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Sunday, March 08, 2009

Kevin Miller (XI) speculates about Hitch's habit of adapting trashy novels instead of great, literary ones. The idea is that great novels depend on their language, while trash novels depend on their plot. Since the language isn't going to make it into the movie, the idea is, great novels don't adapt as well as bad ones.

I don't think it's that simple. I think the danger with great novels is that you'll try to adapt them faithfully. The only novels safe to adapt "faithfully" are those which are pretty much already written with a movie in mind -- anything by John Grisham or Tom Clancy, say. If you try to adapt even a page-turner like WAR AND PEACE faithfully, you'll get lost in the subplots. But you can make a pretty good movie out of it if you don't care what readers of the book think.

When you're adapting THE BIRDS, though, you're not going to worry about jettisoning scenes that don't help the movie.

The Hitch technique for adapting a novel is to read the book once, and then not look at it again. Whatever you remember is the movie. If there's something you don't remember, it isn't memorable enough for the movie. I've adapted books that way and it works pretty well. I usually go back and skim the novel after I've written a draft, to see if there's anything I really ought to have remembered, but there usually isn't.

I think it might have been Neil Gaiman who pointed out that you can't "ruin" a book by unfaithfully adapting it to the screen. The book is still there. But a movie has to be its own thing. Hopefully you can retain the tone and the theme, but ultimately your responsibility is to make a good movie, not a faithful one.



I think it's probably valid to say that Gaimen is right in that venue. Gaimen is also one of the writers that bridges the high/low gap and tends to be happy with how his adaptations turn out on the screen (Neverwhere ignored).

By Blogger Elize Morgan, at 2:09 PM  

Actually I think he wrote NEVERWHERE as an adaptation of the miniseries he wrote.

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 2:30 PM  

My observation about adaptations is: Lesser novels often make great films; adaptations of great novels often don't measure up to their origins.

I think Alex's observations about language and subplots are correct. In great novels, the entire narrative is tighter and more necessary. Their subplots can't be discarded easily, unlike with lesser novels.

Also, it's been my observation that if everything in a typical 200+-page novel were acted out, it would be much longer than 2 hours, more like 10 hours at least. Typically, there's a lot more story in a novel than in a film. A film is like a short story; a novel is at least a mini-series.

My final observation is is: Good short stories can make great films. "Brokeback Mountain," "Away from Her," and "Momento" are ready examples.

By Blogger David, at 4:00 PM  

I agree, though I would add that I think THE GODFATHER to be incredibly faithful to the novel ... the only story strand that was cut (Vito's origin story) later ended up in the sequel and followed the book's arc very faithfully ...

By Blogger Joshua James, at 6:21 PM  

My final observation is is: Good short stories can make great films. "Brokeback Mountain," "Away from Her," and "Momento" are ready examples.

Witness for the Prosecution! So much better in movie form.

By Blogger wrigleyfield, at 6:54 PM  

I find myself disagreeing... While I don't believe that a movie adaptation should follow the book blow-by-blow, nor should it be entirely faithful with events, I do think that it needs to still share the core substance of what makes up the book. As in, it needs to feel like it's telling the same story, albeit in a different way. I know that changes are necessary to move the story from one medium to another. But if you're going to use a book's name to sell the movie, then you should try to make something that's recognisable to fans of the book, otherwise you're disservicing fans of the book (cos they're not seeing an adaptation of the story they love) or fans of the movie who might be interesting in checking out the book (because the book's not of the movie they love). I guess what I'm saying is if you're going to use some random details of the book, that's fine, but don't call it an adaptation of the book, just say it was inspired by it. At least that'd be more accurate.

(I guess I'm saying it because I've been depressed by bad adaptations of books I like -- some have failed to make the necessary changes to make it work as a movie, while others have changed the story to the point it's not recognisable. Either way, it's disappointing.)

By Blogger snowinhell, at 3:22 AM  

I think it might have been Neil Gaiman who pointed out that you can't "ruin" a book by unfaithfully adapting it to the screen. The book is still there.

James M Cain, often quoted. Someone asks Cain how he feels about having his books ruined by Hollywood, and he points to them on the shelf.

By Blogger Stephen Gallagher, at 6:36 AM  


For me, your point about "The Godfather" confirms two of my points:

Lesser novels can make great films. The novel The Godfather may have been popular, but no one considers it great.

There's a lot more story in a novel than in a film. The novel The Godfather was turned into two films.

(Actually, I'm not really a fan of the film "The Godfather," either, but I recognize its status in the film-making pantheon.)

By Blogger David, at 10:05 AM  

Don't forget Robert McKee's take on this: the novel is internal, TV is interpersonal and film is global - it works most of the time, and indicates why the most successful adaptations of novels are those which don't suffer when the internal voice is lost, ie less 'cerebral' ones, and ones with strong stories/characters. Apropos of which, has anybody ever tried to film a JM Coetzee story?

By Blogger blogward, at 7:18 PM  

I have to say, I've never understood why anyone would want a novel they liked adapted into a movie. My two biggest problems are that you absolutely have to cut out so much just to fit it into two hours that you lose huge portions of the book, and that you already know what's going to happen, so there are no surprises. What's the point, really?

Sure, there are books people reread, but I'm guessing that's more for the language and prose, rather than the plot.

I haven't read the Harry Potter books (I'm waiting for my kids to be old enough that we can read them together), but I've found the last couple of movies to be far too jam packed with plot that it's obvious that they have attempted to condense too much of book into the movie.

By Blogger Tim W., at 7:56 PM  

I think that was my problem with Watchmen, it was basically a frame by frame copy of the(main part of the) book using the book as Storyboard, without heightening or expanding on anything.

By Blogger sean, at 9:15 PM  

Many considered THE GODFATHER to be purple pulp dressed up, but the fact remains that it was hugely popular and still is, today (the book, I mean) and had it not been so popular, it's doubtful it would have been made into a movie ... mafia movies weren't profitable.

The fact remains that many consider genre writing to be "not literary" and therefore there's no way the novel could be great, since it's a crime novel.

The same people howled when Stephen King received the National Book Award a few years ago, because he writes horror.

I disagree, myself. I think artistry can be found in many genres and count me in with the readers who consider THE GODFATHER to be a great book, one I've read many times ...

The film itself is usually listed as one of the best films made on many a list (either that or CITIZEN KANE) and still holds up today. It's simply a great piece of work, so influential that actual crime people changed how they do business to reflect what they read or saw in a piece of fiction.

That's great work, I think.

I forgot to add earlier that I also thought GONE WITH THE WIND to be a very faithful adaptation as well.

By Blogger Joshua James, at 9:29 AM  

I think the idea of a 'faithless adaptation' is exactly what made Stanley Kubrick such a incredible writer/director.

Often, the original authors of the books he'd adapted (Anthony Burgess and Stephen King, to name a couple) despised his treatment of the material. They're certainly great authors, but who's to say their stuff can't be changed substantially and remain great?

Anytime I hear of an upcoming adaptation of a novel I've read, I want something new brought to it. I've already read the damn book, why do I need to see it on screen?

By Blogger aldentre, at 1:02 AM  

@ Joshua:

IMHO: Literary fiction is all too often a pretentious bore. (I'm talking about you, Mr. Pynchon (et al).) Genre fiction all too often delivers cartoonish characters via insufferable prose.

It seems that in the early twentieth century, a schism developed between popular and literary fiction. For instance, The Great Gatsby, A Farewell to Arms, and The Grapes of Wrath are all great novels that were best-sellers in their day. In fact, up until recently most "serious" literature was intended for the masses and was popular in its time. I think both popular and literary fiction have suffered because of this split.

PS: Sorry, I think Stephen King is a lousy writer. (And let me really step into it here.) "The Shawshank Redemption" is a manipulative piece of crap.

By Blogger David, at 8:22 AM  

@ David

literary fiction is a bore and in addition, Stephen King is a lousy writer?

Seems there may not be much in the way of fiction that you DO like.

However ...

King, a lousy writer?

I think everyone is entitled to an opinion based on taste, but simply from an objective viewpoint, King is FAR from a lousy writer ... not even close ... we're not really going to be able to have a reasonable discussion on the subject.

Had you said, "I don't like his style," or "his topics are disgusting" maybe we could talk about it ... but "King is a lousy writer" doesn't pass the smell test.

Anyone who hadn't read his fiction (and maybe there is someone out there who hasn't, though I doubt it) who ONLY read ON WRITING, if that was one's single experience of King, would come to the conclusion that King is far, far from a lousy writer.

He is, in fact, a master craftman ... there are a few megabuck novelists out there making millions and farming out their books (Patterson, Cusler) while churing out turgid prose ... King is not one of them.

He is not a lousy writer. I've met many a lousy writer. He is not one of them.

I respectfully suggest that you know not that which you speak of.

By Blogger Joshua James, at 9:20 AM  

@ Joshua:

Well, I knew many would disagree with me, but I assure you I know exactly what I'm talking about. First of all, my opinion of Stephen King's is my opinion; there's no refuting that its mine. Why it's mine is in my description of genre fiction: cartoonish characters and insufferable prose, among other problems. With King in particular, his problem lies with his donnee, the perspective he brings to his fiction; generally I find it adolescent. With The Stand for instance, King's donnee is an embarrassment. There are many other examples.

I realize that King is extremely popular and prolific. But if that makes him a master craftsman, then I guess Ronald MacDonald is a master chef.

That's not to say King's never written any thing I enjoyed. I liked "Stand by Me." I assume the film's success had a great deal to do with King and not just the burgeoning talent of Rob Reiner. But I go back to my earlier theory--lesser novels can make great films. I wouldn't read the book for $100. (I've read a King novel, The Shining. It was about 50-80 pages too long. Kubrick's adaptation was great; the book was not.)

I am particular in my tastes, leaning toward the literary. My favorite writers are: Cormac McCarthy, Ron Carlson, and Paul Auster.

And just to be clear, my observations about literary and genre fiction are generalizations, not universal characterizations.

I guess we'll have to agree to disagree.

By Blogger David, at 3:27 PM  


What if I don't agree to disagree? Does that mean we disagree to agree, or what? LOL!

Well, I must say I found your analysis of why you believe King to be a lousy writer to be sorely lacking in substance (and to be clear, I'm not comparing books to movies, I'm talking only about writing, therefore, the novels themselves) and not backed up by any kind of evidence (other than you thought one book was 50-80 pages too long, which can can be said perhaps about anyone except Hemingway) or sources ... you just "think" he's a lousy writer.

Fair enough. I believe he's really popular because he's a great craftsman ... I don't believe EVERY one of his books to be a great work of art (nor do I think King thinks that) but several are cultural landmarks to this day ... and will remain so ... Cujo is part of the public discourse because of a book he wrote (a lesser one, I'd add) so is THE SHINING, his short stories and many others ... He is our generation's Poe, and very well-read in his own right (I've read ON WRITING and his non-fiction treatse on horror, DANSE MACBRE, many times, which speaks to his own background) with not only the National Book award but the respect of many other fine living novelists today ...

You may "think" he's a lousy writer, but certainly he's had a large enough impact on the literary world, in a variety of ways, that one should examine his work close enough to have a more thought out opinion of his writing than "well, the movie was good so I suppose part of that is King's writing" ... I mean, seriously.

It's true, you can "think" how you like, no argument there.

Myself, I stand by my position, which is that I "think" you don't know what you're talking about.

Respectfully, of course. But that's my honest take.

By Blogger Joshua James, at 5:14 PM  

@ Joshua:

Yeah, I understand where you're coming from.

Three points:

My comments on this blog aren't meant to be a rigorous critique of King's writing.

You'd mentioned King's subject matter. If you'd like an artful--and in my opinion, genuinely masterful--treatment of grizzly subject matter, read Cormac McCarthy's Outer Dark, Child of God, and Blood Meridian. As a teacher once said, art is not subject matter but treatment. Those are good examples of that.

I think a lot of popular novelists' primary contribution to culture is providing clever ideas and plot outlines which are then converted into marketable films. Their prose may be awful, but their stories, dramatized by a good director and cast, can come to life. King, Grisham, Philip K. Dick and Arthur C. Clark would be among those.

By Blogger David, at 10:07 PM  

Oh, realize I forgot to respond to your first paragraph, and for that I apologize -

"Why it's mine is in my description of genre fiction: cartoonish characters and insufferable prose, among other problems. With King in particular, his problem lies with his donnee, the perspective he brings to his fiction; generally I find it adolescent. With The Stand for instance, King's donnee is an embarrassment. There are many other examples."

Again, saying they're cartoonish without pointing out why, rather a dodge (and a blanket condemnation of a large, large number of books, I may add) and one I feel lacks, since a great many characters have found their way into public discourse (like MISERY'S Annie) ... I feel he plays with archtypes a LOT, in fact, it's part and parcel to the mythology he's drawn to ... so perhaps that's the burr under your saddle ... but I wouldn't call the legion of great characters he's created cartoons (the exception being the CREEPSHOW original scripts) ... and as far as his donne is concerned, that's his voice ... a pimply teen of the fifties ... it seems strange to condemn him because you feel his voice is not "grown up" enough ... again, having read DANSE MACBRE, there's a lot of insight into his influences ... a child of pulp comics.

That's why I think it's bogus criticism... he writes popular pop culture novels and occasionally writes about pop culture for a magazine ... that's enough, it seems, to be condemned as a lousy writer by some.

Not by me, for what it's worth, and happily not by a great many others. I've read bad prose as well, much of it (some by really popular writers) and I'm of the mind that King can't write a bad line even when he tries.

Goldman called him a "stylist". I would agree with that, even with the books of his that I may not have cared for.

Just my opinion, of course.

I guess we will have to agree to disagree after all - LOL!

By Blogger Joshua James, at 10:08 PM  

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