Tuesday, July 21, 2009

You Ruined It!

Hollywood is chock full of milquetoast renditions of great books. I just read a thoughtful comparison between the movie Inkheart and the book by Cornelia Funke upon which it was based over at the book blog We Be Reading (the movie - though enjoyable - varies drastically in character and tone from the book). It was all handled delicately and she was most gentle when discussing the variance between the two, but it stoked a mental fire that I've been tending for quite some time.

What I appreciated most about Kristen's assessment of the two (book and movie) is that she never once implied that the one destroyed the other. Last night I watched the new Harry Potter movie and came home to finally read the reviews without fear of spoilers (though reading the books was spoiler enough, I suppose) and was surprised at the number of fans taking it to task for varying too much from JK Rowling's story and "ruining the book".

Yes things were deleted. And things were added. And people were shuffled. Can't say I minded much. And it certainly didn't ruin the book.

That's a complaint I hear and read a lot and I can't say I understand it. The list of books I've heard fans complain of being "ruined" by their filmic translation is seemingly endless and ranges wildly from James Bond to James and the Giant Peach. The popularity or critical success of the movie seems to stand somewhat apart from the reaction of the dedicated fans.

I have to admit that upon hearing that one of my favorite books will be set to film, I too sometimes find my teeth grinding. Why is that? No matter how far afield a two hour Where the Wild Things Are movie takes a 48-page children's book, the impact that this seminal book had on my life won't be undone. So why do we care so much?  

Bladerunner was an excellent movie that never got anywhere near Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. Watchmen was simultaneously praised and lambasted for its adherence to Allan Moore's graphic novel. Yet classics by Dickens, Austen and God-knows Sir Arthur Conan Doyle have been endlessly made and remade without the pantheon of English Literature spiraling into oblivion... So why does my hair stand on end when I hear that a Neuromancer movie is in the works? It can't really "ruin" the book. Can it?

There are certainly movies I've seen that made me slink out of the movie theater wishing for a trick of Space & Time to allow me to go back and regain the hours lost. (A good argument for investing heavily in time travel research). And I'm sure many of them were based upon books, sometimes a mite too loosely. But did the 2002 adaptation of The Time Machine alter my perception of the HG Wells story? No. At most it ran afoul of the wholly-imaginary movie I've spent the last thirty years casting and re-casting in my head. Is that what's really being 'ruined' by these film adaptations? That's not really the same as ruining a book, is it?

I've been told by some that the mental impression left by film is stronger than the impression left by text. And while sounds somewhat plausible in our remarkably visually-oriented society, there's at least one interesting scientific study that seems to indicate that the reaction to scenes on the screen and on the page are essentially the same. If you follow that link above, you'll find a WIRED article about the scientists who determined that "what's disgusting on the screen is just as disgusting described in a book" -- ultimately the brain doesn't care if it's seeing it on the silver screen or imagining it from a passage of text. Is this the neural chemistry that's hampering the ability of some to differentiate between the movieplex and the bookstore? Is the image flickering on the screen overwriting the memories of the original story? Not for me.

My problem is that the idea implies that there isn't room on my mental bookshelf for the filmic adaptation of Coraline and the Neil Gaiman book despite the similarities and differences between the two. In the current climate books are transforming from ink on a page (or at least only ink on a page) to a picture on a screen, whether we're closing the gap between the two or they are already on the verge of overlapping is a bit of a debate.

For the nonce, I think that it behooves us to remember each for its charms, quirks and merits. Revel in the quiet elegance of the inner dialogue only possible in print, in the images that flicker behind our eyes as we doze off with a beloved book on our chests and don't confuse it with the communal event found in the darkness of a movie theater.

Make a movie. Write a book. Adapt one into the other. Heck, re-imagine Mystic River as a Broadway Musical. There is too much to enjoy (or revile) in any one format that I cannot help but regard each as a separate entity to be praised or damned on its own merits. The movie sits beside the book on my shelf rather than replacing it... or ruining it.


  1. All excellent points! I think the answer to the possibility of the movie "overwriting" the book is to go RE-READ THE BOOK. If the movie leaves a bad taste in your brain, go RE-READ THE BOOK. Nothing can ruin the book. Nothing changes the words on the page. They're still there.

    Now I happen to like the new Harry Potter movie very much. I also purposely didn't re-read it just before seeing it. When I popped CD #1 in the car CD player yesterday afternoon, and started listening to Stephen Fry's beautiful round delivery, I was totally shocked at where the story begins. It's not in the movie--and it's also a lot of really unnecessary (to a film) exposition. Well how niue!

    This movie and the one before it both leave me with the feeling of having skipped a stone over the surface of the story. The essential points are there, but I often wonder what those who haven't read the books do to fill in some of the motivations. Yet, when I ask them (yes, I do know a few) they don't seem to feel a lack. And I think that should tell us something. If the movie gets someone to read the book (it happens!) they'll discover the real depth of the story and of that whole world.

    I also liked the film version of Prince Caspian--also a book I know well. Sure they added a lot of stuff, but I liked everything they added, so really, it was OK. And the costumes were great :-) Lord of the Rings is another conversation, but the conclusion is similar. There's nothing anyone can do to ruin the book. The book is not touched by the film. Read it again.


  2. That should have been "Well, how nice", of course. :)

  3. I have often had very similar thoughts about the vitriolic responses that the advocates of various novels hurl on the world at the release of the film version(s) of their pet novel(s). And while I am capable of accepting and comprehending the sometimes very intimate experience a novel can be for us when beig read for the first time, and the often very visceral connections we can form to the characters and places within those novels, I have to remind myself that although chances are good someone else has had those very same reactions that I did, there are just as many people who were struck by different chords within the same novel and had a vry different experience of hte book than mine, despite or because of the author's intent in writing. To me it is that multiplicity of experience springing from the same novel that adds beauty and depth to its words, that it can create such varried experiences in the hearts and minds of a wide range of readers is an amazing thing. I think more devotees of any given work of literature should be more embracing of this idea, and further that some readers are then going to take their differing experience of the novel and translate it into a film. I share your trepidation at the pending Neuromancer film, but I also have a spark of wonder and fascination too......never before have we had the technology at our disposal capable of representing so many of the intense visuals Gibson packed into those novels, so for once we are likly to see a world much closer to his vision than was the case in Johnny Nemonic (definitely a filmic investment of time that should warrant retroactive time credit being refunded to all of us who suffered through its horrid writing and even worse acting). For me, seeing the film of a novel is like getting a glimpse into the imagination of someone else who fell in love with the same words I did, getting to see how they imagined it. That in itself is a really intimate thing, and I tend to treat it with the respect that such an intimate sharing deserves. SO thankyou for writing this piece.

    Joel Reid (via Facebook)

  4. I'm tentatively looking forward to Spike Jonze's treatment of Where the Wild Things Are despite the inevitable changes that will be necessary to make it fit the format. And if Neuromancer opens without a sky "the color of a television set tuned to a dead station" I'm going to be annoyed.

    The intimacy of sharing someone else's vision of the book... I like that idea, Joel.

  5. Battlefield Earth. I loved that book, and I still do. The movie? Good gods they should have never made it. The thing that upsets me the most is that people will never pick up the book because of that movie.

    So I guess a bad movie can ruin a good books chances of being read, but not the book itself.

  6. Fascinating topic. For me, I always like to read the book first, as I like to establish my own sensory interpretation before I take in someone else's. If it's a good story, as Maggie said, the more information the better. As I get older, I find that I am more and more interested in the backstory and the historical context. These are usually pretty absent in the movie except insofar as they are required to move the plot or for scenic or costume design, both of which are often historically incorrect or changed to be more exciting/scandalous/sexy. I see this on so-called nonfiction television as well, such as the History Channel.

    That said, I enjoy seeing how filmmakers translate a narrative into a different media. Once we accept that a translation will of necessity be different animal than the original, it becomes easier to accept the creativity/market factors that will change it. Publishers of Shakespeare's plays make choices as they decide which of the folios/quartos to intermix in their editions, as well as how to regularize the spelling and names and which version of famous lines to include or exclude. When we read anything from earlier than Shakespeare, or anything originally from another language, the translator will make conscious and unconscious decisions that will greatly affect the end product. The Christian Bible is an extreme example of this. So the fact of translation is one that I don't have trouble accepting; instead, I enjoy seeing another person's take on the story, in the same way that a play is a combination of author's intent, directors' vision and actors' interpretation. That's what makes it interesting. Do I go to a play to find out what the author intended? No more than I read for the same reason. The author (while not dead, in my opinion) is only the initiator of a dialogue that at least contains the reader but can also contain many other voices as well.

    I enjoy reading more than any other way of accessing media. It works for me. It does not work for everyone, at least not unaided, as I have discovered in the last few years. My students often have a very hard time visualizing elements of narrative, particularly keeping track of sequence and location, but also absorbing details and subtleties of characterization. For the most part, plot and superficial character are all they can figure out on their own, and for aspects of motivation, themes, motifs, allusions, etc., they must be slowed down and guided to ask themselves questions if they are to notice them at all. Often, teaching a "difficult" text (anything that doesn't have sparkly vampires or football games), I will use a good film version interspersed with the reading to allow their imaginations to "catch up." With this, though, we always work together to critique the film version to remind them that the author's vision does not have to be the same as theirs. We did a comparative media unit this year that I really liked, which compared Depardieu's Cyrano (subtitled) to Kevin Kline's Broadway Cyrano (filmed stage play) to Steve Martin's Roxanne. We switched back and forth, act by act, and they responded and reflected on different aspects as we went. Their varied responses were fascinating, and I was thrilled to see their ability to detach and to switch their perspectives develop.

    Back to the topic at hand, my least favorite alteration of a movie was in the most recent Pride and Prejudice when Lizzy's change of heart re: Darcy was due to his fancy house rather than to the testimonial of his servants. This was really a case of the screenwriter missing the point and diminishing the story. My favorite alteration of a movie was the expanded role of Arwen in LotR. In the book, she just didn't deserve Aragorn, and the movie amended that. OTOH, replacing the "you can't go home again" reflection of Tolkien's book with Happy Happy Hobbiton was a major disappointment in an otherwise brilliant series of movies.

    Rebecca Roberts

  7. I love where you took this post, Scott. I think I learned my lesson with Inkheart to not marry the reading of the book and the watching of the movie. Doing them both in the same week was a bad idea. There's so little chance that they will compare. I probably would have liked the movie had I watched it first (being a huge Wizard of Oz fan, I loved all of the references and the use of the original cover!).

    I think we are going to see a lot of the "they ruined it!" speak when The Time Traveler's Wife comes out later this year because of the amount of devotion to that book. I always wonder if the movies based on these well-loved books are made by a true fan who wants to present the story as they see it (ala Peter Jackson) or if it's some suit at a studio that says "hey, this is really popular and I bet that a movie would make a bundle". Either one of these can be disastrous or amazing though. It's all just so random. And I really think that there should be room for multiple film remakes, just like they do with English Lit. Why can't we have another Inkheart movie with a different screenwriter? I would go see it.

  8. Great topic. I liked Philip Pulmans response when asked about the differences between his Dark Materials books and the film version of The Golden Compass, he said he saw them as two entirely different entities and in no way did the film change or diminish the book because the book was still there and still the same work. The film may draw new readers to the novel but otherwise it was a seperate and different work of art. He is making similar points to what you have made. Mostly I prefer the book to the film and the Harry Potter film was always going to leave a lot out but overall it presented the essence of the book through some great visual shorthand.


Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).