I was inspired to write this post with the release of the Hunger Games movie. I could have written this same post at the time of the release of the Lord of the Rings movies or Harry Potter movies (if I cared enough to read the books or watch the movie). I will take this opportunity now as I see many posts on Facebook asking whether the movie is as good as the book. I hope this post will be some way to answer this question going forward.
The first thing you need to recognize is there is a distinct difference between the two mediums and each come with their unique ability to communicate with both advantages and drawbacks. Books have the unique ability to delve into the minds of the characters and the author has the ability to direct your focus to elements in the story and environment. It also has a great ability to be any length and to stretch time. A moment in time can be stretched out to fill pages in a book as a character contemplates and thinks through the thoughts out on the paper or take in details.
A movie on the other hand gives the unique ability to observe the events first hand and experience the story. It's great advantage is that you get to see and hear the story without having to bog down in the details and the pacing and it is contained to a period of two and a half hours and you can get back to real life.
Many people complain that movies don't have everything from the book or are missing important elements from the book. This comes from the differences in the medium and necessarily not the director's ability to create a film or the director's distain for the story. The director and screenwriter have the unenviable task of taking a book and making it watchable.
A book can take as long as it likes to tell it's story, a movie does not. Even if you could make a movie recount all the events in the book in the full detail you wish it would have, it would be unwise to create it so. It would be the most long-winded, unwatchable film possible. For example, could you imagine if they included the forty page "Council of Elrond" to discuss whether or not they should destroy the ring? It would make that 3 hour movie into something worse than going to a real town council meeting. Jackson was wise to boil that scene down and not introduce every single character that Tolkien had the leisure of describing.
Others complained about how the entire chapter of Tom Bombadil was excluded from the movie and no reference even made to the character. People will claim that Tom's scene was a vital look into the philosophy that undergirds the idea of the books. They are right, but that runs against efficiency of storytelling that film requires. I don't know if some Lord of the Rings fans realize the great lengths that Peter Jackson went to be as faithful to the essence of the story that is possible without creating a monstrosity of a movie. In fact, I would say that he borders on going overboard. If the extended editions were released as the movies, there was no way that the people who never knew the beauty of that story would ever want to experience it.
Do I think Tolkien was foolish for including Tom Bombadil? Of course not. It was good to have that because it explored further the ideas of the world and story that helps you as the reader engage with the author's message.
Would have I liked to see Jackson put in that scene? Yes, but I understand why he couldn't.
That's an important thing to remember watching a film adaptation of a book. Are those things that are missing from the film that important? I mean vital to the plot. If it vital to the core plot of the story, then it should be in. If the director changes the core idea of the story, then I would say you would have grounds to complain, but try and understand what the story really about.
Another common complaint is the way things look in the movie compared to what they imagined. It is impossible for us to take a description and arrive at the same image. We are all going to arrive at different pictures and that is not something that you can fault the movie's design team. The key is the essence.
Books and films have to approach stories different because of their nature. Some books should not be films, that is true. And you can have poor film adaptations that are still fantastic movies, which we know. However, we also have to admit that a perfectly pure film adaptation of a book would be a horrible movie. A movie has to fill in blanks that are not present in the story. It has to be efficient. It has to put visuals on passing descriptions. It has to convey the story from the outside not the inside.
Perhaps a better way to look at a film adaptation would be to not expect everything from the book and instead be happy to see things from the book as they come in and appreciate those elements.
If someone were to take my story of the buses crashing into my house that I've told around the campfire many times and were to see actual footage of the event itself as it watched me run around in the chaos of the house shaking and me running around, some would say it was a bad adaptation of my story. That it didn't deal enough time with this moment or that this detail was underplayed and even that the fun essence of the story is not there. And they'd be right in many regards. The story would also be done in 30 seconds instead of the 5 minutes that I take to go into my mind space and my descriptions. Verbal storytelling (whether out loud or on the page) is a much different experience than the visual. And that is okay.
To summarize thus far is that two mediums will have to produce two interpretations and bring two different, yet valid experiences with the story. As individuals, we all have different preferences with experiencing stories and that's why people who love books will never love the movie rendition in the same way.
How should we then look at film adaptations? We need to be able to judge them separately from the books. Aside from the fact that they are two different mediums, you also have two different groups of artists approaching the same idea. The author is never the same person as the screen writer and some times the producers are taking the same core idea and want to communicate something different with it. This is a great and important aspect of remaking a story. By allowing wiggle room in the recreation of a story, it allows new ideas to come through.
An example from music would be Trent Reznor's song, "Hurt" which came from his time dealing with drugs and how it was destroying his relationships and how he disappointed people. When Johnny Cash came along to cover the song, some complained that Cash was ruining the song by putting his interpretation on it and they could not see that Cash vitally understood the song. Cash felt the despair of the song reflected in his reflections of growing older and disappointing people and fading away in a similar manner. Cash brought not necessarily a better version of the song, but rather a new one that helped show how close we all are.
In the same way, when the Watchmen ended, the ending was different and interpreted differently by Zack Snyder and they had to cut out wide swaths of the story in order to keep the movie manageable. Many felt that it was an impossible story to make into a movie and many fans (and the original author himself) thought the movie ruined the original story, but there was indeed the core idea of the story in it that Snyder drew out and knew how to communicate to the audience and also take the truth of the story made for the world of the 1980's and made true again for the 2000's. It was unfaithful to the graphic novels, but true to the heart of the story.
Hunger Games has already been told. Some would point to a retelling of the Lord of the Flies. I point to an American interpretation of Koushun Takami's Battle Royale. Susan Collins has said that she was unaware of Battle Royale and I believe her, but it tells the same story but through the lens of two different cultures that also vitally the same. Takami's story tells the story of a government mandated fight to the death that is randomly enforced once a year on an unsuspecting junior high class somewhere in Japan. They are pitted against each other on a small island and given randomly assigned instruments to kill each with.
As you read Battle, you see this destructive way of life enforced on youth to fight ruthlessly to get to the top and how those unwilling to be brutal are wiped out and the sociopaths and those with no regard for others are rewarded.
Contrasted with Hunger Games where disparity between districts is felt and an unfair distribution of training and wealth is felt in the games themselves and yet the hope of the American Dream that you may rise above your circumstance is touted throughout the land, when the reality is, the privileged will always have an unfair advantage and will continue to declare the system in place to be fair if you just try hard enough.
It's the same story told to different people and that story needs to have the flexibility to be told different. Some people believe in the sanctity of the original and I believe in the sanctity of the story. The truth is that the sanctity of the original may kill creativity. At some point, the artist has to let go of his idea and let the community of people play with it in order to allow the truth of the story to sink in.
We have this misguided philosophy that all ideas should be original and kept perfectly intact. This comes from our views of copyright and intellectual property. My ideas are fully mine and I should reap the full benefits of it and if you dare expand or play with my ideas, you are corrupting them and making them worse. This is isolationist, rigid and ultimately destructive.
Here is the heart of the matter. Ideas and stories do not belong to one person or one corporation. We take the ideas and stories of old and remake them to continue to rediscover the deep truths of humanity. If we do not allow people to interpret stories anew, then we will lose the essence of story. It also means that we shouldn't have made stories for the last thousand years. If people were not allowed to reinterpret stories and reintroduce them to the world, then Lord of the Rings could not be told. Hunger Games could not be told. The Matrix could not be made. Star Wars could not be made. Shakespeare's plays could not be made. Disney's renditions of many fairy tales would be much more horrifying than what we have grown to love.
So can a film adaptation be a terrible movie? Absolutely, but the way to judge a film adaptation cannot be how faithful it is to the book. It has to be judged separately as a film first and foremost.
Watchmen: Fantastic graphic novel, fantastic movie, inaccurate adaptation.
League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: great comic book, lacklustre movie, inaccurate adaptation.
Forrest Gump: Ridiculous book, fantastic movie, inaccurate adaptation.
Twilight: burn it in a fire, burn it in a fire, I don't care adaptation.
The thing linking all of those and all book to film adaptations (except for that last one which is still not in a fire for some reason) is that they do not perfectly mimic the original because it is impossible. Two different mediums. Two different artist's interpretations. Two different outcomes.
I will say this for the sake of the other side of the argument, that one of the important things for any artist to do is to realize what medium would be best for their idea. On Pete Holmes' "You Made It Weird" podcast talks about knowing the best way to present a joke. Would it better that a joke be a stand-up bit or as a New Yorker cartoon or as a movie or as a comedy skit? Perhaps some ideas should find their right home and be okay there, but just because we like a certain medium doesn't mean an adaptation to a new medium means that we should judge it based on the original medium.
In the end, expect the movie to be different. Perhaps even vastly different. It has to be. Don't judge the movie by the book it was based on.
(An example of an idea that was reinterpreted to fit new contexts and bring out new thoughts in the idea)
"'There must be some way out of here,' said the joker to the thief
'There's too much confusion, I can't get no relief
Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth (come and take my herb)
None of them along the line know what any of it is worth.
'No reason to get excited,' the thief he kindly spoke.
'There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke
But you and I, we've been through that, and this is not our fate
So let us not talk falsely now the hour is getting late.'"
- "All Along the Watchtower" from the Bob Dylan album "John Wesley Harding"
- "All Along the Watchtower" from the Jimi Hendrix album "Electric Ladyland"
- "All Along the Watchtower" by Bear McCreary from the Battlestar Galactica episode "Crossroads Part 2"