Movies, Books and Such

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.

So, yeah.
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.



9 responses to this post.

  1. Yay! I agree!
    And I love Howl – both in movie and in book form. But there are cases where my fan-nerdieness compels me to freak out – The smoking flashback in “Going Postal” being one example – and I completely reserve my right to bitch about those (hopefully whilst still enjoying the rest of the film!). The Studio Ghible recently remade something I remember from both books and televisioned series when I was little, the story of the Borrowers;, and I really enjoyed that – but if someone starts to adapt books with rabid fans like those of pTerry and Tolkien, they will need to thread carefully.


  2. Howl’s Moving Castle is a fun movie. Howl’s Moving Castle is a great book. Diana Wynne Jones actually liked Miyazaki’s adaptation of her novel, and readily admitted a movie is not a book and vice versa.

    What I find a bit troublesome is that Miyazaki will take too many liberties with a novel and turn it into something utterly different. This was the case with his “Tales of Earthsea,” where he took shards from the novels and short stories and tried to spin them all together into another tale that had very little to do with the Earthsea Trilogy. Ursula Le Guin was upset with what was done to her books and the overall quality of the film, more so since she found out Miyazaki had handed over the project to his son, who had little experience in directing a film.

    Since then Miyazaki has come out of retirement to work on other movies, but he burned his bridge with Le Guin, who had been a fan of his prior to “Tales.” I was pretty irate with the movie as well, but it drove me to re-read the Earthsea Trilogy, and I’m enjoying the books immensely.

    I think the adaptation of a book depends so much on your perceived audience—Miyazaki considers his primary one to be Japanese and younger, while Le Guin regards hers as more diverse. Jones, may she rest in peace, was happy that someone finally took interest in her books of wizardry, which were written well before J.K. Rowling picked up a pen. Her audience was mostly “young adults,” which seems unjust considering who reads fantasy these days. But Miyazaki picked up on the less mature themes of “Howl’s Moving Castle.” (In the book Howl was a womanizer, which leads to his troubles, unlike the character portrayed in the film.) You are right, a movie should be able to stand on its own as a good film, not as a good adaptation of a book. But one can do a very good job of both—I’m thinking of the BBC TV adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice,” which was excellent in every sense, literary and cinematic.


  3. Posted by geologywoman on January 29, 2012 at 12:44 am

    Very well said, my friend. For example: I love both The Firm as a book and as a movie. I really enjoyed the gripping moments in the book, and I loved loved loved Holly Hunter in the film, for me she outshone everyone else. I reread The Firm in hospital 2 years ago and I thank the heavens I had it in my handbag when I was rushed to the emergency room because I hate watching telly in bed (plus you have to pay to watch it in hospital in the UK).
    I am re-reading the ending of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo because I started reading the 2nd book and decided I had to reread the ending of the 1st. I can hardly wait to see the film and what the interpretations of the characters will be. I hope they do not leave some important details out.
    “how seldom a great book becomes more than a mediocre film” – yep! So disappointing.
    The thing for me sometimes is that I form an image of the people in my head and even the settings and then I get let down by Hollywood crap where everyone is gorgeous and slender and Julia Roberts and Brad Pitt take over. Yawn! Can someone have crooked teeth and a fat roll please! That sounded pithy, sorry.


  4. I always have a difficult time finding movies that I enjoy anywhere near as much as I enjoy reading a book.
    “Andromeda Strain” was a fun movie, but I saw that before I read the book. And I always felt that Michael Crichton wrote his books to be made into movies, more than to be read as books. (Yes, that is NOT a compliment).

    I thought the movie “The Green Mile” did a GREAT job of expressing Stephen King’s book. Probably my favorite book to movie switch.

    I loved LoTR movies….but they were not within lightyears of being as fantastic as the books. And there was no way they could. I guess that is why I gave them so much slack. I knew there was going to be cubic ton-loads of stuff missing from the movies so I went into them expecting nothing. And the casting and videography and the stories that were able to be included in the movies were delish. So, I accepted them and enjoyed them.

    I really need to get to reading the LoTR once again.


  5. Sometimes I read a book and think that the author was writing it hoping it would be made into a movie. A book has to be very one-dimensional not to lose anything in the translation from printed page to film. I don’t usually like those books or movies. A movie is a single interpretation of a book, and sometimes the things it adds enrich its story even if they depart from the book, and I respect that. But sometimes things depart so much from the author’s intent that it seems disrespectful and I feel cheated.

    I really love the movie Howl’s Moving Castle. I’ve read and enjoyed other things by the author but I have put off reading the book because I know that the experience will be so different. I don’t want to be retroactively disappointed in a movie I like so much, but I know I’m losing out by not reading the book, because I should be able to fully appreciate them as distinct works of art.


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