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Adaptation and "Success": The Golden Compass And Beyond

Regular readers of this blog know how interested I am in adaptation, so this course with Adrian Mead is definitely of interest: provided I can get some funding, I’ll be there, hopefully see you there too.

The marvellous Steve too is interested in adaptation and over the Christmas break, he sent me the following email, which he gave me his kind permission to reporduce here to stimulate debate:

Hi Lucy

Let me run this by you, it’s an idea I had about movies in general.

In film adaptations of books, you often get the situation that recently occurred with The Golden Compass: those who hadn’t read the book liked it, those who had didn’t. (Obviously not 100% but I noticed very much with this one.)

I saw my daughter’s frustrated reaction at the end of GC, and read some other comment that said the movie missed out the last third of the book.

Yet, apart from the end going on too long after the climax, I found the film complete and satisfying. Yes, there’s more story to go but the Central Question of this movie was answered: Would Lyra rescue her friend and the other kids? And she does.

So, why the problem with people who had read the book, since the rescuing of the kids is in the book? The answer came to me in a blinding flash: because the film and the book have different Central Questions.

Those people who’d read the book came to the story with one Central Question and that question is not answered; the rest of us found out what the Central Question was as we watched.

LOTR was hugely successful with all but a few die-hards because the Central Question was unchanged between the book and the film. Each Harry Potter movie has the same Central Question as the corresponding book so are popular with the readers.

Why are second movies in a trilogy often unsatisfying? Because the first movie is usually complete (the filmmakers don’t know if they’ll make more of them) but the second is almost always a set-up for the third — the Central Question is posed but not answered. Which is also why The Empire Strikes Back is generally considered to be the best of the original three Star Wars movies: It does have its own Central Question which is answered effectively.

So it seems to me that an adaptation, to be popular with those who’ve read the book — and that’s important if it’s a popular book — must have the same Central Question.

Or, if that’s impossible, must express the new Central Question sufficiently strongly to overcome the pre-conceived one — which is where, you could argue, GC falls down because the central question isn’t expressed strongly, it just creeps up on you, so fails to override anyone coming in with the pre-conceived one.

Have you ever come across this idea before? Have I been completely original?


First off, I haven’t seen The Golden Compass; I had no interest in it, for I wasn’t keen on the book – not because Philip Pullman is not a good author in my opinion I might add, but because that sort of genre is just not my thing. Ditto Harry Potter, LOTR etc, though I did see those: I actually thought these made fantastically awful adaptations, since by sticking so rigidly to the source material we are detracting from what “makes” a film dramatic. We end Harry Potter at the end of school, Mallory Towers style? Ick. Great for a book, not for a film. Same goes for LOTR: lack of interesting female characters in either media peeved me greatly, but that aside there was just too much going on, even over the entire trilogy, for me to really *want* to invest in any character or what they’re up against. I just didn’t care enough. (BTW, please don’t chastise me, I know I’M the freak, blah blah blah, I get it from my role-playing, LOTR-obsessed Other Half enough, thanks. Sometimes people don’t like the same things. And thank God for that! Variety is the spice of life and all that).

But there have been plenty of adaptations that have really “floated” my boat, so to speak. The Shining. Obviously. The Shawshank Redemption. Stand By Me… Oh wait: these are ALL Stephen King books. What makes Stephen King so eminently “adaptable”? Is it just his ideas, they go from the page to the screen easily, effortlessly? Is this to do with Steve’s idea of the Central Question? Or is it more to do with me liking horror, thus I’m going to like this sort of adaptation? Or a bit of both?

Comic books make great adaptations as far as I’m concerned. A History of Violence was one of my fave films of 2006, easily. I loved The Crow as a kid, though less so now. Video games *can* work, I enjoyed Resident Evil, but hated Doom. Having said that, I think comic books and video games often work *better* than books because the difference between a film and a book is SO huge. When people say “It’s nothing like the book!” I always think, “How CAN it be?”

Other adaptations I’ve liked that aren’t horror or by a horror author… Hmmm. Well, Adaptation. Natch. Funny and as far from its source material as you can probably get. In a similar fashion I adored Disney’s Alice In Wonderland, that not only tells that story but includes elements of Looking Glass, Jabberwocky and others of Caroll’s nonsense poems, making it more a visual compendium of ALL his work. American Psycho: pure genius. Hated this book, yet it remained “true” to its source whilst still totally f****** with it, you can see it either way. Philp K Dick is another Stephen King-style author, he cannot do any wrong as far as adaptation is concerned and Bladerunner, Impostor and Minority Report were all fab and worked as far as I was concerned. La Confidential, great. To Kill A Mockingbird, Remains of The Day and Of Mice and Men all worked for me too.

So what is that elusive ingredient that works for you in terms of an adaptation “succeeding”? Is it the notion of Steve’s Central Question being the same? Or is it down to something else – for me, I like to see adaptations that are “true” to the seed of the story but can go any which way it pleases, including right off the beaten track into beyond. That might sound the same as Steve’s Central Question, but I’m not sure it is: for example, American Psycho as a book for me was about an ACTUAL killer, whereas I felt in the movie this was in question as I outline in this post. The seed of both stories for me was homicidal tendencies, but the Central Questions were different: in the book, is Patrick Bateman going to get caught? Versus in the movie: is he really a killer?

So, what do you reckon? What makes adaptation work – or not – for you?


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22 thoughts on “Adaptation and "Success": The Golden Compass And Beyond”

  1. I thought THE GOLDEN COMPASS was horrible, mostly due to the vast amount of exposition that was needed to make it understandable in a cinematic context (hence the great wedge of narration at the outset). To my mind, this is the biggest problem with ‘fantasy’ adaptations – the description of an unfamiliar (and often fantastic) world is easier to render in prose than it is for the screen (remember DUNE? What a disaster that was).

    There again, I don’t like fantasy as a genre anyway, so I’ll shut up now.

  2. Adaptation is something that divides writers and audiences and that can’t be good.

    Writers want to see a different take on a story.

    Audiences want to see if their vision of what was on the page can somehow be magically realised as image – and are disappointed when these two completely different interpretations cannot match.

    I suppose we can hope for the closest approximation of adaptation, that satsifies the masses on being as you say “True” to the source, whilst having that “different” take… Hence the genius of American Psycho. Yet films so often have their hands tied by their popularity. How could Harry Potter be anything but the tripe it is?

  3. Chip – fantasy worlds are always a problem, regardless of whether they’re fantasy from a book or a spec. In many of the scripts I read I just can’t follow what a writer means in their film because they’ve literally made so much of it. I had a similar problem with this notion myself writing my werewolf horror Eclipse that had a new type of werewolf thing in. Lots of my early efforts were just incomprehensible. I think audiences should forgive a certain amount of exposition and/or expositional devices on this basis then: the book in NEVER ENDING STORY is a good example of this and V.O is another way of “anchoring” understanding. It’s hard though to know how horrid the exposition is in GC though since I have not seen it ; )

    Anonymous, couldn’t agree more.

  4. I love books and I love films but I see them as seperate mediums and don’t expect them to match.

    The film could tell the story exactly as in the book but if you just do that then what is the point in watching the film, just read the book.

    I prefer adaptations that add something extra or play with the idea.

    For example in Remains of the Day I felt the film better expressed the surpressed emotions of the two leads because it had could show them in lots of subtle visual clues. Harder in a book.

    Maybe that’s why Philip K Dick adapts well. You just can’t do a straight adaptation unless you supply acid to the audience as they go in.

  5. I agree Rach, if you tried to adapt Dick (oo-er) exactly you would need hardcore drugs – or risk going off the edge! But then, are we wanting our mediums to do different things BECAUSE we write, or in spite of it? (I don’t know, I’m just wondering)

  6. Had a look at your article Stevyn, thanks – agree completely on how Pullman’s books have been overshadowed by JK Rowling’s and am foxed as to why. What I REALLY don’t understand however is this notion of adults reading kids’ books – if I recall correctly there were even “adult” covers for Harry Potter etc. I read the first couple of Harry Potters and didn’t like them – but I was a kid when they came out, 16 or so, I wouldn’t dream of picking up a child’s book now. Is this a new phenomenon? Are adults’ reading ages going backwards? I find it very curious. Having said that I read Dark Materials too – but that was cos I taught one of them to English A Level students. They got really into it, which is always good.

  7. Well it’s a safe bet, he had opinions about EVERYTHING Anya! ; ) Dunno what though. My fave of his was “life is unrelenting comedy, therein lies the tragedy of it.”

    Is a bad book really still good? And where do you draw the line? Are comics “as good” as “great literature”? You see what you’ve started here?????

  8. Lol. Sorry about that. If I wasn’t in NY I’d join you on this course Lucy. On a less intellectual note, is this Adrian Mead guy hot? I imagine he is, with a cravat for some reason.

  9. That is too funny Anya, someone said to me the exact same thing about JK Amalou… Why is it when we think someone is an authority on something we create a picture of them in tweed, cravat etc?? It’s a mad stereotype. As for being “hot”, I couldn’t possibly comment!

  10. darren aka eat my shorts

    I think comics and computer games (video games?? What are you, 104??) make good movies, *possibly* better movies than books, because as Anonymous says, books’ hands are tied if they’re popular – there’s so much expected of them. People don’t have those same expectations regarding plot of comic books & games, they have expectations on character – I think that’s the key difference

  11. Hadn’t thought about successful adaptation in terms of the differing Central Questions before. Interesting. In fact, you’ve given me an idea. Details on my blog . Let me know if you are interested!

    Thanks for posting Lucy, and to Steve for generating the discussion. Cheers for the links too.

  12. Please also bear in mind all the really, really bad Steven King adaps – Pet Cemetery, anyone?

    What Goldman (who has adpated his fair share of King) says on the matter: You cannot be literally faithful to the book, and you should not be literally faithful to the book. The Harry Potter films fall down on this for me, they feel as if the book was fed into a Big Bertha style movie making machine. The end result? A polished turd.

  13. Haven’t seen Pet Cemetery; I’m told Firestarter was pretty awful too which is a shame since I loved the book when I read it (14 years ago I’m realisingm, yikes!).

    Oh god, Harry Potter. Yes, agree. So dull. Great to see that Goldman agrees with me too Oli… *ahem* ; )

  14. Pet Sematary (sic) was not the worst king adaptation by a long shot. How about Dreamcatcher – adapted by Goldman himself who also adapted Misery which was great. King is so prolific and there have been so many adaptations of his stuff that by the law of probability or some other maths related magic type stuff, some must be good. Bet the number of stinkers is higher than the good ones.

    I’d pick you up on Philip K. Dick as well. Paycheck? Next? Screamers? (Actually, I enjoyed Screamers more than I enjoyed Total Recall but I seem to be in the minority on this one).

    No-one will ever agree on what makes a good adaptation – fans of the original work will want to see a faithful adaptation and will be disappointed when it’s not. Fans of film will just want to see a good film. Blade Runner is a case in point: it takes some ideas from the book but is totally different. L.A. Confidential is a fantastic film but from what I gather, only covers a portion of what’s in the book. Name of the Rose? Great film but nothing like the book.

    Personally I think that the Harry Potter films have been very well adapted. I’m also of the opinion that they’re getting better than the books as they go on because they cut most of the fat from the original story and concentrate on the central issues. The films are entertaining and stick close enough to the original source material to be faithful – although the hardcore fans will be disappointed that some scenes have been cut.

    I’d talk more about video game adaptations but I’m saving that for my own blog.

    Oh – and Happy New Year and all that.

  15. TOTAL RECALL rocks!

    I’m not saying that *all* novels by “adaptable” authors like King and Dick are great Tom, it’s just that it doesn’t seem to matter whether they write shit or not – it’s get adapted. And I’m right there with you on Dreamcatcher. Bloody hell! Appalling.

  16. the golden compass was OK, though i think the writer of this plot was trying to say something without getting caught saying it

  17. And the words of the day are “But hey”!

    Oh and Film Dude – that’s an interesting insight, but I haven’t seen the film! Could you expand? (If you’re still here!)

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