I started to respond to a pretty much off-hand comment on books becoming movies. Then I realized my comment had moved way beyond even Yer Basic Ranting Reply.
So I moved it over here, where it is no longer a reply, but a screed in its own right.
Making Books into Movies
People do creative interpretations of plays routinely – Romeo and Juliet set in New York City, Julius Caesar as a Chicago gangster, and on and on.
Theater people relish these various production decisions, and attempts at “authentic” productions of drama are easily seen as just one of many options.
The text of a play itself provides only a framework, and putting on a play is legitimately seen as a matter of providing the world for that script.
Making movies from plays enjoys a similar freedom.
Making movies from books, though, is treated differently.
Perhaps it is because books tell us so many more details than do plays, so that a reader has a much fuller understanding of that story.
And, unlike a written play, a novel was never intended to be translated from one genre to another.
A play is always the script of a potential performance, but a novel is not a screenplay.
In adapting a book to a movie, every detail undergoes a change.
Something basic, like transferring the words “a messenger arrives” a brief image in a movie, involves creating a specific movie set, and employing a particular actor to portray an exact movement.
It can never be an exact equivalent, because words and images work entirely differently.
Does the messenger walk through a door into a room, or do we see him arrive at the building, do we see him ride up, or does he already stand in the room and speak?
Does this messenger have a beard- did the book say so, or did it leave it unsaid?
Is it marked to add a detail like a beard; are we visually paying him more attention now than we did when we merely read the words?
Does it matter to make him bearded, uniformed, tall or short, running or walking, calm or excited?
The book doesn’t have to make these particular decisions, but images are particular: it is never “a messenger” in a movie, it is always some particular messenger.
And so on with every single detail.
And that hasn’t even begun to deal with the storyline.
One of the mysteries of film adaptation is how often a great movie is made from a relatively mediocre book, and how seldom a great book becomes more than a mediocre film.
The problem lies in the difficulty in transferring subject matter from one genre to another.
It is not simply a matter of telling the story, because storytelling in words is so very different than story telling in images.
Making a 300 page book faithfully, event by event, into a movie would make any book-based movie impossibly long.
(Consider that the extended version of the LOTR left of lots and lots of material.)
Even the most faithful adaptations cannot meticulously transfer every element of a story.
But with a book you care about, the stakes are raised because you care about the original storyline.
And, as important as issues of omission are, there are also outright changes.
Ultimately, it becomes a matter of how much freedom you are willing to give the creator of this new artwork, this film, in shaping the story to the new media.
There are always two different discussions about film adaptations of novels.
The first is book-based: Are the changes made acceptable ones, or are they fundamental errors that misread the original
The second is: Has the book become a movie that can be accepted on its own terms?
And these two are related.
Directors don’t just alter story lines for the heck of it, but rather they make the changes they think are needed to make a good film.
And this is the meat of the matter.
You must be willing to allow a film maker the freedom to alter the story.
(For all retelling is alteration, and any good story has in it the seeds of multiple versions, and from there we go off to narrative land…)
But what those story line changes are – whether you feel they are justified, whether you think the new work is worthy of the original story – these are all debatable points for every film.
It is not that the story of the film is different from that of the novel, but how it differs, and why, and what you make of the new work.
Howl’s Moving Castle is a simply wonderful movie.
That means that there are two magnificent creations now, where there was once only one.
And, world enough and time, maybe someday someone will make another movie from DWJ’s book, making other creative choices, and that would be fine too.