Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Revenge of the Screenplay Writers: Film Adaptations

One of the most horrifying conversations I ever had went something like this:

(I'll call the other participant He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named because,
like Lord Voldemort, ignorance is evil)

Me: ... but I think my favorite Shakespeare play is Hamlet.
He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named: Really?
Me: Yeah, I think so. I've read it ten times, and I know it's almost a cliche
nowadays, but I really love it. There's just so much there.
He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named: I thought the Mel Gibson version was pretty good.

There are two things to which I objected: 1) This person automatically associated one of the greatest literary minds in Western civilization to a cheesy Hollywood film adapation, and 2) The Mel Gibson version was the one he liked. Now, I understand that I'm prone to pomposity and talking about subjects in which other people have little-to-no interest, but I was still incredibly disturbed by the fact that this was all that He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named knew about Shakespeare. Gah!

The issue as I see it is this: Hollywood has lost almost all of its creativity, instead pulling from popular books or graphic novels to reduce the risk of accidentally producing a flop. For example, take a look at the top ten grossing films of 2007:

1) Spider-Man 3--the third in a series based on a comic book.
2) Shrek the Third--a second shameless exploitation of the brand that is Shrek.
3) Transformers--a nostaligic look back on a television show that was popular in the 80s.
4) Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End--proof that Johnny Depp is willing to whore himself for money. Did you hear they're going to do a fourth?
5) Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix--not only is it the fifth of a series, it's based on a best-selling novel by J.K. Rowling.
6) I Am Legend--based on a science fiction novel by Richard Matheson.
7) The Bourne Ultimatum--based on a series of books by Robert Ludlom.
8) National Treasure: Book of Secrets--like five of the previous seven movies, this was only made because the first one was so successful.
9) Alvin and the Chipmunks--not only was it a television show in the 80s, this is based on an animated singing group from the 50s. the sad part is that I'm not kidding.
10) 300--finally, this was based on a 1998 comic book series.

Wow. Just think of all the disaffected screenplay writers who now have no outlet for their creative juices. If you want to write a screenplay, you're better off writing a book or comic book that has a chance at maybe being wildly successful so that you can try to get on the team to turn it into a movie.

While some might rightly say that this is a stagnation of American cinema, I tend to think it's a good thing. How many times have you seen a movie that was so good that you tracked down the book on which it was based? In my opinion, it's actually encouraging literacy. The problem is when people either don't know it's an adaptation or when the adaptation is so different from the novel that the merits of the book are lost on the screen.

For example, the last film I saw in the theater was There Will Be Blood. (Yes, I know it came out at the beginning of the year--I'm poor and the cinema habit was the first to go.) I was so impressed by the film that I went and got the book on which it was based, Oil! by Upton Sinclair. As anyone who has seen the movie and read the book can tell you, they are completely different. The only thing that crossed the gap between the page and the screen was the names of the characters and their job descriptions. The book was a pro-labor book that extolled the working class and highlighted the evils of money, while the movie was essentially a character study of J. Arnold Ross. Both were excellent but they were completely different, and liking one does not necessarily mean that you will like the other.

Maybe this is how the screenplay writers are getting their revenge, then: if the American public isn't interested in original, culturally-relevant screenplays, then the writers will slip some in that they can claim are "based on the bestselling [insert medium here] by [insert author's name here]" but actually bear no resemblance to the original. Other examples that I can think of off the top of my head are Bridget Jones' Diary (the ending is in no way similar to the book), The Princess Bride, A Series of Unfortunate Events... the list could go on forever, though I should say that I much prefer the film version of The Princess Bride to the novel by S. Morgenstern. So shoot me.

Do any of you know of any? Do you think the books are always better than the movie, or are there other Princess Brides out there?


Daniele said...

I finally read the Princess Bride last year. While the book was certainly enjoyable and well written, the movie was such an enormous part of my childhood that the book just can't compare. So sue me. For me, it usually depends which I'm exposed to first. If I see a movie and then read the book, I'll usually like the movie better, but if I read a book and then see the movie then I'll be disappointed by all the things I liked in the book that were left out in the movie...and you can barely call the Bourne movies based on the books. They leave out his arch nemesis! Where's Carlos? (although to be fair, I haven't seen the 3rd one. The second one gave me too much of a headache with all the choppy camera-work)

Chatty Cathy said...

That is hilarious, yet sad, that "He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named" said he liked the Mel Gibson version. I wish I could have been there to see your face, just like I wish I could have been there for when that girl said that she thought Byron was a romantic. Anyways, in my opinion, most films never do a justice to the book, though there are some exceptions. Just off the top of my head, books like "The Da Vinci Code," "The Devil Wears Prada" (and probably soon to be "The Secret Life of Bees"), were definitely not as good as the book. I guess I get annoyed when the movie doesn't stick to the book.

Lindsay-with-an-A said...

Daniele--I tend to agree with you about preferring the first one you're exposed to. I LOVED the movie Stardust and was a bit underwhelmed when I read the book afterwards.

Cathy--I'm glad you're going to see The Secret Life of Bees with an open mind!

Anonymous said...

At least he didn't say somthing along the lines of:

"Isn't Hamlet based on West Side Story?"

I'm imagining I just gave you a stroke.

Lindsay-with-an-A said...


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