to and including Gary Oldman, have not been great. And I think it can be done. Maybe Christopher Nolan should have a go ...

    I would say that Dune is pretty un-filmable. I don't think Lynch's effort is as bad as sometimes portrayed, but I'm not sure how it would appear today. I had no great like for the mini-series either.

    If you'd allow me some wriggle-room, and despite the rantings of Moore, I think both V for Vendetta, and Watchmen were faithful and excellent. Certainly the latter is practically frame-for-frame the comic-book. Quite what Moore's problem was, is lost on me. Aside from a little trimming, it is the comic-book bought to life. Then again, it's a medium that lends itself more easily to transfer.

    Not sure if I have any 'untouchables'. I would love to see someone attempt to translate some of Angela Carter's more obscure works to the big screen ... that would be fun. Mixing the fantastical and the mundane. A collaboration between Lynch and Burton perhaps!


    Another really good, interesting, and thoughtful post Alexa. They are great. Hopefully we'll get to read a longer work of yours soon ;-) (your progress meter appears to have halted - life getting in the way of your other plans?)

  3. Controversially I really, really hate the first Charlie and the Chocolate film, but for some odd reason like the Tim Burton version.

    I mean, this rant could go on for so long, given that pretty much everything we see in cinema is an adaptation of some variety. Have we just used every single original idea anyone has ever had? It seems so.

    Also famously the only good Three Musketeers are those from The Man in the Iron Mask - FACT.

    I love that I'm typing this on your blog while you sit directly in front of you. I'm waving at you right now... you can't see me.


  4. Great points, and did not know that about Jaws Charlie - think I'll stick to the film! And Mike, sadly yes life has been getting in the way of the writing recently but hopefully things will settle down soon... and you don't need wiggle room IMO for V for Vendetta and Watchmen. I love those films and thought they really caught the spirit of the comics. I think Moore just takes himself a bit too seriously so couldn't/wouldn't see it.

  5. Dianne - I'm waving back! I don't like the first Charlie and the Choc Factory much either. The kids in it were really annoying. Even the one playing Charlie! Gene Wilder was the only good thing in that film and even he looks bored at times.