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:
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?