Oscar season is upon us at the movie theatre, and for book nerds, that usually means one thing: the chance to see a beloved novel destroyed on the big screen. (Seriously, why would King of Excess Baz Luhrmann tackle a quiet, melancholy book like The Great Gatsby? And while we’re at it, whose genius idea was it to cast Tom Cruise in the role of a hulking 6’5″ ex-military drifter? I didn’t expect the height thing to bother me, but after watching the trailer, it kinda does.)
[Warning: This post contains a fairly major spoiler for Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and minor ones for The Hunger Games.]
Oh, very well. Not all book-to-movie adaptations are disasters. And I haven’t seen the Luhrmann Gatsby so maybe it won’t suck, and maybe I’ll like the Jack Reacher movie even if Tom Cruise isn’t towering over everyone in sight. But I have to admit to being one of those stick-in-the-mud readers who usually dislikes movies made from her favorite books. For example, Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy was exceptional filmmaking, but I can’t quite get over the way it screwed up Eowyn’s character, especially the scene where Eowyn kills the Witch-king. My criticism about this scene is ridiculously nit-picky* but I don’t care. It’s my favorite moment in the books and I didn’t like to see it changed.
Readers like me leave directors caught between a rock and a hard place, I think. On the one hand, you can’t get every moment from a popular book into a single movie. Sometimes things have to be changed to fit the new medium; other times, they just have to be cut for length. On the other hand, if you change or condense too much, die-hard fans of the source material will complain and you might drive away viewers. This is especially true in the age of message boards and Twitter, where a single negative reaction can reach large numbers of eyeballs.
The trend of late seems to be towards devotion towards the source material rather than interpretation. The Hunger Games movie, for example, was clearly working really hard to include as much from the books as it could. I know I just whined about Peter Jackson changing up the Witch-king scene, but I have to wonder if slavish devotion is the way to go. I enjoyed seeing the Hunger Games filmed, but I have to admit I didn’t think the movie worked all that well as, you know, a movie. With all the plot points and action scenes, there wasn’t much time to explore character development or emotions; Katniss’s complicated feelings about Peeta, for example, didn’t really come across in the movie. It seemed more like she was doing whatever Haymitch told her.
Contrast that with “L.A. Confidential,” based on a novel by James Ellroy. It’s a really good book and one of my favorite movies.** While some major characters and plot points remain intact, the movie version sacrifices a lot of what happens in the book in order to get a story that could be told on film in a 2.5-hour running time. It’s clear that the screenwriter and the director wanted to make a great movie, not Adapt L.A. Confidential For The Big Screen — and the movie is indeed a whole lot better for it.
So in the end, I think it’s usually better for movie adaptions to think of themselves as movies first, not as attempts to put a book on screen. Even if picky readers like me complain about the sequined sets, the casting, or other changes.
What are your favorite and least favorite film adaptations? What makes them work or not work?
* Here’s my problem with the scene. In the book, when the Witch-king says “No living man may hinder me,” Eowyn laughs and replies, “But no living man am I!” And then there’s this great line: “[T]he Ringwraith made no answer, and was silent, as if in sudden doubt.” It’s afraid. I still think that’s an unbelievably cool image–this immortal evil feeling fear for the first time because it’s looking at a woman with a sword. Jackson wipes out that moment of fear; Eowyn reveals herself at the end of the battle instead of the beginning.
I also thought that overall, the movies softened Eowyn too much. In the books she’s proud and brave, but also arrogant; she wants to marry Aragorn because she wants glory and recognition. In the movies she’s more like a schoolgirl with a crush on Viggo Mortensen. End rant.
** Ellroy seems to like the film as well. There’s a “Making Of” featurette on my “LA Confidential” DVD and Ellroy gives a gleefully profane interview praising the movie for distilling his complex novel down to screenplay-size while still capturing its essence. Seriously, it’s an awesome movie. Watch it.