May 6, 2014

Books Adapted Into Film: The Good and the Meh.

In my last post I talked about the main things I think are necessary for a book-to-film adaptation to be successful. To summarize, they were as follows: remaining faithful to the core parts and principles of the source material even if you have to make some changes; having a large enough budget to put all the 'fantasy' elements from the book onto a screen; using a book that is less 'epic' and smaller in scope, so it's easier to adapt with a lesser budget.

Obviously there will be exceptions to every one of those rules, which are more like guidelines anyways. A show or movie adaptation can succeed despite making fairly radical changes from the books, or having little to no budget, or using a massively ambitious fantasy world/novel/series. Then again, an adaptation that sticks to the source material, has a big budget, and has a less ambitious novel from which to adapt can also still fail. Hell, some of the examples I'm going to give here will be proof of that in both ways.

It's also worth noting that I don't think each book-film adaptation needs all three of those elements to work. In fact, the second and third points are kind of a balancing act between them. If the show doesn't have that much of a budget, it can have a smaller scope.

Now, let's talk about some books and movies and books, and the adaptations where I've both read the book and seen the film adaptation and liked (to varying extents) the end result.

The Lord of the Rings: God

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The source material saw some pretty large changes or omissions from the books, though the largest examples of those came in the first and last book and on the outside edges of when the plot really began to get significant. First, the whole journey the Hobbits took through the forest where they met Tom Bombadil was cut out entirely. Second, the whole War of the Shire at the end of the books was also cut out. In terms of the amount of ink Tolkien spilled writing those two parts, those are two very large omissions.

However, in terms of their overall significance to the main plot of the trilogy cutting those sections out meant very little. The part with Bombadil in the books did not add much to the plot that other parts didn't also cover, but did add to the world building. The same holds true for the War of the Shire. All keeping those parts would do is either make the movies longer than they already were, or would mean other parts would have to be abbreviated or removed. World building is great and all, but of all the ways Peter Jackson could have tried to cram each book into a three-ish hour movie, those were actually two great decisions on his part. It also meant that he could remain faithful in other, more important ways so the movie still held the same heart and soul that the books did. 

The budget? It was big. Which was helpful because the books were not exactly what one would call small in scope. It was a very ambitious project, and thankfully Jackson had the budget to pull it off as it deserved.

Game of Thrones: Hells Yes!

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One of the first things I wrote on this blog was a review of the book series. To summarize: the scope of the book that Martin increasingly enlarges as the series progresses ruined my enjoyment when reading them. He added in too many characters, too many story lines, and fell too much in love with world building chapters and passages. The main plot lines were delayed and diluted, and the whole thing suffers from an agonizingly slow pace to the point that it seemed to lose its way.

For all of those reasons, I think the show is better than the books. By a lot. To put that in perspective, that is the first and only time I have ever considered a TV/Movie adaptation to be better than the book(s).

Faithfulness? Remember how, above, I mentioned that Peter Jackson cut out two large parts of the books that weren't all that necessary? The show basically cut out all of the extra stuff I complain about and stick to the important parts. The show has, at least so far, kept its focus. It has also increasingly changed some things in mostly small ways, but the feel of the show still matches that from the books. Except, again, that it feels better.

Budget? Each episode of the show costs $6 million to make, and HBO keeps paying it so... yes. Scope? Each episode of the show costs $6 million to make, so... big.

Anything by Neil Gaiman Ever: Good

via wikipedia
Seriously, the man writes fantastic fantasy books in a way few (if any) can even come close to matching, and they also are always great options for film adaptations. Stardust and Coraline have already been made into good movies, and American Gods is in production (as a show or a movie I can't remember). I've heard that Neverwhere was made into a British show but I haven't seen it to know how good it is.

Faithfulness? The feel or spirit of the books of Stardust and Coraline were both aptly maintained, even if there were some alterations and omissions here and there. Budget? Not nearly as large as some of the other movies/shows that will make this list, but because the scope of the books is also far less ambitious the budgets wound up suiting the scale. 

It's a shame that for many years there hasn't been many fantasy books similar to Gaiman's, because they could make for some great adaptations.

Harry Potter: Thumbs Up

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Faithfulness to the source material? Very similar to that of Lord of the Rings. I was actually disappointed that each movie wasn't as long as each LotR movie, so they could fit in more of the stuff that went on in the classes and Quidditch and the like. Instead, the movies pretty much just stuck to the parts of the book that were relevant to the main plot and cut out all the extra little "neat" stuff from in between. The classes where they (and we the readers) learn more about how magic works, the various spells and potions and devices that exist, how wizarding society operates, and so on took a back seat in the movies, much like Tom Bombadil did with Lord of the Rings.

So while I would have liked more from each movie, the direction they took wound up creating a successful adaptation. More importantly, the spirit of the books was maintained quite spectacularly.

Budget? Check. Scope? The first few books started out much smaller and got progressively larger in scale and ambition. I thought it was interesting that they seemed to try and keep the scale of the movies relative to that of the books, so the first few movies were shorter compared to the later ones just like the books were. One thing I think probably contributed to that was the relative youth and inexperience of the main actors when the movies started.

The Hobbit: Meh

via wikimedia
Faithful to the source material? Not as much, especially as far as only what is in the actual, original book. A lot of extra source material from annotations and Tolkien's notes of what took place around the same time as the events of the book took place has been added in, in order to stretch it over three movies instead of one. A bunch of extra scenes and characters were added for... reasons, and the feel of the movies is more like that of The Lord of the Rings movies rather than a more light-hearted adventure tale for young adults that the book represented. 

Overall I still like the movies (though not nearly as much as LotR) even if some of the action scenes invented reeeaaally drag on at times. Jackson really took a lot of risk adding so much new lore, scenes, characters and the overall "feel" of the movie, but it wound up better than I would have thought considering all of that.

Budget? In spades. Scope? Actually The Hobbit is far less ambitious than The Lord of the Rings was, but Jackson actually made it moreso by adding so much extra stuff. But I do think it's easier to make a film adaptation more ambitious than the source material than it is to do it the other way around. 

Chronicles of Narnia: Meh 2 - Meh Harder

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Faithfulness? It was a long time since I had read the books even when I saw the movie, and that was several years ago now. The impression that I still have was that it was kind of similar to The Hobbit adaptation mentioned above. It tried to make things more epic in some ways, though not nearly to the same extent. In the end, though, watching the movie felt more or less like reading the books did. To me anyways.

Budget? Not necessarily on the scale of The Lord of the Rings but still pretty damn large. Scope? The book had a similar scale to The Hobbit, while the movie tried to make it a bit bigger. Which, again, I think helped the final movie product.

May 5, 2014

Books Adapted Into Film

A note to start, this post will be about books that I've read that were turned into a TV show or movie that I've also seen. I won't include those where I've only read the book or only seen the show/movie, so this list will be incomplete compared to that many of you might have.

So what do I think makes a movie or show adapted from a book good? 

Onwards to revelations!

Faithfulness to the source material

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Because I'm a nerd, I might as well get this out of the way first though I don't necessarily consider this to be the most important element. Unlike the stereotypical nitpicky nerds that will consider an adaptation to be a mortal sin if it omits or alters even the slightest detail from the book, I'm willing to give more leeway to the movie makers. The two are fundamentally different, and this often necessitates that some parts be changed. 

For starters, we read books but we watch movies. Where books leave a lot to the imagination, movies have to show us everything. Second, fantasy books tend to be very long. Books that are hundreds of pages long that are also part of a trilogy or series clash with the budgets that restrain the ambitions of most shows and movies. Third, one of the reasons why fantasy books are so long is the world building that usually goes into them, which involves information/explanations in the form of an 'info dump'. These are usually completely aside from the scene taking place, and movies/shows just can't do that. At best they can use a narrator, but having a voice say anything longer than a couple of sentences long would suck... quite a lot. 

Those are just some differences that will require the adaptation to do things differently. What I hope for, then, is that certain key parts of the book(s) are maintained at least in spirit: the characters seem the same, even if they don't do the same things; the world has the same tone to it, even if parts of its history is altered; the story has all the biggest moments, even if they get there from a different angle. 

It's all about the Benjamins...

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Fantasy has magic, and mythical creatures, and entirely different landscapes and cities to show. To show them well costs money and time, and time costs even more in money. Not every book can get the budget of Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings to sustain the project for so long. Most shows or movies will have to make do with budgets far lower than that. Some fantasy/sci-fi shows can do so rather well (Doctor Who, Firefly), but a lot just can't... and trying to do so while adapting a script from a book is even harder. 

This is why trying to adapt a book with a much smaller scope is far easier. Books that take place, more or less, in the same place where that place is a simple village or city is a lot easier to replicate with a lower budget than having a book take place all over an epic world with massive castles made of diamonds that's also carved out of an entire mountain, or something. Similarly, a book that doesn't have a lot in the way of magic or magic creatures, or epic battles, also makes the job easier.

This is one of the reasons why I think Game of Thrones has been adapted so well. It has some epic settings and a large world, but not much in the way of fireballs and conjured lightning or massive Balrogs. There are some dragons, but they're pretty low key so far through the series. The books are also more about intrigue than they are about epic battles, and even in the book some battles are mentioned only in passing and not told over the span of multiple chapters. 

Epic Is Bad, Small Is Good

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The same holds true for the nature of the story. Epic fantasy needs epic investments in time and money from studios, and trying to make an adaptation without those investments will doom the project to mediocrity at best and more likely something far worse. So to increase the chances at success for most attempts at adaptation, having a smaller scoped, more low-key novel is best. See: Gaiman, Neil. 
The problem is that without the scale and budget to go with it, a lot of adaptations will inevitably get a "campy" feel to it that will ruin the way the book feels to read. However, the good news is that in recent years there's been far more fantasy books written that have a scope more suited to adaptation. It helps that most of them have a darker, grittier tone that people love in TV and movies now (Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones). 

Most of the books I'll list in a future post will be those kinds of books. But next up, I'll list some examples of good and bad adaptations using the above criteria as reasons for their success or failure.