I know that making films based on preexisting works of fiction and non-fiction isn’t that new. We can go all the way back to 1911 and find a film version of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel The Scarlet Letter. It’s a great way for filmmakers to make money: take a popular work, turn into something that can be shown on the silver screen, and milk the fans for all they’re worth.
This doesn’t have to be a cynical thing. A lot of great Shakespearean plays have been turned into major films, most notably those directed by Kenneth Branagh. But there are some works that don’t translate well into films, being either too dense or appealing only to a peripheral demographic. And then there is the other side of difficult film adaptations–not that the original material is hard to adapt, but that those making the film in question are turning it into something that isn’t faithful to the spirit of the work.
Personally, I feel that if an adaptation is going to be faithful to its original material, it doesn’t have to match it word-for-word or frame-for-frame (much like Zach Synder’s Watchmen film was). It just has to carry the same essence of the original work, something that both fans and first-time audience members can pick up on immediately.
I know it sounds vague, so I’ll start off with an example of what I consider to be a negative adaptation: Batman & Robin (1997) by Joel Schumacher.
On its own merits, it’s a laughably bad film. But as an adaptation of the Batman mythos, it’s also pretty bad. Previous films like Batman (1988) and Batman Returns (1992) were successful in capturing the dark and gritty feel of Gotham City and the brooding vigilante who defended it. But in Batman & Robin, there’s none of that. The visuals aren’t dark and Gothic, but bright and nauseating. The Dynamic Duo aren’t that dynamic and the character of Mr. Freeze–who had been originally conceived as a tragic and somber character in Batman: The Animated Series–was now a card-carrying villain who just cracked jokes about ice and had only a few touches of backstory about losing his wife. Even Bane, a genius-level villain who breaks the Dark Knight in the comic books, is reduced here to nothing more than a dumb brute.
None of this captures the feel of the comics that draws so many Batman fans back for more. There’s slapstick and cheap humor, but nothing that endures for long. More time was spent on visuals than on characters and dialogue, and rather than go for what fans would have wanted to see, the film’s creators went with the lowest common denominator and a campy style for an increasingly gritty franchise.
Now that was an example of a film losing the spirit of the original material. But what about a film that can capture that spirit? Even for an older work that might be very large in scale and hard to convert to film?
Enter Peter Jackson and the good folks at Weta Workshop, who gave us the Lord of the Rings film trilogy (2001 – 2003).
Here the challenge is to take the original literary trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien and find a way to capture the richly-detailed landscape, the epic scale of the War of the Ring, and the essence of Tolkien’s characters, from the wise wizard Gandalf to the parochial Hobbits. Not only that, but it had to be done in such a way that audiences could be counted on to come back two years in a row to see the two sequels that were essential to telling the whole tale of Frodo and the One Ring.
And they pulled it off. It took making a nine-hour film and then cutting it up into three parts. It took using new CGI techniques to make the giant battle scenes appropriate to the original story. It took casting the right people for the roles and going to New Zealand for the iconic scenery. And it even took a bit of rewriting in The Two Towers to add a new layer of conflict and humanity to the character of Faramir that would not have otherwise emerged if the second novel had been adapted just as it was.
Now, in that last part, I mentioned that some of the story was rewritten. This is not always a bad thing. If it enhances the film by adding more depth or fixing something that didn’t work in the original material, then it can be very useful. If, however, rewrites are only happening because of top-down meddling or “market-tested” ideas being put in, then there’s a possibility (again, not always) that the film will suffer for it.
I’m all too aware that films are a commercial product put out by studios and their investors. I have no problem with films being a commercial success or trying to reach a broad demographic. My problem is when changes are made for the sake of making more commercially appealing films that, in the end, aren’t successes; adaptations won’t please either fans or first-timers. Perhaps if the top brass of Hollywood and other film industries could take such lessons to heart and learn to spot such disasters down the road, then we might have less cringe-inducing adaptations and more shining successes.