Adaptive Dissonance – From Page to Screen

Franchises run Hollywood, and as transmedia continues to encourage stories and characters to jump from book to screen to toy and back the trend is only going to become more prominent. Every time a new franchise announces a cinematic adaption we hear cries from fans that their beloved book/comic/game will be ruined forever in the translation. A true exact adaption is nearly impossible, even a film like Watchmen, which goes for a near panel for panel extraction from page to screen at times suffered from this, let alone those that have fun with creative liberties. The question here is two-fold. Why is this so hard, and why does it even matter?

The first question is relatively simple to answer. It is nearly impossible to completely transplant something like a book into a visual two hour experience and retain everything in the process. Sub-plots are scratched, scenes changed and some characters disappear completely. Take the Harry Potter series, where the eight movies gradually become more and more distant from their book relatives. The first books were relatively small but by Order of the Phoenix (book five) their size had rapidly grown and it was in the movie versions of these books fans claimed too much was left out. To combat this (and make more money) they even split the final book into movies, setting the standard for every YA book to movie translation regardless of the need.

There is a tough tightrope to walk as to what get cuts and what doesn’t. Good books masterfully weave subplots into the main story, and utilise other plots in order to build their cast of characters. While within the space of a novel this is possible, a two hour movie can’t handle the broader story. So it needs to streamline everything. It is often the supporting cast that suffers here, losing key scenes that build them beyond broad generalised strokes of character. While it might not affect the base story of the movie, the hardcore fan will be upset to see their favourite dark horse ensemble character broken down into a one note wonder.

Even a movie that shows love to the source material like Scott Pilgrim suffers from this. Each character is notably shallower and less interesting because the breadth of the primary plot steals too much screentime. That’s not to say they could have cut any of the main story, but the constraints of the movie simply didn’t allow someone like Kim Pine to do anything more than drop the occasional snarky comment. In the books she’s far more complex than that, but such is the problem with the straight book to movie translation,

This is not the only form of adaption we have though. While many book to movie translations follow a fairly linear translation based on the primary defined story, other media offer more options. The current trend of comic book adaptations tend to take the pre-defined characters, settings and motifs, and utilise them in a story that is inspired by previous stories but not directly adapted from them. It’s not restricted wholly to comics books though. Video Game translations like Tomb Raider and ….sigh….Super Mario Bros…. have followed this base level adaptation.

Here it’s not a singular set story that is there to adapt but a multitude of media to work with which is why it is uncommon for books to follow this route. Notable exceptions include The Hitchikers Guide to the Galaxy, which meshed parts of the first two books into the story and make some fairly notable changes to the characters (Author Douglas Adams was behind the script for this, so any changes are justified by creator control), and World War Z, whose similarities to the Max Brooks book begins and ends with the name.

Batman is a good case study for examining the concept of adaption from page to cinema, given the sheer amount of films that there are to work with. There are substantial differences in tone, style and characterisation between the Burton, Schumacher and Nolan films (not to mention the 60’s version), and while for the most part they are what you would define as ‘Batman’, they still approach the source material differently. Tim Burton/Keaton Batman acts and reacts differently to the Nolan/Bale Batman from the Dark Knight Trilogy, and the Gotham they inhabit is familiar but unique to their own world.

Catwoman also provides an interesting example as to what people will and won’t accept. I personally am not a fan of the Michelle Pfeiffer Catwoman, but in my experience I am more of a minority in that respects. I’ve also read plenty of people who were against Hathaway’s portrayal, which I thought was fantastic. It is what we look for in each character that affects this. To me, the Catwoman we see adapted in Batman Returns is completely wrong because her origin fundamentally changes the character.

In ‘Returns’, Selina Kyle is pushed out of a window and falls to her ‘death’ after discovering the evil plans of her employer. She is revived by the power of cats licking her, suffers a mental breakdown and goes crazy, developing the alter ego of Catwoman. I always hated this interpretation, because to me Catwoman is one of the few rogues who you would define as sane. She makes a living as a burglar because she is damn good at it, not because of some psychopathic tendency. Returns makes her too similar to every other villain in Gotham: a crazy in a costume. It’s just in her case she does it in leather spandex which tended to distract others from her actual character.

Contrast this to the Hathaway Catwoman, who is a cat burglar who steals to make ends meet for her and people close to her like Jen (who is a pretty close analogue to comic counterpart Holly Robinson). She is manipulative and seductive, but she is fully aware of what she is doing. Yet it seemed people were less concerned with her character, and more with the apparent lack of cat-ears in the promotional photography (which was cleverly done with her goggles)

Of course, deviating from the source material isn’t always a bad thing, just a risky one. As mentioned I wasn’t a fan of the Pfeiffer Catwoman, yet in The Dark Knight we get a rather unique take on the Joker. The Ledger Joker was a grungy take on the concept, and visually the only representation that can draw true similarities is from the Azzarello OGN ‘Joker’, which features the same use of the Glasgow smile (it was released after the movie, but the concept art. predates the movie). There was humour, but it felt as tonally different as the colour saturation. The Ledger Joker is proof that sticking religiously to the source material is not the only way to go about it, though it took a great script and a utterly brilliant performance from Heath Ledger to pull it off.

So does it really matter? In a way yes, but we need to accept that any franchise that goes from one medium to another (primarily the cinema) will invariably have a slightly different identity. You can’t tell stories in the same manner across different mediums, and people consume that media differently too. Books (and television) can be slower paced and more devoted to fleshing out the characters and small complexities of the world that give the work colour. Video games give control and a closer grip on the protagonist, but need a completely separate take on the form of storytelling to generally work. Comics use the still image to encapsulate emotion into a single frame and scene, tying in with the written world to build the pace and direct the reader. Movies are streamlined, highly visual and audible pieces that pull you into the world and spit you out when its done. There are pros and cons to each form.

So when a character goes from one medium to another, it is both the same and different. We all have a picture in mind as to how our favourites should translate to screen, but if there is potential to explore those characters differently, then is it really that big a problem? Is the Pfeiffer Catwoman a false Selina because she doesn’t fit my somewhat arbitrary definition of what the character should be? Sometimes it is better to picture these situations as alternate world interpretations, built from the same foundations but under different conditions. I might not enjoy the change, but someone else does. And at the end of the day I can still go back and enjoy the version that I prefer.

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3 comments

  1. I suppose one of the big ideological differences is whether or not you see many of these fictional creations as commercial franchises or cultural icons. Let’s suppose that Jane Austen was writing today and published Pride and Prejudice last year, a movie adaption would probably be made sooner rather than later (just as what happens with most big selling novels whether they be by J.K. Rowling or Dan Brown). They way we ‘look’ at a work is a prime factor in the debate. Pride and Prejudice would still be a classic of literature, but it would be seen as a commodity to exploit by studios. Its currently a commodity to exploit with some ‘standing’, so studios are more likely to be cautious not to denigrate that.

    Like it or not there is a kind of hierarchy to how concepts are rated. Those seen to be ‘pop culture’ are seen to be expendable and ripe for the picking. A lot of ‘pop culture’ is only ‘pop culture’ because its less than fifty years old. I would argue that Star Wars has been already around long enough to earn its wings as a cultural icon with a deeper worth than just popcorn fodder. I would have argued the same about Doctor Who before it was turned into just that several years ago.

    Regardless of what some might assume, Tolkien’s work is not ‘better written or culturally important’ than Harry Potter. It’s older to be sure but then again so is most pulp fiction (including John Carter Warlord of Mars and I doubt that’s ever been on school curriculum reading lists!). Both the Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter novels were handled with the utmost respect and adapted fantastically well. I think most people would understand that screen time is precious and that not everything can be translated (or even needs to be) over from page to screen. I’m more familiar with criticisms that the Potter movies may have been TOO faithful to the originals. I have read all the novels and seen the films and I’m not aware of any significant changes to characterisation or plot that wasn’t necessary – which to me would represent more of a divergence from the spirit of the original. That was less true of the latter Tolkien movies (I’m referring mainly to Tauriel) but I think that was forgivable if not necessary.

    I think its important to respect the desire of true fans to protect the integrity of their favorite concepts and characters. Often when then rebel against a poor interpretation they are written off as ‘haters’, which strikes me as the greatest form of intellectual dishonesty (to simply disregard any dissent as ‘hate’ rather than ‘criticism’). And you might well say that one can always go back to the original but real damage can be done by a poor version. After the damage done to the credibility of Batman by the 1966 camp kids tv series, It took 10 years for DC to resurrect the franchise through the combined genius of Gerry Conway and Neal Adams. Morgan Freeman again proudly announced that Batman Begins ‘resurrected’ the franchise from its period of creative death. As a traditional Doctor Who fan, the only refuge from the abysmal dumbing down is the Big Finish audio series. Even the DVD releases of the real series are contaminated in regards to their special features and commentary with reference to the pretender. Sometimes you just can’t go home.

    It’s important for ‘fans’ to appreciate that corporations do not always get everything right. Star Trek has been transformed with the greatest of ease from the most cerebral of sci-fi to a wank fest suitable for viewing by compulsive masturbators and small animals. The Director responsible is now working on the latest instalment of Star Wars, which has been facilitated by clearing away the expanded universe (more than two decades of mythology) for no better reason than Disney wants a free hand in its mission to make more money than Bill Gates. This fire and burn approach is great for profits but can consume the inspired magic of the ‘franchise’/icon.

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    • The thing is these franchises are both. You can be a cultural icon and a commercial commodity, because all culture is marketable. The ‘Aussie Culture’ is marketed on mass to sell Australian products, just as something identifiably French carries with it certain cultural signifiers. And people still ‘change’ Pride and Prejudice, one of the best selling media in recent time is Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Same way they adapted Romeo and Juliet in the 90’s into a then post-modernist setting with DiCaprio. While the Shakespeare adaption followed the script it was a fairly radical visual departure from the typical R&J.

      I certainly think there is a case that Harry Potter is as culturally significant, if not more so, than Lord of the Rings, at least right now anyway. But I’m partially biased there because LOTR never sucked me in. I’ve not seen the criticism that the Potter movies were ‘too faithful’ but I guess it depends on the circles you run with, but a series like that which builds a strong ensemble cast, limiting or generalising is a good way to annoy a niche segment of the fanbase fast.

      I think we may have talked about it before but I’m not a big supporter of the ‘true fan’ concept. While those who have been around a franchise for longer may have a greater knowledge base I think there is a dangerous risk of elitism coming about. I may not like the Star Wars prequels, but if someone’s first exposure to the series is through those movies and they like them, does that truly make them less of a fan? If you consume the surrounding media it might make build your understanding but you can be a Batman fan (and have a valid opinion) without collecting the comics.

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  2. The only problem is Trent is that the word ‘fan’ comes from the word fanatic. The term ‘casual fanatic’ is an oxymoron. Like everything else, not all fans were created equal either. The thing about the new series of Doctor Who and the new Star Trek films is that they didn’t introduce new fans to the concepts, the concepts were dumbed down to attract a group of people with no interest in being engaged at any level that would qualify them to be fandom in a traditional sense. You can wear a t-shirt but that’s not really being a ‘fan’. Its like saying you’re religious by picking a low maintenance religion or spirituality so as to save bother, to dip in and out as trends dictate. So I think a new word needs to be invented to describe these kinds of ‘fans’: perhaps free riders. off-again-on-agains, or when-the-mood-takes-mes?

    Never at any point have I or anyone of my ilk ever stated I am a better fan of something because I know more about it or because I’ve been involved (see not just being a passive consumer either) with things like Doctor Who, Star Wars or Star Trek etc. I think that’s a very dishonest misrepresentation of what really amounts to superior arguments. The words elite/ism and purists get bandied about quite a bit. Why then do I and others like me get excited when we see kids getting really engaged. There’s nothing I loved better than to have a 12 year old come up to me and give me a run for my money on classic Who!!!

    I’ve been accused of having to narrow a definition of what Doctor Who and Star Trek is but perhaps the inverse is true? Perhaps some people have too broad a definition of what something can and should be (normally because they didn’t have a good grasp on what it was in the first place?). It’s very clear to me that in order to have an easy life and to be a part of something there are some ‘fans’ who will go along with anything.

    What some are worried about is the likelihood of a LIE being sold to new audiences of Star Wars just as they have been about Star Trek and Doctor Who. When you watch Into Dumbass you aren’t watching Start Trek but rather a dumbed down version that lacks any creativity or meaning. New DOctor Who particularly has been designed to make stupid people feel smart.

    So yes people are ‘less’ in terms of being fans if they are not engaged to a great extent. They are also fans of something entirely different. There is no comparison between the Star Wars Prequels and the treatment dished out to Doctor Who and Star Trek in recent years. They are at least the same thing, part of the same canvas. To date there has been no fundamental shift in the level of quality, pitching and focus of the narrative in relation to the Star Wars franchise. In a years time you may finally come to understand what I have been arguing about for several years.

    The original Star Trek fans saved the show (for a year at least) from cancellation in 1967 by placing leaflets on cars. Doctor Who fandom put up with cult slurs for 15 years and kept the series alive just so it could be brought back as a hipster cash cow! If all you’ve ever done is watch something and bought the DVD and maybe worn a t-shirt then that really make you a ‘viewer’ not a ‘fan’. So how can your opinion be the equivalent of someone who has studied a premise for three decades? Why would you WANT it to be seen as the equivalent even if that was realistic? So I think you’re main problem here is actually some definition of terms.

    The second issue also appears to be with the ‘who do I have to be factor?’. I recently asked someone recently why they didn’t go rainbow on fb. He replied he wasn’t a public figure so it didn’t matter! Well 99% of all of us arent but that’s no reason not to show solidarity behind a cause they might agree with. Again, I don’t think everybody has an automatic ‘right’ to have an opinion on that. I think we have a right to have an ‘informed opinion’. So having been married for 24 years myself I think I know a thing or two about marriage and the benefits in relation to encouraging monogamy and personal support that provides and I feel I can have an opinion on it. At the same time, I’m personally not interested in what a little 14 year old a third of my age and 1/10th of my experience and education thinks to be honest and neither do I suspect are most gay people. There’s a strange kind of push to have a flatter world where there needs to be heirarchy and inversely hierarchy where there needs to be more egalitarianism in our world and the majority I think of it is directed at encouraging a population that are ‘passive consumers’ while at the same time being ruthless enforcers of conformity and ‘norms’ to the extent that Durkheim himself would blush!

    I personally think older fans who are fine with their beloveds being whored are the elitists. I also think those who have never had it happen to them need to put on the empathy hat and walk a mile in other people’s shoes before they get judgemental!

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