Suzy and I just finished watching The Hunger Games on Netflix, and it got me to thinking about adapting work from one form to another, and when things make the transition successfully, and when they don’t, and what the purpose of an adaptation is, and all that jazz.
Of course, “All that Jazz” is from the musical Chicago, which is a brilliant movie, which was based on a play, which was based on a non-musical play, which was based on the real-life criminals that a 1920s reporter encountered in her work. Sorry, my Theatre degree is showing.
For some of us, the adaptation is the Holy Grail (not Monty Python’s Holy Grail, or Spamalot, to mention a couple of other adaptations), and for some of us one type of adaptation or another is just another piece of the puzzle. Obviously, a major motion picture adaptation means a huge jump in recognition for a writer’s work, maybe even enough to move them from “writer famous” to “legit famous.” Find me in a bar and I’ll explain the difference. But while some folks are fortunate enough to get TV shows and graphic novels and maybe movies, most of the time there’s one shot to get it right when a work is adapted from the page to the screen (small or large). So what makes it “right?”
Like everything else, at its heart it has to serve the story. Now we can argue from book to book about whether it’s a character-driven story or a plot-centric story, but in the end you have to have both, and an adaptation from a book to a film or TV show has to not only tell the story of what happens, but it also has to make us love those characters as much as we did when they were on the page.
The Hunger Games, in my mind, was an excellent adaptation. I thought that there could have been more backstory and more focus on the bits leading up to the games, but the killing is what everybody was there for, so may as well dive right in. I thought there was a good blend of dialogue and visual clues to tell us what we needed to know about the characters, and that the creative team did a good job of using visual shortcuts to tell us who to love and who to loathe.
We got the flavor of the book and we benefited from the visual medium by getting to see the amazing costumes and the brilliance of all the Capitol clothing and hair, in stark contrast with the beaten-down coal miner look of the District 12 people. We didn’t have to be told who the official types were in the opening scenes – they were the clean people. And we were rooting for the dirty people. No need for paragraphs of exposition, we got it in just a couple of scenes. You make the Peacekeepers look like Stormtroopers and create a few images that take us back to 1963 Birmingham, and we know instantly where our sympathies are supposed to lie. I would have liked a little more backstory, and there were some things added either in later cinematic release or to the DVD/Netflix release that I thought were excellent. When we saw the movie in the theatres, there was nothing explaining the Reaping and the tributes (or maybe we were getting popcorn). But those things were added to the beginning of the home release, and it took care of my biggest gripe with the film when I saw it – I felt it assumed that you’d already read the book.
You see, there’s a very fine line that adaptations walk between repeating every little thing for the millions of people who’ve already read the book and alienating the core audience, or not telling enough of the backstory and alienating new fans who get lost and have no idea what’s going on. Obviously this is only an issue with adaptations of hugely popular works, anyone who would like to adapt my work for the big screen can use as much backstory as they like. Unfortunately for me, my publisher and my mortgage, far fewer people have read my books than have read The Hunger Games trilogy.
Y’all get on that, would ya? Thanks.
But there are different tools that each medium has to work with, and it’s incumbent upon the person doing the adaptation to take the best of the source material and then apply the tools of the new medium in the way that best serves the heart of the story. I think The Hunger Games folks did a fine job with it, as did the folks who adapted 300, which I thought captured very well the stylings of a graphic novel on the stage.
Here’s a few other adaptations that I loved – 30 Days of Night – another brilliant adaptation of a graphic novel into film, using the visceral visuals that you only get in film coupled with the off-panel scary stuff of a good comic.
The Walking Dead – probably the most famous right now, and I think it gets as close as you possibly can to the bleakness of the comic, which is one of the most unrelenting series of gut-punches I’ve ever read.
Blindness – I actually liked the movie better than the book, which may be as much a response to Saramago’s lack of punctuation as to the excellence of the film, but I did think they did an awesome job of capturing the degradation in appearance of everyone in the movie. After all, who fixes their hair when the whole world is blind?
There are plenty of failed adaptations out there, but I want to hear from you what are your favorites, and what worked or didn’t. And we’ll give a general pass to the fact that Karrin Murphy was written as a blonde and that Jack Reacher was written as 6′ 5″. Tell me what was awesome, and tell me what was awful. Was it a failure of the medium, or of the adaptor?