Posts tagged ‘movie adaptations’

From the listservs: movies based on books

Last week someone posted an announcement to YALSA-bk that Asa Butterfield and Chloe Moretz would be playing Hugo and Isabelle in the movie adaptation of THE INVENTION OF HUGO CABRET. This sparked a long discussion about movies that were based on children’s and YA books, with most people falling into the “movies ruin books” camp.

While the cynic in me tends to agree, I think we have to recognize that a book and a movie are different narrative forms and that because of their own characteristics, each have unique limitations and strengths. While books are capable of telling much more sophisticated stories with subplots and a lot of interior thoughts and development, the visual aspect of movies mean that they can convey emotions that might not be so easily crammed into specific words. And movies are better at juxtaposing different images without commentary, which is more difficult to do in a verbal narrative. While some pointed out that there are kids who see a movie based on a book, don’t like it, and then are reluctant to read the book, I think that there’s still room to enjoy a book after it’s been turned into a movie we don’t like–it doesn’t have to “ruin” the book for us.

Members of the listserv mentioned the seeming increase of children’s and teen’s books being adapted into movies. One librarian said that her sister was in the film business and that it wasn’t that writers and directors and producers were out of ideas, but that they were being conservative and wanted something with a “built in audience.” That is, since so many kids have read the Percy Jackson books, they know they’ll have butts in seats if they make a Percy Jackson movie. One librarian did point out, though, that movie studios have been drastically changing stories from the start, pointing in particular to Mary Poppins and animated Disney movies. This isn’t a new trend–it’s just something we notice more because more books are being adapted.

I finally went to see Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief with my husband this weekend. I’d heard some pretty terrible things about it, so I was pleasantly surprised to find that it wasn’t as bad as I’d thought. I was especially pleased that it wasn’t as video game-like as I was expecting: they do receive a map with three different locations that are revealed only when their quest at the previous one is finished, but there was no mine cart/runaway boat/flying-through-the-air-avoiding-objects sequence like it seems a lot of movies for kids contain. I also thought that Percy’s introduction to his true nature and to Camp Half-Blood was much quicker and more natural than it was in the book; the characters in the novel seemed like they were going awfully far out of their way to keep him in the dark for as long as possible. What did bother me about the adaptation, though, was the way Percy’s relationship with his father was much closer and warmer than it was in the book. It seems like that really changes the spirit of the story. I don’t mind the events of the story being a lot different or even certain characters not being present, but I want the spirit of the story to feel the same.

The discussion on YALSA-bk benefitted from an email from Alex Flinn, author of BEASTLY, which has been adapted into a movie that will be in theaters this summer. I actually got to hear Alex Flinn speak at the Hussey-Mayfield Memorial Public Library in Zionsville on Wednesday. She mostly talked about her youth and becoming a writer and what goes into writing a novel and getting it published, but she also touched briefly on having her book adapted into a movie. Her email to the listserv, though, was more specific. She said that at first she was scared exactly because so many movie adaptations haven’t been faithful to their subject material, but that she was lucky to read the screenplay before they started and found that “they pretty much left the plot alone.” She pointed out that there are different levels of changes, saying that she’s not bothered that the main character’s hair color is different (as some fans are), but that “[a]t one point, they’d been talking to an actor who wanted a fairly major change made to the main character’s relationship with his father. That would have bothered me more than hair color.” During her visit in Zionsville, she’d explained that BEASTLY initially came from thinking about what crappy parents both the beauty and the beast from the fairy tale must have had for them to get into their situation, so the beast’s relationship with his father is really important to Flinn–and to the spirit of the story.

I thought the movie adaptation of CORALINE is a good example of where the book and the movie tell similar (but not identical) stories with each being strengthened by the format. While the film changed some of what happened, the intricate stop-motion style was really beautiful and very well-suited to the strange and creepy other world in the story. But the book explores in a way that a film can’t Coraline’s internal state during her adventure. They’re different, but one isn’t necessarily better than the other. And really, we don’t have to pick one over the other, do we? We can enjoy both–if they both deserve it.

Late last year, Walter Kirn, the author of UP IN THE AIR, was interviewed by NPR about the movie adaptation of his book. He talked about how the film version was necessarily different from the book:

There are two different forms of storytelling: Novels tend to come from the inside of a character and movies tend to look at them from the outside in relation to others in their world. And so, I fully understood that for this book to make it onto film it had to be sort of opened up, unfolded. […] And the finished product, though it bears the distinct genetic imprint of the book, is quite different in some details and yet I am entirely pleased with it. […] [T]he novel is a sort of a piece of paper and the movie has made it into a paper airplane. That suggested the movie is more complex than the book, which I don’t think it is, actually. I mean, you’re able to do things in novels: introduce subplots, other characters, thematic layers and so on, in a way that you simply can’t in a movie. A movie really has to choose its battles. And most adaptations end up having to really edit out a lot of the book and bring forward those elements that they think play dramatically. In this case, a whole new character had to be introduced. A sort of sidekick had to be given to a lonely hero who spends most of the time in the novel observing and thinking about his world. But now we had to give him a chance to talk about his world.

The addition of a completely new character is a huge change to be made when adapting a book into a movie, but Kirn recognized that because so much of the “action” in the book actually went on in the main character’s mind and reflected his internal, personal changes, a film version would have to externalize a lot of that. And despite this huge change, he thinks that the addition of that character and the interactions she has with the protagonist are the source of a lot of humor in the movie.

I really liked his metaphors for the way a book and its movie adaptation are related:

You know, here’s how adaptation works – almost everything in the movie is in the book in some form. But it’s as though the deck has been completely reshuffled and some of the cards have been assigned different values, some of the fours have been made into jacks and some of the jacks have been made into twos. And it’s as though, you know, a new poker hand has been made out of these cards that were dealt in the book. And yet the book and the movie to me are both obviously members of the same family. They’re like non-identical twins. You see the nose. You see the ears. You see the stature and the voice in the way of moving, and you go, yes, these are the same creature in some respect, but they are two different versions of the creature.

I still feel ambivalent about movie adaptations. I don’t hate them as much as a lot of librarians seem to (I do understand that it must be hard to see something you love changed a lot!) because I think that a movie can and often must tell a different story, and that movies can do things that a book can’t. And honestly, sometimes a story just needs tightening, and the time limitations of a movie can do that. But it does seem like things are often unnecessarily changed or that the spirit of the story is lost. I want to remain hopeful about future adaptations, though, because some have turned out to be so good (for example, has a list of ten movies that are better than the books on which they’re based–in their opinion, at least). I also hope that we can take even the bad film adaptations and use them as an opportunity to get more kids reading–or at least discussing the media they do consume.

March 21, 2010 at 9:19 PM Leave a comment