The Sunday Salon: Film Adaptations

Whenever the economy takes a turn for the worse, the movie industry starts shaking in its boots. Producers turn away from new, original, and unproven scripts, and turn towards known and fairly safe properties that more often than not have built-in fanbases–this is why The Smurfs is happening, against all human decency. (This doesn’t mean this method is foolproof. Paramount has managed to royally piss off a majority of Avatar: The Last Airbender fans with its whitewashed production of The Last Airbender. I’m obligated to remind you to give it a miss in favor of Toy Story 3 or Eclipse.) Books, especially best-sellers, provide the sort of security that soothes a producer in a recession.

But when the rights to a book have been purchased by a studio or, rarely, an actor, speculation starts among readers and fans of the book. While we usually start quibbling over casting (guilty as charged), our main concern is how the book is ultimately adapted for film. I find the question of “will it be true to the book?” to be frustratingly vague. You can stray from the book and still remain true to its overarching themes. What that question is truly asking is this–will be a purist adaptation or a pragmatic adaptation?

You can probably immediately identify a purist adaptation. This is the book writ large on the silver screen (or the small screen). Making changes is downright painful for the person in charge of adaptation, and so they are very few and far in between. You see purist adaptations more on the small screen rather than the silver screen, simply due to the advantage of time miniseries have over films. BBC adaptations, especially adaptations of Jane Austen’s work, spring to my mind when I think of purist adaptations. A pragmatic adaptation, on the other hand, looks at the book and attempts to make a film out of it, instead of simply committing the book to the screen. While the people in charge can be fans, they can also be ruthless, cutting out characters and changing events. The ultimate example is Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings, specifically the adaptation of The Two Towers, which drastically changes a character’s journey to better satisfy the constraints of a film plot.

Between these two types of adaptations, I have to say I vastly prefer pragmatic adaptations, and not just because Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings is precious to me. (Oh, that’s a bad joke, but I’m leaving it in there.) While I believe all the arts are connected, stories told in one medium must be changed at least a little to work well in other mediums. For instance, film adaptations of video games often do poorly, and I can tell you why. Video games are a long art form; in order to complete a role-playing video game with a straightforward narrative, it can take around twenty to forty hours. (I myself beat The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess during three very strange days the month it came out.) Trying to compress that into a two hour film necessarily requires cutting the dungeon crawling but still trying to make it to the finale with enough difficulty that the audience feel that the ending is earned for the hero. The same has to be done with long novels. Some novels lend themselves more easily to film than others, but I would still rather see an adaptation in the hands of someone who is willing to make the necessary cuts to make a satisfying film than someone who won’t stray an inch from the novel.

In other news, my reading has been kind of stalled recently. I finished Pamela Samuels Young’s wonderful Buying Time in one go on Monday, which has a review that will go up in July, and I’ve been working through Anne Perry’s The Sheen on the Silk ever since. It’s enjoyable, but it’s a similar experience to reading King Hereafter; good, but not totally my cup of tea. Hopefully, I’ve enough issues with it to write a good review. I’m mostly trying to get through it to get to my ever increasing stack of library books on my desk, which are looking tastier and tastier every time I look at them. Jay Lake’s Green is up next, which I’m looking forward to. I went to a bridal shower yesterday and finished up shopping for Father’s Day, because any excuse to spend money at Lush will do. I also got my first car on Friday! I’m leasing a red Honda Civic who I have named Sasha, because I only play RED Team when I play Team Fortress 2. (It was either that or a silver one named Shadowfax.) Life at home will be much easier now that I don’t have to worry about leaving my mother with a car. Driving in Atlanta, however, will be a much different story come August.

I’ve decided to add a giveaway round up to my Sunday Salons, just to make these posts more useful to readers. The marvelous T. J. of Dreams and Speculation is giving away a $60 gift certificate to CSN (ends this Saturday, the 26th) and three copies of Stories, edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio (ends on July 16, US only). The effervescent Allie of Hist-Fic Chick is giving away a copy of The Bucolic Plague: How Two Manhattanites Became Gentlemen Farmers: An Unconventional Memoir by Josh Kilmer-Purcell (ends this Friday, the 25th) and two copies of The Making of a Duchess by Shana Galen (ends on June 30, US and Canada only). The fabulous Amy of Passages to the Past is giving away a $25 gift card to Amazon (ends tomorrow) and a $100 gift card to CSN (ends on June 29, Us and Canada only).

What do you prefer when a book is adapted for film–a purist adaptation or a pragmatic adaptation?

And last, but certainly not least, Happy Father’s Day to my wonderful father!

7 thoughts on “The Sunday Salon: Film Adaptations

  1. I prefer pragmatic, though it doesn’t mean I haven’t complained about changes made to adaptations before. But I have seen dogged and faithful film adaptations of books that have been terribly dull, going through the paces but missing the spirit. The one thing I don’t like with come pragmatic adaptations is when they have ‘blandified’ the story, taken anything a little edgy or weird, and fitting it into a stereotypical movie formula. I’m of course drawing a blank of examples on this last kind, but I know they are out there.

    • I think that was a lot more popular prior to the aughts, but blandifying novels is sort of anathema at the moment. I recall that Twilight was originally going to be a victim of that until the fans threw an absolute fit. It’s no longer profitable to make the novel bland, especially if it’s a well-known one. (Of course, I’m still waiting with bated breath for how they can possibly begin to deal with Breaking Dawn.)

  2. I think it depends. The book loyalist in me loves to see a well-done purist adaptation, but there’s often a danger that a really faithful adaptation will struggle to make the material seem fresh. And a pragmatic adaptation is fine as long as the adapters take the exact same view that I do of what constitutes the most important themes and events of the book they’re adapting.

    Basically: I’m picky and inconsistent. :p

  3. Pingback: Page to Screen: The Great Gatsby (2013) | The Literary Omnivore

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