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Analyzing Adaptation: Why the Source Material is Only Half the Story

December 3, 2013 in Classic Literature, Contemporary Literature, Fantasy Literature, Fauxscars, Fiction, Film, Literary Movies, Pop Culture, YA Fiction

In the wake of a recent surge in successful movie adaptations of literature — from classic novels like The Great Gatsby to popular young adult fiction like The Hunger Games — it is often assumed that an adapted film that isn’t faithful to its source material can’t be good. Remaining objective is incredibly difficult, especially for fans of the books who see the story and characters they love represented in a way different from what they imagined.

I’m here to tell you that adapted movies need not adhere to their source material to be “good”—in fact, strict adherence is often just as inadvisable.

We all know significant deviation in an adaptation causes disappointment and backlash. Audiences see the title and expect a certain obedience to the original story, so that when there are missing subplots or characters they feel betrayed. Let’s talk about David Lynch’s Dune (1984) for a second. Lynch hadn’t even read the book when he signed on to write the screenplay. Watching the film makes you feel like Lynch got halfway through the book and then just skipped to the end. Cuts are inevitable when it comes to adapting literature, but in this case, the entire second half of the book is significantly altered.

And what if you haven’t read the book? I actually saw Dune before I read the book myself and I thought it was pretty decent. It’s incredibly weird, but it is David Lynch. All his movies are weird. The biggest disappointment is that you occasionally have to make generous inferences on behalf of the movie due to the fact that it is trying to pack a 412 page novel (or at least 206 pages of it) into 2 hours. Otherwise it was a pretty solid science fiction film.

Strict compliance to what you’re adapting has precisely the opposite effect: fans may be pleased, but those who haven’t read the novel will likely find themselves bored by the experience. Peter Jackson’s recent adaptation of The Hobbit is the perfect example. According to Metacritic, the film earned an average score of 58%, with Rotten Tomatoes reporting that only 65% gave the film a positive (>50%) review. Personally, I had similar feelings. There were some scenes that might have worked on the page, but simply fell flat on the screen. And it’s not like Peter Jackson’s just a bad director, or that Tolkein’s world is unadaptable and doesn’t work in the movies. In fact, Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring broke the top 50 of the American Film Institute’s “100 Years…100 Movies”, its list of the 100 most influential films of all time.

Speaking of the AFI, 15 of their top 25 films are adaptations, and 7 of those are in the top 10. The Godfather was a novel, Casablanca was a play, and Raging Bull was a memoir. Gone with the Wind, Schindler’s List, Vertigo, and The Wizard of Oz were all books first. Even the ones that weren’t based on works of fiction were inspired by a real-life person or event: Citizen Kane was based on William Randolph Hearst, Singing in the Rain was based on Oscar Levant, and Lawrence of Arabia was based on T. E. Lawrence. And in each one of these cases the movie certainly didn’t become successful by strictly clinging to its source material.

This phenomenon isn’t limited to the AFI, either. Stanley Kubrick, one of the most influential directors in cinema history, almost exclusively filmed from adapted screenplays. In fact, Fear and Desire and Killer’s Kiss are the only two of his thirteen feature films which were original screenplays. Kubrick is also famous for not strictly adhering to the original works. His movie version of The Shining was criticized by Stephen King himself as being a bad adaptation, but it has nevertheless come to be regarded as one of the best movies of all time. (It’s #29 on the AFI’s Top 100 Thrillers, its main character Jack Torrance is 25th on the AFI’s Top 100 Villains, and “Here’s Johnny!” is 68th on the AFI’s top 100 quotes.) Ironically, Stephen King collaborated with director Mick Garris to make a more faithful adaptation of the book in the form of a TV mini series which was, to make a long story short, pretty bad.

In the end, books and movies are two separate art forms with their own advantages and disadvantages. Movies are short, but a good cinematographer can create more beautiful imagery than your average reader may be able to think up on their own. Books lack this visual artistry, but their length allows for deeper development of language, character and theme. We should probably just understand that literature can inspire great film and leave the two as separate representatives of their own worlds.

But where’s the fun in that?

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100 Years… 100 Adaptations (or: The AFI’s Top 25 Films and Their Source Material)

1. Citizen Kane (original screenplay; based on William Randolph Hearst)
2. The Godfather (novel of the same name)
3. Casablanca (stage play “Everybody Comes to Rick’s”)
4. Raging Bull (novel Raging Bull: My Story)
5. Singing in the Rain (original screenplay; based on Oscar Levant)
6. Gone with the Wind (novel of the same name)
7. Lawrence of Arabia (original screenplay; based on life of T. E. Lawrence)
8. Schindler’s List (novel; Schindler’s Ark)
9. Vertigo (novel; D’entre les morts)
10. The Wizard of Oz (novel; The Wonderful Wizard of Oz)
11. City Lights (original screenplay)
12. The Searchers (novel same name)
13. Star Wars (original screenplay; inspired by The Hidden Fortress)
14. Psycho (novel of the same name)
15. 2001: A Space Odyssey (short story; “The Sentinel”)
16. Sunset Boulevard (original screenplay)
17. The Graduate (novel of the same name)
18. The General (original screenplay; based on the Great Locomotive Chase)
19. On the Waterfront (original screenplay; based on “Crime on the Waterfront”)
20. It’s a Wonderful Life (short story; “The Greatest Gift”)
21. Chinatown (original screenplay; based on the California Water Wars)
22. Some Like It Hot (remake of Fanfare d’Amour – which was based on a book)
23. The Grapes of Wrath (novel of the same name)
24. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (original screenplay; based on Spielberg’s childhood imaginary friend)
25. To Kill a Mockingbird (novel of the same name)

Now Entering River Heights

January 18, 2013 in Fiction, Mystery Writers, Travel, YA Fiction, Young Adult Literature

“Half an hour later she turned into the beautiful country road which wound in and out along the Muskoka River”  -  The Secret of the Old Clock

Some of the literary journeys I wish I could take would be impossible to pull off. Not because of time constraints or travel expenses, but because the destinations simply don’t exist. At least not in reality. But as literary travelers, that has never stopped us.

As a child I spent countless hours traveling around the country without leaving my porch swing. Now, as an adult, I miss those nostalgic literary adventures.  So recently I decided to pay homage to the books that sparked my love of literature. Join me as I set out on this bookish “staycation”–no need to bring a sweater, what you’re wearing will be fine.  The weather in Sweet Valley, California, is lovely this time of year.  Accommodations in Silver City may be a little pricey, but I hear there’s a boxcar that is quite comfortable.  And if you have children, not to worry, there are plenty experienced babysitters in Stoneybrook, Connecticut.  Of all the stops on this road trip through fictional America, however, no destination holds the same allure as River Heights, Ohio…or Illinois…or, err, New Jersey.  Unfortunately, its exact location remains a mystery –which hurts tourism, wouldn’t you say?.  Good thing it’s the home of one of the finest fictional detectives ever…Nancy Drew!

Welcome to River Heights.  Established in 1930 with the publication of the first of the Nancy Drew Mystery Stories, the town is itself an enigma. Many an amateur detective has taken a page from the area’s most famous resident and done a little sleuthing into its geography. While most argue that it’s somewhere in the Midwest, others claim the town has moved east in recent years.  Some hypothesize that it depends on which ghostwriter inhabiting the infamous Carolyn Keene wrote the particular text.

The original Nancy Drew books often read like compelling travel guides to River Heights and its surrounding areas. Amidst the pursuit of unscrupulous characters, Nancy and her friends are whisked away to various country estates and charming inns where there is always time for a well-prepared luncheon.  For a quaint little town, the crime rate is quite high, but I’m sure the River Height Chamber of Commerce makes it a point to highlight the area’s positive attributes in their hardback yellow-spined travel guides.

Looking for things to do while you are in town?  A scenic drive down Larkspur Lane in a little blue roadster can make for a lovely afternoon.  At one time the home of nefarious schemers, it is now known for its flourishing horticulture.  Don’t mind the electric fence surrounding that old rustic estate, it’s most likely deactivated now.  Bring a picnic, if you dare.

For a romantic weekend with the Ned Nickerson of your life, book a getaway at the Lilac Inn.  Make use of the in-room safe and store your valuables out of sight from lurking jewel thieves. Don’t mind the ghostly apparitions that appear sporadically on the ground, they add to the property’s historic charm, don’t you think?

While you are in town, make sure to stop in at Red Gate Farm.  The cider is top notch, but don’t feed the animals.  And if you venture off the property and run into any lingering members of the Black Snake Colony, don’t drink the Kool-Aid.  Word is that they may be in the counterfeit business as well.  I knew I shouldn’t have made change for that twenty.

River Heights thrived in the 1960s and 1970s (when most of the original 56 texts were written or rewritten).  It was a simpler time, when an afternoon ride down a winding country road in Nancy’s convertible would be followed up with a light lunch at one of the town’s tearooms. Yet the landscape of River Heights has changed throughout the years; criminals using intricate webs of carrier pigeons upgraded to landlines and eventually, in the latest YA volumes, the internet.

After every literary adventure, as I return to reality always slightly jet lagged from the trip, I am sad to leave the intangible world, but I remember that I can return anytime. River Heights may be impossible to place on a globe–my GPS may never calculate its route–but as Herman Melville states in Moby Dick, “it is not down in any map; true places never are.”

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If you are looking to travel by the book, indulge in a little girl sleuth nostalgia by participating in one of the annual Nancy Drew conventions.  Much like River Heights, they change location every year.  Each event takes its theme from two geographically appropriate titles – one from the original fifty-six and one from the later paperbacks.  This spring journey to Boston and join other Drew devotees as they immerse themselves in the settings that provide the backdrop to The Secret of the Wooden Lady and The Case of the Vanishing Veil.

 

Fauxscar Nominee: The Hunger Games

January 2, 2013 in American Authors, children's literature, Contemporary Literature, Fauxscars, Fiction, Film, Literary Movies, Movies, YA Fiction, Young Adult Literature

I will clear the air right away and say, I was a fan of Twilight.  It seems that this question has been on the tip of bibliophilic tongues everywhere and a pro-vampire stance confessed to the wrong person will have you ostracized to a community of lowbrow lepers doomed to wander the colony with a scarlet V on your chest.  Many a debate has been had amongst readers over the merits of these now iconic young adult novels.  Are they literary? Are they well-written?  I typically shy away from this line of questioning the same way I shy away from talking politics or religion on a first date.  Nothing good can come from it.  Maybe they aren’t literary, but they are addictive and a fine guilty pleasure.  Actually, my only problem with the series is its protagonist Bella. A hormonal teenage girl mooning over the emotionally unavailable bad boy is nothing new to literature, film, or life for that matter, but to have said character mope about for the span of an entire novel, acquiesce to Edward’s every overbearing whim and ultimately sacrifice her human life to be more compatible with him? As a role model for the novels’ target audience, Bella is lacking in a seriously unhealthy way.  Regardless to say, I was “Team Jacob” and doomed to be disappointed.

Despite my obvious bitterness over the outcome of the series, however, there were more important things at stake. If Twilight was to be indicative of today’s youth, I felt that we were certainly in trouble. How do we reconcile a world where girls look up to a character like Bella, who spends most of New Moon despondent, only prying herself away from her armchair to attempt personal injury in hopes that she might glimpse a hallucination of Edward?  My friends, don’t fret, the future of female empowerment in not doomed. It can be found in a dark corner of a distant post-apocalyptic universe. Enter Katniss Everdeen.

Katniss is powerful, responsible, knows her way around a bow and arrow, and doesn’t need protection from either of the strapping gentlemen who make up her very own Twilight-esque love triangle.  The difference between the two young women: Katniss doesn’t really care about hers.  Not initially, anyway.  She has bigger things to do, like save her sister…and save the world.

Suzanne Collins’ novel is set in a dystopic future where the United States has become the twelve districts of Panem.  There were originally thirteen, but a failed mutiny left District 13 to serve as a cautionary tale to those remaining.  As a punishment and reminder, each year the districts must send two children to “The Hunger Games” – a Survivor type reality show where only one victor comes out alive.  While the subject matter is disturbing, the story quickly grabs hold of readers.  It is almost impossible to stop reading until you have gone straight through to the end of the third book.  And despite its morbid undertones, it presents a powerful story of hope.  As the evil President Snow states in the filmic version: “Hope, it is the only thing stronger than fear. A little hope is effective, a lot of hope is dangerous. A spark is fine, as long as it’s contained.”  The viewers quickly learn, as does the villainous Snow, that Katniss’ fire cannot be contained.

Her male counterpart in the Hunger Games, and one third of the aforementioned love triangle, is Peeta Mellark. I loved the character of Peeta for every reason I loved Jacob, and every reason I couldn’t stand Edward.  Peeta might not sparkle, but he also won’t climb through your bedroom window and hover over you while you sleep.  He compliments Katniss in the best ways, and their relationship is one of genuine adoration and respect; it’s believable, real, and something we can all aspire to, whether we are 15 or 65.

For these reasons and more, I was ecstatic to find out a movie was being made based on the books. While adaptations can cause the original material to get lost in translation, this was not the case for The Hunger Games.  This book, full of eerie landscapes, futuristic inhabitants, and an arena where no one is safe, was begging to be adapted for the screen.  Between the elaborate costumes and the incredible settings, the faultless casting was the cherry on the sundae.  Jennifer Lawrence easily slides into the role of Katniss, a strong, capable character whose healthy body is a refreshing alternative to the stick-thin waif.  (Bella, just because Edward can’t eat food, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t).  The role of Peeta seems as though it was written especially for Josh Hutcherson; his flawless blend of self-deprecating humor, charm, and authenticity is unparalleled.  But the absolute scene-stealer of the movie has to be the unexpected, yet perfectly executed performance, of Woody Harrelson as Haymitch Abernathy, the alcoholic former Hunger Games victor-turned-mentor.  Elizabeth Banks, Donald Sutherland, and Stanley Tucci round out an ensemble cast that cannot be beat.

I recommend the books to anyone with a taste for well-written YA Fiction—I recommend the film to anyone, period.  There isn’t much from the book left on the cutting room floor, and the plot is easy to follow without any prior knowledge of it.  Male, female, teen or adult, The Hunger Games has something for everyone and will surely provoke discussion about our culture’s disturbing fascination with reality television, among other topics usually reserved for the second date.

As we begin to choose nominees for our 2013 Fauxscars, I say to The Hunger Games: “May the odds be ever in your favor!”

Post originally published here on the Literary Traveler website, in the Books section.

Summer Reading: Asking Teens to ‘Own the Night’

May 23, 2012 in Literary News, Summer Fun, Summer Reading, YA Fiction

It seems like everyone feels nostalgia for school days-past during this fateful time leading into June. A time when we were given that final homework assignment: Summer Reading. Either a daunting or exciting task, depending on the student. For some kids it was an albatross preventing them from fully enjoying their summer camp adventures; for others, like me, it was a task just to wait to see which books were chosen. I would run to the local bookstore where the summer reading lists from nearby schools were displayed at the front of the store. I am not saying I always loved every book that was chosen, but reading each one was like unwrapping a present to find out what was inside. Some were the equivalent of a style sweater you would never wear, but you just had to open it to find out!

I’m interested in what “the kids” are reading “these days”. I pay attention partly out of curiosity and partly to get in ahead of the curve. After all, with the popularity among adults of young adult fiction such as Twilight and The Hunger Games, it seems that, for better or worse, teen readers are on to something.

This year, the Collaborative Summer Library Program (CSLP), in affiliation with libraries across the country, is giving teenagers an opportunity to ‘Own the Night.’ While students may not be able to avoid that assigned copy of To Kill a Mockingbird (C’mon guys, just give it a chance!), they can also be part of a program designed to encourage leisure reading in teens and young adults. The program is nationwide and a Google search of “Own the Night Summer Reading” pulls up library websites from Albuquerque to Boston and everywhere in between. While each library system is putting its own spin on the program to garner interest, the basic plan is the same:

The program runs roughly from June until August, targeting students entering grades 6-12, with a list of contemporary books involving creatures of the ‘night,’ including tales of zombies, vampires and other fantastical dystopian adventures. Books vary by library and different libraries are offering different incentives for participating.

The J.V. Fletcher Library in Westford, Massachusetts is offering raffle tickets in exchange for reading log entries; the more you read, the more chances you have to win prizes such as movie passes and gift certificates. The Jasper County Public Library in Indiana is offering cold hard cash with its “Books for Bucks” theme. The Gaston County Public Library in North Carolina is expanding its program to include a multitude of events: games, crafts and movie nights, as well as a “Gruesome Gala” where teens can dress as their favorite creature of the ‘night.’

With so many locations participating, make sure to check out your local library’s website for more information and don’t forget to pass the word along to the teenagers in your life. There are similar programs for younger children and adults as well. The weather is getting warmer, the days are getting longer and there is nothing quite like the joy of sitting in the sun with a good book. Whether you are a fan of the classics or in the mood for fifty shades of guilty pleasure, remember, summer reading doesn’t end with graduation. Whether you’re traveling to exotic places or venturing no further than your back porch, pick up a book and enjoy the trip.