Friday, October 23, 2009

The Art of the Adaptation

I have a very vivid memory of the first time I read Frank Herbert's science-fiction classic, Dune. I was maybe twelve or thirteen years old, at my grandparents' house for the holidays, methodically plowing my way through the novel. At some point, my grandfather entered the room and saw what I was reading. Slowly, he sat down next to me, and looked me straight in the eye, man to man.

"Christopher," he began, then stopped to take a deep breath. "Christopher, I have something very important to tell you. Don't you ever watch David Lynch's Dune movie. It's a load of nonsense. It will just ruin the book for you. I waited twenty years for that movie, and it did nothing but disappoint me." And with that, he stood up and walked away, muttering under his breath, "He didn't get anything right. He didn't even get the sandworms right..."

I've managed to follow my grandfather's advice thus far. There are a large number of books I enjoy, Dune among them, and I tend to be wary of the loosely-associated sequels or film adaptations that inevitably follow. The success of the Lord of the Rings movies meant that movie executives were suddenly scrambling to produce every one of the nerdy books I enjoyed as a teenager. I don't entirely disapprove of these adaptations, but very rarely are any of them done correctly, and a large number of them are downright unnecessary.

It was yesterday that I found out they were making a Foundation movie, which is what set me off on this subject. For those of you who don't know, the original Foundation novels were a collection of short stories by Isaac Asimov, who created a space-age "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire." A galaxy-spanning Empire was entering a state of decay, with chaos and barbarism sweeping across the universe. In the midst of this Spengler-esque decline, an old sociologist proposes to create two communities of learned scholars on opposite ends of the galaxy, to try and cushion the Space Dark Ages as much as possible. The resulting stories deal with politics, fate, and free will, addressing serious questions such as whether one man can change the scope of history. The stories take place over a period of a few hundred years, and the series features hundreds of characters.

The movie is going to be directed by Roland Emmerich. Yes, the guy who is responsible for numerically-titled movies such as 10,000 BC, and 2012.

Every time a movie adaptation is announced for a book I have enjoyed, I am met with equal parts of excitement and dread. Not just for this Foundation movie; I felt this way when the Lord of the Rings movies were announced, I feel this way every time they threaten to make a movie based on A Confederacy of Dunces or Ender's Game. I feel this way about the new HBO pilot based on George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire. One half of me is eager with anticipation - I'm going to get a chance to see a work I love on the big screen! The other half of me is worried beyond belief. They're going to fuck it up, a voice inside my head warns me. Hollywood has not given me many reasons to ignore this voice.

You might respond: So what? If you enjoy the book, who cares if there's a shitty movie with the same title floating around somewhere? Just ignore it. Sometimes I try. But adaptations have a way of diluting the discourse, and in some ways they're unavoidable. I'm sure that new paperback editions of Foundation will be released with the movie poster on the cover, a big sticker on the front that loudly proclaims "Now a Roland Emmerich Major Motion Picture!" People will try and discuss the book with me having only seen the movie. For the remainder of time, when people hear "Foundation", they will think of the movie first and the book second. The fact is, once a film is out, it takes precedence. Sherlock Holmes never said "Elementary, my dear Watson" in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's stories, but everyone thinks he did because that catchphrase was prevalent throughout the Nigel Bruce and Basil Rathbone movies. Films permeate our cultural consciousness in a way books do not.

I know, I know. Saying that "the book was better" is a cliche, an easy way to disparage the entire genre of film. I don't always believe that. I'm not only of those hard-core fans who demand that every line of text be translated verbatim to the screen. Movies like that tend to be insufferably boring. And there are certain things movies can do even better than books. While I'm not exactly begging for an Ender's Game adaptation, for example, I think that the zero-gravity military exercises the characters engage in would be far more fun to watch then they are to read about. And while I believe that the Battle of Pelennor Fields in the Return of the King movie is bombastic, overly long and filled with entirely too many CGI elephants, the Battle of Helm's Deep in The Two Towers is the complete opposite - well shot, well-edited, well-choreographed and far more visceral and vivid than even the Tolkien's prose at its best.

I suppose I would place adaptations in five categories:

1. Good adaptations. These adaptations get the tone of original work down correctly, even if not all plot points are there exactly. These are close to being an "artistic" interpretation of the work, playing up certain elements and focusing on certain themes. The Fellowship of the Ring and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest are two examples of "good" adaptations.

2. Unnecessary adaptations. Nothing in these adaptations is particularly offensive, but neither is it very good. One leaves the theater having neither quite enjoyed, nor quite disliked, the film. Often times these adaptations follow the original work so closely that the adaptation feels stifled. Watchmen and the Harry Potter movies are some examples.

3. Bad adaptations. The work is hopelessly muddled, the plot wildly diverges from the original to the point of incoherence. Many times new characters and plotlines are added for no reason, and the message of the original work is completely lost. The Golden Compass is the best recent example I can think of.

4. The adaptation has almost nothing in common with the original work whatsoever, apart from the name and premise. These can still be good movies, however, even if they are not good adaptations. Take, for example, Starship Troopers, in which the screenplay was written independently, and was later retrofitted to be based on the book. The director admits to never having read the novel at all. Minority Report is another example. The film takes Phillip Dick's original premise, and runs in the completely opposite direction.

5. Completely nonsensical adaptations. These, too, can be good movies. It's just that their source materials are bizarre. Look at Pirates of the Caribbean (based on a theme park ride), or the upcoming Monopoly movie.

My favorite kinds of adaptations are numbers one and four. Category #1 adaptations are legitimately good films made by people who love and understand the source material. Category #4 and #5 adaptations are free to be good movies because they aren't really constrained by any sort of fidelity to the source material.

But it's important to remember that even best of the best adaptations still fill in the blanks for you. I love Kubrick's film version of A Clockwork Orange (and I almost like his ending better than Burgess's). However, whenever I reread the book, I can't help but picture Malcolm McDowell as the main character. The best books provide enough information to help you paint your own picture as you read. This means that every reader will have a similar experience and, at the same time, a different and intensely personal one. The way one imagines the characters, the action unfolding, and the setting in the mind's eye will always be idiosyncratic to a certain extent. Not so with a movie. Once you see Orlando Bloom's smug face as Legolas in The Lord of the Rings, there's no way to erase that. For the rest of my life, when I sit down to read To Kill a Mockingbirg, I am going to see Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch. Is this a bad thing? Not exactly; Peck is a damn fine actor in this movie. But, at the same time, it takes something away from the magic of the book. Once you see the adaptation, there's no going back. The film's conception of the book, good or bad, is hard to get out of your mind, and the book is no longer quite YOURS the way it was before.

So, in the end, I'm not against all adaptations. But there's always a trade-off, and I feel that there are actually very few books that are worth the transition to screen. Some books, Foundation among them, are pretty much impossible to adapt at all. A movie based on the setting of the books might be interesting - there are many exciting movies that could be set in a decaying Galactic Empire. But a movie that tries to adapt the actual plot of the novels with even a low level of authenticity is going to fail. I will tell you that right now.

Hollywood should take the stories that are suitable for film adaptations, and make those good Category #1 adaptations. The rest, if they must be adapted for the screen, should instead be Category #4 adaptations. Instead of attempting to cram in the plot of the book and failing, why not take the best elements of the book and make a completely new story out of it? Two great examples of this are Adaptation and Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, both of which fully admit that a perfect adaptation is impossible, and instead poke fun at the idea of even attempting to do such a thing. The new Sherlock Holmes movie looks to be throwing textual accuracy out the window, as well. While I'm not convinced that I think the movie looks good, I'm glad at least that they're not even trying to stay true to Doyle's original stories. I'll take good adaptations of stories that are suited for that sort of cinematic treatment. But for the rest, I'd rather the film just make up a completely new story, keeping only the best elements. I'd rather have that than a director who tries to translate something to film that just can't be translated.