Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Capturing the inner life of an adaptation

In the comments thread for the previous post, Sean said this:

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?

I am fascinated by this, too. I lament that many Stephen King books
that I find
riveting to read fall completely flat on screen as not only
do they fail to capture
the inner thoughts and completely reasonable
motivations of their characters,
but also fail to create an identity
outside of schlock-horror scares. Randall Flagg
in the TV adaptation
of The Stand, I am looking at you.

Last year, one of Bex's students was doing a speech on adapting
books into
films. While it's written for an 11-year old and contains
pretty basic stuff,
it'll give us a starting point:

Why do people turn books into films?

1. They love the story.
2. People have already bought the book, so studios reckon
they'll pay to see the movie. That's why best-sellers get made
into films.

3. Books have already worked out what the story is, so people
can see how it turns out.

That means, in general, you turn a book into a film because
books are safe - they'll probably make money and you know
what you're getting.

What's the problem?

The way most books are written, you get inside the
character's head and hear their thoughts and see the world
from their point of view. Movies are pretty terrible at
showing this - they film what's right in front of you, not what's
happening in your head.

Also, books are filled with lots of tiny details, and things that
aren't obvious. You have to be a pretty great scriptwriter or
director to put those tiny details up on screen, so most film
adaptations of books don't show the stuff that's really
interesting in the book.

What are good books to turn into films?

Action-adventure stories, crime novels, some horror and
science-fiction and comedy stories - if they're about people
doing and saying things to each other. That's important -
the book should show you what's happening, rather than
what people are feeling.

What are bad books to turn into films?

Books with lots of complicated thoughts about life, or history,
or that are set entirely in a character's head. Maybe
The DaVinci Code is an example. The movie version of The Lord
of the Rings removes a whole bunch of stuff that's about the
history of Middle Earth and mostly shows you the action
sequences and the moments where people are in lots of trouble.

--- --- ---

So, I open the floor to you all. What gives an adaptation an inner
life? How do
you make an adaptation fascinating in its own right?

Opinions, examples, links to relevant blog posts - all welcome.

I've been able to start reading Garden of Last Days again, and
last night there
was a chapter from the point of view of the wife
of AJ, a major character.
Previously, we've only seen her from AJ's
point of view - and she's seemed
cold, sexually disinterested,
and difficult.

During this chapter, which is 11 pages long, I got a real sense
of her childhood,
failed relationships in college, why she fell in love
with AJ, and the
difficulties they've experienced since.

11 pages. An entire life.

So, that's difficult to do in films. But it makes me think this:


Hypothesis: If you just dramatise the plot, you will fail. While you
capture the
events of the book, you won't capture what makes the
characters tick.

However, you can't really just transfer the characters' inner
monologues onto
screen via voice-over either. Doing that will not
make us care about them or
understand why they are what they

So, I propose this: successful adaptations always create entirely
new scenes
to illustrate essential points about characters from
the source material. This is
WAY more than just transforming
prose into dialogue. It requires showing us
character decisions
and conflicts between characters demonstrate these essential


(Despite the phrasing, this is just a proposal. Challenge it!
With examples,
preferably. I'd be particularly interested in
people's thoughts on Atonement, Fight Club and
Shawshank Redemption)

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