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Musing on Culture: The Adaptation Problem

The first trailer for Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’ novel The Great Gatsby hit the internet last year.  As might be expected of a Baz Lurhmann film, bright colors and elaborate set design swirl into a cinematic cornucopia very much in the vein of Moulin Rouge.

Link: "The Great Gatsby" Trailer

I haven’t seen many of the films in Luhrmann’s oeuvre.  I did see Moulin Rouge and did not care for it, but that alone does not prejudice me against Luhrmann as a filmmaker.  His films are unique and suit some tastes more than others.  The initial news that Luhrmann would be directing the latest adaptation of The Great Gatsby sparked concern among fans of both the novel and its previous Hollywood adaption.

This concern is the same worry that plagues every film based on a well-loved piece of literature: will it do justice to the book?

I dearly love F. Scott Fitgerald’s original novel, but my life is a little too busy for me to devote too much time to obsessing over book-to-screen fidelity.  Less than moved by the trailer; I filed it away in the “will watch, if on Netflix Instant” file part of my mind.  Then I saw an article in my RSS feed, and it started a train of thought that I wanted to indulge here.

The article was “New Great Gatsby, On the Road Adaptations Revive an Old Debate: Can Great Books Make Great Movies?” and it used the forthcoming Gatsby and On the Road adaptations as vehicles to discuss whether or not great novels can always be adapted into great movies.  The article even pulled out the heavy artillery with a lengthy Stanley Kubrick quote before ultimately pulling its punch and closing with a question instead of a resolution.  The question is nonetheless a valid one.  Can great books be fairly treated as films?

I have my own favorite Stanley Kubrick quote on this subject: "If it can be written or thought, it can be filmed."  However, the point I want to make in this week's major blog is that it isn't simply the quality of the story which determines the ultimate quality of a film--the original format of the story is also a catalytic element for a film's success.

Today, I am making the case that good books never make good films, because only good films are good films.  Books can be adapted into screenplays, but the for the film to be judged fairly, it must be judged on its own merits, before its relationship to the source material is taken into account.  I contend that it is categorically impossible for any adaptation to be wholly faithful to its source material.  Read on.

Making the leap from page to projection.

It does not matter if a book is “great,” or even well-known, because the process of screenwriting requires specific changes to be made in the adaptation of any source material.  To establish this, I will offer an extremely well-known series of adaptations as a first example: The Lord of the Rings trilogy, written by J. R. R. Tolkien and adapted for the screen by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and director Peter Jackson.

The original Lord of the Rings novels are extremely detailed.  Tolkien went to unprecedented lengths to flesh out the world of his stories, designing entire original languages, histories and geographies.  Producers were faced with the two basic choices which must be decided whenever any book is to be adapted:

  1. Preserve the intricacy of the source material by tasking a group of screenwriters to adapt each novel into  a six-hour miniseries.
  2. Create a less expensive, wider-reaching product by condensing each novel into its own two-hour feature film.

In the case of The Lord of the Rings, it is well known which option the producers took.  Detail was undeniably sacrificed in the adaptation process, but consensus among fans is that the films stayed true to the spirit of Tolkien’s novels, even if certain elements were omitted or rearranged for clarity in visual storytelling (more on that later).

The Lord of the Rings was a rare series of adaptations, because the three films not only presented the individual personalities of Tolkien’s many characters, but the themes of the novels remained intact throughout.  Themes and characters wage war with each other for audiences' attention, and to that point we will now focus our attention.

Themes vs. Characters

Themes are important.

Without a theme--a “grander purpose” as it were, audiences have no reason to watch characters on a screen.  Even films and television shows discussed as “character studies” are only successful as such because of the themes explored in the nature of their characters.  In the case of a show like Mad Men, the central character of Don Draper is rarely a likable individual.  The omniscient audience is privy to every lie he weaves between his personal and professional lives, and are even given the upper hand through flashbacks that show how Don Draper literally became Don Draper.  However, despite being unscrupulous and often very cruel, Draper succeeds as a character, because the writers of Mad Men use him to explore very real issues of man’s search for identity and fulfillment.

Even in films or programs like Mad Men which are categorized as "character studies," the actions of characters, however entertaining, are completely meaningless unless they speak to a finer point, a theme.  As one more example, let’s briefly look at Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing.

Do the Right Thing has very few characters who are endearing for their own sake.  However, Lee’s characters exist for a reason beyond their own stories.  The blacks, Italians, Puerto Ricans and Asians populating Bed-Stuy in Do the Right Thing are not true individuals in the eyes of the screenplay--they are microcosms of entire populations.  By writing characters with no significance as individuals, but who expressed the unique rages of entire demographics, Lee's film communicates the realities of modern racism with incredible force.

Strong stories necessitate strong characters, however unlikable they are.  However, one cannot expect the same success when the order is reversed.

When a character’s individual significance is given precedence over their place as part of the film as a whole, this is often indicative of a story which lacks a truly compelling theme.  If the viewer of a film is led to care more about character more than the story itself, chances are that they are watching a story which is not written to have any real significance.

In continuing our examination of characters and themes, let us look at them in the light of the writing process.  It is important to understand the differences between stories written for print and stories written for film.

We will return to the idea of characters versus story in a moment, but before we do we must understand how these stories are written in the first place.

The world of difference between writing for print and writing for cinema.

In a novel or original screenplay, it is perfectly alright for characters to dominate over theme.  Different kinds of stories cater to different audiences' tastes.  If a film or a novel is only worth attention because it is simple, light entertainment, it is no less a legitimate work of fiction than if it is built on heavily wrought themes which are woven around every challenge of the human experience.

The problems occur when a story written for one medium (print publication) is retrofitted to the storytelling style of another (film).

Writing a story for print is a much freer process than writing for film.  A novel can be as short or as long as is necessary to fully tell its story.  It can be traditionally structured or spontaneous and associative in the ways in which its story unfolds for the reader.  According to the story’s needs, the people, places and things within a story can be drawn in near-infinite detail.  Until the story is offered to the mercies of an editor, the novelist reigns as a supreme deity over how his or her story is told.  That is the freedom of written fiction.

Contrast this with the process and limitations of screenwriting, and its place in the collaborative business of filmmaking.  Screenwriters do not create descriptively-written worlds which readers can interpret mentally;   The delivery of a screenplay is not a direct transfer from page to mind, it is moderated by a team of artists and technicians who take it upon themselves to interpret the story and guide the viewer through in the way they deem proper.  The screenplay is treated as nothing more than a working template with dialog for the actors.

Furthermore, the stories themselves are constricted in their writing by the confinement of time.  No matter how much time passes within the context of a screenplay's story, and no matter how many characters it contains, the screenplay must be written so that its final, visual interpretation will not exceed a running time between ninety minutes and two hours.

Filmmaking is a business, and it must move efficiently to turn a profit.  For production teams and actors to digest a story and commit it to film in a timely manner, screenwriters most often reduce the characters’ actions and thoughts to the simplest possible terms.  This changes the very language of writing, and is what truly separates screenwriting from novel-writing as a distinct writing style.  Consider the following example:

In a story about a hard boiled detective, the novelist might write:

Sam reached into his jacket pocket and took out the cigarette lighter his dad had given him as a kid, just for kicks on a Saturday.  ‘Don’t tell your mom,’ dad had said with a grin.  Now, the lighter was cold in Sam’s hand, but grew warm as he struck the light and ignited the unfiltered Marlboro between his lips.  The lighter was warm, just like the bullet that popped his dad’s heart like a balloon the day after he gave Sam the lighter.

By contrast, screenwriting requires that the same action be expressed much more economically:

Sam takes his lighter out of his pocket and lights a cigarette.

A world of difference, wouldn't you agree?

Novels are hot rods, adaptations are station wagons.

Even though it is obvious that the styles of writing for print and writing for film are markedly different, that does not mean that one is less effective than the other.  The problems arise when the infinite nuances of a well-written novel are pared down and re-written to be communicated visually.

A screenwriter faces a weighty problem in adapting a beloved story.  There is never, ever enough time in even a two-hour film to include ever detail of a book.  And, ultimately, it is the fans of the source material who hold all the cards.  They know every twist of the plot, every motivation of the characters, and as a coup d'grace to the screenwriter's difficulties, every reader has seen it differently in his or her own mind.

The hairiness of the situation is made even worse by the ten-figure sums which are spent on major films.  The film needs to please the fans, but every fan wants to see their own personal envisioning of the story, because anything else would be, like, totally lame.

This is the fundamental, aphoristic difference between novels and screenplays: novels are written for the theatre of the individual mind, and screenplays are written for mass exhibition via technical processes.  Novels are written with a level of detail that literally cannot be expressed through the work of a camera.  For a book to work at all as a film, it must be reduced.

Ultimately, most adaptations usually fall into one of the following three categories 

  1. Mechanical movement through many plot points as possible, usually at the expense of emotion and depth of character.  (Harry Potter, The Hunger Games)
  2. Abstract interpretation of theme which leaves the original story barely recognizable.  (Apocalypse Now)
  3. Glorification of the characters over their story.  (The Big Sleep, Fight Club)

Casting Judgement

Every adaptation must begin with the screenwriter's painstaking selection of the original story's "structural supports;" most integral parts of a story.  Only when these have been established into a workable script can the screenwriter go back and add in as many of the extra details as will fit within the film's running time.

All too often, many of these so desired-for details are still deemed superfluous by studio executives and left out of the theatrical edit, being inserted back into the a "directors cut" at a much later date as "extra character moments for the fans."  This, I suppose, is the only consolation some screenwriters will have after the perceived lack of effort on their part has already earned them the ire of their project's original fandom.

After Lord of the Rings, The Hunger GamesHarry PotterEragonTwilightThe Da Vinci Code and innumerable other novels being adapted into films of lesser strength than their original novels, one would assume that book fans would have learned to not expect perfect fidelity from Hollywood; but the old indignant response continues to greet every film.

Coming full circle.

Referencing the Open Culture article from earlier, the question asked was “Can Great Books Make Great Movies?

At the end of this piece, here is my answer:  No book can ever make a good movie.  Good movies make good movies.

If a movie is based on a book, book fans need to recognize and fairly acknowledge that novelists write novels, screenwriters write films.  When the limitless scope of novel is shoehorned into the limitations imposed by cinematic storytelling, there will be loss in translation.

I love books.  I appreciate and respect the time, thought and loving care which good (and even bad) authors impart to their work.  Stories always begin with a mind, and even films and music begin in the minds of writers.  In a sense, writers are progenitors of every culture.

But that does not diminish the respect which I have for the work done by filmmakers.  Good filmmaking is the result of a year of collaboration between writers, directors, performers, artists, designers, caterers and enthusiastic gophers.

When an adapted film judged harshly and angrily criticized simply on the basis of its differences from the source material, book fans make a grave and very unfair mistake: in their rush defend the work of a single author, they fail to realize that what they are really doing is demeaning the honest and hard work of the hundreds of people who took as much as a year out of their lives to bring a book to visual life.

In closing...

Coming back to the subject of The Great Gatsby, I suggest that fans of the original book (like myself) acknowledge here and now that the direction of Baz Lurhmann and the acting style of Leonardo DiCaprio will most likely not capture the full depth and pathos of Jay Gatsby as originally written written by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  Speaking editorially, I personally believe that Tobey Maguire is dead weight whenever onscreen and will likely not help the film's cause among book fans.

However, Baz Luhrmann’s lush visual style is quite appropriate for presenting the opulence and excess of New England’s upper class during the Roaring Twenties.  Leonardo DiCaprio has also become adept at playing brooding characters whom life has left feeling hollow.  Between these two elements, it is more than a slightly possibility that the film will fairly present a strong interpretation F. Scott Fitzgerald's theme of a man searching for meaning in a culture which does not value substance as much as it does style.

It is quite possible that I will love Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby as much as I love Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby--I will simply appreciate them in different ways.