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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.