Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Art of Adaptation

Movie adaptations of beloved books always seem to be a touchy endeavor. Book lovers are often torn between curiosity in seeing their favorite characters on screen and anxiety over the prospect of their favorite bits cut out.

Filmmakers and the screenwriters who adapt the book must struggle as well. Hew too close to the original book, and you risk ruining the movie. Take too many liberties, and you risk ruining the book.

Imagine what it must be like for the author.

NPR recently ran a series of stories interviewing authors whose books have been adapted into movies.

Jon Ronson, author of The Men Who Stare at Goats, expanded upon the tension between a writer and the screenwriter who has been tasked with adapting the book for film.

"I bumped into [the screenwriter] one time when he was writing [the screenplay], in a Starbucks in central London," Ronson says with a laugh. "I swear when he saw me walk in, the blood drained from his face. ... Obviously, you know, the last thing in the world he wanted was for me to go up to him and ask him how it was going. Which I immediately did."

Sixteen weeks later, [the screenwriter] sent Ronson a finished screenplay.

"And I loved it — and then everything thawed," Ronson says. "Everything was OK."

All three of the authors who were interviewed said they were pleased with the finished film. Walter Kirn, author of Up in the Air, talked about distancing himself from the process of adaptation by viewing the book and movies as two separate creatures.

"There are two different forms of storytelling: Novels tend to come from the inside of a character and movies tend to look at them from the outside in relation to others in their world. And so, I fully understood that for this book to make it onto film it had to be sort of opened up, unfolded. And for me to worry over that process, scrutinize it too closely or take it personally would only retard the freedom with which the writer/director was able to do that. So I sat back, let it happen. And the finished product, though it bears the distinct genetic imprint of the book, is quite different in some details and yet I am entirely pleased with it."
If anything will make book lovers cry foul, it's major changes to plot or characters. Kirn said he didn't mind such changes.

"If they'd filmed the novel completely faithfully, it would've been a lot of voiceover and a lot of the shots of planes crossing the sun."
To solve this problem, the screenwriter introduced a new character to open up the script to interplay and dialogue.

For Lynn Barber, author of An Education, sometimes the small changes were the most intriguing. For example, the movie adaptation of her book shifted the setting of the story from 1960 to 1961.

"I was very interested in that. And, in fact, the production designer and the producer explained it to me. And in 1960, England, to all intents and purposes, looked exactly the same as England in the 1950s. It was incredibly drab. There was a lot of bomb damaged. There was no glimmer of fashion in the streets. Whereas in 1961, you're just beginning to get the birth of the '60s, I mean still not really. But - and I think the art director told me that you got more colored cars in 1961. And before that, a street would have entirely consisted of dark green and black dull-looking cars. And it would have just looked dull and drab, you know."

I recently finished Evelyn Waugh's opus, Brideshead Revisited. I am in the process of watching two adaptations: the 2008, feature-length Hollywood remake and the 1981, 11-hour BBC saga.

The BBC miniseries is an acclaimed adaptation with a reputation of being faithful to Waugh's text. The 2008 Hollywood remake... not so much. Although I must say, I am eager to see Michael Gambon and Emma Thompson as Lord and Lady Marchmain, respectively.

I'm curious, what are your thoughts on movie adaptations of books?


  1. There is a famous Italian saying traduttore, traditore, which of course cannot be translated - but means roughly "to translate is to betray" or perhaps "Translator, Betrayor". Hee hee.

    But having said that, I think of something as wonderful as Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition" which was an "adaptation" from the art of his friend Victor Hartmann - which was written for piano, translated by Ravel into an orchestral version, and into a phenomenal extension for the Wanamaker Pipe Organ by Keith Chapman, or converted to rock by Emerson Lake & Palmer, or into the remarkable ANIMUSIC "video". Or the cartoon version of the Grinch versus the book, itself a childish (and somehow very Catholic) reduction of Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Or the Disney extension of Disch's The Brave Little Toaster into a cartoon, which is far more exciting and contains more depth than the book. In another case the cartoon version of Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth is less full in some ways, yet far fuller in others. Or I think of the Psalms, the Gospels, Homer, Virgil, Aquinas, Dante, and so many other books which I only know in translation.

    Hence, I both recognize the dangers of such translations or adaptations - and yet also recognize that the derivative art can sometimes surpass the original, if only in that the derivative can often make the original accessible in a new way, and sometimes in a richer way.

    My complaint occurs when the insertion of the sub-author's creation degrades the original, like in the case of ... er, I shall avoid giving examples here, but I am sure you can think of several.

    I also would like to say that the adapters rarely seem to choose the books I would like to see as movies... just for an example, I'd like to see Morley's The Haunted Bookshop - but I have no time to list more just now. Maybe some other books about bookstores, hee hee.

  2. Dr. Thursday, I agree with you and the Italian saying "traduttore, traditore." I took a class in college on Irish Literature in Translation. That saying and the subsequent issues were the first things we addressed.