November 5, 2007

Film Adaptations (Part 1: The Introduction)

Film adaptations are common fare in the movie industry. Books, comics, and now even video games all stand the chance of cashing in on one of North America's largest forms of mass entertainment. And why not? The skeleton for such enterprise is already there. Comics, especially the graphic novel, are steeped in visual connection, freeze-frames of static action arranged into the kinetic. Books, the most obvious choice, reach an even wider audience when their delicate and careful narratives are transposed into a visual feast. Even video games, though I loathe to admit ever considering an adaptation of one of these, also contain the basic core elements needed for film: protagonist, conflict, action, resolution. In fact, video games may be a step beyond film in that they take cinematic experience and make it interactive, immersible. So, in some ways their adaption to film can be viewed as regression. But the film adaptation is a money maker to be sure, regardless of what form it adapts from.

Converting books to film is still the most common form of adaptation. We've all had the experience being moved by a delicious piece of literature, perhaps
Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient or
Russell Banks' The Sweet Hereafter or

But often we are disappointed when the book appears on screen. To some extent it's a matter of course. Books, especially well written ones, rely wholly on the imagination of the reader. The author uses their skills, their terse prose or poetic narrative, to relay the story, but the reader gets to construct it all in their mind. The reader has the opportunity to put the blue eyes on the round face or see the fields of barley around a dilapidated barn. The reader takes cues from the author, and then revels in the unending possibility of imagination.

Film is not the same. The audience is presented with the interpretations of others, and they are many. A book is a solitary effort. Films are the result of collaboration. The imagination, at least on the audience's part, is removed --though the suspension of disbelief may be forced to remain. I remember when I saw the first installment of The Lord Of The Rings, I marveled at Gollum on the screen. He fit my experience of him in Tolkien's books to the letter. Same with Aragorn. But this is nothing more than coincidence. Each of us have our own visions of a particular character or setting. The chances of a director and crew, who for the most part are complete strangers to the audience, satisfying every member of an audience is near impossible, and not conducive to creativity at all.

What I'm getting at here is that mass disapproval of film adaptations often stems from a misplaced ethic. The reader wants the book to be represented exactly, and this is impossible. The creators of a film are not privy to the minds of their audience, but on top of that the mediums are quite separate --their own language if you will. Converting a particular story from book to film is really a translation from one language to another. Each medium has its own strengths and limitations. Direct translation is not possible, or if it is possible it certainly is not pragmatic. Decisions are made, risks are calculated, and someone else's interpretation and vision is being captured. If we can accept this from the start, our perception of the final product on screen takes a different quality. We begin to notice the decisions made and question why. We begin to treat the book as a separate work of art from the film. And from here we can generate true criticism.

More to come...


Sandra said...

Great topic! I think we've all come out of a movie at some point and exclaimed "The book was waaaay better!". We all need to step back and take the film for what it really is...someone else's interpretation.
Also, your comment that video games adapted to film is a regression is perfectly articulated. Well done!

Trevor said...

I agree wholeheartedly. I remember walking though the video store with Jen, and she pointed to a dvd case on the self and said "Look, the 'Favorite Game', by Leonard Cohen, you love that book, let's rent it" No way, why would I want to ruin a movie before I even watch it, there is no way I could give it a fair shake. Book are books, movies are movies, even the label 'based on' is usually a pretty broad statement.

I'm learning to take each for what they are, but if I've read the book first, there is little chance I'll watch the movie later.

Harry Tournemille said...

Interesting notion, Trev. I find that by taking each medium for what it is, you can appreciate the decision made when a book is changed into a film. True, some translations are better than others, as may very well be the case with your Cohen book. But, film can accomplish so much that books cannot. They can create in a single shot what takes a book pages and pages to unfold.

In other words, both have their merits, in my humble opinion. And success is not necessarily contingent upon how accurate or similar one is to the other.