21 October 2013

Movies from Books

I've come to a conclusion about watching movies, especially fantasy stories: if you really want to enjoy the movie, don't read the book first. We just saw Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters last week, and it was quite a fun movie to watch. Then I read the book yesterday, and boy oh boy, is it ever different! Well, as usual, the book is better - but because I hadn't read it, I wasn't spending the two hours in the movie theatre groaning about how they messed up the story; I was able to enjoy both film and print.

True, there were a few groan-worthy spots - like the point where some characters are having an emotional reunion-hug scene, monologuing about how much they appreciate each other, while the bad guy does bad-guy things right behind their back that they very much need to interfere with. But they don't, being all emotional and huggy, so bad guy nearly gets his bad-guy way. (Spoiler: he doesn't, in the end. I'm sure that really surprises you, that in a hero movie the heroes win. Yup.) Oh, and another thing that threw me for a minor loop was that they replaced the actor for one of the main characters: Chiron isn't played by Pierce Brosnan, but by Anthony Head. So, no, Camp Half-Blood didn't get another centaur teacher as I first thought, he's just shape-shifted a bit. And actually, Anthony Head fits the character in the book better than Pierce Brosnan; he looks older and more teacherly-mature, which is what Chiron is supposed to be.

"Supposed to be". That "fidelity question" in film adaptations is something I've been thinking about ever since last semester's term paper on Jane Austen movies. I used to be very demanding of "fidelity" in movie adaptations, i.e. "how faithful is the movie to the book?" I still am, to a point, especially when it comes to my favourites such as Austen. But I've rethought a lot of my attitude in that regard. Because, you see, the fact is that movies are not books. Film and print are apples and oranges. Yes, I like my apples to have a certain taste and texture, and my oranges as well. But if oranges were green & yellow with red stripes and a crunchy texture, I'd be a little perturbed. Well, no, a lot perturbed. And a squashy orange-coloured apple with a dimpled skin really wouldn't be cool, either. So a movie which tries to tell the story in just the same way as the book - well, it often just doesn't work. At worst you end up with really boring voice-over narration of the text in the book, or just, well, really boring. Or cheesy.

Because in a book, you can just tell the reader what you want them to "see". You can say "She was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen," and each reader imagines for themselves what exactly that means. On a film, you have to show that - and when it comes to such things as "most beautiful" or "most horrible", those experiences are quite subjective. That's where Peter Jackson struck out with his Lord of the Rings elf women - he succeeded in making them sugary, with all that pink backlighting and the soft-focus shots, rather than ethereal and stunningly beautiful. At least that's my opinion. Yes, yes, of course the actresses are very beautiful women - but they're women, that's the problem, not elves. In fantasy films that's a big issue - you're trying to show something supernatural by natural means. That's why the book usually is better, because you can convey so much more in words than in mere image.

But then, sometimes, it's the words that start to stumble. Take The Lord of the Rings again: if one wanted to re-tell the movie in words, to convey the majesty of the New Zealand landscape in which the film was shot, words just would not be enough. That's where the film excels in something the book hasn't got. The movie tells a story in pictures, and sometimes, if not almost all the time, that story is different from the one that is told in words. Different, not worse, not inferior. Well, maybe sometimes inferior, and then, sometimes, superior. But most of the time, just different. I think there are some stories that are best told in words, and some best in images. And maybe - maybe we won't know which fits best until we've tried them both.

Life, the Universe, and Movies from Books. Don't read the book first, you'll like the movie better for it.


  1. In some cases, I find the more a movie adaptation differs from the book, the better I enjoy it. I found Ella Enchanted (movie) a thoroughly delightful, frothy romp, but only because it was so very different from the book that I could take it on its own merits. I think that's the same reason why I was able to appreciate The Hobbit more than LOTR - LOTR was so close, that the few egregious errors threw me into a fury (FARAMIR!!!!!!!). Whereas The Hobbit was so different I was able to look at it as "inspired by the book" instead of an adaptation.

    But I did and do despise the recent adaptation of Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Not only was it a tremendously bad adaptation, it didn't even have any value as a film. Maddening.

    1. Yes, I agree on Ella Enchanted; the movie has a completely different feel from the book. The Percy Jackson films are actually similar; the characters are very different - changed from 12/13-year-olds to 17/18yo's for one, with all that comes with it.

      However, when it comes to Dawn Treader and Hobbit - well, I'm afraid I feel differently. I didn't mind the Dawn Treader movie (I hope you'll still speak to me after this); I found the Hobbit, frankly, ridiculous (but still tolerable). I have friends who were utterly infuriated by it, though. Perhaps how one reacts to a movie adaptation is directly related to how much one cares about the book - which, really, is my point. If you haven't read the book, you can enjoy the film on its own merits.

      And you might even end up with films that you (gasp!) like BETTER than the book. That happened to me with "Forrest Gump" and "Princess Bride" (the books are quite stupid), and, to an extent, with "Shrek" - the movie is great, the book is, well, a picture book with not much to it.

    2. Dawn Treader is my favorite out of all the Narnia books, and I went in to that movie with ridiculously high hopes. I also found that the more I thought about it afterward, the worse it seemed to me.

      The Hobbit - parts of it (much of it) was YES utterly ridiculous, but I found the actors' performances compelling enough to overlook much of that. Maybe I'm just a sucker for Martin Freeman and Richard Armitage.

      Totally with you on Princess Bride. Found the book an utter disappointment, and I adore the movie and can pretty well quote the entire thing. (I think one of the reasons I was able to forgive Ella Enchanted almost everything was the sheer joy of seeing Cary Elwes camp it up as the villain. "Westley's the bad guy!" I thought, and then chortled in glee.)

    3. Yes, that's probably where the difference comes in - after "Prince Caspian", I didn't expect much of "Dawn Treader". Plus I'm not as attached to that book (my favourite Narnia is "Horse and His Boy").

      Ella Enchanted, the movie is silly; the book - the book is amazing. As is "Fairest", also by Gail Carson Levine, which I read recently (it's a Snow White version). I don't think it would make a good movie at all; that story has got to stay in a book. A movie would not ever do it justice.

      And, yeah, I'm a sucker for Freeman and Armitage, too (that dwarf song! Sooo amazing). And for fancy special effects and wonderful scenery shots. But I'm not a big Tolkien fan, so I'm much more tolerant towards movies that mess up his stories.

    4. Narnia goes: Dawn Treader, Horse and His Boy, Silver Chair, LWW, Prince Caspian, Last Battle, Magician's Nephew for me. So the badness of Prince Caspian didn't bother me anywhere near as much as the badness of Dawn Treader.

      I didn't actually care much for Fairest (although you're right, it would be IMPOSSIBLE to properly convey any of it in a movie; that's a book that really relies on its words). It felt flat to me. Loved the concept, felt like she danced around it too much and confused the matter too much. Maybe I would have liked it more if she hadn't tried tying it to "Ella" - if it had been a stand-alone, like The Two Princesses of Bamarre.

      But now I am completely and totally digressing.