Saturday, April 28, 2012

Screen Adaptations

I was surprised to discover that they're making another Percy Jackson movie. I saw the Lightning Thief and thought it was an abject failure. I had high hopes and they were dashed.

Some of the best movies start out as short stories. Hollywood likes to keep movies down to about 90 minutes in length. (Bollywood is another matter.) Thus a novel has more content than will fit into the available space. The screenwriter must adapt the novel to the screen by removing content.

The gold standard of screen adaptations is John Huston's work on The Maltese Falcon. If you read the novel by Dashiell Hammet, you might notice that the fat-man, Gutman, has a daughter. She doesn't contribute much to the story and thus the scene where Sam Spade talks to the daughter can be safely cut from the screenplay.

Screen adaptations are a game of Jenga where you pull out pieces of the story. Some, like Gutman's daughter, can be removed with anyone noticing. Others leave gaping holes. Or removing some story elements can cause the narrative structure to sag or to collapse altogether.

The art is in picking what to cut.

Some story elements can't be removed, but can be combined. Let's suppose Percy Jackson has two female classmates, suppose further they are both daughters of Greek gods of war: Ares, and Athena. Perhaps they can be combined. That would be a good idea if the girls both had the same sort of relationship with Percy, but in the novel one is an antagonist and the other an ally. The movie combined the two and the result is a high-maintenance girlfriend. Sorry, didn't work for me.

Other story elements can't be changed or the character of the movie changes drastically from the book. In the Lightning Thief novel, the school for god-kids is a big old mansion surrounded by Elysian fields and hills. It has some cottages but I got a definite Woodstock Yasgur's Farm/Strawberry Fields forever vibe from the prose. The movie moved the camp to woods that was recycled from some slasher pic. The atmospherics changed completely and not for the better. Every screen adaptation will have to deal with fan boys like me who are married to a mental picture they've formed of what Middle Earth or Hogwarts looks like.

But sometimes the film can convey a mental that was only indistinctly conveyed by the prose. Peter Jackson got the Balrog much better than Ralph Bakshi. And there's an art to getting the image that best fits the prose.

Underneath all this is the fact that stories are told through distinct media: prose, ballad, radio drama, or film. Each medium brings with it constraints and advantages.

The writer knows the story, but must also be aware of the medium able to work through it. The magic is made by telling the story in a way that leverages the advantages.


  1. Best movie adaptation: "To Kill a Mockingbird." Not surprisingly, it hews closely to the book, losing/changing very few details and only one significant subplot (the morphine-addicted Mrs. Dubose). My feeling, that the movie perfectly captured the setting, characters, etc., might be more than a little influenced, however, by the fact that I saw the movie as a child, and several times, before reading the book. (It could be argued that the movie is the original work, in my experience, and the book the adaptation. Hmmm. Material for a post, perhaps.) That said, I still think it's pretty much a perfect movie AND a perfect adaptation.

    Worst movie adaptation: While there are many real ones I could mention (Bakshi's travesty comes to mind.), I can't help but think of Hubble Gardner's reaction at the end of the screening of the movie made from his book "The Country Made of Ice Cream." If only "The Way We Were" had been an adaptation itself. The circle would be complete.

    Thumbs up for Jackson's (or Weta's, actually) Balrog. Darned perfect, I say — but I'm all for the wings.

  2. you'll notice that the good adaptations were narrow volumes.


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