Friday, 28 January 2011

The "Obsessive Fanboy" Method

Etymology and Definition: If yesterday's method was the best possible method, today's is the worst. It has an overwhelming failure rate. Essentially, this method is what happens when the person in charge of the script is such a big fan of the original work that he or she is completely incapable of changing anything and therefore crams every scrap of plot from the books into the film. It is absolutely, 100% a bad idea.

Chance of Making an Entertaining/Successful Film: .5% (grudging admiration for special effects)
Chance of Pleasing the Readers: .5% (grudging admiration for being true to the book)
Overall Chance of Success: 0.001% (Virtually guaranteed tank)

When and How to Use This Method: Don't. It is the worst possible thing you can do when making a film adaptation. Why? Simply put, it saps the life out of the work. When you concentrate on making everything in the film exactly like in the book, you forget to add the stuff that makes a movie a good movie. Books and movies are different. What works to convey a message in literature does not necessarily work in a film. For one thing, when you have the benefit of the narrator telling you the background information, the action takes on a whole new meaning. Like the difference between the word "fan" and the word "fanatic"...the connotation is key. For another, sometimes what seems perfectly flowing in a story does not flow well in a film. I know it seems weird for an avid reader to hate a film adaptation method in which the writers are doggedly obsessed with recreating the book perfectly, but it's really just a bad idea. If the writer had meant for their work to be a film as is, they'd have written a screenplay and not a novel...Hell, they'd at least have written a play. Being 100% true to a book in film is the best way to make the book seem awful. This method honestly just calls to mind the phrase "the road to hell is paved with good intentions".

The Method Done Right: As stated, there is pretty much no way to make a good film in this fashion. Instead, I will give you two examples of films that came close to screwing up, but made minor changes (thereby using the "mutual respect" model) that saved them and made them good, rather than terrible, films. First, the animated short film of "How the Grinch Stole Christmas". It's literally just a reading of the story, accompanied by animation that is based on the original illustrations. Why does it escape this death trap? The songs. They add the fun and whimsy that keeps the film from being a sad excuse not to read to your children. Second, "Sin City", which I am told is almost frame-by-frame perfect. Why does this escape this trap then? Because it's not the same thing. "Sin City" is a comic book series, (or a graphic novel, if you're reading a collected edition). I only put it here to make a point.I am emphatically not one of those people who think comics don't count as literature. They are an excellent literary media and anyone who says differently has obviously never actually read one. I will probably do a piece on it in a couple weeks. However, it does not apply in this discussion because comic books are already a visual media as well as a literary one. They work in film because they are roughly equivalent to a storyboard for a film.

The Method Done Wrong: So many options to choose from here. If "Avatar" had been a book instead of a tv show, I would say that "The Last Airbender" would have been a good candidate for this spot. However, the winner for absolute worst adaptation that was completely true to the book has to be "The Golden Compass". Now, the movie would never have been hugely successful, even if it had been great. The book is super-controversial...I have a theory that Philip Pullman likes to tick people off as much as possible. However, that's just the problem: the film really didn't feel controversial. It followed the plot so minutely that it was almost impossible to pick up the anti-Christianity subtext of the book. Essentially, it was so literal that it missed out on the figurative. It sapped out all of the character of the books. It's a perfect illustration of why this method can not work. The film took a brilliant book (for all of the controversy, you have to admire the book. It's brilliantly written and a great read on any level...even if you ignore the subtext and take it as a basic fantasy) and destroyed it. It had a rockstar cast - Nicole Kidman, Ian McKellen and Daniel Craig to name a few. It followed the book to the letter. The visual effects were top notch and kind of entrancing...after all, the book is set in a kind of mildly steampunk London...with airships and everything. Yet, in spite of fabulous acting, loyal writing with a great source, and stunning visuals...the movie was simply boring.

The Tolkien fans who complain about the Lord of the Rings films should keep this in mind next time they whine about the absence of Tom Bombadil.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Random Bonus Post Pt 2!

Since I mentioned him twice in the past week...and because I really like the jealousy it instills, check out the sweet autograph my adorable boyfriend got me. The writing says "To Brie. As you wish. Cary Elwes"

Random Bonus Post!

On the subject of casting...whoever Keanu Reeves's agent is...he or she is a genius. If Reeves is capable of any other emotion than muted confusion I have yet to see it. Somehow, however, his agent has managed to land him role after role after role as a variety of characters that require an unfailing display of that emotion. Most other actors would slip and inject personality into roles such as Neo...which would completely compromise the entire flow of the story.

I really hope this didn't sound sarcastic. I mean every word. Keaunu Reeves is PERFECT in every movie he is in. He is, however , a terrible actor. Ergo his agent must be a complete genius.

The "Operating on a Basis of Mutual Respect" Method.

Etymology and Definition: Pretty self explanatory. This method is used by actual fans of the work who want to do it justice in the theatre by creating a truly good film adaptation, based on a respect of the original work and the knowledge of what makes a good film in its own right.

Chance of Making an Entertaining/Successful Film: 99%
Chance of Pleasing the Readers: 89% (There will always be die-hard fans who won't be pleased no matter what you do. They honestly should know better than to go the movies by now.)
Overall Chance of Success: 80%

When and How to Use This Method: This one is very simple. You use this method when you, as a director, have read and enjoyed the book, honestly thought it would make a good movie with little embellishment, and you want to get the story out to a wider audience. There is one catch to this method: there is a prerequisite requirement in order to use it. You have to be capable of making an entertaining film, and know when compromise is necessary. There is usually too much stuff in a novel to use, and not all of the elements in a book are cinematic. No matter how much you love the novel, you can't cram every element in. If there are excellent moments that do not contribute to the overall plot, know that you can take them out so as not to confuse the audience who have not read the book. However, do not let that stop you from making a tiny little reference to that it as simple as a prop seen in the background. The readers will notice and appreciate such gestures. Also, feel free to change minor elements if the explanation is too complex to convey through images and minimal dialogue. Never ever have a character monologue to explain something, especially if it can be shown. Do your best to make the film as you imagined the story in your head as you read it. Above all, make sure that the feel of the book does not suffer. This method SHOULD NOT be used if the "Tom Cruise" method is honestly more appropriate. Do not strain to make a non-cinematic book into a film without embellishment. It will be boring.

The Method Done Right: "The Shawshank Redemption" is a masterpiece of a film. Traditionally, Stephen King novels translate to film very well. Even the kind of bad movies have their own entertainment value. It is very hard to screw up Stephen King. This is because his works are largely cinematic. There is a good balance between action and explanation, and his works evoke emotions that can be replicated by a well-executed soundtrack. Some of his novels, like "The Shining", require the "Tom Cruise" method because the object of fear is too abstract to truly work on film. (The villain is a hotel.) The movie version reflected that. The mini-series did not and was a little silly as a result. However, "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption" from the collection of novellas "Different Seasons" is a perfect candidate for this method. The only significant change made from book to movie was that a couple secondary characters were either removed or consolidated. In the case of the Warden, in particular, this was an excellent move on the Director's part. In the book, the prison goes through several wardens while there is only one in the film. The book's version is more's unlikely for a single warden to remain there for the entirety of Dufresne's time in Shawshank, especially as Dufresne's character is quite young at the time of his incarceration and the warden is not. However, by turning several wardens into one, the film creates a focus for the audience's hatred. Rather than the villain being the corruption of the prison system, the villain is a single corrupt character. It holds the same essential point, but by having a representational figure for the abstract concept it is easier for a film audience to focus. In all honesty, as brilliant as the novella is, this is one instance in which I enjoyed the film more than the book. As well as creating a better focus for our hatred, this film did one other thing that pushed the movie into absolute brilliance. Deborah Aquila, the casting director, should have been given an award for her work. Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman made that film absolutely, 100% genius. The casting of Freeman alone was beyond perfect...especially considering he was cast as a man who is called Red "probably because [he's] Irish." However, the woman's genius seems to be a hit-or-miss thing, as she was also responsible for the casting in "Twilight" and "Time Traveller's Wife".

The Method Done Wrong: I honestly can't think of an example of this...since this method requires respect for the original story as well as an ability to create a good film. Screwing up during an attempt at this method will either result in you actually using the "Tom Cruise" method or tomorrow's method. I will simply state that the easiest mistake you can make using this method is to forget that your audience may not have read the book. Have someone who hasn't read it go over the script before moving on to actual filming.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

The "Cup of Sugar" Method

Etymology and Definition: This method is like asking your neighbor for a cup of sugar to bake a cake. You have all of the other ingredients ready, you just need that basic element to make it work. Similarly, this method involves taking only the barest essentials of the film from the book and making the rest up. Usually, this means using the characters and the basic premise and making up a plot.

Chance of Making an Entertaining/Successful Film: 65%
Chance of Pleasing the Readers: 10% (the remainder is 50% confusion, 40% anger)
Overall Chance of Success: 50%

When and How to Use This Method: This method is most successfully used with television programming and when adapting children's books. If the source material does not have enough plot to fill the allotted time, whether it is a novel that needs to span a 13 episode season or a 500 word picture book into a full length film, (For reference, Dr. Seuss's ABC Book is 441 words...including all of the letters being repeated - e.g. "a b c d e f g, goat girl googoo goggles g g g".) it is pretty much necessary to make up a plot that will fill the space. Sometimes, like with the "Tom Cruise" method, the story simply doesn't translate to the action of the big screen and needs to be spiced up in order to keep interest. In these cases though, it's because a huge amount of the book is non-cinematic, rather than just a portion. In these cases, one has to wonder why Hollywood even wants to make a film out of the book. Usually it is because there is a really cool concept they want to use, but the rest is unusable. This is fine, really...the only problem is that it's going to confuse the hell out of the people who read the book first, or who read it after. My only caveat as far as this use of the method is concerned is that the movie is at least entertaining. If you're going to butcher a book, at least make a phoenix of a film rise from its smoldering ashes.

The Method Done Right: This method, I'm warning you now, is going to have more examples than the others, simply because it is such a bizarre method. Therefore, I have two examples of this method done right, and two of the method done oddly in place of showing the method gone wrong. This is because the films are usually so far removed from the books that it's hard to say whether they are truly terrible or not. Just baffling. The first that did this method right is "Shrek". Yes, Shrek is based off of a children's book...a quirky little rhymed picture book by William Steig. It is about a green ogre named Shrek who is told by a witch that he will find a wife even uglier than himself. In his quest to find this wife (who is an ogress princess) he must get past a talking donkey and a short knight. These are the ONLY similarities between book and film. However, the book is adorable and the film is extremely fun and entertaining, so points must be awarded to Dreamworks for a creative, if loose, use of literature. (My theory as to why they even made it a movie is that somebody's daughter liked the book and asked Daddy or Mommy to make a movie for her.)

My second example of the method done right is the television show "Dexter", based off the novel "Darkly Dreaming Dexter" by Jeff Lindsay. The first season of the show loosely follows the first book, while adding some side elements, and is more of an example of the "Tom Cruise" method. Subsequent seasons, however, simply use the premise of a vigilante sociopathic killer, the basics of the characters, and the setting rather than use the plot of the sequel novels. The first season does, however, completely change the ending and all seasons completely ignore the supernatural element of the books. However, they made an extremely good show by taking the amazingly original tone of the books and using it to its full advantage. The key to doing this method right is focusing on making a good product while trying to keep the spirit, if not the word, of the literature intact.

The Method Done Oddly: The key to doing the story oddly, but not failing, is making a good movie but completely ignoring both word and spirit of the original source. This creates the movies that completely baffle readers and make them ask why they even bothered basing the film off the book when they simply could have renamed the characters, tweaked the plot, and taken full credit with none-the-wiser. Perfect examples of this are "Ella Enchanted" and "The Princess Diaries". The Gail Carson Levine novel "Ella Enchanted" is a fantastic book which would, admittedly, make for a boring film since there is very little external action: the main conflict is within the character. However, I'm not sure it was necessary to take a fairly serious children's story and turn it into a madcap, bizarre musical comedy and invent a villainous role for Cary Elwes. I can't object to Cary Elwes being added to a film though, so I can forgive that choice. Ella Enchanted, as a film, can be forgiven for good song choices and for being entertaining...but I still hope someone somewhere decides to make a film that is actually honest to the book.

I knew they were going to really butcher "The Princess Diaries" when they cast Julie Andrews as Grandmere. In the book, that character is a chain-smoking, sidecar drinking horror of a woman with tattooed eyebrows and the personality of a cantankerous poodle. Other bizarre changes include, but are not limited to: 1. Killing off the dad when in the books he was simply made sterile because of testicular cancer (probably because Disney won't touch the word testicles). 2. Giving Lily Mia's vegetarianism, activism etc. 3. Randomly changing the setting from New York to San Francisco 4. Removing Tina Hakim Baba and replacing violinist Boris with some random magician guy... The list really goes on and on. The only things that remain the same are most of the main characters' names and the fact that Mia finds out suddenly that she is the Princess of Genovia. That's it. The movie is cute enough, however, and it is redeemed by the fact that Meg Cabot wrote the movies into the books, having Mia comment on how the movies based on her life are completely non-factual and ridiculous...which makes them part of the book cannon and therefore legitimate.

Side note: Technically, this method also covers film parodies of books. However, parodies are another breed altogether. There is no rule for when it is appropriate or inappropriate to parody something. When making a parody, you simply use your judgment to decide if you're going to go too far and offend people and are responsible for making a good movie. When you enter the realm of parody, you lose the obligation to be true to the source material and are only required to make it recognizable enough that people get that it's a parody. It should be noted that a parody doesn't have to make fun of something in much the same way that a poem doesn't have to rhyme. Great examples of film book parodies are "Clueless" (a parody of "Emma" by Jane Austen) and "O Brother Where Art Thou?" (a parody of Homer's "The Odyssey")

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

The "Tom Cruise is Your Friend" Method

Etymology and Definition: By far the most common of the adaptation methods, the "Tom Cruise is Your Friend" Method gets its name from a summer school class I had. In seventh grade I took part in the Duke Talent Identification Program, which was essentially geek camp. I took a class on "Film Analysis and Critique" and one of the units was entitled "Tom Cruise is Your Friend". It was, essentially, a unit on how Hollywood likes to pander to the lowest common denominator. Our example films were the Spanish psychothriller "Abres Los Ojos" and its American remake, starring Tom Cruise, "Vanilla Sky". The remake was a dumbed down version of the original. It involved more obvious foreshadowing, heavy-handed attempts to make the unlikable main character likable, and more action...because that's what Hollywood thinks Americans want. Similarly, this method of book-to-film adaptation involves drastic changes to the source material in order to tailor it to a specific audience.

Chance of Making an Entertaining/Successful Film: 80%
Chance of Pleasing the Readers: 20%
Overall Chance of Success: 60%

When and How to Use This Method: This method is best used with a book that already has a potential to be cinematic, but relies heavily on internal dialogue to make the plot work. Internal dialogue very rarely fits seamlessly in a film, usually feeling forced or boring as the voice-overs extend beyond what is usually acceptable. Replacing internal motivations with external may irritate readers, but honestly it's better than making a boring film. Another instance in which this method is viable is when the book is too graphic (sex or violence) for the intended audience. If adding everything from the book is going to really make audiences upset, or earn you an NC-17 rating, you are left with two options: Make it an Indy film that's critically adored but is unlikely to make money, or tone it down to "acceptable standards" and actually get a return on your investment. Either path is acceptable really.

The wrong thing to do is take a perfectly good book, and try to adapt it for a completely different audience than the book was intended for. I can only liken this attempt, made far far too often, to trying to shove a round peg through a square hole. This is taking a dark satire and making it a lighthearted comedy. It's grating and stupid and is a disservice both to the readers, who will be aware of how cheated they are, and the viewers, who may be blissfully unaware.

The Method Done Right: "The Princess Bride", by William Goldman, is a very good book. It has a classic fairy-tale style to it, shot through with surprising humor that adds just the right amount of spice. The opening chapter, talking about the most beautiful women in the world and how they lost their beauty, is an absolute gem: tongue in cheek hilarity. The film is a classic. When comparing the two, the plot remains largely unchanged, the characters the same in their essentials, and most importantly the style intact. The elements cut from the book, while excellent in the literary context, would not have transitioned to screen well. Mostly, they consist of plays on words, or literary humor, or internal dialogue or backstory. These were largely replaced by the framework of the grandfather and grandson, which is in the book's intro but not throughout the story as in the film. It adds the same charm and humor, but in a much more cinematic way. More action was added as well, which keeps the movie visually flowing. All-in-all it is the perfect method to emulate. However, the movie does have a distinct advantage to other adaptations: the screenplay is written by the same man who wrote the book, who was an experienced screenplay writer as well as novelist. The lesson? If a novelist is in any way capable of writing a viable screenplay, and capable of accepting that his original work might need to be changed, then he should be allowed to do the writing.

The Method Done Wrong: "The Time Traveller's Wife" was a beautiful, compelling novel by Audrey Niffenegger. The characters were complex, never completely good or bad. Their relationship is not a perfect example of love. The implied fatalism in "we will get married because we already are married" (don't you love time travel?) creates an uncertainty in the relationship that makes Henry and Claire's love that much more poignant. The book made you think, and the complexity of both plot and narrative were highly fulfilling. When Hollywood got ahold of it, they made a movie for Nicholas Sparks fans. Which would be fine if it was a Nicholas Sparks novel. Moviegoers unaware of the book would be, I'm sure, perfectly satisfied by the cliched romantic drama with Male Romantic Lead With Crippling Disease (TM) and Female Romantic Lead Whose Enduring Love Can See Past These Problems (TM). However, the overall theme of the novel, the complete joy reading it causes, and the new perspectives one could gain from it were all stripped away. Essentially, they took a great novel and made a very mediocre movie, indistinguishable from its peers. It's almost heartbreaking. To add insult to injury, it wasn't even that good of a shallow romantic drama. The innovation of the Time Travel Disease concept was completely sapped of its creativity, making it seem pedestrian. How you can make such a bizarre idea pedestrian is completely beyond me. The real crime of it is that people seeing the movie who have not read the book will not know what they have missed. At least readers go to the movies expecting disappointment. If a movie-goer is disappointed, where is the motivation to read the book? They will be deprived of a truly great experience all because of a mediocre adaptation.

Monday, 24 January 2011

Rabid Lit Major - Now a Major Motion Picture!

This week at RLM, I thought I would indulge in something every book lover enjoys intensely...complaining about film adaptations of books.

Don't deny it: You have, at some point in your life, enjoyed the smug sensation of sneering at a movie because "the book was so much better.

As I have mentioned before, I love movies. Even terrible ones. Due to this love I have adapted my sensibilities until I am able to enjoy film adaptations even when they are obviously inferior. Recently, however, I have become enthralled with a television series that I simply can not claim is inferior to its source material. I have to, of course, give credit where it's due and praise the book as the original...and as a classic. However, the television series stands on its own as a highly satisfying and entertaining series that I can not claim is in any way "less" than the book's capacity for satisfaction and entertainment.

This inability to firmly assert the superiority of the books has led me to question: is there a right way and a wrong way to adapt literature into visual media?

After some soul searching...and wracking my brain for countless examples of "good" and "bad" adaptations...I have come to the conclusion that there are four methods one can employ when making a film or television adaptation. If used in the right circumstances, each can turn out a truly excellent adaptation which absorbs the audience without alienating the readers. However, of the four, one method has a much higher capacity for failure while another has a much higher chance of success.

Over the course of the next week, I intend to devote a day to each of my four methods. They will have the following layout.

"Quirky title naming the method."

Explanation of title with definition.
Estimated chance of successful film.
Best circumstances in which to use this method.
Review of "good" adaptation using this method, and why it works.
Review of "bad" adaptation using this method, and why it doesn't work.
Further examples of my twisted sense of humor, with a pithy end comment.

Hollywood, take note. I'm going to give you a fool-proof guide to making blockbuster hits.

As an attempt to make up for this sad introduction that stands in lieu of a proper, insightful post, I invite you all to leave a comment telling me what you consider the best and worst book-to-film adaptations.

I will likely bring these up again in my later posts, but will let you know that I consider "The Shawshank Redemption" to be the best adaptation. "The Time Traveller's Wife" and "The Golden Compass" are tied for worst.

What do you think?

Sunday, 23 January 2011

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