Wednesday, 30 January 2013

On Novel to Film adaptations

Film and Prose fiction are very different medium, so even when you're talking about the same story, characters and content you are never comparing like with like. Films, like music, are an experience to be absorbed. Prose, words on a page, that's you hacking the source code of your own consciousness and doing so at your own pace. I think a lot of the time its unfair to compare the two.

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 Sometimes a good movie can be made out of a book, Chuck Palahniuk rated the Fight Club film over his own book because Fincher was able to improve it by picking up on things that were inherent in the novel and bring them out and do justice to the plot. Some types of plot and themes are better suited to film, action and violence are really hard to do well in a novel. Theres things you can do in a book you can't do on screen and vice versa, a lot of it is to do with perspective, Shutter island was a great book but the twist at the end of the film makes absolutely no sense if you can actually see what the main character is looking at, so to my mind the film was terrible, and Leonardo DiCaprio was horribly miscast. Sometimes the difference between the mediums is just too much for a straight adaptation and the film becomes a very different beast, I thought the movie of The Unbearable Lightness of Being was a lot better than the book because I find the authors "tell then show" style of framing the story to be really heavy handed and you can't really do that in a film without an all consuming voice over that sits heavily on the narrative or loads of "inner voice" stuff like in the David Lynch version of Dune.

I don't mind differences between films and the books or comics they are adapted from as long as the differences are appropriate to the medium and aren't just part of the process of shoehorning a thing from one medium into the other to make money even though its completely inappropriate and just not right for the medium.

The Johnny Depp version of Alan Moores From Hell was a conspicuously bad offender for that. Turning a really long and well researched peice of quasi-historical fiction into a film of appropriate length was just never going to work and what you ended up with was a stylish mess with tons of plot holes and none of the depth of the original. The original was about taking this really stupid bit of conspiracy literature and elevating it into an elaborate metaphor and exploring the nature of history, consciousness and our perception of reality, in the film it missed all that and you ended up with just the stupid conspiracy theory and the sort of trashy sensationalism that the original critiqued.

A good adaptation on the other hand would be something like Blade Runner. The book Blade Runner was based on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was quite a good bit of weird 70s Sci-Fi, it had a good story, well told and the ideas in it were quite interesting, but the film made a lot more out of it, streamlined the plot, added a brilliant set of visuals (the special effects absolutely rinse Dicks functional descriptive prose - difference appropriate to the medium) and add a bit of emotional complexity and Philosophical depth that was inherent in the book but wasn't quite present on the surface. Dick was firmly of the on the side of the 'people > replicants' Roy batty is less sympathetic baddie in the novel that Rutger Hauer made him and the whole "is Deckard a replicant" thing is a minor plot turn that goes on for a couple of chapters in the second act before being given the definitive answer - i.e. no, rather than an elaborate subtext, subtly and delicately woven into the film in a way that you wouldn't pick up on if you weren't paying attention. Bladerunner was a class film that did justice to its source material and more.

My favourite film is actually an adaptation of a book, but the versions are centuries apart and come from quite different contexts, I have to say as well that I haven;t read the original but I know enough about it and the author to have an appreciation of it and how it informs the adaptation. That film is Salo, or the 120 days of Sodom by the Italian director Pier Paulo Pascolini. It manages to be an adaptation of a book that ought to be unfilmable, a blinding dissection of fascism and also a really harsh look at post industrial capitalist culture at the same time. Its every bit as horrific as the source material, bordering on hardcore porn, the only real difference between it and a hard BDSM porno is that its not really meant to be sexually arousing. Honestly, if you are going to watch it I'd recommend watching it a couple of times, you need to do that to get over the horror of what's actually in front of you before you can really start engaging with it. Because of the real fucked up nature of whats happening on screen it is easy to miss the depths of what Pascolini is saying. Its all about observation and the desecration of the human body, one of the themes was what Pascolini called the death of sexuality (his pessimistic take on the sexual revolution of the 1960s) I think the way that the thing prefigures and sort of critiques reality television shows that he was absolutely spot on.

To illustrate why its so good and how it works, there is a fairly infamous scene in it called The Shit Feast, that is pretty much what it sounds like. The shit feast is consumer culture in general, as well as a comment on fast food, and its the fucking Bush Tucker Trial on I'm a celebrity get me out of here and its every way that the system perverts your natural need to ingest. Everything that happens in it is significant and multifaceted in its meanings, within the overarching structure of meaning, i.e. that the Republic of Salo is actually Society.

 Thats part of why i love it, that and the madness of the stories that surround it, the possible role of the film in Pascolinis death the year after it was released, the bannings and unbannings (James Ferman passed it uncut for viewing in the UK as a "fuck you" to the BBFC on his last day on the job). I think you could argue that its one of the most significant works of art by a Marxist working in any of the arts. Getting back to why its a good adaptation too, DeSade was an extremist, a revolutionary spirit of his age just as Pascolini was of the post modern age. Its a story with its roots in European royalist absolutism, set in a Fascist puppet state, but meant to be about contemporary society. The way it is both a critiques fascism by equating it with older versions of absolutism and then equates Fascism with Bourgeois liberal democracy. This in itself mirrors (deliberately I would say) the Marxist conception of society, political power and class struggle.

Its a brilliant film, and a reinvention of the source that brings it up to date and makes it understandable and relevant. Its the way you should so an adaptation of any book, be true to the substance of the work even if you have to rework the specifics.

 I'll finish up with a short list of the films I haven't mentioned yet that I've enjoyed in spite or because of the original:
 The Lord of the Rings (Jackson and Bashki versions)
American Psycho
Tank Girl (inferior to the original but still quite good)
The HBO TV adaptations of the Sookie Stackhouse novels and George RR Martins Game of Thrones.
Pretty much any version of Dracula but especially Murnau's Nosferatu
 Ringu (I read an English translation of the novel and the film is so much better, the plot is just a lot better suited to the screen)
 A Clockwork Orange (both film and book are amazing and done magnificently in a way suitable to its own medium, each perfect in their own way).
Interview With a Vampire
The Princess Bride

 Can't think of too many more, and if I started listing all the adaptations that have profoundly disappointed or even annoyed me I'd be here all night.