Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Screen Adaptations: Go Back to the Book

My daughter already has her ticket for the premiere of the final Harry Potter movie. She's very excited about it even though she doesn't much like the films. I've seen every one of them with her, and after seeing each movie, we always have a debriefing: I tell her what I liked and she tells me what she didn't like. Mostly what she doesn't like involves changes from the original storylines. I've read all the books, too, but I don't remember the details enough to catch all the differences, so maybe my bad memory helps me enjoy the movies more.

But watching film adaptations is a tricky business; the whole point of making such a movie is to take advantage of the book's fans, and yet a movie isn't a book, so the adaptation is almost certain to disappoint. But surely -- so contend book fans like my daughter and me (at least concerning books I remember better) -- surely staying more faithful to the original plot and characters makes for a better movie, one that will please both readers and nonreaders alike. Gone with the Wind provides the devotedly faithful example that keeps me scratching my head, wondering why other adaptations stray so far from their models. I know that in adapting a novel for the screen the narrative format has to change, that visuals have to give information provided verbally by the book's narrator (and fill in a lot of information not given in the book), that dialog must be featured, that scenes must be trimmed, and so on. But why must filmmakers substantially change elements as if they know how to improve the story or its message?

These concerns kept me from watching movie versions of favorite books for a couple of decades. But I've come around lately. I've watched a lot of screen adaptations in the last few years, and for the most part I've truly enjoyed them. I just finished the old eleven-hour version of Brideshead Revisited and came away amazed at the time, money, and respectful care the makers put into that miniseries; I'm so glad that the producers were willing to make the investment on the hopes that some audience would watch a slow, sprawling story about people whose dramatic turmoil takes place mostly behind the facade of English stoicism. I loved seeing all the scenes in Oxford after having visited that city three times, and the outrageous size of the castle they used for Brideshead boggled the mind. The performances were stunning, especially Phoebe Nicholls, who played Cordelia totally convincingly at both twelve years old and twenty-five. I had trouble watching the few energetically painful scenes, though. Anthony Andrews, for instance, played Sebastian's disastrous alcoholism too well; reading about it provides an emotional buffer welcome on a lazy summer morning.

I also very recently enjoyed a version of Anthony Troillope's The Barchester Chronicles. Again these made-for-television productions, many of which show first on Masterpiece Theater, tend to indulge in the details of the original, no matter how subtle or unsexy, a practice commercial theaters usually frown upon. The local cineplex would never show the six-hour story of an Anglican clergyman who quits his position because the newspapers say his salary is scandalously too high only to agonize over the decision because it may have shown a lack of courage. Many scenes unfold slowly as two people sit on a stone bench by a moss-covered wall, the birds merrily chirping, sometimes more than the people talk; much of the drama takes place in the sighs or held looks of the participating characters. Among the excellent cast, a young Alan Rickman stands out. (He plays despicable so well.)

Dickens is my favorite author, and after the Nicholas Nickleby stage show from the early 80s, most film versions bothered me, the main reason I stayed away from adaptations so long. But in the last year I've watched excellent versions of Martin Chuzzlewit, Dombey and Son, and The Old Curiosity Shop. Dickens was a very vivid writer, and sometimes I wonder that other people don't see the characters as I see them; their faces pop from the prose so clearly. In more rational moments, I understand that some people won't see them at all as I do; in my understanding, naturally, these people just don't get it. The people who made the 80s versions of Bleak House and David Copperfield definitely did not. But then I'm amazed all over again that the filmmakers who do "get it" in fact see Dickens's world almost exactly as I see it. I've sometimes seen a picture of a cast and have been able to tell who plays which character just from their looks.

On a much different scale from that of the miniseries I've been watching and praising, Douglas McGrath's Nicholas Nickleby from 2002 is the best two-hour version of a long Dickens novel since David Lean's offerings in the 40s. (That judgment leaves aside adaptations of A Christmas Carol. The one with Patrick Stewart is the best of those.) It has all the key scenes, all the most important characters (not all of whom have many lines), and all the joy of the book. The film looks great and the actors are wonderful, but again the key to success for me is the film's faithfulness to the novel. In McGrath's commentary he twice mentions parts of the novel that stand as some of the funniest fiction ever written. That kind of reverence for the original carries over even into the parts that he had to condense or alter for the medium of film, so I enjoy even the changes as sincere tributes to the Great Man.

By comparison, somewhere in the days of special features in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, one of Peter Jackson's co-writers (Philippa Boyens, I think) gives a very unsatisfactory explanation of their alteration of the character of Faramir. In the movie, after Faramir captures Frodo and discovers he has the One Ring, Faramir holds it and considers using it to help in the war and perhaps to earn his father's favor. In Tolkien's book, though, Faramir wants nothing to do with the Ring, saying, "If I saw it lying by the side of the road, I would not pick it up." According to the featurette, the screenwriters made the change because they thought "Professor Tolkien made a mistake." As a result of this attitude of superiority, we have a series of movies whose very strengths frustrate the book's fans: everything that made them wonderful to behold will keep anyone from attempting a faithful adaptation for at least a generation. Thank goodness for Ian McKellan, who, in one of his interviews, claims that any time Jackson showed frustration that a scene wasn't working, he (McKellan) would advise the director, "Go back to the book." According to McKellan (and I believe him), Tolkien's original treatment solved the problem every time.

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