Novel Adaptations: How Close Should They Be?

script-cw-0709The release of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince has reopened discussions about what makes a good book to film adaptation. The Potter series often divides fans, and the latest chapter is no exception. I’ve heard from a number of fans of the book series who are  disappointed with the current film’s adaptation, while I’ve also talked to fans who are satisfied. Brad Brevet from RopesofSilicon reflected on some of the more negative fan reactions and he asks, “how faithful should film adaptations be?”

Adapting a book into a film is not an easy process. Squeezing a 300-page novel into a 120-minute film is difficult, especially if the book has lots of exposition or other elements that are not easily cinematic. For books that are rich and deeply characterized, like the Potter books, adaptation is almost always going to mean losing some characters or the minute characterizations that many fans hold dear.

That said, making an adaptation that is too close to the original work can often be just as problematic as making an unfaithful adaptation. Brevet mentions this spring’s Watchmen as an example of a film that while remarkably true to its graphic novel counterpart, still didn’t end up endearing itself to even diehard Watchmen fans. I would argue this was because despite getting the character and plot details correct, Watchmen didn’t effectively bring enough of its own cinematic virtues to the project. In contrast, Frank Miller’s Sin City was a tremendous adaptation of various vignettes from the graphic novel series, and it managed to be both accurate and bring in its own voice.

Of course, it is true that some properties are just better primed for adaptation than others. It’s tricky to adapt multi-tomed novels like Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings not only because of the sheer volume of source material, but also because of the passion the property stirs in fans. Lord of the Rings is often cited as one of the rare properties where the films exceed the greatness of the novel, but it is important to keep in mind that Peter Jackson also had three epic-lengthed pictures in which to tell his story.

When it comes to discussing how faithful an adaptation should be, I like to look back at what I consider some of the “best” film adaptations. Here’s a short list:

I would actually argue that Gone With the Wind and The Godfather Part I and Part II (which is essentially what was in The Godfather by Mario Puzo) are better than their respective novels. Margaret Mitchelle’s book is great, and its popularity is what made the film such an anticipated release, but by jettisoning some of the source material (Scarlett’s children with her earlier husbands, minor characters), not only was the end product better, the essence of the source itself was not compromised. Likewise, the first two Godfather films are very factually similar to Puzo’s book, but the acting, the cinematography and the music far and away exceed the original product.

Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club is an amazing book, and the film is a pretty faithful adaptation. Where there are changes, the changes are actually better for the medium of film. The big plot reveal that happens at the end of the film occurs much earlier in the book, but by adjusting when that reveal takes place, the entire arc of the film is greatly enhanced.

Alexander Payne’s Election (based on the book by Tom Perrotta), manages to capture the very essence of the book, and also include some very character-specific details. It’s an achievement because the casting makes the characters better and more real than they are in the book. Although Election is a great book, the film is just as good.

Similarly, the film The Devil Wears Prada was much better reviewed than the best-selling book. The book, while a great book to read at the beach, would never be accused of being great literature. Amazingly, the film not only made the characters less two-dimensional. So many characters in the book are caricatures, whereas in the film they have humor and a sense of actual depth.

Good casting is a key part of any good adaptation, and sadly, it seems this is the element that is most often overlooked. It isn’t a coincidence that the best adaptations also have great actors. A good actor can take elements that are on the page and make them palpable to the audience without lots of wordy backstory.

High Fidelity is an interesting adaptation, in that despite changing the locale from London to Chicago, the film is remarkably true to the spirit of the book. It doesn’t hurt that John Cusack was a fan of the book and an important contributor to the project.

For a recent example of a film that really understands how to adapt a book, I’d like to cite No Country for Old Men. The film is an amazing master-class in how to properly pace a film. The dialogue is minimal an the action isn’t overtly exciting, but it is one of the most gripping and intense films to come out in years. The very essence of the book, the pacing, was perfectly encapsulated by the Coen Brothers.

In the end, a film adaptation won’t succeed or fail just based on how faithful it is to the source material, it will succeed or fail based on how well the essence of the story is transferred to the screen and how well the actors embody the characters.

What are some of your favorite adaptations?

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