The Word Made Flesh: On the Nature Of Book-To-Film Adaptations (Introduction)

Friday , 23, January 2015 15 Comments

I intend herein and in the next few posts to ponder the personality of adaptations; specifically, of the paper-to-celluloid variety. Though certainly less controversial than politics, or religion, or which is the hottest Victoria’s Secret model, it is nonetheless a hotly contested country, and one that requires a certain degree of passion for admittance. As it happens, the topic is one of particular interest to me, as my philistine predilection towards flickering images continually directs me to the cinema, out towards books, and back again to the pretty pictures. Jackson’s stellar adaptation of The Lord of the Rings sparked my love for Tolkien, and of fantasy in general.

So in light of Jackson’s latest scouring of the shire, I thought it might be worthwhile to look into the whys and the wherefores of cinematic adaptations, raise some interesting questions and dismiss common misconceptions. For example: ought a film be faithful to its literary source at all? What does textual fidelity mean in the first place? What are some of the challenges involved in translating between the two mediums? In what ways are the mediums different, and is one inherently superior to the other?

The one question that rarely pops into my head is the one so most often asked by my fellow cine-bibliophiles: “which was better: the movie or the book?” (In the case of The Hobbit, of course, the answer is self-evident.) This query is usually offered in lieu of any actual analysis, so let’s go ahead and get a few of the obligatory cage matches out of the way.

2001: A Space Odyssey

Winner: Movie narrowly defeats book via split decision

Jurassic Park

Winner: Film KO’s book in second round, after appearance of T-Rex

Dune

Winner: Movie forfeits before fight has even begun

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Winner: Not even close, book KO’s movie in first round

Perhaps with a larger sample size, we could scientifically demonstrate which medium is the overall victor. You may contest the results through peer review and/or replicate the experiment by staging your own battles in the comment section below.

Based solely on the umbrage levels, it would appear that novels are on average better than their cinematic counterparts; readers often end up sounding like jilted lovers when they see their beloved books adapted to the silver screen, harping about fidelity and broken vows. The implicit assumption is that an adaptation ought to be faithful from that which it is derived, and that the filmmakers are failing to properly translate it—but is that so?

Next week: Part 1 – Literary Infidels

15 Comments
  • Jeffro says:

    I always felt that David Lynch’s Dune adaptation was pretty good right up until Duke Leto Atreides’s death. The choice of sonic weaponry rather than unquenchable jihad being the secret weapon of the exiled Paul meant that everything about the second half of the film was necessarily reworked into an unrecognizable form….

  • Andy says:

    Great topic, look forward to seeing it unfold. My theory is that movies rarely surpass books. But when they do, I find it is because the visuals exceeded my imagination. When they fail, it is because they foreshortened too much of the story to fit the format, or missed the books point entirely.

    I think Jeffro’s comment on Dune backs up my theory. The strength of Lynch’s version were amazing visuals that still shape the Dune of my imagination.

    Its greatest failures were trying to squeeze so many complex concepts into a neat visual presentation. So we get wierding modules and killing words. this is easier than trying to explain jihad and the generations of breeding and the mental-physical discipline of the Bene Gesserit.

    Androids/Blade Runner might be an interesting example. Although I’m not sure if it is actually possible to successfully adapt Dick.

  • Daniel says:

    The fantasy Forrest Gump was significantly better than the book, and the movie wasn’t that great. The Princess Bride surpasses the book in every way, because the movie has heart, and the book is cynical and considers itself far cuter than it really is. Fight Club is a pretty shallow movie, but it is better than the book. The Godfather I & II are much better than the original book – (P.S. I consider the Godfather to be a Western Fantasy, by the way. My sense of breadth and inclusion would put Pink advocates to shame).

    Carpenter’s The Thing was better than the book, and the book (Who Goes There?) is excellent. Re-Animator was not better than the book, not by a long shot, but is still a pretty good movie.

    Wizard of Oz is better than the book, as it cuts out the esoteric distractions and bookends the tale better than the book does. Now, where the book succeeds is in its madcap small child view of things. I think Wizard of Oz would have been worse with the somewhat younger Shirley Temple (who was I believe first choice), mostly because the esoteric primordial childhood stuff of Baum wasn’t in the movie.

    The first silent version of Wizard of Oz sucked though. It looks like an amateur Christmas pageant on acid.

    Edison Co.’s Frankenstein silent is not better than the book, but its special effects are worth it. Whale’s (Karloff) Frankenstein is in some ways better and more scientific than the book, but no other Frankenstein film has captured the romantic essence of the original fantasy. They either make the Monster a bland tragic Byronic hero with modest deformity, or a golem of corpse parts. The monster was neither of these.

    Bride of Frankenstein is awesome, but only super-loosely based on that one little part of the original book.

  • Ostar says:

    What also needs to be taken into account is the order – whether one read the book or saw the movie first. It appears to me that you saw the Lord of the Rings first, then read the books, and so rate the movies higher than many who read the books first.

    • Krul says:

      Carpenter’s The Thing was better than the book, and the book (Who Goes There?) is excellent.

      How does The Thing From Another World compare to the book? I’ve seen Carpenter’s The Thing and The Thing From Another World, but haven’t read the book.

  • Tracy Coyle says:

    Generally, books are better.
    Battlefield Earth, book-film was atrocious.
    Live, Die, Repeat, film-book had different setting and the ‘groundhog day’ feel worked better visually
    Jumper, book, film dumbed it down
    Dune, book, but I liked the film as a stand alone
    Lord of the Rings, tough call for me…I got much more into the personalities from the film (and I red the books decades ago…)

  • Another_Bill says:

    One thing to keep in mind is the nature of the book. Some formats lend themselves to be visually interpreted while others do not. It didn’t take long for early film makers to understand that some books just make better pictures.

    Action based stories with little internal dialog, characters actions that are written as reactions that the audience can expect even if they have never read the book, are some of the easiest to make into a film. For example: The Hobbit should have been easy to make into a film with the simplicity of the spoken dialog and simple motivations for the characters actions. Whereas any of the Elric series would be impossible to make into a film, the motivations and actions would be too hard to explain visually and with spoken dialog.

    On a side note: I wonder how much movies have influenced writing styles? I believe movies have affected how we imagine things. Even if authors never intend to have their works made into movies, I bet they have some effect on the way the stories are written.

  • Ostar says:

    I’m still (hopelessly) waiting for the film adaption of Zelazny’s Lord Of Light, concept art by Jack Kirby, promised to us back in 1979…

  • VD says:

    For me, two of the big disappointments have been THE DARK IS RISING and THE BLACK CAULDRON. The Chronicles of Prydain would make excellent live-action films, but the Disney animated version isn’t very good.

    And moving Will Stanton to America? I refused to even see it, and based on the reviews, that was the right choice.

  • Peter says:

    Taking Lord of the Rings as an example…. The book was a good story, well told, in which the characters and the world in which they existed were consistent.

    The movie version was not improved by the addition of material that was inconsistent with the plot and the reality of human nature, warfare and warriors.

  • L. Beau Macaroni says:

    There’s a lot to think about here, Scooter.

    I don’t think that “fidelity” to the source material is the most important consideration in judging a film’s merits. Film is different medium than prose: it has a much more limited amount of time to convey its ideas, if the lengthier sorts of novels are considered. Also, film relies on the input of actors, sets & costumes, and even special effects, rather than script quality alone. More to the point, a reasonable fidelity to the comic novel didn’t save 2005’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy from being mediocre, and a lot more people treasure Lerner and Lowe’s bouncy musical adaptation My Fair Lady, tacked-on happy ending and all, to Shaw’s biting original, Pygmalion. Not that tacking on a happy ending always works: When viewing film versions of Matheson’s I Am Legend, I prefer either the sparse The Last Man on Earth (1964), or the racially-charged The Omega Man (1971), to the 2007 adaptation I Am Legend, because at least the earlier films realized how important the downbeat ending was to the appeal of the story.

    In my estimation, books win most of the time, but off the top of my head I can compile a short list of exceptions:

    Fight Club: movie’s narrower focus on Tyler’s anti-materialist, anti-corporate agenda pays off, even at the expense of jettisoning some of the book’s exploration of the protagonist’s relationship with Marla.

    The Grapes of Wrath: Slightly corny but hopeful speech from Ma Joad at end of the film trumps Rose of Sharon’s about-face from self-centered kid to earth-mother at the end of the novel.

    Oliver!: Frothy 1968 musical is charming, if slightly over-the-top, while the hero of the book, with his constant “I’m still a happy-go-lucky boy despite the fact that I’m constantly treated horribly” starts to strain credibility after the first hundred pages. The musical seems more secure in its identity as a fantasy.

    A Christmas Story: The film works better without Jean Shepherd’s “present day” anecdotes about his life as divorced guy on the make in Manhattan, used as a framing device for his recollections of his Indiana boyhood in In God We Trust, All Others Must Pay Cash.

    The Time Machine: 1960 movie is a rollicking adventure, and the suggestion of an upbeat ending didn’t ruin the film for me, since the essence of Well’s novel was the Edwardian class system satire, which few readers today can relate to directly, rather than the book’s rather bleak ending.

    Close Calls (Honorable Mentions):
    Master and Commander
    2001: A Space Odyssey
    A Christmas Carol (1951 version)
    20,000 Leagues Under the Sea – Disney’s adaptation was simple fun, but Verne’s classic wasn’t exactly a model a literary complexity

    Book Wins (not an exhaustive list):
    The Lord of the Rings
    Dune
    Starship Troopers
    The Count of Monte Cristo
    (at least when compare to the 2002 film, I have not seen the others)
    Mrs. Brisby and the Rats of N.I.H.M. (Okay, The Secret of N.I.H.M. was a little better than some of the other films in this category.)

  • Typically speaking, I’m okay with variation from the established plot if it’s done for good reasons. By and large, I consider Lynch’s Dune a bit of an atrocity, with that terrible take on the weirding way, but I like Spielberg’s War of the Worlds. The movie is tense and frightening in a way that it wouldn’t have been in the 1890s. (Or with bear-slug martians.)

  • Steve says:

    I liked the film “Starship Troopers”, it was fun and cheesy.

    No idea why they bothered paying good money to licence Heinlein’s far superior book of the same name though, since the movie bore only the faintest of passing resemblances to its printed inspiration.

    The Spielberg-Cruise version of “War of the Worlds” was good until it backed out of letting you see the US Army go toe to toe with the Martians. That would have been an epic set piece. I still enjoyed the sense of terror that film conveyed, and approved of the bit where Tim Robbins is killed.

    “I, Robot”, was a competent but forgettable film, though to be fair I’ve mostly forgotten the book too, so neither made much of a lasting impression. I find a lot of Asimov’s work to be like that – enjoyable but ultimately a bit bland.

    Kubrick’s “The Shining” is superior to King’s original, and has a much darker ending – more befitting a horror tale.

    Every live-action adaption of “The Day of the Triffids” has been craptastic.

  • Red Comet says:

    One of the few cases I can think of where the book and movie were both just as good is Roadside Picnic/Stalker.

    The video game adaptation, also called Stalker, is generally regarded as a classic as well. Very few stories and settings have that kind of strength across three different forms of media.

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