Movies

Adaptations

Greetings! Apologies for not posting yesterday like I said I would, but Arcadia (my computer) had an unfortunate encounter with a virus and had to spend the weekend at home with my brilliant father, who saved her for me, along with all of my files, which I stupidly did not back up. As it turns out, maintaining a blog is quite difficult if you don’t have access to the Internet. Go figure, huh?

But not having internet for three days had one wildly fantastic outcome: I read two and a half books. I finished An Abundance of Katherines, sped straight through Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk, and am currently working on Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart, who may be the only author I’ve read with a last name harder to pronounce than Palahniuk. The latter I suspect I will have a thing or two to say about when I am finished, but for now I want to talk about Fight Club. More specifically, I want to talk about books vs. movies, and why everyone needs to stop being so judgmental about film adaptations.

(If you haven’t seen/read Fight Club, don’t worry. There aren’t really any spoilers in this. Although if you’re really paranoid, just go watch the movie already. It’s awesome. Then come back to this.)

Here’s the thing. Novels are brilliant. They allow lots of space for character development, which means that they usually contain far more interesting and complex characters than movies do. They allow the reader to get into a character’s head, and actually see what the world looks like through that person’s eyes. Incidentally, they are also far better with subplots, because there is a lot more time to develop them. Novels are forgiving. You don’t remember the parts that were bad, because they were outweighed by all the parts that were brilliant. Plus, when you’re reading a book, you get to fill in all the gaps the writer leaves with your own imagination, which makes reading a highly personal experience. It’s easy to project yourself into a novel.

Movies, on the other hand, don’t have a lot of space to play with. As my screenwriting teachers rightly pointed out on the first day of class, writing a movie is like writing a poem–every word makes a huge difference. You can’t spare a single punctuation mark. They aren’t forgiving, like novels, because there’s no room to make up for mistakes. Because the form is so rigid, and because you have so little to work with, you can’t afford to spend a lot of time poking around inside the heads of multiple characters. Plus, you have to fill in all of the gaps–and I mean all of them–or else people are going to get thrown out of the experience. You have to get everything right, right off the bat, or it all falls apart. For this reason, movies have a far wider margin of error than novels do–they’re much easier to screw up, so it happens more often. This is, perhaps, why so many people champion novels over movies.

It comes as no surprise, then, that most of the time film adaptations lose something. Whole characters and subplots get dropped; the director’s vision for the world conflicts with or even limits the viewer’s imagination; endings get clipped short or changed; complex back story gets relegated to single narrative lines or even half-hearted flashbacks; and, all too often, the entire focus of the story shifts and simplifies in a way that seems to betray the original point of it all. It’s easy to watch a movie adaptation of a book and want to slap the director across the face for even trying, because so much is missing that it’s not even the same story anymore. I understand that impulse. I get it, too.

That said, there are many, many stories that work better as movies than they do as novels. I think Fight Club is a perfect example. For one thing, it’s a story almost exclusively driven by physical violence, which always–and I mean always–works better on screen than it does written down on paper. I don’t care how good of an action writer you are; seeing it happen is better (incidentally, this is also why slapstick doesn’t work in written form, and why the phrase “you had to be there” exists). Secondly, the characters are relatively flat, with almost no back story. They exist entirely in the moment, which makes them perfect for the silver screen–and kind of boring in novel form. Finally, the philosophy of the world–the whole ‘we are sheep’ and ‘the world is rotting’ thing–isn’t terribly complex, either, and doesn’t require a whole lot of delving to understand. It’s actually better represented visually, with a sort of Sin City-esque grittiness, than with a lot of introspective rambling in the narration, which gets repetitive quite quickly. Thus, the movie was able to encapsulate the whole story with ease, while the novel dragged most of the time.

After reading Fight Club, I couldn’t help but feel that I had wasted my time, and should have just been happy with watching the movie. This is not the first time I have felt this way after reading the book version of a movie I liked. Maybe I will dedicate a post to that later. But for now, all I’m saying is, don’t knock film adaptations. Sometimes they’re actually better than the original.

Defensively yours,
M.M. Jordahl

“We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars, but we won’t. We’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.” -Tyler Durden, Fight Club (the movie)

pg. 120 of Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart

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13 thoughts on “Adaptations”

  1. Excellent blog.

    I think my views on this are probably blog-length in turn, but a few thoughts which span into my head on first reading were as follows.

    I do take your point that novels are more narratively forgiving than movies, in the sense that it’s easier to have a bland subplot, say, and get away with it. But movies on the whole seem to me far more forgiving in general, because they have more distractions. A movie can have enormous narrative flaws, and still be forgiven because the visual effects, say, are spectacular, or the fight scenes are wonderfully choreographed, or the camera, or the lighting, or some combination of all serve to make it arresting / gripping / emotionally affecting despite the actual content of the ‘text’ being sub-par. This also ties into your “they screw up more often” point — a movie which screws up may still get released, while a novel with equivalent failings would be heading straight for the bin, or at the least get more thoroughly redrafted, because it doesn’t have Clooney or Pitt’s pretty face to guarantee its commercial (if not artistic) success. (The epitome of this is the videogame; though most games (outside the Angry Birds / Farmville level) purport to be narrative texts, a vast amount have incredibly unfulfilling narratives, because really it’s just a web of emotional hooks to string together the all-important ‘gameplay’, which is what the game actually prioritises. On the flipside, this may be why games with even a decent-ish storyline feel so extremely satisfactory)

    But I’m letting two separate debates trip over each others’ toes here — an overall discussion of movies vs. books can’t take place in the battleground of adaptation theory, because the field is skewed. Except for commercial tie-ins, books rarely get adapted from films. In general, the original of anything will probably have an upper hand, because its narrative arc was built to suit that medium.

    There are exceptions, of course, and given my sole disappointing brush with Palanhiuk (‘Rant’), I’m perfectly happy to take your word for Fight Club being one of them. It’s certainly one of my favourite mainstream films. I wonder if Palanhiuk, like many thriller writers, consciously sought a ‘cinematic’ effect in his book, and if it worked better as a movie for this reason?

    I am Jack’s barely coherent musings :p. Over and out.

    1. Yeah, Palahniuk’s writing does read like it wants to be a movie. That’s kind of my point–some stories are just better as movies, and his seem to lean that direction. Although I only have the one book to base it on, so I’ll have to get back to you on that after I’ve read ‘Choke.’

      And yes, movies have tons of flashy things to distract from bad writing. I suppose my view on it is skewed, because I tend to watch movies compartmentally–the story is its own category, while everything else is another. So when I say books are more forgiving, I mean in terms of plotting. If you’re factoring in all the flashiness, of course movies have more room to wiggle–or utterly suck. Unfortunately. XD

  2. I’ve never been able to get a clear read on the forgiving nature of books versus films myself because of my outrageous bias. xD I know zip about filmmaking, whereas I’ve dedicated years of my attention to figuring out why and how books work and don’t, so I have a built-in instinct to take books apart which has become very difficult to turn off. Watching a movie, on the other hand, I can critique the dialogue and acting to a degree–and I do–but I’m not confronted with text-on-paper which so often tempts me to analysis. I’ll also tolerate bad movies way more than bad books, although that’s partly because bad movies are a fun group activity.

    The biggest issue I have with the way people critique film adaptations of books is that they refuse to watch the movie independent of the book and allow it to live in its own medium. Adaptation from one medium to another is essentially a translation, and all it takes is one hilarious trip to Google Translator to prove that literal translations make no sense. Losing aspects of a novel’s plot (or cast) in the course of adapting it to the screen isn’t just a regrettable necessity, it’s…good style, it’s the equivalent of picking a graceful idiom over a clunky direct rendering of the original-language phrase.

    I remember reading something by Salman Rushdie (shock, I know) on this subject where he made the claim that the Lord of the Rings movies were superior to the original trilogy–not because the Lord of the Rings books were bad; certainly without their awesome story the movies would never have been made. But he argued that the movies were better movies than the books were books, and thus more successful overall…which is something I agree with for the most part. Even though I like both very much. I think the same could be said for ‘Fight Club,’ for different reasons. The story’s better suited to a visual medium and thus ends up a lot (excuse me) punchier as a movie; more affecting and less difficult to believe.

    1. You know, I considered referencing Lord of the Rings in this entry for just that reason. Rushdie apparently had the same reaction I did (although I did HATE how the third movie actually added MORE Sam & Frodo nonsense, because frankly, that’s the least interesting part of the whole story). I feel smarter now. Wheeee!

      Agreed on the impossibility of comparing movies to novels. So often people are like, “that movie was terrible! They completely changed it from the book!” and I’m left going “…and? What was terrible about it? Explain yourself, good sir!” XD Different does not equal worse!

      1. Oh, lord, amen on the too much Sam & Frodo. |D Noooo! So boring! At least the movies alternated between them & the rest of the cast so it wasn’t too tedious, as opposed to the books which just dumped their whole sections in the second halves of Two Towers & Return of the King.

        The last movie’s still my favorite of the three, too.

  3. Up until four days ago I took the exact same line on LotR. Then I started re-‘reading’ the novels on audiobook, and finding myself forced into “…mind, the books are rather lovely too.” Now I kind of feel like BOTH are better than the other.

    1. I should listen to them on audiobook. Maybe the book is better when acted out. I do quite like the books–read them three times–but like everyone ever has already pointed out, Tolkien is quite enamored with his own descriptive prowess, to the point of folly. XD Sweeping vistas are far more interesting on film.

      BUT I also think the LotR movies only work because they broke many of the rules that surround movies–most obviously, the time limit. Those things are LOOOONG, dang. Given the extension Peter Jackson afforded himself, it’s unsurprising that the movies were able to overcome the usual character development limitations most adaptations run up against, which was the biggest challenge in adapting a book like LotR to film. It’s really a high-budget miniseries more than anything….

    2. I’m listening to them on audiobook right now! Rob Inglis is goddamn fantastic. <3 The books have always got an edge over the movies inasmuch as they did the proper inventing, too. All that worldbuilding! I think it's actually the books' greatest strength that ends up being their greatest weakness–Tolkien put so much amazing work into building his world and making it whole, and epic, and able to be taken seriously. That made him a Kickass Fantasy Pioneer aaaaaaaand also too long-winded and eager to include things that weren't terribly relevant to the plot, shooting the pacing to high hell.

      I find nowadays that bookwise I prefer the Silmarillion to LotR, just because it goes full-on into scholarly myth-mode and feels like a somewhat ancient historical text, as opposed to a novel that occasionally forgets it's not a historical text.

    1. Haha, good self-promotion. You are learning, young grasshopper. :P

      On an only vaguely-related note, I find myself missing Facebook’s “like” button in wordpress at the moment. Because to be honest, that last post from you was worth a “like” of acknowledgement, but not an entire response. Internetiquette has me so well trained it’s confusing. XD

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