Wednesday 26 May 2010

My New Mad Scheme: Atrocious Adaptations

As you've noticed, there aren't really that many posts dedicated to non-Howard/Tolkien things here on The Blog That Time Forgot, something that I really should rectify. However, there's something else I'd been meaning to do, regarding a phenomenon fairly close to my heart: literary adaptations.

There have been some truly excellent adaptations over the years: the 1939 Wuthering Heights, Brighton Rock, the 1960 To Kill A Mockingbird, the 1965 Doctor Zhivago, the 1984 1984. Many Dickens, Shakespeare, Austen and other classic literature adaptations are slavishly close to the books, and frequently the ones that stick closest are also the best. Far more films seem to adhere vaguely close to the books, but make alterations to plot, character, motivation or themes. Then there are those films which don't stick particularly close to the films on which they're based, but are fantastic works in their own right: Blade Runner, STALKER, Solyaris, Jurassic Park, The Iron Giant, just about any Hitchcock adaptation. How does one judge those sorts of films?

It's a tricky thing. On the one hand, the translation of a story from one medium to another can be fraught with difficulty, and change is all but inevitable in some cases. On the other hand, that shouldn't be used as an excuse to do whatever you like. Generally, I think that an adaptation simply should be recognizable compared to the source material, otherwise, what's the point in calling it an adaptation in the first place? Changing the title tends to help: Ridley Scott didn't call his film Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, and I appreciated The Last Man on Earth and The Omega Man not using I Am Legend as a title, mostly because they subvert the original theme of the book.

Indeed, a lot of critics come to the conclusion that fidelity to the original should be ignored when judging adaptations. In my experience, this argument completely evades the point of those criticisms. This article, for example, says that criticisms of fidelity to the source material are invalid because changes are inevitable, which is a complete straw man: it isn't so much that the changes happened, so much that the changes are worse. Case in point: The Lord of the Rings. Why was it better to simplify the character of Denethor, turn Frodo into a weak-willed coward, needlessly complicate Faramir, and introduce a bunch of set pieces that do little more than create gratuitous, false drama and eat up time that could be used for better elements of the original stories?

It's an argument that treats those looking for faithful adaptations as ignorant children who can't understand the difference between mediums, and have to be sat down and talked to. Most Lord of the Rings fans know that not every single detail from the book would make it in. It isn't the subtractions that worry me, since even in LotR there are some scenes that would just make the films run too long: I accept Tom Bombadil's absence, and the Old Forest, and to an extent the Barrow Downs. That's why short stories tend to make better bases for films than novels. What I don't accept is the idea that valid criticisms of additions which cause not just story problems, but basic cinematic problems, are rendered an inevitable result of adaptation, and not worthy of criticism.

Then there's the question of redundancy. If the stories already exist in one format, what's the point of replicating them in film? This, too, strikes me as utterly asinine. Why bother to make a new Shakespeare adaptation when it's been filmed and performed on stage so many times, or new Dickens or Austen? Because people want to see what others do with the source material. The Hour of the Dragon doesn't have a fantastic soundtrack, an outstanding performance by actors, incredible visual effects. We already have Conan in literature, but many people want to see someone performing as Conan, saying his lines, acting his actions: what makes it redundant to want to see different performances of the same role?

The very process of adaptation is change enough. Instead of words printed in text on a page, dialogue becomes sounds uttered from mouths - or at least the recordings of said sounds. That's a profound change already. Instead of descriptions of scenery or objects taking the form of language, it is displayed visually: that's a profound change too. Instead of conveying emotions by textual descriptions of facial movements of internal monologuing, we see it right up on screen. Even a word-for-word adaptation of a book is a profoundly different animal! So frankly, when the manner of adaptation can cause so many differences, why seek to make more sweeping changes? Simply the manner in which something is adapted provides new ideas and examinations of the original, without making greater changes.

Ultimately, I reject the notion that fidelity to the source material is to be ignored. I accept the idea of divergences and reinterpretations, as long as they are reasonable and well conceived: I refuse, however, to justify them as a matter of course in the act of translation. It smacks too much of the ludicrous "sometimes to be faithful to the spirit, you cannot be faithful to the letter" nonsense often used to defend Conan the Barbarian. I still haven't read a single argument that Conan the Barbarian is superior to Howard that not only convinces me of being a reasonable point, but of being an informed argument in the first place. Every single case I've come across shows a willful ignorance, misinterpretation or misrepresentation of the original stories. Not one makes me think "I can see why you came to that conclusion, but I must disagree," or even "I guess it's reasonable some people would prefer that over Howard." Yet by this logic, Conan the Barbarian is a perfectly valid adaptation.

Fie, I say. If you're going to make an adaptation and make sweeping alterations, then don't call it an adaptation: call it a reinterpretation. Wicked is a reinterpretation of the 1939 Wizard of Oz, but nobody calls it an adaptation of Frank Baum's books. Conan the Barbarian, too, is a reinterpretation, and should be judged as such. I'd even call Jackson's Lord of the Rings a reinterpretation: though the film sticks to the narrative structure of the story, the tone and characters are sufficiently altered to feel more like a reinterpretation than anything else. Not a single character save perhaps Merry, Sam and Rosie Cotton haven't had their motivations, personalities and even history changed. But let's not get ahead of ourselves.

Ah, but then there are those... other films. The films that utterly waste their potential, either by ignoring, inverting or outright defying their literary inspiration. Not only do they view the concept of adaptation as "take one or two ideas and make up the rest," they don't even have the decency to be good films. These films are legion: A Sound of Thunder, I Robot, Kull the Conqueror, Timeline, The Scarlet Letter, Tarzan the Ape Man... My feelings on Conan the Barbarian and the Lord of the Rings trilogy are generally well-known, but there are a ton of film adaptations that are even worse.

Thus, some way down the line, I might start a new series exclusive to The Blog That Time Forgot: Atrocious Adaptations. Here I'll talk about film adaptations that make the little baby Jesus cry. They might take some names, or ideas, or settings from the book, but everything else gets tossed out the window, and the actual direction is so direly incompetent that one can't even call it "reinterpretation" without stifling a giggle. Every once in a while, I might decide to be controversial and pick an adaptation that was an alright or even pretty good film, but made some serious alterations to the story that damage not just the fidelity metre, but hurt the film itself.

There are some that I simply won't do: Conan the Barbarian and Jackson's Lord of the Rings have been done almost to death, and once I've done the "Movie-Goer's Guide to Conan the Barbarian" any further discussion would be redundant. I haven't read Dan Brown and don't intend to, nor do I care enough about Harry Potter to discuss their respective adaptations (not to mention they're more or less serviceable). I'm also rather ambivalent about Stephen King: I might do ones that ended up rather dire like Christine, Pet Sematary or The Lawnmower Man, but I wasn't particularly impressed by either iteration of The Shining, IT or The Stand. Television mini-series like Tommyknockers or Earthsea could also be a target. Of course, I might also lighten the mood by talking about my favourite adaptations, especially those that are faithful, or those which are unfaithful but still great.

I might also go beyond performance-oriented adaptations, and go into the realm of comics, games, music and other media. "Atrocious Adaptations" is a working title, but I'm open to suggestions, as well as any hints for particularly dire films. Not sure what sort of tone I'll be using: a relentlessly energetic one flipping between nerdgasm and nerdrage a la the That Guy With The Glasses folk, or an understated mix of jolly enthusiasm and sombre disappointment. Probably the latter: I'll save the vitriol for special occasions.

Another reason for Atrocious Adaptations is that it's a constant source of frustration to me that so many films have displaced their origins in popular culture. How many people know that Bambi was based a book, one that's been compared to the discussions of colonial tension in the works of Robert E. Howard (even if it was by Gary Romeo)? There are so many books out there that people assume started as films. I'm getting sick of people citing Conan the Barbarian as a comic adaptation, and they're the "informed" ones. Atrocious Adaptations would address that, especially in those appalling situations where a good book has been overshadowed by a useless film.

Crom knows there are enough bad adaptations out there to cover...


  1. First blood by David Morrell is a excellent book that inspired a great film
    according to some critics The Godfather by Mario Puzo and Jaws by Peter Benchley are weak books that inspired excellent films, although Jaws in my opinion is a great adventure novel

  2. Cheers, Francisco. It's been a while since I read Jaws, but I remember thinking it wasn't too bad. First Blood's a great choice. I'd probably have to read The Godfather, but from what I've heard it isn't worth the time.