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Translating writing to film


Jessica Baumgartner

How many of us anticipate the movie version of our favorite novel and then feel betrayed when it does not live up to our expectations. Sometimes it’s inevitable and other times just unnecessary. Certain stories were only meant to be projected in one’s imagination and will never be done justice through the medium of the silver screen.

Luckily a lot of modern writers are so familiar with this issue that they often visualize their writing in cinematic form. There seems to be many different explanations for the failures versus the successes.

Could it be that some fans will never be satisfied by another’s interpretation of a writer’s work? How can a movie production company keep the integrity of an author’s story in tact while also making the changed necessary to create visual moments that better fit a movie? Do certain directors understand the voice of a novel better? These are all questions whose answers solve the mystery of appeasing audiences. “Everyone’s a critic.” Never has the saying been truer.

People are more connected than ever with social networking sites and technologies that link us within seconds. As a result word travels fast and movie reviews are posted long before openings and box office reports. On top of all this, fans seem more fickle than ever. We’ve seen everything and it is harder to captivate that guy whose constantly texting in the theatre. (You know who you are, that bright screen is an immediate glowing distraction.) But in the defense of moviegoers, when a fan shells out over eight dollars per ticket (Variety magazine) plus concession to see their favorite book turned into a movie, it better pull out all the stops. Many do not more often than not.

Fans ate up The Green Mile, The Lord of the Rings, Coraline, Harry Potter, and the list goes on. By contrast movies like John Carter, Starship Troopers, and The Watchmen were not well received by the public. This is partly due to the fact that these particular examples, and most others that angered fans, deviated too much from the original story. I myself felt betrayed by The Watchmen film, but in all fairness it was never meant to be acted out by real people. Certain aspects had to be changed. I mean did we really want to see Dr. Manhatten’s big blue wang flopping around on a giant screen? Not unless it’s a parody.

Then there is the second Hobbit film, The Desolation of Smaug, a beautiful work by Peter Jackson whose brilliant adaptation of The Lord of the Rings trilogy was generally acclaimed as a masterpiece. Unfortunately he bent to societal pressures to try and make the movie less of a sausage-fest; enter Tauriel. I loved her and would have been totally down with a movie titled Tauriel: The She Elf as its own fictitious work. But placing her in The Hobbit just to add a woman in the film was more insulting than having none at all. The character seemed out of place, forced. Audiences were pulled out of Tolkien’s Middle Earth and thrown into an awkward elf/dwarf love triangle that had no bearing on the story and no place in it.

Everyone’s a critic and I am no different. It does seem unfair to expect a living breathing version of a novel to get up and magically play out onscreen.

To be fair, many movie production companies make specific changes only to create a more cinematic feel for the film. No one seems to have gotten the perfect formula for making necessary changes while keeping the core of the story intact. Heyday Films’ Harry Potter series had to cut certain elements out but left most of the storyline as true to the books as possible and fans appreciated that. I myself would have loved to see Hermoine’s S.P.E.W protests but it was a fun literary anecdote, not an essential movie ingredient.

Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein captivated horror fans but the whole 'reanimate my wife at the end' thing was something that the Victor Frankenstein I know would never have done. He had already learned his lesson at that point in the story; that is why it is so tragically beautiful. Despite the change, Helena Bonham Carter’s ability to make that scene unforgettable was riveting. Fast forward to one of my favorite examples, John Carter, and things get interesting.

People always say the book is always better than the movie. If I had read A Princess of Mars before watching John Carter I may have been just as angered at the innumerable changes presented, but I had never heard of the series and it was the movie that led me to the book and the rest of the stories. Both are beautiful tales that rank in my favorites. Making Deja Thoris a fighter enhances the story in my eyes being that the director of the film obviously drew from Roman culture to shape his city of Helium. Portraying the ninth ray as an undiscovered power source gave the wars between cultures more meaning as they were immediately fighting to survive against attacks from a destructive power source in the hands of an enemy. I liked the changes because they gave the story more cohesion and still seemed to carry the heart of what Burroughs wrote. That is the sign of a good director. Certain directors have a tendency to immerse themselves in the original works that they are to develop for viewers. When the good ones implement changes they are often done to smooth out plot holes and appeal to wider audiences.

Many people just watch a movie and do not even bother looking at the book, not my favorite aspect of modern society, but reading is not as important to some people. If they are unable to understand a film without having already absorbed the story, it will take a toll on box office numbers. Directors like Henry Selick, Frank Darabont, and Peter Jackson seem to have a knack for balancing this dilemma of delivering a good solid film that the author of the original story can be proud of. Henry Selick was able to please Neil Gaiman fans with his version of Coraline. This particular director does not have a long list of movie credits under his name, but this may be an instance of quality over quantity, it is also meaningful that he wrote the screenplay of the film as well. Frank Darabont is most famously known for The Green Mile and has a pattern of writing the screenplay for the best films that he directed also. Connecting with the story by writing the transition to film may be the secret. Writers know writers. Peter Jackson was one of the screenplay writers for all of the Tolkien series films as well. Now it is known that Tolkein’s son is openly unhappy with Peter Jackson’s representation of his father’s work. (Elephant journal)

In short it seems that he dislikes the hype that the film has created and feels that the “three ring circus” that Jackson’s beautiful images have created is unwarranted. This is a perfect example of one not understanding the difference between books and film. You cannot please everyone. Some fans, or writer’s descendants are just never satisfied, but most are fair as long as the movie production companies keep the original story in tact despite the changes that must be made and appreciate the works of directors who understand this. Translating writing to film is an art form in itself and should be treated as such.

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