Friday, May 22, 2009


Chris asked me what I thought of Watchmen. That reminded me that I judge films where I'm familiar with the source material VERY differently to other films. My ranking system for adaptations goes kinda like this:

1. Incompetent: The film completely misses the point of the source material; quite possibly it's narratively incoherence or lacks an inner life.
... Examples: The Punisher (Dolph Lundren version)*

* Yes, I think there's probably a good version of The Punisher waiting to be made.

2. Mishmash: Cobbling together moments from the source material, this film creates a narrative that makes sense but doesn't really capture the spirit of the original
... Examples: Aeon Flux (in places), Constantine, The Return of the King (pre-Shelob), Fantastic Four 2, From Hell

3. Photography: This is simply and literally translating the book on screen. While it looks and moves like the source material, there is no excitement or engagement. It's a dead but accurate adaptation.
... Examples: the first half of Harry Potter 1, all of Harry Potter 2, Smilla's Feeling for Snow*

* Which is the film that started me on the path of developing this system.

4. Competence: A translation that basically hits the mark, recreating some of the moments of the original or standing on its own as a movie.
... Examples: The Two Towers, Hellboy, Aeon Flux (sometimes), the second half of Harry Potter 1, Harry Potter 3, most of Harry Potter 4*

* I'm confused about exactly why I'm using Harry Potter as my go-to reference, but let's roll with it.

5. Dead On: An adaptation that nails exactly what I love about the original material. In some cases, it even improves on the original.
... Examples: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Return of the King (post-Shelob), Hellboy 2, The Dark Knight, Harry Potter 4 (the school dance sequence)

6. Masterpiece: The adaptation to film has given the story new meaning or resonance; it transcends the original
... Examples: The Shawshank Redemption, The Godfather

Given that, I can say that I felt Watchmen veered between competence and being a dead-on adaptation* (with sporadic moments of being a mishmash) ... which shakes out to a film that's slightly above average.

* Places where I felt it was dead-on: Rorschach / Nite Owl II scenes. Dr Manhattan revisiting his life, on Mars. Quite a bit of the Antarctic finale.


Anonymous said...

I like this. It's a good system.

How about one more category:
Inspirations - where the source is obviously just a leaping off point but the movie is great anyway. Bladerunner and In My Father's Den seem to fit this. Not a lot to do with the original books but still great films.

PS - you could probably develop this post into something longer I reckon. It would make a good piece for a film magazine/blog.

matt said...

That is a good system, but you have inadvertently named the Dolph Lundgren Punisher as being flawed. That was the awesome one. You're thinking of the Thomas Jane Punisher, which as you say completely missed the point :-)

hix said...

@manoferrors: I like that. Rather than being part of the ranking system, it feels more like the initial decision on the part of the film-makers that you have to acknowledge. Were they trying to be faithful to the material, or were they just using it as a springboard?

I think a lot of Philip K Dick stories fit into this springboard category. Take the neat premise, fit a trad action movie around it, and release it into the wild. Varying degrees of suck and awesome will ensue.

@matt: Yes. You're right. I'll have to rewatch the Dolph Lundren one and see where I went so very very wrong.

(Also, the massacre of the Thomas Jane Punisher's family is awesome.)

Anonymous said...

I guess I also break down adaptions into the categories of inspired by previous source material and reliving source material.

For example the Lord of the Rings movies are a direct translation of the books. Well sure they diverge but conceptually they are the bringing to the screen of the LoTRs story. Same with Potter.

The Dark Knight on the other hand is a story told with pre-existing characters. It's isn't strictly an adaptation of anything in particular, certainly not the also named graphic novel, it is just another Batman yarn using the same characters. If it had been in graphic novel form you wouldn't class it as an adaptation.

That said I agree with your sentiment, because Hollywood just doesn't do new intellectual property these days. It must adapt a known quantity.

Some of your examples are rather odd though. Hellboy 2 is an entirely new story developed for the movie by Del Toro and Mignilo (sp?), which lends itself more to Del Toro's vision than anything else. I can only assume that you believe the characterization of Hellboy and friends to be dead on, and that conceptually it is developing characters that pre-exist. This more than Dark Knight is not an adaptation and would not be considered one if it was the next story in the comic. At least Dark Knight had several stories of similar nature to draw on in its inception. Also I thought Hellboy 2 was the TV movie compared to the original Hellboy movie. The next episode in a TV series. Aside from a budget and some really nice Fae world concepts the story was a nothing happens procedural and actually a bit on the boring side, but that is just me.

I would also argue that Fellowship of the Ring transcends the original source material as the movie is great and the book is a total chore. All the changes deliver a much better yarn even though for the most part it is the same story (which is hard to say for the next two movies in the trilogy).

I would also consider something like Ironman for your masterpiece section because it totally transcends the source. Ironman was nothing without that movie, a b-rate hero at best. But while the movie itself is a fun yarn, it isn't the greatest movie ever (which Shawshank or Godfather could very well be), which makes me wonder if your classification is only useful when comparing adaptations to their source.

But the ultimate consideration should be whether the movie delivers or not. Or would I watch the movie rather than read the material.

This is all very interesting of course because as I said earlier, with Hollywood adaptations are what we are gonna keep getting for long while to come.

Sean_Molloy said...

I find an adaptation only tends to work for me if I get swept away in the inner life of it, given that a big usual question ('what will happen next') is already answered.

I'm interested in how an adaptation does achieve an inner life. Breathing the life into an adaptation is kind of magical as well as a technical accomplishment.

Hix, do you have any further thoughts on that aspect?

hix said...

@jarratt: fair call on Hellboy 2 and The Dark Knight. This is where I needed manoferrors's 'Inspirations' category.

@sean: Yes! I was just thinking about this today ... but nothing coherent has come to mind yet. I'll dwell on it a bit and see if ...

... wait: I wrote something about this for a student of Rebecca's. I'll dig it up and post it in a couple of days.

Helen Rickerby said...

I like your system very much. It's very tidy. But reading your examples and the comments reminds me totally how subjective this all is too. We all have different opinions about the same films. We may agree or disagree about whether it's a good movie, and agree or disagree about whether it's a good adaption, whether it captures the spirit of the original.

An issue I have with adaptation is whether to read the source material before seeing the movie, or whether to see the movie on a fresh consciousness. Whichever way around you do it, you can ever only see or read one of the media first - the other will always be influence/tainted by the other. I'd generally favour reading the book first, if it's likely to be good, because I guess I place a higher value on books generally. And also because it's hard to read a book after seeing a movie. Tried to read Persuasion after seeing the movie, but it made the text seem sooo slooooww.

People often say the movies are never as good as the books, though I don't think that's true. The first book/movie combo I remember comparing deliberately was The Remains of the Day. I saw the movie first, and then read the book. I remember thinking after that I liked the movie more, but I'll never know if it would have been different if I'd experienced them in the other order.

hix said...

Helen, I hadn't given this much thought till you pointed it out, but I think I rarely go and read a source novel once I've seen the movie version of it. I'm thinking particularly of films I enjoyed like Don't Look Now, The Firm, and a couple of Elmore Leonards (Get Shorty, Jackie Brown).

I think this is Sean's problem in reverse: not bothering to read it once I know how it all turns out. In other words, I'm disrespecting the inner life of the *novel*; I'm saying that the qualities I admire in the novel (and think are essential to keep in an adaptation) are easily dismissed as not being worth experiencing.


I also have a problem in that reading some novels before a film comes out can actually decrease my enthusiasm for seeing a film - not because of spoilers, but because of tone and approach. I'm suspicious of the film version of The Lovely Bones now, for instance, because of the low-key way the book meanders through the characters' lives (*).

(*) Although I do admit that it gives Team Jackson a lot of scope to insert subtext and amazing performances that will help the film transcend its origins.