Outbursts #029: Novels VS Films

The movie is better than the book. The book is better than the movie. Which is better? The debate for whether a film adaptation of a popular novel (or any novel, for that matter) can meet or exceed expectations of its fans has been one for the ages. For sure, numerous film studios (live action and animation) have hunkered down and spewed films that draw from pre-existing material. The advantages of this include many: having an original source to draw inspiration from, having pre-existing marketing material or ideas for fans to get excited about (therefore increasing revenue based purely on anticipation), and being able to work with your favorite childhood (or adulthood) characters and bring them to life. Many risks accompany such a decision, as well, however, ranging from total crashing and burning of the movie fails (Golden Compass and Animal Farm come to mind) to being completely forgotten in the voids of film making (not sure which is better).

To be fair, there are a lot of great films inspired by books and a lot of films that suck. It is always disappointing to finally put down a book, satisfied with the reading experience, only to watch a film interpretation that sends our fantasy worlds crumbling into ruin. I felt this way about Harry Potter, to be honest, but I grew out of it. When I watched the Sorcerer’s Stone in 2001, I was pretty upset with Radcliffe as Potter. Watson and Grint as Granger and Weasley respectively were OK, but for some reason, I really didn’t like Radcliffe. This wasn’t to say his performance in Sorcerer’s Stone was bad; as a matter of fact, Sorcerer’s Stone is my favorite Harry Potter film, with Deathly Hallows Part 2 as a close second. Chris Columbus’ proper display of the magical world (coupled with John William’s score) was wondrous to behold. But I digress.

When I read books, Potter books included, I tend to commit the horrendous act of defacing my characters. Disregarding the important details like Harry’s glasses and thunderbolt scar and Ron’s red hair, I tend to skip a lot of descriptive details of how book characters look; thus, my envisioning of characters is quite plain. If you were to actually ask me to draw a scene with all the characters (prior to viewing the movies), the drawing would be horrific to behold with faceless bodies meandering around a stone corridor. Straight from a nightmare if you ask me.

This was probably one of the reasons why I was off put by how Radcliffe looked as Potter. It wasn’t that he didn’t really fit to role, but rather, he just didn’t fit my view of the role. To be honest, however, I didn’t really have a view of who should fit the role given my faceless interpretation of Harry Potter. I’ve grown over time to really enjoy Radcliffe as Potter though, as Radcliffe’s name has pretty much become synonymous with The Boy Who Lived. This then brings up another issue with films versions of novels.

Films, if successful, tend to dictate what a reader envisions while reading. If we watched Harry Potter first and then read the books, I’d have Radcliffe’s Potter running around Hogwarts all day. My most recent bout with such an experience was with The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. I was late to the party and only read the trilogy while I was in Texas a couple weeks back. I had seen the trailers, was able to figure out who Katniss was, but besides that, I had no information prior to reading the book. This was my experience:

  1. Katniss had a face. Jennifer Lawrence’s to be precise.
  2. Everyone else didn’t have a face.
  3. Ho-hum.

Once I had finished the trilogy (which was fun to read), I stumbled upon a visual guide to The Hunger Games in Barnes & Nobles. Skimming through the guide which was filled with images from the film version, I was distraught to see my image (or faceless image) of Haymitch Abernathy, Effie Trinket, and Caeser Flickerman. ESPECIALLY Effie and Caesar. I mean, I know that Effie had a lot of make-up on and what not, but WTF. I haven’t seen the movie yet (oh, shame), but after skimming through the visual guide, my excitement (probably like a lot of people) was quelled quite easily.

While The Hunger Games has decent ratings on Rotten Tomatoes, there is a lot of mixed reviews. The film itself, according to itzhakkim, is really good. itzhakkim watched the film without having read the books (he did read a lot of wiki’s, just to let everyone know) and came out of the theatre with very positive vibes. A lot of fans of the book, however, didn’t want to say that the film was bad, but rather, not what they were really expecting. This brings up another point that many people probably already realize: books and films are completely different mediums.

One wonders of the written novel is the fact of how accessible it is and how expansive it allows one’s imagination to be. When you read a book, the only information given are the words on paper, and these words file into your head where your mind constructs every possible implication and relationship the word or set of words convey. Understandably, then, each person’s envisioning of what they read is different. And different is good, by the way, but not so good for a film where only a singular vision can be presented at any given time. During films, nearly every sense is bombarded with signals that are trying to convey a certain person’s understanding of the material (usually the director’s). With the use of visual effects and sound follies, we are ultimately presented with an idea to like or not like (yes, the film medium also has it’s own ways of being thought-provoking and audience-including, but that’s for another day).

If we take Nolan’s rendition of Batman, for example, we were given a gritty and dark version of Gotham’s city’s caped crusader, and it caught on. Now, Nolan’s Batman has become probably the most familiar version to the common people.

Because most people understand all the points mentioned above, it’s probably fair enough to say that most people agree that a film has to be different from the book, but not necessarily stray away from its core. Given all the source material, it’s expected that 400-600 page stories can hardly fit under a 2-hour film time limit (limits being flexible, of course;; coughcoughpeterjacksoncoughcough) and that executive choice and cuts have to be made. This is not inherently bad, per say, but the necessity for cutting material dawns the question what to cut.

I’m currently watching an anime series called Sword Art Online, and although it’s great to watch, I will admit that there is a lot of important stuff missing in the animated series. I picked up the visual novel right after having started the anime and was so shocked to find so much material being cut out. The animation and music in SAO are epic, and I don’t usually have a problem with material being cut out, especially if you need to fit it into a 20 min episode, but to say the least, do not cut the essential character building scenes. Books have the luxury of not having to convert films to books (because that like…always fails) and are able to set the pace for whatever scene they want. Film adaptations suffer from the chronic must-figure-out-how-to-remain-true-to-the-book-while-destroying-a-lot-of-material and buckle under the weight of fan expectations.

Let’s look at a really superb book to film adaptation: My Sister’s Keeper. The plot involves the Fitzgerald family whose eldest daughter is diagnosed with terminal leukemia. Her younger sister, Anna, who was conceived through IVF, is a match for her sister. However, after numerous operations and transfusions to keep her older sister alive, Anna takes things into her own hand and files a lawsuit out against her family for the rights to her own body. If this isn’t set put to be complex and heart-breaking I have no idea what else is. The ending of the film, succinctly, is radically different to that of the book, and is perhaps even better. Despite being predictable, the film felt a lot more real (as opposed to surreal) and my ability to sympathize with characters was greatly enhanced. I will mention, however, that the books has it’s flaws, including being inherently slow and not entirely emotional at times, however, it is still a great book and the film manages to really capitalize on what is important. Even in the event that a book is nearly flawless, changes must be made to make a film version of said book. This does not mean, though, that the film can’t make it’s own version to be even better. This begs the question, then, how much can you change the book and adapt it to fit a feature film? Given my next to zero knowledge of any legal limitation of adaptation rights, I choose to defer from this topic.

They say a picture can paint a thousand words. Which…it can. But a book can allow you to experience what another person is feeling and thinking, something a film normally can’t do (not directly, anyways (aka narration)). A book to film adaptation always has room and potential to be successful, and with good source material backing it up, it’s fair to say that a lot of films can benefit from the increased marketing exposure. Films like the Godfather and Fight Club have come out splendidly and stand tall in their own right. These types of adaptations, however, will always and forever be compared to their book counterpart, something that films based on original screenplays do not suffer from. Cameron’s AVATAR (Pocahontas metaphors withstanding) and Nolan’s Inception, are only some recent successes akin to Harry Potter in genre and style, and do not have extra baggage to be compared to.

But why can’t you consider what you see in your imagination as the movie? Food for thought.


P.S. What a lame finish. I ran out of steam after writing constantly for 40 minutes and really don’t want to go back and edit anything. fail.

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