Monday, February 21, 2005

Movies and Other Travesties

There was a bit of discussion on Ellison Webderland over the weekend about books and short stories people would (or would not) want to see as films. It was generally thought that if a story wasn't inherently cinematic (i.e. not very visual or translatable), or was so short it would have to be padded, then it was better not to adapt it into a movie at all.  This naturally led to the question of how faithful a movie or tv show had to be to the underlying story, and whether the writer of the individual work should keep it from being adapted at all, if the screen version would very different from or inferior to the printed story.

When I was in high school, I was very partisan on the subject of creators' rights.  I believed that the original writer should do his or her own screenplay if possible, which little or no interference from producers or director.  Failing that, the screenwriter should write something as close to the original work--in plot, dialogue and even theme--as the necessities of the medium allowed. Anything else was an adulteration and a travesty.

As I got older, three things changed my mind about this: Mary Poppins, "The City on the Edge of Forever" and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

Mary Poppins  book and 3 DVDs I think I have all the Mary Poppins books by P. L. Travers. I've read them several times since fifth grade, most recently a couple of years ago.  They're interesting and magical and fun, and a little dark in the way Poppins is cross and unpleasant to the Banks children, especially if they dare to mention a recently-completed adventure.

I also have the Disney movie Mary Poppins.  Over the years I've bought it in VHS, on Laserdisc, and on DVD--the latter three times, as different editions came out.  The out-of-print CD soundtrack has spent an awful lot of time spinning on my boombox at work, with me paying special attention to the Sherman Brothers interview and demos at the end. Robert and Richard Sherman are fascinating in their discussion of the development of the film, what songs were used as originally written and what had to be dropped or changed, and the development of Bert and Mr. Banks in the movie.  Great stuff. 

The film is very different from the stories in many ways, but that's as it should be.  Frankly, it's superior to the original, dramatically and in terms of characterization.  A faithful adaptation would never have worked.  I for one am grateful that Walt Disney managed to wear down P.L. Travers for permission to make the movie, and that the filmmakers were not bound to her vision of the story.

"The City on the Edge of Forever," of course, is Harlan Ellison's Star Trek episode. His original script had brilliant touches, and other elements that simply didn't belong in Gene Roddenberry's universe. Both Harlan's version and the final adulteration of it won awards--and again, that's as it should be.  Ultimately, it had to be Gene's vision of the episode that made it onto the air.  Sorry, Harlan, no drug-running on Kirk's Enterprise.

Hitchhiker'sThe Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy has been a radio show (actually several of them), a series of books, an LP, several audiotape adaptations, a TV series and a bath towel. No two versions are exactly alike; even the unabridged tapes of the books have a few textual anomalies. But they're all brilliant.  (Mostly Harmless makes me want to throw things and rant and yell and never read it again, but even that's brilliant.)  Because of the way Douglas Adams did these things over the years, and the nature of the universe(s) in which they take place, I can accept the wild inconsistencies.

A few things were pretty consistent, though.  Other than readings of the books, Simon Jones was always Arthur Dent, Peter Jones was always the Voice of the Book, Mark Wing-Davey was always Zaphod Beeblebrox, and Stephen Moore was always Marvin the Paranoid Android.  To me, these people will always be the definitive players of those roles.

But now Peter Jones is dead, the others are getting older, and a Hollywood film is finally in the works after many false starts.  The definitive players have now been pushed aside for younger, prettier actors, including at least one American!  Say it ain't so, Zaphod!  Unlike all previous HG iterations, I look forward to that film with dread and trepidation.

And yet I saw a trailer for it on Amazon the other day, and it doesn't look half bad, except for the slapstick that always seems to turn up in comedy movie trailers. *Twitch* Maybe it will be okay after all, even with Douglas Adams no longer alive to oversee the project. Maybe I should not, in fact, panic.

John says that a movie version, good or bad, doesn't detract from the original.  Tolkien's novel The Lord of the Rings can still be read and enjoyed, regardless of the choices Peter Jackson made on screen. Movies can stand or fall on their own, and the books will still be around. So what is lost?  Faithful or unfaithful, good or bad (not necessarily the same scale as faithful or unfaithful), movies do not change a word of the books or stories themselves.  They merely provide an alternative universe vision of the story.

A Wrinkle in Time - classic and travesty Ah, but what about A Wrinkle in Time?

For nearly 40 years, Madeleine L'Engle turned down producers and directors and screenwriters and studios that wanted to make of movie of her most famous book. She didn't want anyone to make it who didn't quite "get" the original, what it was about and what it meant.  Maybe mortality breathed down her neck, or maybe she liked the latest applicants for some reason, because she finally let the movie be made.  It aired as a Disney tv movie on ABC last year. Afterwards, she told Newsweek, "I expected it to be bad, and it is."

She's right  The tv movie has its moments, but Meg is far too hip and pretty, Charles too bratty. Other characters have been renamed or combined or altered, and the whole thing is over-the-top preachy and pseudo-inspiring. 

Does it take away from the wonderful book that this deeply flawed thing aired on ABC, and has since been released on DVD?  Maybe not, but it bothers me.  Nice as the people are who made it, L'Engle should have stuck to  her  guns and said no again.  My only consolation is that the book is still being taught in schools, and passed on from parent to child.  It is in no danger of being overshadowed by the Disney version.

So what do you guys think?  Must a movie be faithful to the book, or should it stand on its own?  Is a bad adaptation worse than none at all, or will you go see it anyway?



sistercdr said...

Excellent questions and excellent points.  When I saw the first Harry Potter movie, I realized that it was weak because it was too faithful to the book.  I thought it was solid, but it fell flat with me because there were no surprises -- no magic.  A medium should contribute something to a work, not just reflect it through its capabilities.  It was the first time I had ever thought that sticking too closely to the original work in a movie was a weakness.

plittle said...

Interesting version of this discussion going on in the forums over at as one of Guy Gavriel Kay's books has recently been optioned. As well, there are significant discussions about the Lord Of The Rings films there. Any film adaptaion of a literary work for which there is a dedicated fan base will be subject to endless speculation. It is interesting to note that the liberty taken by the filmmaker that one fan condemns, another embraces. Everyone has their own favourite mental scene from the book that they think cannot possibly be changed without destroying the work, but for each, it is a different scene. I think that serves to underline the strength of the written word as an art form.

P.S. as a ridiculous aside, upon a quick first glance at this page, I saw the title: Movies and Other Transvestites.

ryanagi said...

Re: comment...that's funny. I love the Harry Potter films BECAUSE they are so faithful to the books. Or, at least they WERE. The last one didn't follow the book too closely and I was a little disappointed. Also, I'm glad I missed the Disney adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time. Sounds like I would have the same opinion as you. Meg was ME. Glasses, outsider, smart but thought of as weird. A hip pretty Meg would have pissed me off. LOL

deabvt said...

I`m looking forward to the "Hitchhiker`s film". [ and the Mavarin books! ]

alphawoman1 said...

I have always thought, "the book was better"...only one time, and I can't remember which one.....oh yea! Under the Tuscan Sun.  I almost croaked when I began watching it.  How they flagrantly altered the story line!  But I relented and ended up watching the whole thing and enjoying it.  So I felt I had lucked out, loved the book and liked the "new" movie story.

sakishler said...

In the case of Mary Poppins, I feel like it's two entirely different parts of me that enjoy the books and the movie. I love PL Travers' passage about a baby's dark journey toward birth - but it wouldn't have fit in the movie. The movie is definitely not faithful - but I don't think unfaithful and *bad* are synonyms, at list not in this case. Because the books are memorable books, and the movie is wonderful.

I'm always curious about adaptations of literary works, because I'm interested in how directors and actors and costumers and other creative types bring things to life. It's a fine way to exercise imagination. I am not always pleased with the results, but I can generally respect the effort (although sometimes I'm a bit peeved when the Hollywood version of a story feels compelled to slap on a "happy" (or at least "happier") ending on a work that doesn't originally end happily.

I think John's right. Moviemakers can do all they want to the story and the original source material will come out none the worse for it. The book will always be the book.

I guess the best adapations make up for the really horrible ones that are out there, and there certainly are some really horrible ones out there. But I'd rather have both good and bad than no adapatations at all.