The Conversation: What Do You Want From a Film Adaptation?

The Conversation: What Do You Want From a Film Adaptation?

Mar 29, 2012 posted an article by John Gholson earlier this week in which he asked 6 questions left unanswered by The Hunger Games. That is the movie, not the book. But the distinction doesn't matter to some of our readers, specifically those who believe the movie and book are basically one and the same, two equal and co-dependent parts of a single property. The post has received more than 100 comments since Monday and many of them attack Gholson for not reading the book, which is apparently where many of his questions are answered.

I say source material should never be necessary to a viewer of a movie. Books and films (and plays and magazine articles and paintings and toys and games and TV shows and comic books) are separate entities. There is a Hunger Games novel and a Hunger Games movie and while the latter is based on the former it need not be an exact copy only rewritten in visual language. That would be redundant and therefore unnecessary except as a curiosity to the unimaginative. 

But we may all have our own views on adaptation (even the idiotically racist viewers are welcome to their opinion, I guess?). Personally I think all stories have a medium they're fit for and storytellers should respect that medium by sticking to it. Yes, that means I think, on principle, that adaptations in general are wrong. And I hate that so many novels are written these days with the hopes that the film rights will be bought. Literature is weak when it's obviously intended to be adapted. The Hunger Games is a good example. 

That said, one of my favorite film adaptations of all time is To Kill a Mockingbird, which is a pretty faithful and literal translation of the book, also a favorite of mine. And admittedly, it's sometimes hard for me to separate the two. But I think each works perfectly on its own without the need to be familiar with the other. I also wouldn't care if a remake were made in which many liberties were taken with Harper Lee's original novel, so long as the film was successful at making whatever new points and coming up with whatever new ideas it needed to say. 

Last night I saw Mirror Mirror, which is a surprisingly enjoyable new take on the Snow White fairy tale with a lot of changes made in translation from the Grimm brothers' 19th century original (by way of other versions adapted since). It made me think about how fidelity is most important to people the shorter amount of time there is between source and adaptation (though children of the '80s will always hold close their beloved properties, such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles). I'd love to see what a Hunger Games adaptation/remake looks like in 200 years. Perhaps it will just be called Games.

What are people saying about what they look for in film adaptations? Here's The Conversation heard around the Internet:

What I want is not faithfulness, but an active engagement with the material, which doesn’t have to preclude faithfulness. The question filmmakers should ask is not, “How can I bring this story to the screen without losing anything?,” but “What in this book do I want to emphasize?” If you’re reading a book, I think it’s natural to home in on themes, characters, and scenes that are most meaningful to you. [...] And it also has to exist independently from the novel: Films content with merely illustrating books are more concerned with problem-solving and translation than artistic expression. [...] Ultimately, what I want are adaptations that concern themselves with something more ambitious than simply making the book “work” as a film, and if that means being ruthless and disrespectful, so be it.  - Scott Tobias, A.V. Club

A “good adaptation” may have to involve a good-faith effort from the viewers, who participate in the process by giving that story a chance on its own terms. But it takes two to tango. If viewers have a responsibility not to see a book as an unalterable outline for the film, then filmmakers have a responsibility to respect the book, to acknowledge that there’s a reason they’re telling this story, rather than another story altogether. [...] Ultimately, what counts is having a vision, seeing it through, and producing something that connects with people. “What makes a good book-to-film adaptation?” is a good discussion topic, but for filmmakers, it should probably come second to “What makes a good film, and how do I get there from this material?” - Tasha Robinson, A.V. Club

Ultimately, whether it's a comic book or a Pulitzer Prize-winning literary classic, the question of whether or not it's faithful should come second to whether or not it's a good movie. Some of the greatest films of all time were ones that departed heavily from their subject matter -- "The Shining," "The Godfather" -- and you can bet that Stephen King fans would have been tweeting their anger at Stanley Kubrick's changes, had the technology existed at the time. Ultimately fandom should be less concerned with the details, and pay more attention to whether the filmmakers will deliver a piece of work that's worthy of the source material without simply recreating it. - Oliver Lyttelton, The Playlist

The best adaptations make you want to read the book in tandem with it. One isn't a substitute for the other. - Norman Buckley, @norbuck

I’ve always had the belief that a film is a film and a book is a book. A film can be great, a book horrendous, and the opposite also be a possibility. If that stands to reason then why does the strength of the source material matter in the resulting product? Sometimes the fact that a film is “based on” a book (or any other sort of source material) becomes so thinly veiled an idea that it barely deserves bothering to even mention the source and just enjoy the film (or hate on it) for what it is. - Andrew Robinson, gmanReviews

A reader’s encounter with a written narrative is completely dependent on the visuals created by the text and his or her imagination. So when descriptions of landscapes, dwellings and people are transferred from that medium — from the written word to the screen — the resulting visuals have the biggest impact. It’s not necessarily the plot or the stars; it’s more that the viewer thinks, “That’s exactly how I pictured it!” Often, the more a reader’s expectations line up with the film, the more successful the film is thought to be. [...] I think when people start out with a fidelity model — when they want the film to imitate the book — they’re always going to be disappointed. They expect the experience they had reading will be the same they’ll have in the theater. But it’s two different mediums. If you go into the film expecting that everything in the book will be represented on the screen, you’re going to be disappointed. - Professor Kathleen Kelly, interviewed by Matt Collette, news@Northeastern


Conversation Twitter Poll: What do you want out of a film adapted from a book, whether you've read the source or not? (and does it depend on that?)

I want a movie that tells as much of a clear, coherent story as one that isn't based on a book. - Josh Spiegel, @mousterpiece

A movie is a movie and needs to stand by itself while honoring the source. Comparing two distinct mediums is useless. It's not even like comparing a cover song to the original. - Andy Rattinger, @Rattinger

I want the movie to make sense and entertain. If too many questions are left in the air, it's a poor movie. If a movie requires the viewer to read the book, that's a bad movie. - Adrian Charlie, @PatrickTussie

Something new, that adds to the source material instead of just filming it. Devoted fans be damned. Daniel Walber, @DSWalber

Fidelity means nothing. It has to work as a standalone film. Having said that, respect canon when possible. #mutants - Jesse A. Carp, @jessecarp

I'd say it's really hard to make a demand of an adaptation of something you had not read first. That said, I prefer a film that captures the spirit of the narrative rather than copies the specifics of the plot. - Brian J. Roan, @BrianJRoan

The film has to be true in spirit to the original source and not invent new material. - Jenny Sara Jacobsen, @Jenny_Sara

A film that is wholly contained and doesn't have to piggyback off the assumption that you've read the book. - Peter S. Hall, @PeterSHall

2nd. - Brian J. Roan, @BrianJRoan

The same thing I want out of any film. Now what *that* is is a bigger question. Used to be inspiration, now it's coherence. This doesn't fit in 140 characters!!! - Jonathan Poritsky, @poritsky

Sensible casting, a director who isn't trying to upstage the writer (of book & adapted script) + tasteful marketing campaign. - nixskits, @nixskits2

I want it to look into my brain, and cast the characters based on how I interpreted their descriptions. - Alex Spivey, @alexspivey


Follow Christopher Campbell on Twitter (@thefilmcynic) to join The Conversation.

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