Made for the Screen

9 May, 2005 | Non-fictionTdpFilm

This article was originally posted on Filmography

With the current furore over The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxyfilm I am beginning to wonder if it’s actually possible to adapt a beloved and bestselling book to the screen successfully. I suppose the other question is what makes an adaptation successful?

Due to the relatively short runtime of a movie it will never be possible to make it identical to a book. The Lord of the Rings extended trilogy comes in at about 12 hours and it still misses things out. There’s so much, both implied and written, in any book that you cannot possibly capture it all onscreen.

The most common runtime of a movie is 90 minutes (although this is advancing to two hours more often it seems), which means the script is generally about 100 pages long (the rule is roughly one page of script to one minute of runtime). A paperback novel averages about 300 pages, and the word count is exponentially larger than a script. It is also far more difficult to internalise things in a movie; voice-over is frowned upon, as is talking to the camera (though some movies do use it well) and it’s tough to get across exposition on film when the emphasis is on dialogue (which is why a lot of movies are considered to be dumbing down their audience by having characters spewing huge chunks of explanation). It’s easy to write “Malcolm was frustrated, he couldn’t seem to get through to Jane,” it’s very hard to show that (at least, without spending a lot of time or having Malcolm tell someone out loud, hence the need for sidekicks).

So it’s obvious that some cutting and editing and, where necessary, some rewriting needs to be done. The question is whether this cutting and editing is done correctly. In the case of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, there were concerns that not only did they cut huge chunks out (which they were always going to do) they also changed key phrases, lines and jokes. It’s harder to adapt fan favourites than it is more obscure books, not because the task is generally any more difficult, it’s just that you have a league of people who know and love the book(s). Having that many people who are intimate with the material, and who all have (differing) favourite parts and passages is bound to lead to some disgruntled viewers.

I’m a fan of Harry Potter, so naturally I have seen all the movies. I can tell you that there are plenty of parts missing from the films which add a lot to the humour and depth of the books. Likewise, having read The Lord of the Rings, I know that there are vast chunks missing from all three films (though the extended editions do go some way to making this up, but they still leave out a lot). The adaptation also changed a lot of the existing characters to make their personalities far more overt. I’m a Michael Crichton fan too and he’s had some interesting adaptations done, none worse than Congo, which is a great book and an awful film. Timeline is much closer to the book, but still nowhere near the right style.

The accusation from a lot of fans is that adaptations tend to ruin the style and feel that drew them to it in favour of a blander, more accessible version (what I call the Hershey’s approach) aimed at making it more appealing to a wider audience and hence, more commercially successful. Whether this is done intentionally or as the result of writers and directors wishing to impose their own style on something (or just being too inept not to) is debatable. Either way, hardcore fans generally feel let down (not that it usually stops them from going to see it).

The great thing about most written media is that it leaves room for our own imagination. One piece of advice that is passed on to new authors is not to go into too much detail. There are two reasons for this; one is that it bogs the story down, nobody wants to read an exact description of someone or something, it ends up reading like a recipe, just get on with the story. The other is that it leaves things open for the reader to put their own spin on things. This is great for giving a story the flexibility to fit whoever reads it (to a limited extent), allowing us to include our own psyche into the mix and make it more personal. This in turn allows us to engage with the story more.

Perhaps this explains why some adaptations are enjoyed -- because the writer and director have the same vision of the material as the bulk of the audience --while others fail. There are a number of other possible reasons (especially for things like comics) which include the quality of the script, the casting (and hence the acting) and the execution.

So, having said all that, is it actually possible to make a good adaptation? Yes, obviously. The important thing to remember is that it’s the spirit that counts, the feel of the source that needs to be carried through. I think this is one of the things that The Lord of the Rings did do well. It is also advisable to spend some time looking into what the fans like about the material, which characters they like, which situations, which lines, jokes and descriptions. Ultimately though, all adaptations are doomed to fail, to some degree or another. You will never please everyone.