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Guest Post – Fidelity Criticism: Good Book, Bad Movie… Bad Book? GREAT Movie

A friend of mine at some point in the last year and a half asked me if I’d seen Twilight yet. I said no, because I hadn’t (and still haven’t), and asked her what she thought of it. She said it was bad, but that it was way better than the book, which she found utterly insufferable. As such, there was a case made for one medium proving a superior means to tell a story. Twilight’s failings as a work of literature were turned, at least partially, into successes.

One definition of fidelity criticism reads as “The criticism of translation which depends on the notion of the text as having a single correct and permanent meaning, which must be respected by the translator, instead of the polysemous creation which the text in fact is.” This goes for adaptations as much as it does translations; a bad book can become a good (or at least better) movie, and a bad movie can come from a very good book.

This isn’t so cut and dry, though. Consider the Harry Potter franchise, for example, and how Chris Columbus’s straightforward treatments of Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets were vastly inferior films to Alfonso Cuaron’s Prisoner of Azkaban. Columbus presented his films as mere sequences of events and they suffered as a consequence; Cuaron privileged the storytelling potential of cinema over accuracy and yielded a better standalone feature. There’s also Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films, which cut down on the backstory and history in favor of a much faster pace, making Tolkien’s story considerably more accessible than it is as a novel (not that the novels are bad, per se, but their appeal doesn’t necessarily transcend genre as well as the adaptations do).

There’s also cases like Mike Winterbottom’s treatment of Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (a novel described many times as “unfilmable”) as A Cock and Bull Story. Instead of presenting the narrative of Tristram Shandy verbatim (which would be borderline impossible), Winterbottom instead captures the spirit of the work’s digressive, sometimes almost incoherent style by weaving the Tristram Shandy story in and out of a story of the making of the movie. He captures the metafictional elements of the work in a way that could only be achieved by choosing not to make a straightforward adaptation, which would have been an aggressively bad, painfully unpleasant film to watch, devoid of the pleasure of either the novel or the film.

For more straightforward examples consider Alan Rudolph’s adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions, described by the author as “painful to watch,” or Zack Snyder’s ponderous, overlong treatment of Watchmen (though its author, Alan Moore, refuses to have his name attached to any adaptation of his work after a dreadful reworking of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen in 2003). Breakfast of Champions tries too hard to push the social commentary that Vonnegut got away with in the space of his novel, and he renders the characters unbelievable and unpleasant to watch in the process without benefiting in any way from doing so. Watchmen was described by its detractors as being too loyal to its source material to be effective or to find a mass audience, and thus bombed terribly at the box office.

It’s not as clear as a good book making a bad movie or vice-versa. It’s much more a question of taste, of the source material’s accessibility, and whether or not it’s designed to succeed more clearly in one form or another. Straightforward adaptations, however, almost always hurt far more than they help.
Many thanks A. Hall for this guest post.

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4 thoughts on “Guest Post – Fidelity Criticism: Good Book, Bad Movie… Bad Book? GREAT Movie”

  1. Interesting post but disappointing that only the directors get namechecked. While the directors of the Harry Potter films have changed, Steve Kloves has penned the adaptation for each one. Is he, the writer, purely at the behest of the director in what to include/exclude in the adaptation?

    Similarly, while Watchmen may have been a bit dry in its presentation, was that the fault of Snyder, the director, or David Hayter, the writer (who I think did a sterling job of a difficult ensemble piece when he adapted X-Men and X-Men 2).

  2. I don’t believe “good book makes a bad movie” is always correct. It depends how the writer carries out adapting the source material.

    1984, Naked Lunch and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (Blade Runner), are three great books, which became great films, because they didn’t slavishly copy the source material: which was Watchmen’s flaw. While V for Vendetta stayed close to the source story, it’s writers changed it and how it was presented so it would work in the cinema. (Incidentally, like Watchmen, the original book is a classic of dystopian science fiction.)

    While on the subject of Alan Moore, he disowns all cinematic adaptations of his graphic novels and comics. It’s nothing to do with the quality of the end product, but because he views them as unnecessary and separate works to his original works; that he was dishonestly and unfairly exploited by comic publishers which publishes them (a legitimate claim); and he has simply moved on as an artist and doesn’t want to look back.

    The “Alan Moore hates the Watchmen film because it’s bad”, and him being a bad-tempered hermit, are myths that has been created by the mainstream and comics media that want an oversimplified story to sell people.

  3. I can think of two instances where the films were infinitely superior to their literary counterparts: The Godfather and Jaws. Both (subjectively) great movies, but I found the books utter torture. Both books were utter sprawling messes; Jaws especially was filled with unlikable characters, whilst The Godfather was a meandering mess that I couldn’t finish. I think these are two great examples of successful adaptations, trimming all the unnecessary fat and streamlining the stories into something comprehensible.

    1. Yes, excellent choices James! I have heard that many times about The Godfather (though I have yet to attempt it myself); I recall trying to read JAWS as a teen and not being able to get very far with it. I may have another go, see if the passage of years has changed my mind …

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