The Aggravation of Adaptation

From page to screen

There’s a tired expression the book is better than the movie. While saying as such isn’t without merit, however expressed, it’s suggesting the burger tastes better than its commercial. Unless I’m doing something wrong, no one can eat an advertisement. There’s an incommensurable element that doesn’t allow for a fair comparison. Yet, that doesn’t mean zero films can be judged for their adaptative efforts. It’s more a matter of what makes for the most ideal adaptation.

For every Bonfire of the Vanities or Scarlet Letter, there’s a Godfather or Lord of the Rings. What makes adaptations work, however, isn’t an objectively quantifiable thing. Adherence to the source material seems obvious but doesn’t explain the success of interpretations like Stalker, Jaws, Apocalypse Now, or any of the myriad Dracula films. All take liberties with the novels at their heart, yet more often borrow details rather than recreate an abundance of specific scenes.

Technological and budgetary constraints are a common hinderance for films. Granted, recent advances in special effects have made even the sky no limit when it comes to bringing written material to life, but that doesn’t mean much if the story isn’t done right. Jaws has a notably unrealistic shark yet is still considered one of the best movies ever made. Furthermore, any CGI slipup can hinder an otherwise entertaining film which is increasingly the case with the MCU. That means FX aren’t the flesh and bone, they’re more decorative tattooing.

The mechanical great white shark attacks Robert Shaw in Jaws epic climax.
Who you calling unrealistic?

Sticking to the source material seems like the obvious choice. Still, how that’s accomplished is a tricky business since the language of film isn’t the same as print. For instance, no one needs a cinematographer to determine the lighting of scenes set in text. The temporal and visual dynamics of film as an artform don’t automatically lend themselves to bringing source material to life. Every instance they do so is essentially a matter of interpretation. Every interpretation then takes the film a step away from whatever paratext a reader developed.

Paratext is essentially all the surrounding material brought by an audience. These include the context of contemporary events, personal politics, everything you always wanted to know about sex but were too afraid to ask, etc. For instance, disliking Tom Cruise can make it hard to enjoy his performance as the vampire Lestat, an issue author Anne Rice initially had before actually seeing his portrayal. Regarding another Rice adaptation, being able to see and hear can make Queen of the Damned seem like trying to stare into a storm of metal shards.

As Philipe Lejeune observed, paratext is “a fringe of the printed text which in reality controls one’s whole reading of the text.” In that respect, it informs a reader’s imagination as they construct their own personal experience of a novel which they then bring to the film. This means readers’ interpretations of a novel become the paratext through which they watch the feature. Consequently, this can clash with whatever Hollywood puts on screen. The problem is reinterpretation of the source can be necessary to contemporize the subject matter.

Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now, covered in blood on his way to kill Marlon Brando's Colonel Kurtz
Kill all the brutes… the horror, the horror…

Consider Apocalypse Now. Francis Ford Coppola adapted Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness by reinterpreting it in the context of the Vietnam War. The product is a masterful movie full of haunting moments which timelessly condemn the insanity of war while staying true to the overall theme of Conrad’s book. Taking Heart of Darkness away from colonial Africa didn’t minimize the material; it expanded its already poignant relevance about humanity descending into horror.

Details from the novel appear in the film giving the two connective tissue. Such as both plots involving a symbolic river journey deep into the jungle to deal with a military officer who’s gone dangerously insane. Moreover, the film and novel resonate by sharing the same thematic points. And that raises the question of just how much detail needs to come from the novel.

In 1924 filmmaker Erich von Stroheim composed an adaptation of the 1899 novel McTeague by Frank Norris. Stroheim set out to deliver every facet of the book, every scene, character, and moment possible. Although no complete version of that film still exists, many claim it clocked in at nine and a half hours. Even cut down for more mass consumption, Stroheim’s Greed reaches a bladder challenging 239 minutes. As such, it becomes the prime exhibit in any argument for elision.

Tom Hanks as Forrest Gump in the film Forrest Gump, dressed as a Vietnam veteran speaking at a rally surrounded by other vets.
Tom Hanks as Forrest Gump; not pictured, Sue the Orangutan

This is essentially a deliberate omission. When adapting books, filmmakers often regard it as a necessity. This can be a good thing since it often streamlines a plot. Even intensely faithful adaptations like Lord of the Rings excise chunks of the books to keep the pace flowing. When bringing Winston Groom’s 1986 novel Forrest Gump to the screen, among other things, filmmakers opted to leave out Gump’s time at NASA as a human calculator and his space flight with a male orangutan named Sue. However, author Winston Groom admitted the film, “took the rough edges off the character.”

Furthermore, elision or alteration can be necessary to ensure what appears on screen isn’t visually confusing. For instance, the film Who Framed Roger Rabbit? based loosely on Gary K. Wolf’s Who Censored Roger Rabbit?, chose to make toons animated characters instead of comic strip ones. More importantly, filmmakers opted not to have those individuals talk in word balloons the way they do in the novel.

The point of all this being that it isn’t always for the best bringing in every aspect of a book. Including every scene and character risks stretching the film to an intolerable length. Plot pacing can stumble losing its flow. In essence, what works on a page doesn’t always work on screen.

Kate Winslet in the miniseries Mildred Pierce, seen through a rain speckled car window at night.
Kate Winslet in Mildred Pierce.

Now, there’s a reasonable argument that length is irrelevant in the modern cinematic era. Streaming services opting for limited series can, hypothetically, adapt books with the same slavish devotion to detail Stroheim possessed with Greed. Back in 2011, HBO let Todd Haynes go at James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce, turning it into a five-part multi-hour cinematic adaptation that captures most if not all of the book. Yet, length isn’t a guarantee of quality. Just because there’s enough time to depict every detail doesn’t make it the default direction.

Movies like Jurassic Park and Stalker deviate wildly from their source material, while still being able to tell the same story. This is because those films distill the thematic essence of their novels into the narrative onscreen. When it came to adapting Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, director Andrei Tarkovsky even said, “the script of Stalker has nothing in common with the novel… except for two words, ‘Stalker’ and ‘Zone.’”

For all of its philosophical subtext, Roadside Picnic is largely sci-fi crime fiction about black markets trafficking in mysterious goods harvested from the dangerous, enigmatic Zone by individuals called Stalkers. That’s an oversimplification, but with it in mind, it’s easy to see how another director might easily turn it into something akin to The Fast and the Furious. Tarkovsky, however, took the thematic concept of a mysterious, forbidden place where reality becomes magical, and crafted a visual poem about people desperate to find wonder in the world.

A man in a dilapidated building stares down into a well in the enigmatic Zone in the film Stalker
Visual poetry in Stalker implies themes if not details from the book

This method of adaptation gives moviemakers freer reign to not only create something unique but also escape an audience’s potential boredom stemming from knowing the plot. Readers are inevitably aware of surprises since the book has already unveiled them. Yet, a skillful adaptation, such as Blade Runner, offers a story similar while being wholly different from novels like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Detail driven, though, seems to be the main aim of most studios. The success of a 1933 adaptation of Little Women proved to David O. Selznick that “audiences went to film adaptations to see a faithful treatment of a favorite novel.” This mentality, coupled to the success of Little Women, paved the way for Selznick producing films like David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities, and his biggest triumph Gone with the Wind. And in this comic-book-oriented era, detail seems like the right course, though strict adherence isn’t exactly the best idea.

Maintaining a dogmatic dedication to what’s printed in comics isn’t for the best. Most importantly because it doesn’t allow for diverse casting. Just look at the outrage of idiots when it comes to performers on projects such as Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. According to them, Death can’t be portrayed by a black woman because the ethereal entity in the comic book isn’t drawn explicitly African American. Such racist nonsense hides behind adherence to what’s on the page while ignoring casting choices which remain true to the material overall; selected performers embody the spirit of their roles. Plus, representation matters because it connects people to a story they might not otherwise see themselves in.

A mechanical typewriter mutating into a scarab like hybrid, an insectoid typewriter
If your typewriter turns into a scarab, you might be in Naked Lunch.

In addition, some books defy detail driven adaptation. Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs is a notorious example of this. Much of the book reads like an LSD fever dream of sex, blood, insects, and psychological ideas made into meat. Whatever passes for a plot drowns in a vivid literary deluge of visual text, “a book we don’t so much read as submit to, like a series of psychic shocks.” The internal thoughts of characters are of paramount importance to the events found in anything by Virginia Woolf, especially Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, but there’s no real way to cinematically manifest such thoughts without tiresome voiceover. Reenacting flashbacks in Mrs. Dalloway can’t truly convey the way they entwine with character’s thoughts and actions the same way stream of conscious writing does.

In other words, the details necessary to convey the narrative properly aren’t always ideally transferable from page to screen. Filmmakers will always have to choose what can be set aside or amalgamated into something more sensible in cinematic language. The ultimate question being whether the film makes an audience feel the same as when they read the book.

That seems to imply both methods matter. Details keep the story familiar, but the amount necessary is relative so long as the themes of the source material come across. Bringing print to screen endows text with a deeper semblance of life than imagination tends to, so there will always be a desire for cinematic adaptations. Yet, as the Russian poet Fyodor Tyutchev wrote, “a thought, once uttered, is untrue.”

Jennifer Love Hewitt shouting in a field for the killer to finally strike in I Know What You Did Last Summer
Jennifer Love Hewitt channeling Louis Duncan’s reaction to the adaptation of her book.

It’s impossible to embrace at once the whole landscape of a novel. And it isn’t simply a matter of length. Eighty-five hours of footage doesn’t mean anything if the point is missed. That’s partly why Stephen King prefers Stand by Me to Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining. Louis Duncan was horrified to disgust when her 1974 young adult suspense novel I Know What You Did Last Summer became a slasher flick full of flashy violence. P.L. Travers famously resisted and disliked the Disney adaptation of Mary Poppins to such an extent Disney felt it necessary to make a bio-pic rewriting history in their favor.

Yet, filmmakers can only make the movies they perceive in the text. Sometimes this will miss the point and that isn’t always for the worst. There are people who genuinely enjoy The Shining, Mary Poppins, and I Know What You Did Last Summer. This brings back the notion that the best adaptation isn’t always a faithful page-to-screen translation. At the end of the day, what matters most is if a film is entertaining.

Every few years another retread of Jane Austen’s work arrives onscreen alongside some cinematic Dickens while Dracula tallies more than 200 to date. Little Women has received numerous adaptations including anime such as Ai no Wakakusa Monogatari. The point being that perhaps the best adaptation is continuous: certain works revisualized for each generation, no interpretation barred providing a spectrum for audiences to choose from. The issue may not be which method is best for adaptation but wondering why only one is ever made. After all, it isn’t so much the story as how it’s told that makes it interesting.

Written by Jay Rohr

J. Rohr is a Chicago native with a taste for history and wandering the city at odd hours. In order to deal with the more corrosive aspects of everyday life he writes the blog and makes music in the band Beerfinger. His Twitter babble can be found @JackBlankHSH.

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