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.