Monday, December 1, 2014

Hollywood Booked for Adaptation

Books are remade into movies all the time, though book adaptations are often met with disappointed fans. But is the filmmaker at fault here, or the medium itself? ♦

We’ve all been there. Sitting in a dark movie theater, anticipation mounting after months of waiting. You'd read the whole book in one sitting, it was that good. But as the opening credits roll and you mentally flip through the pages of the book, this creeping sense of disappointment sets in. You leave the theater wondering where the film went wrong, explaining to your friends how you would’ve done it better. But why exactly are you disappointed? What were you even expecting? But more importantly, what effect do adaptations have on the literary world and its loyal readers?
    One of the basic reasons that readers find film adaptations disappointing—other than completely omitting parts of the book—is because the films deviate from the reader’s uniquely realized imaginative world, and lack the influence of personal experiences. To understand this, the film must be considered as a reading of the book in its own right. There are screenwriters and producers who help transcribe literature to the new medium, which contains its own prescribed format and expectations, but specifically, it is a reading that resonates with the film director, who has taken the screenplay and transformed it into his own vision, a process that closely mimics the distinct cognitive action of reading. Warner Brothers might disagree, but in this way, the readers are the original directors, their reading stimulating imagination’s motion picture. The Hollywood version then clashes against this internal film that the reader so intimately constructed, and inflicts offense. It’s as if the film is accusing the reader that their experience and memory of the book in question, is a misconception of the intended authorial truth. One possible way a film could satiate the critical eye of the reader is if the reader, himself, made the movie. Then would a movie finally be thorough enough, long enough, and accurate enough, to encapsulate all the specific sentiments distinct to a reader, and quiet the irritated fanboy in all of us.
     Let’s now consider how film adaptations might affect widespread readings of books. Franchise films based off of books can, in a sense, become the collective imagination for the public. If true, this means that images presented on the cinematic stage can directly impact future readings of a novel. The polished Hollywood interpretation conflicts with and even overwhelms the reader’s imagination, inserting Hollywood caricatures in place of our own personal visualizations. For example, when reading Fight Club after seeing the movie, one will be inclined to perceive the character Tyler Durden as a likeness of Brad Pitt, rather than some mental construct personal to the reader. Therefore Tyler Durden’s actions or mannerisms expressed in the book will be conveyed visually, within the mind of the reader, in terms of Brad Pitt’s performance. Because of this, the original written nuances of a character may become corrupted by a film’s portrayal of said character. This is not to say that the reader is too dumb or unimaginative to construct the written world of Fight Club by himself or herself, but rather, that the reader will be inclined to piece together the story with images they remember from the film.
       This may not be a universal truth, but it is a reasonable assumption that images presented in movies can become symbols and icons within their own specific contexts. This can be thought of in terms of a picture book. Younger adolescent readers may be comforted by the approachability of the picture book format. Whereas a chapter book can seem mundane and intimidating, a book with pictures presents readers with illustrations that accompany and compliment the text, serving as an invitation for the reader to construct their own story around the provided images. Picture books don’t necessarily force a singular reading of a story, but rather they encourage the imaginative qualities of reading, providing foundational illustrations that can stimulate creativity and ease readers into the story. So when considered in this light, films become the metaphorical pictures in our larger, cultural novel.
       In addition, film images have the tendency to permanently bleed into the literary world. It is not uncommon that a novel will bask in the limelight of their film debut. Seriously, think of how some books substitute their original cover art with a modified movie poster to attract new audiences, as if the mere fact that a book was granted a film counterpart is an indication of quality. Take the novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower for example. The book was lucky enough to have a decent film adaptation, but, in doing so, the film has completely rebranded the novel’s identity. The book is now adorned with famous faces that flaunt glamorous smiles like the newest publication of People’s magazine. Put harshly, the new art has vandalized the original work. It’s not some terrible literary crime, but every time you close the book in reflection, you will encounter Emma Watson staring back at you in judgment. The problem here is that her face is a part of the reader’s reality. Miss Watson’s image is everywhere, and her “realness” can infiltrate the literary world and ruin its private illusion. It is hard to imagine that this rebranding provides any effect but to alienate the reader from his or her own imagination. The book no longer serves the purpose that a good novel should; instead it has become one long preparation for the main cinematic event.

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      Yet despite my assertions, film adaptations are not the assiduous spawn of Satan. Some may prove a disservice to loyal readers but at the same time garner a cult following of their own. This might cause a literary elitist to frown, but visual adaptations have the capacity to generate new communities that enjoy a good narrative, without acknowledgement of a literary precursor. Cable program The Walking Dead, a reincarnation of a graphic novel series, is a relevant example of such. The episodic television version has become so widely popular that no notice is given to the severe injustice done to the original text. I’m sure there exists a minority of viewers unsatisfied by the show’s failure to capture the same tone inherent to the graphic novel, but the television show has become a force of its own, a stand-alone cultural product. Its success has granted independence to the point where knowing a defaced comic lies in the show’s wake has become more of fun trivia rather than a recognized truth. The adaptive result is not unfair, necessarily, but comparing the literary work with the cinematic as one creative unit is.
       So what does a good film adaptation look like? Well, it’s hard to surmise. Literary accuracy appears to be at the forefront of importance, but even if by some miracle every plot device and snippet of dialogue is brought to the silver screen, there exist variables, subjective to the film’s creators, that will disagree with the reader’s experience. The bottom line is that books and films are two different languages entirely, and while translation may be attempted, it can’t be properly accomplished. Sure, there are good movies that happen to be based from books, but that only means they are good movies. The context of their imagery may be inspired by and pay tribute to a book, but exceeding the constraints of film is not within their capacity. This is because films are static. They are pre-interpreted communal experiences, which can only be viewed at a certain remove. This is not to say that movies are incapable of immersing the viewer and stimulating emotion, but that they cannot claim the same intimacy and personal experience that a book provides.
   On the other hand, literature surrenders control to the reader. A book provides an unchangeable framework of characters and plot, but the interpretation of such cemented events is left to the reader. Readers experience the story on their own terms, encouraged to construct literary worlds and their nuances in a unique way, much like their own Hollywood production. When film adaptations attempt to capture the same literary world, however, their iterations confuse the reader’s ability to interpret the story without outside influences. So maybe it is naivety that is the source of disappointment. Expecting a movie adaptation to contain the same experience received from the pages of a novel is an error of judgment.
       Just reread the book.

  • About the Author
    David Shanks is an aspiring writer without aspirations. He has convinced himself that the stork mistakenly dropped him into the wrong era, but he finds consolation in classic literature and John Denver. When not using his wit for evil, David enjoys such outlets such as hiking, chess, and indulging in arthouse films.

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