What makes a good film adaptation?

Adaptations from any kind of medium to film are a tricky thing, and can often end with hilarious or disastrous (or more often, both) results. This is a dangerous situation, as the vast majority of films that actually get produced these days are not culled from original ideas. For example, let’s take a look at the twelve films I’ve seen so far this year (and yes, I’m aware that twelve is a dismally low number) in no particular order:

Toy Story 3

Alice in Wonderland


Iron Man 2

Shutter Island

The Runaways


The Other Guys

The Town

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

The Social Network

Let Me In

Of those twelve films, only two of them could really be considered original screenplays not based on anything else (those two being Inception and The Other Guys, and I wouldn’t exactly call The Other Guys to be glaringly original itself). Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 opens this weekend, and that one obviously is not an original idea. I’ve got five or six other films I’m interested in seeing before the year is up, and only one of those (Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan) is itself an original idea. We live in a world of adaptations, remakes, biopics, and sequels. So many of us are so jazzed to see a film version of our favorite books, comics, video games (though probably not really on video games, considering the track record), epic concept albums from the 1970’s, and so on that we may not even notice that we never see much of anything unique these days at the cinema. Even worse, those of us that are aware of the source material, whether its original incarnation is a visual medium or not, come into the filmic experience with either imagined or dictated expectations for the film’s look, atmosphere, tone, content, etc. that in many cases, the thing is already destined for failure before it even gets a chance to win an audience or a fan base over.

The trailer for DC’s movie adaptation for Green Lantern has been out for a couple of days on the net now, and it hasn’t taken the DC faithful long to point out every problem and inconsistency they have with the writer and director’s vision, despite the fact that we’ve seen barely three minutes of footage.

But no! Ryan Reynolds will be a terrible Hal Jordan! He’s too jokey! Blake Lively can’t act at all! This is terribly obvious from some out of context clips that don’t even represent a full scene! And the mask looks stupid! Come on! How could Geoff Johns let this happen?! HOW COULD DC DO THIS TO US?!!?!!?!?

So yeah, it can be a bit of an uphill battle sometimes, especially with the more rabid geeky fanbases that spend a lot of time with these characters and (rightfully) would like to see them treated with a modicum of care and respect. There are limits, of course, logical ones that usually involve not casting stones until, oh I don’t know, at least principle photography is done (at the very least!), and these limits are constantly and consistently trampled on by people not unlike myself. There are times when the outrage is justified, and there are other times when a potentially great film can be killed by the negative publicity and wallow away in undue obscurity, or possibly never even be completed.

I remember when Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was released, it got a lot of negativity and pretty heavy criticism from the die-hard fans of the book. Most of them were upset by how much from the book was changed in the film, and how much had to be left out due to pacing concerns. It seems like many of them have come around at this point and realized that, at least to this point (having not seen either of the Deathly Hallows films), Prisoner is actually the best pure film of the lot. Truly, this is a microcosm of the tension that comes from adapting an existing story, especially one of length. Alfonso Cuaron certainly approached it from a wildly different aesthetic than original director Chris Columbus (who did not, in fact, discover anything of note in the first two film adaptations), and Steve Kloves decided to write the screenplay in a vastly different fashion. Sure, it may not have gotten all of the individual little plot points and background pieces, but it worked immensely well as its own story, and that’s exactly what an adaptation needs to do. Are things going to change? Sure! If you do everything you can to make sure they don’t change, if you’re entirely focused on being slavishly devoted to the source material, you’re much more likely to end up with something like those first two Harry Potter films, which come off as plot checklists stripped of all pacing and emotion. Why did the main character do this? Well, because the book said so! We don’t have time to explain why! We’ve got seventeen more plot points to cover before the credits roll! It’s safe to say that such an approach will often not lead to a good film.

Even some of the most slavish adaptations like Sin City or Watchmen, both of which often and judiciously recreate specific panels from their comic book source material basically as storyboards, realize that you can’t just go scene for scene and word for word. Literally (and I’m sticking to my guns here), the only situation where a film adaptation can be that slavishly devoted to the source material is when you’re filming a play word for word, move for move, from a stage production, and that’s not even really a film adaptation; it’s simply a reproduction. Film is its own living, breathing medium with its own considerations, concerns, pros and cons. Novels are paced differently from a visual medium. There are no pictures; the author has to use description to build the picture in your mind. Once that picture is replaced by an actual setting, with real actors and props and such, you’re less beholden to the descriptors and can (in theory at least) focus more on the task at hand with plot and characterization. In many cases, films get themselves into situations where the fanbase may have either individual or collective expectations for how a novel’s character looks, feels, acts, sounds, etc. that is not met by the casting of a film. There’s not much that a director or producer can do about this, and it remains important to keep an open mind about how something can look when completely finished, as opposed to lashing out against it during pre-production.

As an example, I’m not the only one who was surprised (in a mostly negative way) when it was announced that Mos Def would be playing the role of Ford Prefect in the oft-delayed film adaptation of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Part of the reasoning for this lies in the fact that Hitchhiker has been previously adapted both for television and radio, and we had in this case both an auditory and a visual sense of who the character was, and Mos Def was not that person. Skin color not withstanding, the accent and timbre of his speech was completely different. Perhaps I’m a little more open minded about these things than most (and trust me, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who reveres Hitchhiker and Douglas Adams more than I do), but I didn’t let these misgivings actually turn me off of the project at all, and it turned out that Mos Def did a fantastic job with the material, and more than earned his place among portrayals of Ford Prefect. I see absolutely no sense in completely derailing your opinion on a film without ample evidence to the contrary. Sure, if every piece of moving film you see in the trailer for an upcoming movie looks like garbage, you can easily skip that one, but I wouldn’t necessarily agree with completely abandoning a project because the mask on Ryan Reynolds looks a little wonky from one angle.

As a final example, I’d like to (once again) bring up Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World. When I saw the film, I hadn’t read any of the books. I still haven’t read all of them; I got all six in the mail from Amazon yesterday, and I’m halfway through book four right now (this might be because I know the basic plot outline already, but those suckers read FAST). All told, it’s pretty different from the film version. Yes, the characters are all basically the same, but the timeline is massively different (watching the film, it seems like the entire plot takes place over maybe a week or two, while the book cycle takes up an entire year), specific lines are said at different times in different contexts by different characters, and (unsurprisingly) some of the more ancillary characters like Envy and Kim are heavily fleshed out in the original books. I also appreciate that the books have the ability to give more time and credence to the Scott/Ramona relationship; one of the very few criticisms I have for the script of the film is the way that you never really get a sense of why Ramona is actually dating Scott. Interestingly enough, there are some deleted and extended scenes on the Blu-Ray release that add in a lot more content to their first couple of meetings and their first date, making the relationship more credible. As it stands, you just sort of go with it as a bit of a convention bending to the plot based on time concerns. It’s obvious from the DVD scenes that, had they the time, Edgar Wright and Michael Bacall intended to flesh out at least that portion of the proceedings, but it simply didn’t fit, and they decided that rather than shoehorning in more scenes with the potential of wrecking the overall flow of the film or possibly making it overlong, they decided that the work should stand on its own. And it does.

What matters more than anything is the feel of the film compared to the original source material. Mos Def may not be what we would have expected for Ford Prefect, but he feels like Ford at the end of the day, and that makes it work. Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World may have changed all sorts of little things, messing with timelines and characters, adding dimensions some places and taking them away in others, but when it’s all stitched together into a film, it feels like the book did. When there’s a disconnect, that’s when you run into problems. Take, for instance, the string of really terrible Marvel Comics adaptations that were thrust upon the public in the wake of the smashing success of the Spider-man and X-Men franchises. Daredevil, Elektra, Ghost Rider, and the Fantastic Four films didn’t work because they didn’t feel like they should have. No one was really complaining that Ben Affleck wasn’t blonde like Matt Murdock is in the comics. People complained that he didn’t act like or feel like Matt Murdock should based on the comics. No one (no one who is rational, at least) is going to be upset that Jennifer Garner doesn’t look like how Frank Miller or Joe Quesada drew her. They care about whether she evokes what the character means to them, and in the case of those films, it was a series of failures across the board.

Know the source material, sure. Respect the source material, obviously. But kowtow to the source material with no personal or professional regard for the overall work as a piece of media separate from the source material? That’s a problem. We live in a world where new ideas on film are few and far between. We’ll get some Inceptions and Black Swans, an Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind here, a District Nine there. And we’ll get whatever Pixar does. And we’ll be sure that it’ll be awesome because they haven’t steered us wrong yet (and despite this, I still have no interest in Cars 2, even though I liked the first one having had no initial interest in that one either). But in between all that is a string of comic book blockbusters, vampires that either sparkle or rip people’s faces off to differentiate themselves from the sparkly ones, boy wizards, biopic films about famous people living or dead, inspirational sports movies and a ton of other ideas taken from books, television, comics, music, video games, or that freaky unnatural place we call ‘real life.’ Treat the source with respect, but never forget that above and beyond all else, you’re making a movie, so try to make it a good one. People may kick and scream and holler at your insensitivity in the beginning, but if it's a truly good film, it'll stand the test of time, and you'll win out in the end.