As I’ve said before, I am not against adapting books/novels/comics/delete-as-appropriate into movies. I recognise that a lot of amazing films have been created from other sources. However, when a film is made out of a previous intellectual property, filmmakers have to tread a very careful line: to stay faithful to the source material whilst creating a story that works. And believe it or not, this is much harder than it looks.
What people fail to realise is that books and movies are very different media, and as such require very different structures and writing styles. Just because a novel has a brilliant plot, it will not necessarily transfer over into cinema. There are methods novels can employ that films cannot: use of descriptive text, use of internal monologues for characters, and a less stilted conveyance of emotion without resorting to dialogue for instance.
Meanwhile, movies are an inherently visual medium, and must also successfully utilize the use of sound. Plots need to be more concise. Characters need to be more concrete and defined. The world of the film must be more structured, and, as it were, more real – or at least have a set of rules that must be adhered to for the audience to buy into the situations shown. Cinema is at the same time both simpler and more complex than fiction.
Having said all this, I can suggest a few main reasons why certain adaptations fall flat. First up is pacing. Fiction can have more meandering sections, where characters can be developed without it being detrimental to the overall plot. Even the most action-packed of novels can have chapters where the tension can drop and the reader can really get to know the characters. In film? Not so much. There is a bit of leeway, but characters really need to be defined by their actions, by how they look, and by what they say.
Next up, there’s the problem of back story. How exactly do you get a huge back story into a film? With a Star Wars-style opening crawl? Clichéd, but it can work sometimes. Expositional dialogue? Definitely not. The most successful back stories are created without the audience even realising: a look or an in-joke between characters, mise-en-scène to portray the world of the film – or in the case of specific props, a bit of a character’s history. There are some examples otherwise but in general these subvert the tropes of dialogue.
Then, there’s the length. Novels, in general, have quite a lot going on – a complex plot, lots of characters, back story, even large jumps through time. When the subject of an adaptation is a long text, then sacrifices need to be made. But where should these sacrifices fall? Successful adaptations take the core plot, keep other plot elements that are thematically important, and cut around that: characters that add little vibrancy or have nothing to do with the story, back story that doesn’t develop the plot of the film, and character-developing scenes. It’s incredibly hard, though, to work out what should be cut, and the director and scriptwriter are bound to upset fans of the original work. Perhaps this is why it seems that short stories often work out as better adaptations.
Finally, there’s the audience. Many adaptations fail because they ignore one simple rule: the audience is a blank slate. Lots of them, or even most of them, will not have read the original text, and they shouldn’t have to. It doesn’t matter if fans of the novel understand what is going on; if Average Joe the cinema-goer doesn’t understand it, your film doesn’t work. If a viewer has to have done homework in order to decipher a big-budget adaption, then the filmmaker has, unfortunately, done something wrong somewhere during the production. This is the one criticism I have of Edgar Wright’s fantastic Scott Pilgrim – it looked great, the correct elements were cut from the plot and cast, the art style reflected the comic perfectly, but some viewers came out of the movie not quite understanding what they had just seen. This one mistake in an otherwise wonderful film could be one of the reasons why it didn’t do that well at the box office.
Those are the major reasons that adaptations fail. So, let’s do a case study, shall we? Let’s pick David Lynch’s Dune: one of the biggest box office bombs of all time. Lynch was so unhappy with it that in certain pressings his name in the credit is replaced by Alan Smithee. Let’s not get on Lynch’s back, though – Frank Herbert’s original novel has many traps that any movie-maker could all into. It has time lapses, meandering character-developing sections, a massive back story, it’s absolutely massive, has a huge number of characters, its own vocabulary, a high-concept plot, and it’s absolutely insane. This book is potentially unfilmable – at least, as a single movie.
Lynch’s Dune fails at each and every one of these problems. Time-lapses are explained by an omniscient narrator, character developments are either explained by the same narrator or by the characters themselves – through both dialogue and internal thought. Back story? That’s the first fifteen minutes. The complete version of the film clocks in at just under three hours, and cuts still had to be made for the theatrical release that chopped up the story even further. Hardly any characters were cut, even those who, due to plot streamlining, had no point anymore. The vocabulary remains, some of it explained, some of it not. It’s still insane, and difficult to follow even if you’ve read the original text.
Worst of all though, are the additions made by Lynch himself. Obviously, additions need to be made, in terms of art style and dialogue. Sometimes even plot points and characters need to be added to make an adaptation work. Lynch, though, made some very strange choices. The evil Baron Harkonnen was given sores across his face (not mentioned in the novel), and due to the Baron being gay there were allegations of homophobia – with the sores representing the AIDS epidemic.
Then there’s this scene:
Why is a cat being milked for an antidote? Who knows. It wasn’t in the novel, that’s for sure, and doesn’t add anything to the film other than making Sting look even more mental.
How about the giant eyebrows of the Mentats? Or the seductive Bene Gesserit being made bald?
Lynch seemed to choose these additions over other points that were vital. The Mentats were included despite the Mentat/Bene Gesserit rivalry being practically removed from the film. Hawat (he who needs the cat-antidote) was kept in the film in spite of his role in the novel – helping the Harkonnens after believing that Paul Atreides’ mother betrayed him – being taken out of the movie. Gone was any feeling that Arrakis was a hard planet to live on, and indeed the value of water is not really present. And the point of the novel – that Paul Atreides is not truly a god, but has made himself seem one, is taken out. Unfortunately, Dune is far removed from the source material in all the wrong ways. It is also similar to the source material in all the wrong ways.
Film adaptations, for me, fall into one of three categories. There are the great adaptations – the films that are respectful of the source, build upon it, and adapt it into a working movie. The films that make you want to go back and read the original work, regardless of whether you’ve read it before. Then there are the films that were heavily criticized for their deviation from their source material, but are still good films in their own right. Finally, there are those that just don’t work – nonsensical plots, poor scripts, changes to the source that make no sense, and that are just bad movies.
Join me next time and I’ll take you on a whirlwind tour of the three categories of adaptations – the good, the bad, and the it-got-ugly-with-the-original-fans.