Jumping the page
*The spoilers are strong in this one. Read at your own risk*
If you picked up our previous issue of The Pan American, there’s a chance that you read the editorial written by our news editor Melinda Garza on novels being adapted into movies.
My co-worker expressed disappointment with recent movie adaptations like The Giver, based on the beloved novel in which a pre-teen discovers some really dark secrets involving his utopian society. Garza called the recent film adaptation “poor” due to its addition of a romantic subplot that was non-existent in the book and the aging of the main character. She concluded her editorial by saying “the film industry can at least attempt to be faithful for the sake of the readers.”
With all due respect to my co-worker, I actually thought The Giver was a faithful adaptation despite all the changes Garza was critical of. Without spoiling much, the subtlety of the novel is lost in the film, but somehow the movie keeps the soul of its source. Yes, the main character Jonas was clearly aged up (from 12 to 16 and played by a 25-year-old) just so that the studio could cast a hunk to draw in audiences. But in spite of this, the film was still a thoughtful meditation on loss of innocence that stressed the importance of memory and individuality just like the award-winning novel. This was anchored by a wonderfully mournful Jeff Bridges who, for the first time in ages, seems to actually care about his performance.
However, Garza did raise a good issue in her editorial. Films based on novels should be faithful and please readers, but they have the difficult task of also drawing in non-fans and letting them enjoy the movie by allowing the work to stand as a separate entity. The question is, how do studios find this compromise?
CHANGE CAN BE GOOD
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but one of the best and most recent examples I can think of where a movie is actually elevated by screwing with audience expectations is the final Twilight movie, Breaking Dawn: Part 2.
Hear me out on this. In case you haven’t seen or read it, the novel builds up to a battle between our lame main characters and the not-as-lame-but-still-lame villains. The book essentially flashes the middle finger to readers by having the battle not happen, while the movie does the same to the book by actually going through with the climax and presenting audiences with a full-scale vampire war. Limbs are decapitated, lava is erupted and vampires get eaten. It’s actually surprisingly awesome in how this climax in gleeful violence that’s been missing from the series. Of course this is ruined once it is revealed that the entire climax has been nothing but a vision presented to Dr. William Masters.
Oddly enough, by not going through with the fight scene, Twilight actually becomes smart. It violates audience expectations for the better, only to rip the rug out from under them and revert back to the book’s story and reminding us just how lame the source was to begin with. Fans of the book were probably pleased that the film kept the happily-ever-after of the novel, but can you imagine how differently people would think of Twilight had it kept its faux ending? The movie demonstrates that there are damaging restrictions in relying too much on the built-in expectations of book fans. The fact that a Twilight movie had to remind us of this is downright scary.
Just look at how the final Harry Potter movie is loved by fans because it is considered a “good” adaptation of the novel, but I think it’s a poor movie. It’s incredibly rushed and is too focused on the big battle at the end that it misses out on several intimate character beats that made the characters in the series stand out.
Of course, other movies beside Breaking Dawn have actually destroyed fan expectations and done their own thing. Let’s look at Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, a 1980 film based on my favorite Stephen King novel that’s usually considered one of the best horror films ever made.
The novel is about a father, Jack, who struggling with alcoholism. He transplants his family into a hotel once he gets the job of its caretaker. Jack is an everyman who genuinely loves his family and wants to do right by them. Of course, this doesn’t go smoothly since ghosts in the hotel try to get Jack to kill his son, Danny, as he’s in possession of a psychic ability the ghosts are after.
The film adaptation gets rid of this motivation, as well as much of the alcoholism abuse themes, and replaces it with a weird, ambiguous one that I still don’t get. Also, by casting Jack Nicholson in the lead role, his character loses the everyman edge and makes it obvious that Jack will snap and try to kill his family. Despite this, the movie is critically acclaimed. I personally hate how much the film strays from the book, but that doesn’t mean I can’t respect the film as an exercise in psychological horror that allows Kubrick to make the adaptation into a film that’s distinctly his.
WHEN IS IT BAD?
Simply put, changes are bad when it messes with the main theme of the source. Worse yet is when the adaptation in question results in something that’s barely recognizable to people who are familiar with the source. Let’s take a look at The Cat in the Hat. It is a storybook about a humanoid cat who teaches two bored kids the importance of having fun. The 2003 live-action adaptation featured Mike Meyers making sex jokes, Alec Baldwin being disgusting and Paris Hilton. Do you see what’s wrong with this picture? This is the very definition of something that should be killed with hellfire.
Let’s take a look at Disney’s upcoming musical Into the Woods. The film is an adaptation of the award-winning musical by Stephen Sondheim, the genius behind Sweeney Todd and West Side Story, among other masterpieces. Into the Woods mashes up several famous Grimm fairy tales such as Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella and Rapunzel. Despite its kid-friendly origins, the musical is an innuendo-laden, dark story as the characters do some very un-kid-friendly things (Cinderella’s Prince Charming cheats on her!).
The Disney adaptation, starring Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt and Chris Pine, seems intent on sanitizing most of these developments. During a presentation this past summer, Sondheim revealed several of the plot changes in store for the movie. Among these changes is the fact that Rapunzel won’t die in the film and that Prince Charming doesn’t embark on his affair with Emily Blunt’s character. All these developments mean that there’s a high chance that the songs “Moments in the Woods, Witch’s Lament” and “Children will Listen” are cut from the movie. Each of these songs were directly influenced by the actions involved in the death of Rapunzel and Prince Charming’s tryst with the Baker’s Wife (Blunt).
The main theme in the musical is the consequences of wish fulfillment by subverting all of these fairy tales and arguing, “life isn’t a happily ever after, that’s the point!” Isn’t Disney sort of diluting that message by getting rid of key hardships that the characters go through? I’m just glad that Netflix has a Broadway recording of this musical available to stream on their site for me to watch should I hate Disney’s Into the Woods.
Of course, I could be wrong and Into the Woods could end up being good. Then again, when am I ever wrong?
Movies are a separate medium and, in my opinion, this means that they should not be compared to the book it’s adapting. Let’s face it though, this is easier said than done. All of us will grow attached to a novel and we won’t be able to not complain when a change occurs, or when something happens in a different manner than we had though.
In the end, we have to remember that studios have yet to truly perfect a compromise between pleasing fans of the book and people who are being introduced to the world created by an author on screen. Let’s just try to enjoy the ride. After all, there is one thing you can do if the movie sucks: