Greetings, my dear intelligent students. It's time, once again, for study. True, CraveOnline's Free Film School offers little in the way of spring breaks or vacations, but it remains the only film school you can attend entirely in the nude. Unless you're studying at the office. And in that cast, you're learning all about movies on your company's dime. Is there a down side to this school?
This week's lesson will be something of an editorial on my part, and I'll be asking you for input. By all means, leave comments below, as I'd love to hear what you think on this topic. Rather than merely lecturing, I'll try to open a dialogue (you still can simply read; this is a low-impact class). The issue this week is film adaptation.
I was looking over the top-grossing films of 2011 recently, and I came to some of my usual conclusions: that the best films of the year are rarely the highest earners. That people are more willing to see sequels and remakes than they are original programming, and that Michael Bay has a curious stranglehold on American audiences. In the top-20 earning films of 2011, only three – Bridesmaids, Rio and Super 8 – were original screenplays. The rest were either adapted from books or comics, or were merely sequels. Sometimes both. The #1 earning film of 2011 was Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2. In 2010, eight of the top-20 films were original. It seems to me that adaptations of novels, comics and other screenplays are the theme of the day in modern Hollywood. I've commented plenty of times about how Hollywood is largely a risk-free machine, and they'll make “safe” properties until doomsday. I will not fight the system; that is a churlish exercise. I will, however, try to intellectualize the practice of adapting existing properties for a second.
Do you read the books first, or do you watch the movies first? I always watch the movies first. A book can alter your view of a movie, but a movie cannot (at least for me) alter your view of a book.
What makes a good adaptation? Well, starting with strong source material usually helps. I'm willing to bet that a filmmaker, if asked to adapt King Lear to the big screen, would probably produce something better than if a filmmaker were asked to adapt, say Green Lantern. I've seen filmed versions of both those things, and I can say that Green Lantern was somewhat less substantive. Someone could, likely, make a King Lear that was all flash and no substance and turn out an ahistoric action flick, just as someone could make a thoughtful and philosophically rich version of Green Lantern, commenting on the function of free will and fear. But going to the source material proves, perhaps, that one is more conducive to film. One is a centuries-old tragedy about a foolish old man trying to blissfully abandon the corrupt political system he was a part of. The other is a sci-fi superhero comic. Certain things are expected from your adaptation.
To make a good adaptation, you need to boil down the source material. Take your favorite book/comic/video game/play/poem. Ask yourself the following question: If I strip away the surface details – the looks, the basic descriptions, and the iconic moments – what is the source about? Dissect the source a bit. What is the bare basic story of the thing? What is the tone? And, most importantly, what is the basic theme? I recently wrote a (somewhat maligned) article on the Harry Potter movies, and I couldn't, when watching the eighth film, really discern the central theme of the Harry Potter story. It seemed to me that we spent eight films of wonderment and imagination and wizardry just to get to a scene where Harry Potter causes the death of another person. There was so much in terms of story and event in those films that there was little in the way theme or philosophy. As best as I could figure, Harry was a kind of dull cipher for the power of friendship and a vague kind of courage. The same kinds of themes you would find in an average Saturday morning cartoon. I was lambasted by several peers for not having read the books beforehand, and, hence, missing the point of the movies. To them I say: I shouldn't have to read the books before I see the movie. If the film is a good adaptation, it should be able to stand on its own. It should be able to tell that story, and give me the gist of the universe on its own terms. If I have to read a book to understand the film, the adaptation has failed. I still liked the eighth Harry Potter film just fine, but many of the films in that series in particular relied far too heavily on the audience's familiarity with the books. As someone who hasn't read the books, I can say for sure: they are too involved in themselves for their own good.
You have to choose how you want to adapt something. If literary fealty is your M.O., then slow everything down. Include every last detail. Make sure that the characters dress exactly as they do in the books, and speak every line of written dialogue from the books. Use the camera to capture, in as documentary a fashion as possible, everything contained within the pages of your source. Some films have had a great success with this approach. Lord of the Rings, for instance, did not choose to tell that story in a single film, but tried to include most of the details of the original novels, stretching it into three four-hour feature films. Could that tale have been told in a single two-hour film? Of course it could have. But the filmmakers chose instead to focus on literary fealty, and in order to do that, more screen time was needed.
But is literary fealty a virtue in and of itself? I would argue that it isn't. I'm going to point out a film here that I kinda liked, and few others did, so it may serve as a poor example, but I'm going to bring up Ang Lee's 2003 film adaptation Hulk. Lee, it should be pointed out, is not a comic book reader, and has few solid notions of superheroes. When picking up a Hulk comic for the first time, he found not a superhero tale, but a kind of Wolf Man story, about a fellow who, thanks to his inner angst and some inter-generation arguments, occasionally becomes a large green monster with only an animal level of thinking. Bruce Banner (Eric Bana) was a sensitive soul who found himself struggling with this problem, and his conflicts were mostly internal psychological issues that stemmed from his father. It's not a great film, but I appreciate how thoughtful it was toward the Hulk material.
Ask any comic book fan, though, and they'll be thrown into fits of sputtering protest over how incorrect this was. The Hulk was not a thinker, they seem to argue. The Hulk is brute force. The fans seemed to want more direct superhero mayhem. They wanted fights with other creatures. The Hulk may have started his comic book life as a pseudo-Wolf Man character, but quickly entered a slowly growing superhero canon at Marvel comics. These days, the Hulk is a superhero first. The superheroic elements were absent from the Ang Lee film, and this led the studio to regroup, and remake the film in 2008 as The Incredible Hulk, this time with more fighting. The fans seemed more satisfied with this version. Something interesting about the two versions, though: They made about the same amount of money.
I would argue, though, that Ang Lee's version is the better adaptation. A thoughtful filmmaker seemed to boil the Hulk down to his base story elements, and he tinkered with them to make something that was pretty good, but also kind of rich. The 2008 version, in contrast, was a more direct transcription of the comic book elements. One was a thematic musing. The other was based in literary fealty. When adapting, which is more correct?
Well, they both are, really. Just because I prefer Ang Lee's Hulk doesn't mean it's the more correct way to adapt something. But I would say that changing the source material isn't necessarily a vice.
Adapting source material is very much like translating poetry from another language. You have two choices: You can choose accessibility, or you can choose poetry. In the former approach, you can stringently translate the literal meaning of every single word in the poem, making for a direct literary purity, but also perhaps a clunky-sounding version of the poem. In the latter, you can stray from the exact words a little, and try to make the new translation seem poetic in its new language, but at the expense of the original words. It's a balance. The same is true of adapting source material. You can be faithful to your source, but you also have to alter enough to make it work as a film. That story, after all, needs to be told in 90 – 120 minutes. If you can't include everything, start cutting.
Another notable example is the case of Lolita. Vladimir Nabokov's famed book, often called one of the best novels of the 20th century, has been adapted to film twice. The first time was in 1962, in the notorious version directed by Stanley Kubrick. In the 1962 version, many details from the book were altered. The story structure was changed a bit, Lolita was changed from a 12-year-old to a 14-year-old. And, thanks to issues with the controversial source material (the book is, after all, about a grown man's sexual affair with a 12-year-old girl) the sexual content was shied away from. Indeed, the sex was so much eschewed in the 1962 version, for a long time it looks as if the man and the girl aren't up to anything untoward. The film ran 157 minutes, and still didn't include much that was in the book. Ironically, the screenplay for the much-altered 1962 version was penned by Nabokov himself.
But then in 1997, the book was adapted again, this time by Adrian Lyne. In this version, written by Stephen Schiff, the feel and the direct dialogue was maintained. The girl was 12 again, and seemed to be the feisty brat she was in the book, and not some vague angelic presence as in the Kubrick version. The story moved exactly like it did in Nabokov's novel, and all the details were in place. Even a lot of the sexual content had be restored, including a few actual sex scenes with the 12-year-old (but all tastefully done; the young actress – who in real life would have been about 17 at the time – was protected).
But ask anyone, and they'll likely say that Kubrick's version is the superior adaptation. Again, fealty was ignored in favor of a tonal match. Content was cut in favor of a more visually striking tone. The story was altered to move more satisfyingly in a visual medium. Books can take their time and last as long as they need to. Films have time to contend with, and must have a certain chronological running time. The stories therein must, then, inevitably move differently than in a book. Kubrick knew this, and openly altered the book to fit the tone he wanted. And it was done with the blessing of the original author.
When adapting a book or comic to film, the cardinal rule is this: You are making a film first, and an adaptation second. Whatever your source, you have to make sure it fits in with the language of film. This is why superhero costumes look different in film versions; it's one thing to draw a flashy outfit on a person on a comic book page. It's another thing to actually dress an actor in that costume. Actual reality is now part of the equation. And what will look better is often a stray from the source. Include only what will fit in a film, and ask yourself how it moves as a film. Otherwise you run the risk of rushing details, omitting explicit explanations, and making a film that feels sloppy. Don't just make a litany of details. Make a film.
HOMEWORK FOR THE WEEK: What is your favorite film adaptation? How familiar were you with the source material going in? Did you like it because it turned you on to something you were unfamiliar with, or did you like it because it adapted something you like well? Do you think all films should be loyal to source material, or is it okay if they stray a bit? How far can they stray? Has a good film ever been a bad adaptation? Has a faithful adaptation ever been a bad film? Let me know some examples. This topic is vast.