There are two film franchises that first come to mind when talking about book-to-film adaptations. Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings. Both are huge financial successes. That is undeniable. But on a creative level where do they succeed and where do they fail?
Let me make a point of letting you know that Hollywood, as a whole, is not a very creative place. There are some very unqie and creative indivduals within this corporate landmark, but the real highlight of Hollywood is the money. When a book is released and finds success, Hollywood is usually the first to try and board the success train. The mindset of overall Hollywood: “Where there was money made, there is money to be made.”
This isn’t a corrupt, bad, or even immoral way of looking at things. In fact, as a film producer, it is that persons job to have films make money. In which case, having this view on films makes sense. When a producer gets word of a succsessful piece of literature, an intrest is immediately piqued. With a well known property comes an already interested, and most times devoted, fan base. The simple way of looking at it is that each fan of the book, in which the film is based, should be curious enough to buy a ticket and see the film. This, in a way, already garantees a certain amount of ticket sales. So, you begin to see how this adaptation business can become very lucrative.
One could also arugue that the film producers job is one that is not very creatively demanding, if at all. The main job of the producer is to hire and coordinate a team of extremely talented and creative indivduals. Namely, the director. Within the directors responsibilities lies the tough job of creating a feesible film version of a property already established in another medium. This can be a very daunting task both technically and creatively.
Take, for example, the Lord of the Rings Trilogy (refered to from now on as LOTR). What Peter Jackson had to do was spread and epic, deep story into three films. From a technical aspect alone this is a task most people would not dare take on. However, Jackson did take it on, and in my opinion, succeeded greatly.
But where did he go right? Where did he go wrong? To me, what made this such a successful adaptation was Jackson faithfulness to the source material. Having read all the books and seen all the movies the LOTR trilogy was most likely adapted in the only way possible, to be successful. We don’t live in a world where films can be an unlimited number of hours in length, but if we did, would it really have benifited the film in any way?
I think the major misconception when watching a film based on a book is that they are meant to be the same thing in two different mediums. I find this to be very wrong on two major levels. One, beging the creative level.
A filmmaker is a story teller. When adapting a book into a film, the story has already been told. The fans of the book have already read the twist ending or found out who dies in the end. To have a film adapted from a book, to the tee, leaves no sense of excitement or anticipation in the film. From a creative point of view, the artist is just rehashing something the audience can just enjoy with the book. So to have a nine-hour epic film covering everything, word for word, in my opoinion is pointless. Despite however many movies or hours they try and adapt a book into, there is always still the book itself.
The second level is the legistics. Realistically speaking, not very many people would be able to withstand a nine hour movie. Some can barely manage films like Pirates of the Carribean: At Worlds End, LOTR: The Return of the King, and Watchmen. There is also the money factor to be considered. A three hour movie plays less times in a theater than a two hour movie and, in turn, makes less money on a daily basis. Movies, despite there length, are expensive to make and often comsume the lives of the people working on them. The financial return is a big deal in more ways than just puuting money in their pockets.
It seems to be a reoccurring pattern that the failure of most adaptation films comes from other aspects of the filmmaking, other than the creative ones. There is always a prejudice with these films, which is inevitable. You cannot ask someone who has already read through the story, of which they have formed an opinion, to not have expectations for a film based on this story. Depsite exceptional acting, a solid script, and great direction the audience may have already anticipated some different, and in most cases will be let down.
This isn’t to say that the film is bad, but we are talking about success. A good example is the third film in the Harry Potter franchise, The Prisoner of Azkaban.
Alfonso Cuaron’s direction took the Harry Potter franchise to the next level. Chris Columbus, who had directed the two previous films, was replaced by Cuaron for the third film. However, The Prisoner of Azkaban is the lowest grossing Potter film to date.
Cuaron was critically praised for his work on the third Potter film but audiences did not surface as much as had been anticipated. It is highly debated whether or not the Prisoner of Azkaban is one, if the not the best, Harry Potter film. The one interesting part of this film is that it is the Potter movie that is the least closest to it’s source material! Were fans of the book let down because the film was not as close to the book as the two previous films? What about the fans of only the film franchise, ones who haven’t read te books?
For Harry Potter, specifically, I think that the vast majority of the film’s fan base are also fans of the books, but is the faithfulness to the source material a generally successful formula? Lets take into consideration Watchmen.
I watched this film with no prior knowledge of the graphic novel, and I loved it. So, keep in mind, this makes me a fan of the film but not the source material. Later on, after having seen the film and enjoyed it, I am speaking to a friend of mine who owns the graphic novel and is a pretty hardcore fan of it. He has seen the film and did not enjoy it, but did mention that, for the most part, it was very close to the source material. His major complaint was that too many things were left out. This brings us back to the same question: “If we could unlimit the length of our films would they benifit?” I guess in certain cases it would.
Realisically, I believe, from what my friend had told me during our Watchmen discussion, the film should have been released in an HBO miniseries. This would allow the same high budget and would have given more time to delve into the deep and complex story.
So, what’s the real solution? What works and what doesn’t? I think the answer is sticking to the source. To have a successful adaptation of a book into a film you have to retain the books fan base. Regardless of the popularity of the book, the ones who have read and enjoyed the book are the ones who will have the most influence on the movies success. Word of mouth is a powerful side of a film’s success. Nobody wants to pay nine dollars to sit through two hours they won’t enjoy. If a friend who’s read the book says that the film is no good, that person’s opinion is credible and trusted.
What doesn’t work is a complete rehash of a story, trying to appeal to a broader audience. This alienates the books fan base and others will lack interest because they are unfamiliar with the source material.
In summation, stick to the source and remember, what’s being created is the film version of the book. There will always still be the book itself.