On Adaptions

Prompted by: Annihilation

Book-to-film adaptions are difficult. Some are certainly more fraught with challenges than others, but it is a huge hurdle to do a good book justice. I think that people largely underestimate the sheer volume of adaptions that are out. Most people know that movies like The Notebook, The DaVinci Code, and The Shining are based on popular books. Fewer people (but still a lot) are aware that movies such as The Godfather and Jurassic Park are also adaptions of books. But when it comes to movies like Forrest Gump and even Mean Girls, most people have no idea that they were based on books at all. High Fidelity, Requiem for a Dream, The Dressmaker, Breakfast at Tiffany’s… all books. The number of times I’ve been watching credits and seen the phrase “based on the book by _______” continues to blow me away.

These days, it seems like any book that makes it big gets turned into a movie. From Gone Girl to The Girl on the Train, popular books are being snatched up for movie deals left and right– not to mention books that came out half a century ago (I’m looking at you, A Wrinkle in Time). Half of me is proud of these authors, proud that they crafted a story so deeply enjoyable that they have been able to make a small fortune off of them and transition them to a new medium. But the other half of me squirms with discomfort over the fact that Hollywood execs are going for so few original scripts. Studios like A24 have been doing an increasingly impeccable job of giving inventive and creative scripts a chance, which makes it exciting instead of uncertain when they do spring for adaptions such as Neil Gaiman’s How to Talk at Girls at Parties. Overall though, I tend to avoid adaptions in theaters, especially when they’re on stylistic novels like Room or The Song of Achilles (more on that below).  But without further ado, here’s some of my favorite examples of successful adaptions.

Fight Club

This is, hands down, the best book-to-film transition I have ever seen. The casting was sublime, the pacing was perfection– especially given that I felt it wasn’t ideal in the novel, and the subliminal messages throughout the movie help to recreate and heighten the same sense of disease that the book draws upon. There are some aspects of the book, such as the “I am Jack’s ________” lines and the anti-consumerism themes, that manage to have more impact in the movie, possibly due to having such a visual connection with the narrator. I also feel that the storyline as a whole benefited from the visceral images in the film. My only qualm with Fight Club— both the book and the movie–  is that is has the same effect on certain male groups that Rick and Morty does. Rather than realizing that the stories are a commentary on what is wrong with society, some people place characters like Rick Sanchez and Tyler Durden on a pedestal.

fight club

Carol

Based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt, the film adaption was released in 2015 and was my favorite film of the year. The strength of the adaption is that it absolutely nails the calmness of the book. Both mediums have a soothing cadence to them, a quiet sort of chemistry that nestles inside your chest. The subtlety of the romance itself is exquisite in the film and pays so much respect to the era that the book was written in. In 1952, coming out as a gay woman would have been nigh on catastrophic. This lends an aura of secrecy and subtlety to every single interaction between the two women, something that the movie displays flawlessly. Lingering glances and fleeting eye contact, swollen silences and unassuming lunches, casual comments and small talk– these are things that the vast majority of heterosexual viewers didn’t pick up on as romantic, whereas queer viewers are entirely too familiar with the language. In fact, some critics complained that the film was “cold” and detached. In an age inundated with overt innuendos and transparency, it can be difficult to pick up on the undercurrent of energy and longing that runs through Carol. This is certainly one of the best adaptions I’ve ever seen, and one that breaks my heart every time I watch it.

carol

Lord of the Rings

The primary issue that Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings series faced when it came time for adaption was time constraints. The book trilogy was incredibly complex and features so much material that plot points like Tom Bombadil and The Sacking of The Shire would have only felt shoehorned if they had been included in the movie adaptions, so it is understandable why they were left out. Speaking of time, however, I do feel that the passage of time was not properly conveyed in the movies. Seventeen years pass between Bilbo’s birthday party and Frodo’s departure from The Shire and the quest itself takes over a year to complete. Aside from that, there are really only two things I take issue with: Frodo telling Sam to go home on the stairs to Cirith Ungol, and Aragorn’s near death when he falls over the cliff. While Legolas and Gimli’s on-screen friendship is lacking in comparison to the books, I think the majority of the characterization was spot-on, especially that of Merry and Pippin and Gandalf. Don’t even get me started on Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy, but I felt that he succeeded in many ways to bring the scope and scale of such a beloved world to the big screen.

fellowship of the ring

Harry Potter

Again, the main issue with adapting an entire book series is the time constraints. I am rather of the belief that JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series would have vastly benefited from being made into a TV series rather than a movies series, but of course that would have come with it’s own full set of challenges. Things like Peeves the Poltergeist, Neville’s full background, S.P.E.W., and Dudley’s “I don’t think you’re a waste of space” line are all things would have enriched the movies… but also would have added noticeable run time to the films. The movies are not without their flaws. From the casting choices for Albus Dumbledore to destroying the Elder Wand, I think the movies left much to be desired. However, what made the series such a huge success (and why I’m including it on this list) was the fact that it was accessible for both readers of the books and new fans. The movies feature a slew of small hat tips to the books, which enriched the viewing for everyone who had been following along for years, while still making it entirely accessible for those who had never opened one of the books. The undertaking of bringing such a layered and detailed story to life was monumental, and I think that the four directors did a surprisingly good job of illustrating the aspects of the wizarding world that many readers held near and dear to their hearts.

goblet of fire

Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire

I’ve talked about my issues with this show in a previous post, but I didn’t discuss how much I feel that the books and the show should be required companions for each other. I watched the first four seasons of the show a couple of years back, but only picked up the books this past fall. To say that Martin’s undertaking is ambitious is the understatement of the decade. His endless litany of characters, names, historical events, and houses often feels more like a religious tome than a fantasy novel. I’m not ashamed to say that I likely would not have even made it through the first book if I hadn’t already watched some of the show. Having a familiarity with the main characters (and a lot of the secondary ones) made the story far more enjoyable and immersive. With that being said, the show is severely lacking in many aspects. There are a number of plot points and character subtleties that didn’t make it on screen but do so much to flesh out the world and the people. After finishing the books, I re-watched the first three seasons and had very mixed feelings. There are a lot of things about the show that I simply can’t justify. Merely on a lit nerd level, it’s really difficult to watch all the unnecessary ways in which the show deviates from the books. But on a deeper level, the amount of violence and sexism that repeatedly takes place on screen is something I struggle to watch, for various reasons. I don’t have any intentions of continuing the show, but I can’t recommend the books enough to anyone who is a regular watcher.

a song of fire and ice

Room & Virgin Suicides

I almost didn’t include this section, as I haven’t seen either of these movies. However, both films were nominated for various awards and were clearly well-executed. So why won’t I watch them? As I’ve mentioned before, I’m absolutely over the moon for prose that reads like poetry. The Song of Achilles always leaves me breathless and/or in tears for that very reason, as does Valente’s Fairyland series. While poetic prose is my favorite stylistic trait when it comes to novels, I’m also a huge fan of inventive narrators in general, such as Jack in Room. The Virgin Suicides has been one of my favorite books for close to five years, largely because of it’s blend of unique narrative and beautiful prose. I find myself deeply attached and endlessly in awe of these novels almost entirely due to their writing style. Of course the characters and the settings are wonderful as well, but I only connect to them in the first place because of how they were written. It seems to me that regardless of how well filmed or perfectly cast these movies may be, they will still be unable to properly capture the writing style that made me fall in love with them in the first place. I hate to think that I will watch these movies and forever associate the film choices with the novels. I would rather have the books remain flawless for me than try to mix the two mediums.


So what do you think? Did you enjoy these adaptions? Leave a comment below with your favorite page-to-screen adaption! 

Spotlight on Cinematography: Sparks Fly

Now that my first round of color-centric cinematography posts is wrapped up, I wanted to pause and explore a couple of other themes. These seven frames all feature fireworks and sparks as a focal point. It’s exciting to see how such a variety of movies uses a similar item in a variety of ways for a variety of reasons.

Disclaimer: Thus far, I have only posted frames from films I’ve watched and that is a habit I have every intention of sticking to. However, the below frame from The Theory of Everything popped up on my dash and was such a perfect addition that I had to include it. This will be the very rare exception of including a frame that wasn’t hand-picked after a viewing.

the man who cried
The Man Who Cried (2000) || Sacha Vierny
theory of everything
The Theory of Everything (2014) || Benoit Delhomme (DP)
wonder woman 2
Wonder Woman (2017) || Matthew Jensen
gatsby
The Great Gatsby (2013) || Simon Duggan (DP)
order of the phoeniz
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007) || Slawomir Idziak (DP)
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)(Screengrab)
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) || Andrew Lesnie (DP)
v for vendatta
V for Vendetta (2005) || Adrian Biddle (DP)

On Simple Stories Well Told

I watched a lot of films in 2017, and I found myself with a growing affection for simple stories well told. In today’s Hollywood, it feels like most blockbusters are all explosions and drama and excess. They’re full of fillers and, as director Eric Swiz puts it, they end up feeling like “movie-flavored” productions rather than real movies. There seems to be less and less emphasis on proper characterization and meandering stories. Instead, more and more emphasis is being placed on catching the attention of viewers, however fleeting that attention may be. Movies like Batman vs Superman and Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets feel like they were made to be trailers, not full stories. The goal is to get viewers to spend money on a ticket, not necessarily to make a movie that they will connect with. This makes it all the more surprising (and reassuring) when films like Moonlight make it to the forefront of the public sphere.

As I’ve grown more fond of these simple stories, I’ve noticed a common thread running through their reviews: they’re boring and slow and their endings are unsatisfying. To which I have only this to say: sometimes, so is life.

Boyhood

I wanted to start with an example that a lot of readers might have seen. This 2014 piece directed by Richard Linklater is a daunting 2 hours and 45 minutes, something that had me putting off a viewing until very recently. Nominated for a handful of Oscars and Golden Globes (and winning over 170 awards) this is nothing short of a meandering masterpiece. Within five minutes of this movie starting, I was utterly immersed. I didn’t look at my phone or eat a snack or do anything else except watch the film. Following the normal life of one normal boy, this story winds through 12 years of life, marking both pivotal points and unassuming events in his childhood. On the surface, it almost feels like nothing much happens. There are no deaths or spectacles or dramatic reunions, and you often feel like you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop. But there are relationships and conversations and evolution and this is what fleshes out a beautiful and subtle tale of growth. It is a quiet story, one that illustrates how much we change through the years and how our goals and dreams often change with us. It’s difficult to explain the magic of this movie and how deeply it connects with you as you’re watching it, but if you haven’t already seen it, I recommend it highly.

boyhood
Boyhood 2014) || Richard Linklater (Director)
Drinking Buddies

Featuring Olivia Wilde, Anna Kendrick, and Jake Johnson, this might very well be one of my favorite viewings from 2017. It follows the stories of two intertwined couples over a short period of time and the impact they have on each other. It’s a romance film, but it’s not like the romance films that end up on the big screen. There isn’t a dramatic ending, there isn’t a knock-down drag-out fight, and there isn’t a cheesy soundtrack playing when people kiss. It’s quiet and emotional and believable, and it ends like it started: without fanfare or debacle. I don’t want to say much more for fear of spoiling the story, but it’s a very candid look at interactions and the human experience, and one that I can’t recommend enough. Bonus: it’s currently on Netflix!

drinking buddies
Drinking Buddies (2013) || Joe Swanberg (Director)
Spa Night

This 2016 Korean film is brilliant in a very quiet way. The use of negative space throughout the film heightens the overall mood by not using a soundtrack, completely eliminating physical touch, and even minimizing the main character’s self-expression almost to the point of removing it entirely. I think the strength of this movie comes from it’s day-to-day moments and how simple tasks and experiences can be both uplifting and heartbreaking. The movie ends with another average action in another average day, highlighting that in real life, many stories don’t have a happy ending or a neat resolution. This movie is so grounded in the challenges of day-to-day life that it is virtually impossible not to connect with it on one level or another.

spa night
Spa Night (2016) || Andrew Ahn (Director)
7 Chinese Brothers

Following the escapades of a struggling 20-something, played by Jason Schwartzman, this 2015 indie comedy was significantly more fun than I was expecting. A lot of reviewers were flustered over the fact that the film never referenced the title, but not only does the exact phrase show up, but where it shows up is a huge metaphor as to what this movie is all about. Keep your eyes peeled and you’ll catch it. An excerpt from my Netflix review is as follows: “Not all films have to feature a grand adventure or a huge plot twist to be enjoyable. This may not be for everyone, but I found it to be a really enjoyable character study. A simple story well told, in many ways.” Bonus: the dog actor is Jason Schwartzman’s real-life dog!

7 chinese brothers
7 Chinese Brothers (2015) || Bob Byington (Director)
Imperial Dreams

This 2014 film starring John Boyega is heartbreaking to the nth degree. We watch a young man, just released from prison, desperately trying to make a safe and legal life for his son. The film doesn’t sugarcoat anything and demonstrates the crippling nature of a system built to work against you. There is a quiet grittiness and honesty to this story that crawls into your chest and wraps around your heart. You want so desperately for the main character to succeed at such a simple wish: to take care of his son. Your heart breaks each time another challenge is presented and he is made to feel that it is his own shortcomings that are stifling him. The bittersweet nature of the entire story feels hopeless in some places and awe-inspiring in others, but it is never anything less than honest.

imperial dreams
Imperial Dreams (2014) || Malik Vitthal (Director)
My Life as a Zucchini

This 2016 French stop-motion film has a run time of only one hour and six minutes– but I was misty-eyed long before that point. This story follows the life of a little boy called Zucchini who ends up at a French orphanage. I have long been of the belief that animated films are not automatically children’s films, and this is an exquisite example of that. Dealing with profound themes in a simple way, there’s a lot that can be found between the lines. In addition, the fact that it doesn’t make any attempts to fill up the run time is certainly one of its strong points. It’s a peaceful story about a tumultuous time, and is handled with a kind of delicacy that is very rarely seen. It is tender without being overly sentimental, and honest without being explicitly open. It was one of my favorite viewings of 2017 and I would be lying if I said I don’t think it deserved the Oscar over Zootopia.

my life as a zucchini
My Life as a Zucchini (2016) || Claude Barras (Director)