Friday, June 7, 2013

Why Are You Torturing Me With Your Artistic Vision

Aka, the bad side of adaptations, as requested.

I think that we can all agree that when you adapt something, you don't want the adaptation to be identical. That would be purposeless. You want to make slight changes in order to further explore the source material (the different interpretation of the central relationship in The Eagle book and movie) or open understanding of the material to a wider audience (Lord of the Rings).

It's really difficult to succeed at this in a way that will both delight fans of the source material and draw in new fans of your adaptation. Luckily, there's thousands of ways to fail!

Most books or movies have a few key themes or ideas. For instance, The Chronicles of Narnia = Jesus is Awesome and His Dark Materials = Atheism is Awesome.

Hello, boring children. I think I'd rather just sit through
a sermon than have to follow you lot.
Both of these movies fail in similar ways. Love it or hate it, both of these books are all about their respective messages, and both of their movie adaptations were afraid of treading too heavily. So they softened the messages, focused on the characters, and thereby weakened the story. In a story that's all about a theme or idea, the characters tend to be more symbols than actual personalities. If you try to tread lightly on the message, then you darn well better beef up the characters.

If Narnia had tried to give its characters personalities past "young and nice", "older and nice", "boy and nice", "sulking wonder", it might have worked. But they chose to stick with the book "personalities", when those characters are basically symbols. Susan is simply not as nuanced or interesting as a crownless king who spends 80 years playing in the mud rather than trying to get his throne back.

Then there's movies that try to explore different aspects of the source material, like Tim Burton's adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Yeah... this poster is pretty accurate.
While the book and the 1971 movie are Charlie's story, the 2005 movie focuses on Willy Wonka himself. Rather than being an entertainingly vicious morality tale about the boy equivalent of Cinderella, the 2005 movie focuses on... Willy Wonka's daddy issues.

(P.S. Tim Burton, you should get those looked at.)

It's too bad, because it's clear that a lot of time and money and love went into the 2005 movie - the sets are gorgeous, the actors are carefully directed, and there's a lot of neat twists like having each musical number come from a different decade. But unfortunately, the film fails, because the movie simply does not work as Willy Wonka's story.

Part of the problem is that Johnny Depp's stammering, serial-killer-grin performance just isn't all that likable. But a bigger issue is that the mechanism for the story is Charlie going through all these tests to see if he's worthy. So now we've divided our focus for the movie - we've got a saintly kid going through tests to determine his worthiness, and a cheshire smile weirdo freaking out over his daddy issues. The tension in the movie is divided in half: will Charlie prevail, and will Wonka spank his inner muppet? This wouldn't necessarily be a huge problem if we liked or cared about both characters; unfortunately, we care about neither.

The original movie/book worked so well because we had interestingly awful characters failing the tests around Charlie while Wonka was fascinatingly menacing in the background. The 2005 movie zooms the lens in on Wonka, but strips him of his interest by making him quirky instead of menacing, and delving into a past in a way we never wanted to. Less is more, filmmakers, when are ya gonna learn that? After you've remade every horror movie ever, I'm guessing.

And then there's movies that try hard, but completely miss the boat in every direction. So how about that John Carter? Aka, the biggest box office disaster since Cutthroat Island (another movie you've likely never heard of, that looks like a Pirates of the Caribbean knock-off but was made almost a decade earlier).

John Carter is interesting, because it doesn't fail so much as an adaptation as it just fails as a movie.

How interesting. A dude on a thing.
There's definitely a marketing element to the "where did we go wrong" - - John Carter? Who? Release a show named Sherlock and we get it, but John Carter doesn't have the same cultural resonance that it had 60 years ago, and Disney, you should have known that. I know that non-horror science fiction movies are generally about as successful as The Host, but at least John Carter of Mars TELLS us something. Hell, you couldn't go with A Confederate on Mars? Something, anything!

But I think the real problem is that A Princess of Mars (the book this movie was adapted from) simply was never a very compelling story to begin with. It got popular because it was in the right place at the right time. It was one of the first planetary romances (that term, uh, doesn't mean exactly what it sounds like) and had the proper "swashbuckling":"cool space shit" ratio to keep audiences happy. It didn't get famous for being good, it got famous for being first-ish. So as a movie, well, it's another "white guy stumbles into a war and wins it for the natives" story. And, uh, we have a lot of those.

And then there's movies that fail completely to have any understanding at all of their source material. Let's look at Angus, Thongs, and Perfect Snogging, an adaptation of a YA novel. Here's a quote from the source material:
“Looking out of the window at the infinite sky, I prayed out, 'Dear Baby Jesus, I am sorry for my sin, even though I do not know what they are, which seems a bit unfair if it is going to be held against me. But that is your way. And I am not questioning your wisdomosity. In future, however, would it be possible for my life to be not so entirely crap? Thank you.” 
Now here's a scene from the movie:

Oh. Oh, wow. Oh... ow, actually. That was physically painful.

The book barely has a plot; it's the diary entries of a boy-crazy and completely self-centered teen girl. It follows her for a year... and that's pretty much it. The book's strength is in its absolutely hysterical prose. The main character's observations on life are hilarious and memorable.

The main characters do fairly closely
resemble their literary counterparts.
That's about the highest praise
I'm able to give this movie.
The movie is... I don't even know what this is. It's like a Disney made-for-TV movie where even Disney said, "We have too much shame to air this." The movie is true to the plot of the book (such as it is), but instead of expanding on or even using the hilarious source material, attempts to amuse us through humiliation. The girls in the books embarrass themselves occasionally, yes, but the humor comes from what they learn (or choose not to learn) from their experiences.

Love can't always win the day, and it certainly doesn't always make a good movie. (Try again, Tim Burton, there's always Alice in Wonder... oh.) Complete disinterest towards your source material probably won't, either. The thing is, it's always easier to fail than it is to succeed.

I think the key may be in understanding what makes the source material work. We love endless incarnations of Sherlock Holmes because that relationship between a cold, brilliant man and his loyal companion is so very compelling. You can interpret this any number of ways and we'll be interested. Sherlock Holmes is a fairly easy hook to get right, and so you see a lot of at least decent interpretations of it. But then there's movies like The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen that overload on empty plot and CGI rather than delving into our characters, which were the whole hook to begin with!

Adaptations are like any art: you have to understand the rules in order to break them. Understand how a story works, and you'll be able to rearrange it into something captivating. Fail to understand that, and you get...

Awwwwwwww HELL no.


  1. That Angus clip is hilarious. Lol!

    I completely agree about Willy Wonka. I hate that they made him so silly and weird, it ruined the movie for me. It's only worth watching for that scene at the end when we get to see Veruca and her father covered in trash. ^_^

    John Carter? Completely forgot about this until you mentioned it. Didn't know there were "things" in the movie. Guess I wasn't paying attention. Lol!

    Aww...Poor ugly Grinch forced into that tacky thing they called a movie.

    Oh, I just got the title. Lol!

    1. Thanks for pointing that out about the title, lol, completely forgot to put the word "artistic" in there. D'oh!

      And I think "that thing they called a movie" pretty much sums up that incarnation of the Grinch perfectly, lol.