Saturday, June 25, 2011

You Ruined It! :: Movie Adaptations of Favorite Books, Redux

The other day, a friend of mine pointed me to a news story about Tom Cruise being considered to play Lee Child's itinerant vigilante, Jack Reacher.

The outcry from fans was immediate and vigorous. Reacher is an unstoppable 6' 5", 250 pound, package of whupass. Cruise, generally speaking, is not. Child is on on record with the Guardian, saying "Reacher's size in the books is a metaphor for an unstoppable force, which Cruise portrays in his own way," Nevertheless, the cry went up from the halls of fandom: "You're ruining it!"

Every so often, this discussion rears its head and I've discussed it before in relation to Harry Potter as well as Where the Wild Things Are and Inkheart. And I'm on record as saying that there's no manner in which a movie adaptation can "ruin" a book.  They can screw up a story, they can make a bad movie, but nothing they do can have any effect on the book they were (allegedly) based upon... or can it?

First of all, I understand that a lot of the outcry on these things is from those who are dismayed that they're not going to like the movie they've been looking forward to. More often than not, the claim that a movie "ruined a book" is meant hyperbolically.

For the sake of argument, though, let's take this claim at face value.  Can a movie ruin a book, or overwrite our memories of it? Scientific evidence is beginning to accumulate to indicate that it can.

Last week, this story in The Daily Mail caught my eye. A study conducted by Washington University in St Louis indicated that even actual history doesn't stand a chance against the power of film to overwrite our memories of what we've read, or even what we've been taught by our teachers and professors.
"We found that when information in the film was consistent with information in the text, watching the film clips increased correct recall by about 50 percent relative to reading the text alone," explains Andrew Butler, a psychology doctoral student in Arts & Sciences. "In contrast, when information in the film directly contradicted the text, people often falsely recalled the misinformation portrayed in the film, sometimes as much as 50 percent of the time."

Washington University Press Release
Is it possible that the movie versions are so strong that they actually overwrite the book in our heads? Will 50% of moviegoers have our memories of the book be supplanted by Hollywood's edits and adaptations? Where history goes, so goes literature?

I can only speak for myself, and in my mind, the all the books I've read and then seen adapted to this point remain as I read them.

One class of moviegoer the report apparently ignores is the one who is so disgusted at the historical free-for-all on the screen that they turn it off or walk out of the movie because they know better.  I often fall in that camp. (History was interesting enough before Jerry Bruckheimer got hold of it, an opinion that I apply to the books I read as well.) Yet, despite my curmudgeonly ways with regard to historical epics, when the lights go down and the popcorn is in the bucket, I have little trouble putting aside the book to enjoy or revile a movie on its own merits.  Probably because history is arguing about interpreting actual events and literature (or the adaptation thereof) is about interpreting something that somebody made up.

What about you, dear reader? Can you separate the book from the movie in your head or does the one override the other? Does a casting choice or edit in a screenplay disturb your enjoyment of the source material?  Can a bad movie "ruin" a book it's based upon?

1 comment:

  1. Mutton of the SeaJune 25, 2011 at 11:27 AM

    People aren't necessarily qualified to make pronouncements about what's going on in their own heads. They may insist that something (like the re-writing of a memory) isn't happening, when tests can prove that it is.

    But it's also demonstrable that fans notice small changes and won't take dilution of a beloved character or the warping of a classic plot line lying down. And most works of fiction get made into movies because large fan base = money. Take too many liberties with the plot, and the fans will notice. (For example: Second movie of LOTR.)

    I think it has to do with how many times you've read a book, and how much you care about it. If I read a book once and din't particularly like it, then I don't particularly care what the movie-makers do with it.

    (Nice intro pic, by the way. Gives a whole new meaning to the term "thumb wrestling.")


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).