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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)

The Results are In…and the Fauxscar Goes to…

February 24, 2013 in Fauxscars, Fiction, Film, Literary Movies

As the stars begin to primp and prep for the Academy’s big night, here at Literary Traveler we are still sipping coffee in our pajamas as we announce the year’s big winners.  While the results of the Oscars may be kept under wraps for a couple more hours, we won’t keep you waiting any longer.  The fix is in and while some of these adaptations may not be receiving accolades from the Academy, we think they deserve acknowledgment for their spot on representation of some of our literary favorites.

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While Jennifer Lawrence may be cleaning up in the awards department for her portrayal of Tiffany Maxwell in Silver Linings Playbook, our voters have spoken and decided that Bradley Cooper deserves his share of the spotlight for his humorous and endearing portrayal of Pat Solitano, Jr,

Which is why our first Fauxscar, for “Best Character Portrayal by an Actor” goes to Bradley Cooper!


Best Character Portrayal by an Actor: Bradley Cooper as Pat Solitano Jr. (Silver Linings Playbook)

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Luckily for Jennifer Lawrence, the acting nods at the Academy Awards are split into “Leading” and “Supporting” categories, because audiences can agree that Anne Hathaway’s Les Miserables‘ performance, however brief, was the ray of musical sunshine in the adaptation of the popular classic.  Here at Literary Traveler, we believe some of the best characters written are not necessarily the main protagonist in the work, which is why we chose not to split the category in two.  Sorry Jennifer! (Editor’s Note:  Good luck, Jen, fingers crossed for you!)
The Literary Fauxscar for “Best Character Portrayal by an Actress” goes to Anne Hathaway as Fantine!
Best Character Portrayal by an Actress: Anne Hathaway as Fantine (Les Miserables)
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The selection of Literary Love Stories portrayed on film this year has been wide ranging and dare I say, epic.  From an unrequited high school crush, a sweeping nineteenth century extramarital affair, an unbeatable team forced into a dystopic death match, a couple crazy kids vampires living happily ever after and a couple facing tragedy and finding humor and each other.  We couldn’t choose just one if we tried, and turns out neither could anyone else.  We have a tie!  It all comes down to the ill-fated affair portrayed in a long-loved classic and our favorite baker and badass, joining forces in a contemporary young adult juggernaut. (Which is sure to be a staple in the Fauxscars for the next couple years)

So we are excited to award the Fauxscar for  “Best Portrayal of a Literary Love Story” to Anna Karenina and Count Vronsky  AND Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark!  May the odds be EVER in their favor ;)

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Best Portrayal of a Literary Love Story: Anna Karenina and Count Vronsky (Anna Karenina)
AND with a tie!

Best Portrayal of a Literary Love Story: Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark (The Hunger Games)
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As Literary Traveler contributor, Antoinette, put it so eloquently:  “Every scene [of Life of Pi] is a visual indulgence. It is breathtakingly beautiful. I could have watched the thing on mute like a 2003 Windows Media Player sound Visualizer (you remember those right?)… It was, in addition to being a thoughtful and thought-provoking film, a display of artistry.”  It appears that voters agreed!

Therefore, the Fauxscar for “Best Visual Representation of a Novel’s Setting” goes to Life of Pi.
 Best Visual Representation of a Novel’s Setting: Life of Pi
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While the movie captured (a little too well) the expanse of time and space Pi felt on the open sea, the movie is almost an acceptable alternative to reading the book…after all, author Yann Martel, is in the movie, playing the interviewer who becomes friends with grown-up Pi, played by the amazing Irfan Khan.

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The Fauxscar for “Best ‘Almost as Good as the Book’ Film” also goes to Life of Pi.

Best “Almost as Good as the Book” Film: Life of Pi
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 Beating out the final installment of Twilight  to take this award would be a huge feat, had this been an MTV award show… but here at Literary Traveler, it was no contest.  The Hunger Games may be a YA series, but it is thought provoking, exciting, and presents a female protagonist that we can all be proud of.
The Fauxscar for Best “Young Adult” Adaptation goes to The Hunger Games.
  
 Best “Young Adult” Adaptation: The Hunger Games
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The Fauxscar for “Best ‘Family Fun’ Adaptation” goes to The Lorax.
Best “Family Fun” Adaptation: The Lorax
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We love ourselves some Tolstoy, and reading his original masterpiece, Anna Karenina,  is a commitment all bibliophiles should make at some point in their life, but alas, pushing 800 pages, it is a commitment.  In the meantime, check out the 2012 film version as a teaser — it seems that our readers agree that it is one of the best adaptations of the year.
The Fauxscar for “Best Adaptation of a Classic” goes to Anna Karenina.
Best Adaptation of a Classic:  Anna Karenina
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Sweeping the first annual Fauxscars like Katniss with a cross bow, The Hunger Games is a force to be reckoned with.
The Fauxscar for “Best ‘Guilty Pleasure’ Adaptation” goes to The Hunger Games.
Best “Guilty Pleasure” Adaptation: The Hunger Games
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Literary Traveler contributor, Amanda, would not stop gushing about this film until the entire staff agreed to see it.  It appears that voters are on her side (or she is somewhere maniacally stuffing the ballot box — just kidding, this film definitely stands on its own merits!)
The Fauxscar for “Best ‘Stand Alone’ Film” goes to Silver Linings Playbook.
Best “Stand Alone” Film: Silver Linings Playbook
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Looking forward to the fabulous adaptation coming in 2013, from a new YA favorite, Beautiful Creatures, to a Helena Bonham Carter led Great Expectations reboot.  While both sound fabulous, this award was nearly unanimous and it seems that we are not alone in our uncontainable excitement over the 2013 adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age masterpiece.
Without further ado, the Fauxscar for “Best Anticipated Literary Adaptation of 2013″ goes to The Great Gatsby.
Best Anticipated Literary Adaptation of 2013: The Great Gatsby
On that note, until next year… Let us know in the comments section if you agree with this year’s winners, or if your favorite was snubbed. Thanks for joining us and we will be tuning in to the Oscars tonight to see how our favorites fare with the Academy!

The Siberian Mammoth: An Unexpected Guide to Cuba’s Revolutionary Past

January 14, 2013 in Cuba, Film, History, Movies, Political History, Politics

The title of the documentary about the making of I Am Cuba doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue: I am Cuba, The Siberian Mammoth seems to bear an especially obscure relationship with the country. For the puzzled traveler or movie fan, it’s enough to be aware that this Italian film explores a culture clash between the Soviet film-makers who went to the country to make a propaganda film on behalf of Castro’s new regime and the Cubans who were their audience.

The 2005 documentary The Siberian Mammoth opened up the processes behind the making of the mysteriously beautiful propaganda film I am Cuba, after it had been rediscovered by directors such as Francis Ford Coppola. In a time before Cuban tourism had become an option for the offbeat traveler, I am Cuba was a brochure of a political rather than commercial kind. In the 90s, it was easier for hip audiences to enjoy it for its unreal beauty rather than its uncomfortable revolutionary propaganda. The film was directed by a well-known Soviet film-director who ended up alienating Soviets and Cubans both. Kalaznov had worked for Soviet authorities who were impossible to please for long. Before making I am Cuba, he had been banned for several years by the authorities from film-making due to “negativism.” Given these competing demands it’s difficult to know what audience this film was really aimed at. It was described by the film critic J. Hoberman as a “Bolshevik hallucination”. For the contemporary viewer, its beautiful imagery is confusing. Each shot wistfully points to some greater ideal, so that the pace is both slow and hard to follow, like melting ice—first static, then rapidly slipping into the sublimated, altered reality of the triumphant people’s revolution. The inevitable revolutionary sacrifice portrays Cubans as suffering idealists drawn towards action in a dreamlike state. This is a film that shows a Cuba of great natural beauty, but just like an advertisement, it has no real use for the reality of the place and its inhabitants. What’s stranger still is how the actors conform to its artificial purpose. The explanation behind this is that they were untrained Cuban actors selected by the Soviet Directors.

Cuba is a place that has been draped in romantic mystery for many reasons; often literary and cultural, but mostly political. Now that the country is open to tourists, it would be an interesting piece of homework for a traveler to watch this film along with its documentary counterpart as preparation for a visit. At this point the writer has a confession to make: I have seen I Am Cuba, but I have not seen The Siberian Mammoth. Nor have I seen Cuba. If I’m ever lucky enough to visit, I’d like to sharpen my memories of that beautifully shot propaganda film with this documentary about the culture clash between the foreign film-makers and their subjects.

Fauxscar Nominee: Silver Linings Playbook

January 11, 2013 in Comedy, Fauxscars, Fiction, Film, Literary Movies

The Mad Hatter:  Have I gone mad?

Alice:  I’m afraid so. You’re entirely bonkers.  But I’ll tell you a secret.  All the best people are.

After seeing Silver Linings Playbook, I left the theatre in a really good mood.  One of those moods where, if life had been a musical or I had any rhythm or dexterity, I would have jumped up and clicked my heels together as I skipped down the street.  Instead I took to telling anyone who would listen how amazing and uplifting the film is and how they must drop everything they are doing and see it immediately. (Seriously, stop reading this and go see it.)  A couple people, intrigued by my insistence, asked me what it was about. A feel-good film about an emotionally damaged man, whose bipolar disorder is only discovered after a violent outburst brought on by his wife’s infidelity lands him a court-ordered stint in a mental health facility, you say?  They looked at me like I was the one who might be crazy.

Bradley Cooper plays the protagonist, Pat Solitano, Jr., in David O. Russell’s film adaptation of Matthew Quick’s 2008 novel, and the film begins with his release from the hospital.  He has lost his job, he lives with his parents, his neighbors think he has gone off the deep end, and a restraining order requires him to stay 500 feet away from his wife.  But he has a plan: stay positive; be stronger; and find the ‘silver lining’ in his situation — doing so, he believes, will surely bring his wife back to him if he works hard enough.

The problem, however, is that the ‘silver lining’ isn’t always what you think it should be.  For most of the film, Pat is too close to the situation he’s in, and too stuck in his ways, to see this. In one scene, for example, he has an outburst over Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms – He wakes his parents in the middle of the night with a tirade about the unexpected tragic ending that befalls the characters, raving, “They were happy.  You think he ends it there? No. He writes another ending.” — Hemingway’s novel provides a parallel to Solitano’s own story, in which he believes his ‘ending’ will find him back together with his wife.  Yet, as John Lennon once sang, “life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

Pat soon meets his match in Tiffany Maxwell (Jennifer Lawrence), a brazenly unapologetic young widow, who is equally as broken.  Thus, Pat and Tiffany make a deal.  Tiffany will help him get a letter to his estranged wife and in return Pat will be her partner in a dance competition.  The film culminates in their final dance, two well-matched individuals performing a fun, choreographed mash-up that paints with painstaking clarity the humor, trust, and genuine admiration between the two.  Their performance is made even more endearing by contrast to the competition, a line-up that resembles the professionals from Dancing with the Stars.  We know they won’t win, but in this moment we also know (and so does Pat) that sometimes what you originally thought was the silver lining may have actually been the cloud.

Pat and Tiffany are portrayed as outsiders, looked at by their families and friends as off-kilter, damaged goods, possibly a few cards short of the deck.  And it is true that Pat and Tiffany may be ‘crazy,’ but they aren’t the only ones.  Pat’s dad, a phenomenal Fila track-suit-wearing Robert DeNiro, spends football Sundays in obsessive compulsive mania masquerading as old school superstition. As Pat Sr. rearranges the remote controls so that the Philadelphia Eagles will win, Pat’s best friend Ronnie has his own stress and anger issues that find him punching walls in his garage to let off steam.  The story manipulates our perception of sanity.  After all, Pat and Tiffany may be nuttier than fruit cake, but they admit it.  And how does the old adage go about crazy people?  If you think you’re crazy, you are probably sane enough?

Cooper is flawless in his portrayal of Pat.  With memorable roles in classic comedies such as Wedding Crashers and The Hangover, he doesn’t get the credit for his acting ability that he deserves. With a Best Actor nod in the Oscars (and the Fauxscars!) maybe that will change.  Lawrence of The Hunger Games fame is hilarious as Tiffany, a character that comes off as a less stable, yet equally kick ass (albeit R-rated), Katniss.  Robert DeNiro is Robert DeNiro, enough said.  Yet, as the OCD Solitano patriarch, his performance is both comical and touching.  Chris Tucker rounds out this dream cast as the loveable, questionably unhinged, Danny, a fellow patient Pat meets during treatment, whose random drop-ins add an extra helping of comic relief to the already very funny film.

Simultaneously witty, intelligent, poignant, and heartwarming–there is something universal about this story.  Like Pat says in the end, “life will break your heart… and I can’t begin to explain that, or the craziness inside myself and everybody else.”  Maybe the moral of the story is in acknowledging that, and being better for it.  And if, like Pat, you are lucky enough to surround yourself with people whose ‘crazy’ is compatible with your own, then maybe that is the real ‘silver lining.’

“Before” and After: An Unconventional Love Story for the Modern Age

November 29, 2012 in Film

This post contains spoilers for the films Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. 

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I am not usually a fan of sequels.  For me, they feel like forced afterthoughts or a way to cash in on a previous success.  Very much like literary adaptations, they are often watered-down renditions that fail to do justice to the original work. But there are always exceptions to every rule, and it so happens that one of my favorite films, Before Sunset (2004), is a sequel to Before Sunrise (1995), another one of my favorite films. Therefore it should come as no surprise that I was absolutely ecstatic when I heard the recent news that Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy just finished covertly filming a third installment, Before Midnight, this past summer.  The first two films came out nine years apart, and if Before Midnight is released in 2013 as planned, another nine years will have passed.  If only for the sake of cinema, let’s hope the Mayans are wrong.

The series, directed by Richard Linklater, begins in Before Sunrise with Jesse (Ethan Hawke), an American twentysomething backpacking his way through Europe, meeting Celine (Julie Delpy), a French grad student, on a train bound for Paris.  The two feel an instant connection and he convinces her to get off the train with him in Austria, where they spend the entire night together wandering through Vienna.  It sounds cliché, and as a woman, relatively dangerous.  The chance of me disembarking a train with a stranger in a foreign country is highly unlikely, even if he does look like Ethan Hawke.  I’ve seen Taken and my dad, though amazing, is no Liam Neeson. So, sad to say, if I am fated to meet my soul mate this way, I will have to come to terms with the missed connection and a future full of cats.  Luckily for Jesse (and viewers), Celine does not share these fears.

Linklater takes a plot that at first glance seems like a formulaic rom-com and turns it completely on its head.  For one, although the attraction is there from the beginning, the characters are smart and level-headed.  She might get off the train with him, but Celine is far from a starry-eyed ingénue.  It is in fact a film of dualities, with an attitude about love that is romantic and cynical at the same time.  The film unfolds over the course of one night and besides a lot of talking not much appears to happen.  Yet by the end of the film even the most cynical spectator becomes swept up in a dreamy Gatsby-esque notion of love.  However it isn’t all flowers, rainbows and green lights on the ends of docks, because these characters are not hopeless romantics drinking poison and falling on daggers at the thought of being apart.

They are a far cry from Romeo and Juliet and I only hope that the Twilight generation stumbles across these films at some point. Unlike Edward and Bella, Jesse and Celine know from the start that they are on different paths and when the morning comes they will go their separate ways and live their separate lives.  Celine is not going to quit school and move to America as easily as Bella agrees to give up being a human. They are not dramatic about it, and therein lies the beauty.  As they say goodbye without exchanging last names or telephone numbers in a pre-Facebook world, there is this sense of sadness in the knowledge that they are making a mistake. Yet the film leaves you with hope of their meeting once again in Vienna six months to the day and time.

This only makes the 2004 sequel even more wrenching.  Before Sunset opens with Jesse on a book tour in Paris promoting a novel inspired by Celine.  The question on everyone’s mind: did the two meet again?  Like Vienna in the first film, Paris becomes a third character as the two wander around the city in real time, the eighty minutes Jesse has before his flight back to the US.  Almost a decade has passed and while the first film is ripe with the promise of youth and the ending full of potential, the second film finds the two in their thirties contemplating the regrets that led them to the present moment.

The ending of Before Sunset is beautifully ambiguous, leaving it to the audience to decide the fate of these much loved characters.  The Guardian calls the final scene “one of the most tantalizing and ingenious endings in all cinema.” As Celine dances goofily around her living room impersonating Nina Simone, Jesse watches rapt from the sofa.  She, in character as Simone, purrs “Baby, you’re gonna miss that plane.”  He barely registers her words, replying with a simple, “I know.”

Each of the films can stand alone, but viewed sequentially they paint a brilliantly hazy and bittersweet rendition of real life where love, no matter how true, does not necessarily conquer all.  And, as the films posit, maybe that is the point.  In Before Sunrise, Celine tells the story of her grandmother, who “spent her whole life dreaming of another man that she was always in love with…she just accepted her fate.”  In response Jesse muses, “I guarantee you it was better that way…I am sure he would have disappointed her eventually.”

As I anticipate the release of Before Midnight, I am reminded of one of my favorite moments from Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.  As Brett and Jake are pushed together in a taxi, Brett laments, “we could have had such a damned good time together” to which Jake responds, “isn’t it pretty to think so?”

I imagine it’s the same for Jesse and Celine. Or maybe, in Before Midnight, they will finally get their happy ending.

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For Literary Travelers planning trips abroad, The Worldwide Guide to Movie Locations offers detailed information on each of the locations utilized in Before Sunrise (Vienna) and Before Sunset (Paris).