Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Lights, Camera, Dissatisfaction

By Jay Stringer

Mike wrote recently about film adaptations. Well, okay, it was a blog he was stuck with thanks to the evil genius Weddle. Since that blog inspired this one, I’ll let them fight over who gets the credit.

Film versions, who needs ‘em, eh?

Well, we all do, it seems. But Why? Being a paid up card carrying geek, I spent a lot of my life so far talking about film adaptations; dream casting, the scripts I’d write, what Tim Burton messed up, who was the best Marlowe….the list goes on.

It seems to be an important aspect of literature, both comics and novels, to keep one eye on the silver screen.

I think last year was a watershed for me. I’ll take you back a little farther to make the point though, about 18 months ago I was talking to friend who shared my love of the comic book opus WATCHMEN. “I’m so nervous about the film,” he said, “what if they mess it up?”

I realised for the first time that I wasn’t nervous about the film. Moreover, I wasn’t particularly excited. I didn’t feel the brining need to see the book adapted into a film like so many of my friends seemed to. And it takes us back to that quote that always gets given to whichever 40’s author is cool at any given moment, that the filmmakers cannot damage the book, because “it’s right there on the shelf.” I had my WATCHMEN. It was perfect in its true form and I didn’t need it in any other.

Then the film came and went and did nothing to change my mind. I still have the story in it’s natural, perfect form, full of subtlety and craft and intelligence. I don’t need a two-dimensional film version, any more than I need a novelisation or a concept album.

I’m still not totally immune. I saw THE DARK KNIGHT in the theatres as many times as the rest of you. I was drawn into the fun of SHERLOCK HOLMES this week. I love to be knocked out by the occasional concept album adaptation. But I’m not obsessed with the concept like I once was. I don’t indulge in dream casting. I don’t look at the books on my shelf hoping they someday get taken seriously as films. Because I already have the stories the way they are meant to be. I’m past stressing over who gets cast in GREEN LANTERN or how badly Clive Owen would butcher Marlowe.

A book is a book. A comic is a comic. An album is an album. So why is it hard wired into us to want a film version?

From the point of view of the writer, there is a very practical reason, the chance to put a little extra food on the table. So that’s understandable.

But for the rest of us? Where does this come from?

Is it because Cinema was such an important cultural language in the twentieth century? If that’s the answer, what’s next? And what will films want to be adapted into in the years to come?


Fiona Johnson said...

Possibly 'readers' are often disappointed with a screen adaptation of a favourite book firstly because it is an adaptation, great chunks being left out, plot changes, a different ending, so that it will fit into the 1 hour 30 mins format - OK, so we all know that. So if you go and watch an adaptation at the cinema then you should know what to expect, it's never going to be the film of the book that is in your head. But no, I don't think that it's that that annoys me. It's more the idea that the book I love has now been swallowed whole by the movie machine and in the public consciousness, it is the film that will forever be remembered by the vast majority of the population. Sadly, not everybody reads - and not everybody visits the cinema but it's the film that gets the publicity, it's the film that everybody hears about.
Recently my teenage daughter experiences this for the first time. She read 'My Sister's Keeper' before going to see the film. She had loved the book (OK she's a teenage girl)and was excited about seeing the film. To her absolute horror (spoiler alert !!?) the whole ending had been changed. The healthy sister survives and the ill sister dies..My daughter couldn't believe that the film makers could even be allowed to change a plot to this extent..she was totally disgusted..Well that's what happens and as you quite rightly say - the book is the book and the film is the film, don't get them mixed up, they are different entities altogether.

Anonymous said...

James M. Caine had the best line about film adaptations. Someone asked what he thought of what Hollywood had done to his books. He responded, "They've done nothing to my books! They're over there on the shelf exactly as I wrote them."

Steve Weddle said...

In the recent SPIDER-MAN movies, he shoots webs from his wrists. Or his hands. Or something. In the comic, he's a science nerd so he builds the contraption to shoot webs. Which makes sense and works with the character. Also, in the comics he doesn't lose his powers when he gets sad. I hate to geek it up like this, but I agree that you have to look at the movie of a book or comic as a separate entity.

Jay Stringer said...

Totally, adaptations need to be allowed to be different. Different language.

But why do we need the adaptations to begin with?

John McFetridge said...

Yes, why do we need the adaptations?

Of course, there are business reasons, a movie costs a lot of money to make so the investors want to minimize as much risk as possible - having some audience recognition helps a little. As you say, people are talking about the movies like Watchmen before they even get made and that's rarely the case with original screenplay movies (is anyone really worried about that the script for Hot Tub Time Machine is faithful to... anything?).

And also, I think, Hollywood has done a poor job of developing writers - partly because of the total lack of respect for writers and what they do.

And sometimes writers have to take a little blame too. The money is so big in the movies that we'll say and do anything - "Sure, he can shoot webs out of his wrists, or hands, or something, whatever, where's my cheque?"

Whatever the case, it's not likely to change anytime soon.

Dana King said...

I've reached the "So what?" phase with adaptations. I don't look forward to them, and I go to see them--when I bother to go--with a bit of negative anticipation, along the lines of "I hope they didn't muck it up too badly."

Scott D. Parker said...

Interestingly, I was underwhelmed with Watchmen. The graphic novel was so good, I didn't need the movie. Or, rather, the movie was such a slave to the comic that I realized I'd seen it all before.

Adapting a graphic novel seems odd. Why, when the story has pictures and is self-contained. Adapting a comic book has similar things going against it but often survives because we just haven't seen certain things on the big screen.

For a printed book, however, since many people hate reading, a movie is the only way they'll get to experience Sherlock Holmes or The Lord of the Rings. I just re-watched TLOTR (first time in 5 years) and it's a splendid piece of filmmaking. It changes the story from the book but I'm okay with that. A friend of mine could barely slog through the first book and stopped. He loves the movie. So, either way, Tolkien's story is out there. There are literary purists (including many Sherlockians) who hate any changes to an existing story. To them, I say "read the book." To the rest of us, enjoy both.

Dana King said...

"since many people hate reading, a movie is the only way they'll get to experience Sherlock Holmes or The Lord of the Rings."

Screw 'em. They don't want to read, let them miss stuff.

Mike Dennis said...

I recently wrote a blog on my website about the great film noir, NIGHT AND THE CITY. It was adapted from a novel by Gerald Kersh, who was paid $40,000 for the rights in the late 1940s.

Of course, this was a considerable amount of money at the time, and after the movie came out, someone asked Kersh if he was happy with it. He replied that he was. After all, he said, how could he not be happy with receiving $10,000 a word, since "the title was all they kept of my novel."