A Few Notes on Film Adaptations

Note: Spoilers for the following movies and books may be present in this commentary: Lord of the Rings, The Da Vinci Code, Eragon, Interview with a Vampire, Queen of the Damned, Simon Birch, The World According to Garp and The Stand.

True, the number of regular book readers is less than the number of regular movie watchers, but combine book fans with movie fans and you have a financial force to reckon with.  Case in point: Lord of the Rings.  Fantasy films have historically belonged to a niche audience, sometimes moving into the realm of cult classic but rarely garnering top box office dollars and never an Academy Award.  What was special about LotR and can it be applied to other film genres? 

To the first question, I answer that LotR was special not because of a new interest in fantasy or the extraordinary special effects (though these certainly played a role in enjoyability of the films) and certainly not because of the big names involved in the project since several of the primary characters go their big start from LotR.  Rather, LotR was huge because two generations of readers grew up on the books and in turn shared the tale with their children.  If Fellowship of the Ring hadn’t been so well done, more than a few careers would have been ruined.  Because (and this answers the second question) book readers are a different breed of movie watcher and a much harder audience to please.

As a casual movie viewer, I place adapted films in a class of their own and believe very strongly that they are much more difficult to pull off than a story made for the screen.  My thoughts on this come on the heels of two recent films adapted for the screen: The Da Vinci Code and Eragon.

The Da Vinci Code largely succeeds and certainly exceeded my expectations.  Eragon succeeds in its own way–a family friendly fantasy with a cute baby dragon–but fails miserably as an adaptation.  These movies, as well as most adapted films, have already gotten enough “reviews” to go around, but I think it’s worthwhile to look at what makes an adaptation work and what just makes the reader (viewer) angry.

1. Plot changes.  The importance of plot-to-movie is equivalent to that of plot-to-book.  Story is, of course, the central interest in most cases in both.  However, conforming the novel-story to the film-story is incredibly difficult.  One page of script is much shorter than one page of a novel and is approximately equal to one minute of screen time.  In a 300-page novel, that’s 600 minutes of film.  Time constraints make perfect dedication to a novel impossible.  Can it be done well, though?  Yes.

The Da Vinci Code as a novel was full of action and details that all seemed important, yet obviously couldn’t all be included in the movie.  Akiva Goldsmith was forced to determine which events were crucial and which were secondary.  At this, she succeeded with the only real complaint being the ineffective translation of that “Wow” moment when we discover the identity of “the Teacher.”  Of course, people who saw the movie recognized a plot deficiency in the super-agile, light-friendly albino monk, but this was a major component of the book and a deficiency in the original story rather than in the movie itself.  The actions of the Catholic Church and the controversy about Opus Dei was largely missing from the movie, but Goldsmith took great pains to include only as much as was needed without hurting the story.

Eragon, on the other hand, was insulting even to a reader that recognized the flaws in the original story.  Paolini’s first novel was surprisingly well written for a 15-year old despite it’s lack of originality and was fodder for a particularly exciting movie, yet the screenwriters (all 4 of them) took such extensive liberties in the writing that none of the tale’s potential came through on the big screen.  From the accelerated growth rate of Sapphira that would have been better portrayed as a montage to the deccelerated rate of Eragon’s uncle’s death to the radical change in sequence of events involving Arya and Murtagh (my favorite character from the book), the screenwriters fail again and again.  None of the political ambivalence involving the Varden was present in the film, severely limiting Eragon’s growth and producing a flat protagonist that the viewer doesn’t really care about. 

As if these things weren’t enough, the writers chose to exclude the entire segment of the book that takes place in Teirm where most of Eragon’s character growth occurs.  It isn’t that portions of a novel can’t be omitted.  An adaptation of any Stephen King or John Irving novel is proof of that.  The problem is that they must be omitted responsibly, with legitimate reason, and without destroying the threads that connect events within a novel.  The Da Vinci Code was able to do this.  The only explanation for cutting Teirm from Eragon is the cost of production in a city built on the ocean.  A disappointingly short film, the time constraint argument falls flat on its face.  My advice is simple: If you don’t have the money to produce the most important parts of the book, let someone who does purchase the rights.

When I think of movies that have been translated successfully from novels with certain plot alterations, I think of LotR, Interview with a Vampire, The World According to Garp, and Narnia.  Some that have been done especially poorly are Queen of the Damned (more on this soon), Simon Birch (although they at least had the sense to change the name), and sadly, Eragon.

2. Characterization.  A novel, by its nature, has a lot more room to develop a character than a movie; however, the film has more tools available to develop a character in a shorter period of time.  What some screenwriters (or directors or actors) forget is the responsibility they have to use those tools to be true to the essence of the character as they appeared in the book.

The first thing we notice about a character is the way they look.  Sometimes their appearance on screen only slightly deviates from the way we imagined them and it works.  Who could deny that Elijah Wood will be forever known as Frodo, that Ian MacKellan was the perfect Gandalf, or that no one looks more like Galadriel than Cate Blanchett?  Sometimes though, the very look gets in the way of our relationship with the character as we envisioned them.  Tom Cruise as Lestat for example, or a slimmed down Jeremy Irons as Brom.  The best example of a poorly chosen actor in terms of appearance is probably Antonia Banderas as Armand in Interview with a Vampire.  While he’s certainly up there with Viggo Mortenson on my list of Hottest Men Alive, he isn’t and wasn’t at the time of filming, anywhere close to fourteen years old.

Eragon had the distinction (if you could call it that) of being a book largely without physical characteristics built into any character aside from Sapphira and Arya.  As a book, we can see the various stories that were borrowed from to create it and that only moderately hampers our ability to enjoy it.  As a movie, though, the chosen actors drive this fact home in a vivid manner that completely detracts from our capacity to enjoy the characters as themselves.  How difficult it must have been to find an Arya that could precisely imitate the appearance of Liv Tyler in LotR!

While I’ve heard it said that Tom Hanks wasn’t what readers imagined for Robert Langdon in The Da Vinci Code, I have to disagree.  Tom Hanks was perfect precisely because of the way he appears–moderately attractive and “professor-ish.”

One tool for characterization that has been used successfully is the “combination character.”  The screenwriter, in lieu of trying to place every character in a book into the movie, combines the role of two or more characters so the viewer has time to learn to appreciate them.  The best example of this is, of course, Stephen King’s The Stand.  Even as a four-part mini-series, there just wasn’t time to include everyone.  But note: this method was successful because all of the primary characters remained true to their novelistic counterpart.

This could have been a useful tool for the screenwriters of Eragon who chose instead to displace Angela from her sea-side home.  Upon removing her from her rightful place, they also chose to eliminate her primary purpose in the novel, omit her feline friend from the story completely and leave the viewer to wonder why she was in the movie at all.  Indeed, cutting her from the script would have done the story more justice.

The Da Vinci Code succeeds as well as it does because of the characterization.  Even characters we don’t have time to fully get to know are memorable.  The butler, for example, has just enough character-driven lines to show the viewer who he is.  There isn’t a huge need for actors to overcome appearance differences (which can also be done as Tom Cruise and Antonia Banderas proved in Interview).

3. Respect for the author.  Whether screenwriters and directors realize this or not, the primary fan base of any adapted film begins with the fan base of the novel and thereby, the author.  Occasionally, deviations from story and character are necessary.  As readers, we know this and understand.  However, blatant disrespect for the author and/or novel we admire leaves us angry from the outset and, assuming we are willing to watch it at all, we aren’t likely to spend our hard-earned dollars on theater tickets or movie purchase or even new release rental prices on a film we are relatively certain we will abhor.

The Da Vinci Code and Eragon were both at least minimally respectful of the stories they were trying to create and the authors who wrote them (note that both authors are listed as source material under writing credits).  One glaring example of how a film adaptation can fail before it’s ever released though is Queen of the Damned.

It seems strange to say that I grew up with Lestat, but it’s truer than I should probably admit.  An aspiring writer even in my teen years, I read obsessively looking for “what works” in a character and story.  The Vampire Lestat led me to a sort of character-driven awe of the anti-hero.  Queen of the Damned showed me how multiple points of view could be utilized to progress plot.  My own novel-in-progress uses both of these to one degree or another. 

On top of a love for Lestat and the early vampires, I read the Mayfair Witches saga and went on to write a 21-page critical essay on them in college.  These stories led me to the biography of Anne Rice where I learned that Interview was the result of of a 3-week writing binge that she used as part of the (un)healing process after the death of her daughter.  A deep, sympathetic respect for this author was born.

Later, I would admire not only her proficiency at turning out a good book in a short period of time (a proficiency she’s lost over the last few years, I’m afraid), but her courage in writing deeply difficult, controversial, and utterly significant scenes.  Who else would have the guts to write about a vampire drinking the blood of Christ (literally!)?  Who else would tackle the subject of sexual deviance as poignantly as she did in her erotic novels?  While I don’t read much of Rice’s work since it went downhill over the last few years, I still have incredible respect for her abilities.

So I watched the progress of Queen of the Damned in film almost as obsessively as I read the books years before.  When I read the comments made by director Michael Rymer regarding his “vision” of a “better story” than the original and the way he blatantly disrespected the author with statements that said essentially: I bought the rights.  The story is mine now.  Nothing she or the readers want matters, I refused to see the movie until it happened to be on at someone else’s house (and even then, it made me so physically ill that I didn’t watch the whole thing).  I also have gone out of my way to not watch any other film by Michael Rymer and it appears to me that his directing credits are approximately one-tenth of a percent of what they could have been had he done Queen of the Damned well. 

The moral of the story is simple: Readers have money.  Readers are more than willing to spend their money on a well-done movie adaptation.  Readers are the primary base of any given adaptation’s audience (with very, very few exceptions and mostly in the arena of the short story “based upon” variety).  Readers are harder judges than regular movie-goers and they can (and often do) make or break careers.

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9 thoughts on “A Few Notes on Film Adaptations

  1. hmmm. I labored through Eragon (reading it) but couldn’t stop cussing every time the author used some ridiculously overt cliche or undisguised rip off of some LOTR’s character’s name or setting. Some one – some editor should have made him change a lot of proper nouns in that book. It would have been much more tolerable to read. That said, I liked it.

    But I haven’t seen the film yet. I’m waiting for dvd.

    As for LOTR, I loved the films – the first made me run to get a copy of the book to read.

    But by the time the two towers came out, I’d read everything and was flabbergasted about the idiot changes they made to the second book.

    I’ve heard all their excuses and don’t really buy any of them. but I still love the films – even the second.

    But the ring never should have gone to Osgilioth. That was just wrong and needless.

    thanks for the interesting article!

  2. I agree completely about the ring in Osgiliath. Of the three films, The Two Towers deviated the most from the book. On the other hand, I can also see where capturing the power of Faramir’s release of Frodo and Sam would have been extraordinarily difficult in any other method. Maybe they should have left the flashback sequence from the extended version and placed it a little better so that deviation wasn’t necessary.

  3. which flashback sequence are you talking about?

    you know, Sam putting the ring on in Mordor was also a major stupid blunder, but not PJ’s in this case. I never could figure out why Tolkien did that.

  4. In the extended version, there is a flashback sequence that shows Denethor talking to Boromir and Faramir about the ring and how important is to bring it back. They cut this scene from the theatrical release and I think it was sufficient to portray how powerful it was for Faramir to release Frodo and Sam without taking the ring to Osgiliath.

    I’m not sure about Sam wearing the ring. It was more powerful in the book than it was in the movie and provided some tension between Frodo, Sam, and the reader. In the movie, that tension was lost. The viewer doesn’t get any idea at all that Sam might not give the ring back because it has already started to affect him. I don’t know how those scenes could have been done differently in the novel or the movie or if they should be, but it’s definately a worthwhile scene to think about and discuss.

  5. right – now I remember the extended scene. i think i’ve only watched the full extended two towers twice.

    but i agree.

    i guess i have a problem with sauron not immediately spotting sam the second he puts the ring on in mordor.
    i think i remember fran walsh talking about that problem in one of the extended documentaries but I can’t remember what she said in its defense.

  6. Wow. It never even occurred to me that that particular scene was such a huge plot deficiency. You’re absolutely right about Sauron. I’ll go through my documentaries and see if I have the one you refer to so I can hear the justification.

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