Adaptation

book enders game

Orson Scott Card– Author

The object of adaptation is to change the subject in order to make it better suited for a new, or alternative purpose.  Adapting a book into a movie, is not so much about faithful representation of the text as it is about capturing the subtext in away that makes better sense within a whole new system of parameters.  The film Adaptation, written by Charlie Kaufman, explores the meaning of the word and its application to screenwriting in a beautifully profound way.

Historically, the movie version has been scorned, or at least widely accepted as the inferior of the pair when evaluated against it’s source material.  The sad truth of it is that the requisite of a film adaptation is putting at least one, more likely about a dozen or more middlemen between the author and his audience.  When you read a book, you are free to interpret and envision the story as you like with no one else weighing in.  you cast your characters and direct your own movie.  You get to have your own way all the time, no questions asked.  Of course it will be infuriating for you, when you go see a movie based on your favorite book and some guy you’ve never heard of is making knock-offs of the “real” characters give an inaccurate account with all of the important parts missing and an agenda that never before existed.

I wonder if Warner Brothers ever considered giving Clooney another crack at the cape and cowel before going to Affleck.

I wonder if Warner Brothers ever considered giving Clooney another crack at the cape and cowel before going to Affleck.

It used to be, that when something like that happened, it was your one chance to see this story portrayed in your lifetime.  Now, even the word remake has been adapted to the point where one take on a property can be run into the ground and “rebooted” in only a couple of years time.  It’s an exciting thing to see, like the countless versions of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” you are likely to see crop up year after year, new interpretations of popular literature have the potential to inspire and inform not just a brand new audience, but also the same old one in different and even more powerful ways.

A book has its own properties, as a book.  It can tell a story in a way that is impossible for film.  That’s why it has to be adapted.  But when a person with vision sees a way to tell the story visually, they have the opportunity to exhibit the version of the book that means something to them, and a responsibility to be true to that vision.  A good adaptation will lose some things from the book, but replace them with scenes that contribute to the story in a similar capacity, and will hopefully include little to no narration.

A book faithfully adapted into a film is a tightrope walk that is also extremely subjective.  The less a filmmaker is willing to make changes to the source material, the more danger there is of making a terrible movie.  When you adapt a book to film, you must ask yourself if you are tying to replace, the book, or supplement it, discuss it, or explain it.  There is a good approach and a bad one.  The book will not be replaced.  More people may see the movie, but it is not a substitute for the original and with luck, a more artistically gutsy version will hit theaters within a decade that will replace your forgotten experiment, while the book in question is still selling.  The new film may have less in common with the book, with various omissions and gender changes, a reworking of the story’s end, but it will succeed in sharing a vision that perhaps the book only alludes to for some, and it will be a far superior movie, because it was skillfully adapted to accomplish the goal, not of making a movie version of such and such, but of telling a great story.

Of course this is all hypothetical.  The bold, aggressive interpretation could be terrible as well.  So what is the right way and the wrong way to adapt a book into a movie.  Why did Jurassic Park work when Congo Didn’t?  Why makes Jaws such an effective retelling of Peter Benchley’s story.  Why is Lord of the Rings so beloved?  and is it appropriate to take the trilogy approach in adapting The Hobbit?

"Amy want green drop drink."

“Amy want green drop drink.”

Jurassic Park, seems like it’s easy to explain, by the fact that Crichton is a credited writer of the screenplay.  He was not only a novelist, but had real screenwriting experience and was quite good at both forms.  he also wrote his books in a way that sort of lent themselves nicely to becoming movies, yet, even his own script departed from the source material in order to better tell his story through a new medium.  When he wrote the sequel, but did not return as a screenwriter, the adaptation suffered horribly, despite his quite obvious intentions when writing the novel of seeing it come to life on the big screen.  For example, Ian Malcom clearly died at the end of the novel Jurassic Park, yet he lives in the movie and is made the most popular character, by Jeff Goldblum’s portrayal, so he is written in as the lead in the new story, despite his apparent demise.  His foresight and obvious intentions were missed however when David Koeppe took a stab ad the adaptation himself.  He kept Ian Malcom, of course, but managed to take the story in a bizarrely inappropriate tangent, rendering the film the worst of the three films even though it focused on the world’s most popular chaotician and the third one didn’t even have a book as its basis.  Congo, on the other hand was something I was anticipating like it was Christmas.  After Jurassic Park turned me on to Crichton I read Congo and saw the trailer as nothing short of an epic and very literal translation of the book.  I just didn’t know that translation would come through a computerized voice in the hi-tech gloves of a signing gorilla.  Amy is a gorilla who communicates with her owner Peter through sign language.  For some reason it was decided that it would be best for her to sport an accessory that would translate the signs to English.  The gambit did not work.  Arbitrary changes also were made, such as the nightmares about Zinj that Amy would have and the name of the company.  The gray gorillas   rather than being trained guard dogs with stone paddles, somehow became marshal artists with excessively silly choreography in what should have been brutally horrifying attacks.  In the book, Amy helps the research team to decipher the new species’ language and use it against them.  In the movie, they use the diamonds they are after in Zinj to make laser guns.  Almost all of the changes made in Congo, either senselessly deviated from the book or deliberately detracted from the stories original intent with no apparent merit.  Jurassic Park had its deviations, but only when it was essential to the strength of the story.

gi jaws brody

“That’s some bad hat, Harry.”

Jaws is based on the novel by Peter Benchley but the film is a drastic departure from the source material, mostly due to all that is left out of the final story.  By virtue of such omissions, the characters are freed up a little from their interpersonal conflicts and a more satisfying Casablanca ending is allowed to replace the novels finale.  The movie version is streamlined and purposeful, which allows extensive subplots to be disposed of.  Just enough information is used to support the spine of the story and keep it paced appropriately.  The threat of losing tourism money by closing down the beach is enough of a problem to work with, pitting the sheriff against the mayor and setting up the need to hunt down the shark.  Once Brody, Hooper, and Quint leave the port they remain out at sea until the deadly show down with the killer shark.  It makes for a much needed act break that would be less effective if the boys returned home night after night.  The journey toward respect between Hooper and Quint, who start off as rivals is enough of a sub-current to the main plot to fill out the story without overcomplicating it with the jealousy that originally plagues sheriff Brody in the book.  In addition to the narrow focus of the adaptation, improv between the characters, added a sense of realism and charm to the movie that nonchalantly juxtaposes a casual atmosphere with a tense drama.

I'm trying to suspend my disbelief and desire for an escalating plot with the promise of some sort of resolution, but you gotta work with me a little, here.

I’m trying to suspend my disbelief and desire for an escalating plot with the promise of some sort of resolution, but you gotta work with me a little, here.

Lord of the Rings is a trilogy that aims to be faithful to the beloved classics and spares no running time in capturing as much of the original stories as possible in the beautiful New Zealand locations that realize Middle Earth in a way that it never before could be.  The work must have been painstaking but the goal was clear.  The goal of The Hobbit, however, is much less noble and the adaptation suffers greatly.  Rather than truly adapt the story for film, a single book is broken down into episodes.  It is a grab for more box office dollars that pretends to be an aesthetic choice to match the original trilogy.  While the second installment The Desolation of Smaug may have enough content to be an entertaining movie it is merely a second act without a beginning or an end.  Compared to the first Star Wars trilogy it may that the story becomes a favorite of the fans and due to the third film having an obvious conclusion, fans may argue over which one is best, just as fans argue about Empire vs. Jedi.  But the similarities end rather abruptly at that point.  Empire is part of an ongoing saga and The Desolation of Smaug will literally be the middle section of a full story.  A New Hope is smaller in scope than the others, and while it mainly just introduces the characters, it does have a definite beginning middle and end that tells a complete heroes journey.  The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey fills its running time awkwardly and fails to portray the reverence of the trilogy before it.  Instead, the ultra-fantastic hyper-colorful scenery takes away from the initial world that was created for middle Earth, and with little urgency for most of the film’s running time, the characters are made to wallow in artificial splendor that stretches the prowess of their acting capabilities uncomfortably thin.  There is a self awareness that bleeds through the performances, as they try all too hard to believe it’s working.

Gavin Hood-- Writer/Director

Gavin Hood– Writer/Director

An adaptation should always be about what will make the book translate to screen in the best way.  Sometimes you have to strip it down, dress it up, make it more accessible, more satisfying, more entertaining, but always in the name of story.  A faithful adaptation that does not make the necessary steps to change for it’s audience is not doing justice to the author.  Jackie Brown is an adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch.  Leonard is a frequently adapted author and while more artistic liberties were taken with Tarantino’s film than any other, the author himself considered it to be the most faithful.

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Aronofsky’s Noah Hits Stormy Waters: Are Good Bible Movies Impossible to Make?

aronofsky v paramount

I am intrigued by Paramount’s big budget Noah film.  It’s been a long time since Hollywood has tapped that overflowing stream of Biblical narratives that entire careers could be devoted to producing.  I’m pleased that it’s not a low budget independent movie, because it would invariably suck, but I’m also curious what a true artist such as Darren Aronofsky will do at the helm.  Apparently, pre-screened versions are not pleasing the audience and Paramount is not getting much cooperation from the Black Swan, Requiem for a Dream director who has final cut. Full story here .  Is this just the beginning of inevitable controversy due to the subject matter, can we blame the good ol’ media, or is it something more?  I have some thoughts.  Come rant with me:

Why is it that the Christian community at large loves to rail against Hollywood’s interpretation of Bible stories yet they can’t ever seem to make a decent one of their own?  As a cinephile and a Christian with very strong beliefs about both I find it absolutely maddening how starkly and unnecessarily disparate the two things are.  The Bible doesn’t even need to enter into it for a bad Christian movie to be made.  Try to adapt a story from scripture and it is almost guaranteed to fail.  This happens in spite of the wealth of great characters and tales of heroism that the Bible is brimming with like an eternal spring.  The stories are free and tap into the most significant truths about the nature of man and the meaning of life.  The Bible for all of its offerings has barely been touched and the stories that are told are simply retold without expanding to new possibilities.  Hollywood doesn’t know any better.  It’s bound to rehash what it has already done and most people only know a few of the big popular stories such as Moses and the Exodus, the Gospel of Christ, Noah and the flood, and David and Goliath.  You would think the Bible is only about 80 pages long.

Christian independent filmmakers try occasionally to fix this, but the films turn out really bad.  Even if they are able to get good sets and costumes, the acting is dreadful, mostly because the scripts are so terribly written.  Hollywood  can blame it’s irreverence on ignorance and utter disregard for the value of the source material, but Christian filmmakers should know better.  To adapt a Bible story for a movie audience, you have to be a prophet.  You have to risk being unpopular and you better be offensive.  Christians are too afraid to really say something and so they make bad movies because a good movie should challenge you, especially when dealing with such weighty subjects.

The Bible is a collection of what I like to refer to as the best stories badly told.  If you read it, you know what I’m talking about.  There is a lot of great stuff in there, obviously, but to really get a solid picture in your mind of what’s going on, lot’s of supplemental reading is required.  Even with historically contextual information at your disposal, the narrative jumps and changes focus a number of ways that are difficult to keep up with.  That combined with the fact that the text is so rich with profundity and symbolism, you can read and read and read and still miss everything.  All of these great amazing ideas just sitting there for the taking are booby trapped.  You cannot take the approach of being faithful to the text and make a good movie.  The structure of the stories prohibits it.  If you do, you will make something very superficial that will not stand the test of time and only make a few camps happy in some morbid way.

By seeking not to offend, you offend regardless and alienate yourself and your work, most importantly, you render yourself completely and utterly useless.  If Jesus tried to please the Pharisees we would have no Christianity.  I am not saying your aim should be to offend.  Your aim should be truth.  Truth will stir something in people.  Naturally some of them will be offended, but in the end, something of substance has been created.

There are so many versions of the Bible.  Translation upon translation.  Never mind that most people haven’t even read the thing, there are debates over which translations are closer to the intended meaning.  Some popular preachers, like to mix and match verses from different translations to suit their own thesis.  These ministry mash-ups are but one way the scriptures get tweaked on a weekly basis in mega churches like Saddleback in southern California.  Non Christians like to think of Christians in one light probably based vastly on media coverage and partially on regional influence, but their is a whole spectrum within Christendom that is not unlike the volatile political spectrum in the United States.  A typical Christian is just as fictional and misleading as a typical American and the average American probably knows about as much about the content of the Constitution as a Christian knows about the Bible.

With all the potential controversy it’s no wonder the Bible is shunned when it comes to making a movie adaptation.  The few who attempt it are admirable, but the demands for constant compromise doom these projects from the beginning.  Yet, film has seen remarkable evolutionary changes as an industry.  No longer are we tied down to only one version of a story.  just look what a comic book franchise can mean cinematically.  visionary directors are able to explore new interpretations of movies only a few years old.  Like Mathew, Mark, Luke and John, separate accounts of the same story is not only happening with more frequency the potential value is only beginning to be recognized.  I think the world of cinema is ready for the Bible even if the audience is squeamish.  with the right shepherds, these stories can be meaningful new translations for a world increasingly populated by books as movies.  In order for that to happen though, the switch in the heads of the makers needs to flip from “what will people think?”, to “what is this story trying to say?”

You can’t tell a good Bible story on screen if you stick only to the source material.  You have to develop the story according to the true spirit of the scripture.  That is much of what the Gospel is about.  Jesus insisted on what was right when what was written had been corrupted.  When you chose to be blind to portions of the Bible to preserve your beliefs about other portions, you are allowing the same corruption.  The healthiest thing for everybody is to stop saying “this is true because…” and instead take the time honored “What if…” approach.  in order to spark conversation rather than just debate.

I don’t know what Darren Aronofsky will contribute to the conversation, but I admire him as an artist– and a provocative one at that.  I am very interested in seeing what he does with the story.  If I dislike it, it wont be the end of the world, but it has the potential to be really great.

Review: Rush

poster rushRush is a based on real events story directed by Ron Howard and scripted by frequent Ron Howard collaborator Peter Morgan.  The film attempts to explore the infamous rivalry between two Formula One racers during the seventies.  As a period piece it is composed rather well with costumes and set pieces consistent with the time, but not as flashy and obvious as, say the upcoming American Hustle.  This may have been a deliberate choice, perhaps in order to not distract the audience from the story.  Unfortunately, the story lacked balls and could have done with some style and a little more TLC from Howard.

I say balls, rather than boldness, guts, tenacity, or fearlessness, because that is the way I think the characters in the movie would express it.  For all the mandatory rhetoric about passion and heart that you are bound to find in a racing movie, I found none of that in the composition.  Whenever a driving sequence got on the verge of becoming a thrill it was cut short.  It is also uneven with most of the longer race scenes weighing down the end of the film with very little payoff.

One of the flaws of the film is that by attempting to shed light on Hunt and Laude (both characters involved in the rivalry) they fail to give the audience someone to root for.  The point is not the rivalry or who wins, the point is that they push each other to be better.  It’s an interesting idea, but its not a movie and it failed to arouse true interest as the stakes supposedly mounted, because I had no investment in one character over the other.  It was so passive, and thusly, boring.  It might have been a good character study if more attention were paid to dialogue and creating scenes that we could dwell in and enjoy without feeling the need to trudge forward, but trudge it does, from one uninspired scene on to the next, creating a sense of impatience for it to all be over.

Despite the noble attempt to not chose sides, or rather to expose the virtue of both sides beneath the surface, and the desire of the producers to stick to the actual events that inspired the film; I think the fair and balanced approach was a failure.  If Rudy hadn’t made the new Notre Dame coach the villain in the third act, the whole spirit of the story would have suffered.  In the end, these two very different, but very driven racers had nothing to fight for but to beat each other.

The events of the past are little more than a blip in history that most people won’t even recognize and this movie will do little to change that fact.  It too will soon be forgotten.  Renny Harlin  captured the pulse pounding action of Indy racing much better in the Stallone film Driven twelve years ago.  I recommend that for good racing action, or even Cars, or The Dukes of Hazard.  As a sports movie with a historical context it may be of interest to some people, but I believe it fails as an adaptation to be a fully developed story and the direction is not what I expected from Ron Howard.

Review: 21 Jump Street

Even though I never watched the TV show I was interested in how this movie was going to turn out.  I just wasn’t curious enough to check it out in theaters.  When it came out on DVD I figured it was a good rental for $1.20 at Redbox and I was very pleasantly surprised.  I don’t think it’s franchise big, or even worth buying, but it is good solid entertainment, that is very funny and well crafted.

It’s quick pace and reliance on the simplicity of the concept help the story to focus on what is important from an information stand point, and how to extract great comedy from those situations and characters alike.  Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill are a great unlikely set of partners and the fish out of water effect on the guys discovering how high school has changed just a few short years after being students themselves is priceless.

It’s a story about two guys who were very different from each other in high school join the force and learn to rely on each other and ultimately becomebest friends.  That friendship is strained when an undercover mission forces them to reverse the roles they once played as real life students.

There is a lot of great stuff in the film bt what I mostly admire is it’s willingness to admit that less is more and not subject it’s audience to forty-five minutes of frivolous junk.  The value of the film increases tremendously when the filmmaker has that discipline.  Good material, short and sweet, and very entertaining comedy/action make 21 Jump Street a winner, even if it isn’t quite a classic. A