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)


debbie said...

Schlinder’s List is another adaptation that I think exceeds the book it was adapted from. It takes a far broader view than the book and becomes a more powerful film for showing more of what was going on in the holocaust without lessening the impact of Schlinder’s character and what he did.

It’s hard to define exactly what makes a great adaptation rather like it’s hard to pinpoint what makes a brilliant film. It’s usually about the all the elements combining to make something great rather than just a great script, direction or acting.

However, one thing I notice about most adaptations that I love is that the score if often fantastic and captures the feel and mood of the book. Fight Club soundtrack is perfect for the tone of the book and the Pixies playing at the end where they stand watching the buildings collapse is pure movie awesome. Likewise there are bits in the Shawshank Redemption score that send a shiver up my spine every time I hear them and I must have watched that movie over twenty times now.

I think directors need to both really ‘get’ the book but also have enough guts to deviate from it and make their vision, not just a paint-by-numbers version of the book. Darabont seems to adapt Stephen King better than anyone else. Shawshank, Green Mile and The Mist are all movies that are really about the characters and showing not only the deplorable cruelty that humans are capable of but also the importance of the meaningful relationships people form.

I think great actors are able to get a lot of the character on screen without everything about the character being shown on screen. Brooks must only have about 10 minutes of screen time in Shawshank, but you care so much about him and feel more deeply for his suffering than a lot of lead characters in other films. Casting becomes very important but a lot of adaptations fall down by rigidly casting based on the character’s physical appearance or worse yet, their star power ( like Tom Hanks in Da Vinci Code - even without the roadkill hairdo, he was so wrong for the part) rather than casting an actor who will make the audience care about and believe in the character. Morgan Freeman as Red is a perfect example of great casting not worrying about physical appearance. He must be the king of voiceover and without his performance, I don’t know if Shawshank would be a masterpiece.

Also I notice a lot of great adaptations tend to be when the screenplay is written by the director. Maybe it helps the movie stay true to one cohesive vision?

hix said...

Debbie, this is great stuff. I will respond more fully this afternoon.

Anonymous said...

Debbie: I think directors need to ... really ‘get’ the book.

Yep. I think this sums it all up for me, as does your bit, Hix, about not being afraid to create fresh scenes.

By "get" the book I would say the director needs to be able to say what the book is about. What is the message, or the theme or the conflict that the plot and characters illustrate. If they have a super clear idea of this then they can edit the source material and create new scenes and stay true to the original.

I'm not big on most of the movies discussed on this blog, so I will shift to more comfortable ground. I have always tremendously admired Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's adaptations. She did Howards End and Remains of the Day (among others). She is super sensitive to the essence of the books she works with, and capable of great editing, and additions in her screenplays because she "gets" the books she works with.

(Actually, this strikes me as quite a neat idea for a blogger's group - everyone reads a book and sees the movie and then picks over the results.)

I have to agree though, that there are some places that only a book can really go and that making a movie version of The Golden Bowl or Ulysses is really a bit pointless because it is SO interior. The best that could be done here is really a more poetic kind of film-making that isn't interested in story.

I can think of one example of this books vs movies thing. The English Patient has a scene where Kristen Scott Thomas leaves Ralph Fiennes and as she turns to go she bangs her head on a low hanging bar. In the book this is really a fantastic scene because so much is written into it, but in the movie it almost seems like they forgot to edit out a blooper. Nothing against The English Patient by the way... that scene always stuck out for me though as an example of the book working better.

debbie said...

Good call on Remains of the Day and Howard's End - those of two awesome adaptations, (and I tend to be disappointed with most Merchant Ivory EM Forster film versions - theyr're not bad, just not as good as the books). As well as great scripting, RotD and HE also have the advantage of being visually stunning and having the powerhouse acting duo of Emma Thompson/Anthony Hopkins.

Agreed - the idea of bloggers' group on film adaptations sounds great.

Helen Rickerby said...

In our now defunct (or perhaps paused) book group (it was called SLACULA, I can't entirely remember why) we used to read (mostly) classic novels and then watch as many adaptations as we could get our paws on. Mostly they were bad. Often they didn't 'get' the book. But it was usually fun. The most awesome was probably 'Oliver!' - especially when we watched part of it in German.

Anonymous said...

But books aren't the only things that are adapted. Real life is just as commonly used and more often than not ruined by film.

Documentaries are one thing but biopics are basically adaptations that for the most part suck. So what makes one life story more interesting than another, and how can a life story be told in a compelling way on film (other than documentary).

Seriously I find some biopics interesting because I might be too lazy to read about the person, but what I get from the film is no more than I would get from wikipedia. However I almost always can't stand the movies. They chop and change years, have little story direction and are mostly boring.

Though Control and 24hr Party People are a couple off the top of my head that weren't bad.

Obviously comics are source for adaptations as well, but more often than not a comic movie isn't a direct adaptation of the comic story but rather a fusion of the themes and events from the comic's history made into a new story. Watchmen is an obviously exception but Watchmen is also a completed work.

And one more thought. LoTR steals much more liberally from the radio plays than it does from the books. It is more like an adaptation of the radio plays. And I completely disagree about LoTR losing the history in favour of the battles in the films. The visual imagery is thick with history, and there is all that backstory stuff. Places like Osgiliath are more fleshed out in the film, Helm's Deep is given about the same history. Yeah I pretty much disagree on that count.

hix said...

Debbie and Jarratt, your insights into the use of the score and production design to capture the inner life of the source material are dead-on.

Sure, the 'look' of the film is the most immediate clue that audiences get as to the mood of a movie. But the score, in some ways, is the most immediate equivalent to the author's voice a movie has. Not the dialogue or the 'what happens next' part of the source material, but the observations and language. Using music to convey intensity and tone - thank you Debbie; weirdly, I had kind of forgotten how amazing music can be.

And Jarratt, you're so right: Production design can encapsulate pages and pages of a novel. The Will Smith version of I Am Legend has two or three big sequences set during the fall of New York. While that was all fun, none of it had the impact of his character breaking in to an apartment three years later, and as he looks around we see layers and layers of details that all build up a picture of people trying to deal with a pandemic.

Yeah, production design and wardrobe are at their most powerful when they give us a sense of the types of lives these characters lead. And it's even better if they can hint at backstory.

hix said...

Jarratt, I have two commenters who have worked on a biopic. Hopefully, they'll stop by to share their thoughts on it.

My frustration with biopics is usually that they're forced into a conventional story structure.

Anonymous said...

Well I wouldn't say they are forced into a conventional structure, but when they do follow a conventional linear pathway through the life of someone then the story is forced to tell short vignettes of scenes over an extended period. Often this lessens the emotional impact of the scenes because they don't hinge together precisely. We don't see the growth of the character between the scenes, nor do we feel the breadth of their emotions within the scenes. Novels are obviously a much better way of translating a life than a film with it's limited time. A life encompasses many challenges a person must overcome, a film encompasses very few. Biopics tend to move quickly from challenge to challenge or completely ignore some challenges altogether.

In a similar way novels that span a breadth of emotional challenges or large span of time tend to suffer in the same way when translated to film.

I'm not saying it can't be done. Sometimes it is done very well, but it is very hard. I don't envy the people that are trying to do it.