Adaptation, part 1

Adaptation, part 1

The question of what makes a good adaptation of a book into a movie is on my mind, since I saw “The Hobbit: the Desolation of Smaug” this week (and also because I would love to see my own Dream Series books turned into movies).

I liked the movie, but at the same time, to me, it’s not really an adaptation of “The Hobbit.”  It’s a film showing all the events of the book (more or less), but it’s not telling remotely the same story.

It’s not simply that scenes (and characters!) were added – it’s the focus of the story.  “The Hobbit” is completely Bilbo’s story, and it’s solely concerned with his development as a character.  We don’t see anything that he doesn’t see, and several major events (including the climactic Battle of Five Armies) happen “offscreen” because Bilbo isn’t there (or awake, as the case may be) to witness them.

The movie is totally different – Bilbo is just one character, and really not the focus of the story at all.  The movie is centered mainly around Thorin Oakenshield and his quest to reclaim Erebor; and on Galdalf and his efforts to fight the returning meance of Sauron.

That’s all fine, and it does make for a very entertaining and well-told movie.  But it’s not “The Hobbit.”

I’d say there are four basic categories of book adaptations into movies (or TV, I guess):

The word-for word translation.  The first two “Harry Potter” movies are a good example of this type of adaptation, where the book is taken, as much as possible, word-for-word and scene-for-scene.  Obviously, even the most literal adaptation will have to make some changes, simply because film is such a different medium, but the goal here is to put the book on screen exactly as it was written.

Keeping the story by changing the details.  “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” is a great example of this.  The heart of the story is kept faithfully, but a lot of details are changed in order to do so.  The filmmakers choose to tell the core story, at the expense of subplots or certain characters, or even the order of events, etc.

Changing the story.  This is what “The Hobbit” did (also the last three “Harry Potter” movies).  In some ways, this approach looks more faithful to the book than the Keeping the Story strategy, but it’s not, because while the surface details are more in keeping with the book, their meaning is changed.  In “The Hobbit”, it’s not the addition of Tauriel the Elf that diverges from the book, as much as the fact that we have scenes from her point of view, that have nothing to do with Bilbo, when the entire book is from his point of view.

Similarly, in the last three Harry Potter films, we see things that superficially seem to be taken straight from the book, but are altered.  The scene in “Order of the Phoenix” when Harry witnesses Snape’s most embarrassing memory is a perfect example.  In the book, Harry goes to the pensieve while Snape isn’t in the room, and looks into it against Snape’s wishes, knowing that he shouldn’t be doing so.  In the film, Harry sees the memory in the midst of a training session with Snape, when he proves more effective than Snape expected at guarding his own memories and breaking into Snape’s.  Those are two radically different things, even though in both cases, the end result is Harry watching Snape’s worst memory, and Snape refusing to continue Harry’s training in bolstering his mental defenses afterwards.  The movies are filled with choices like that, that diverge from the books in major ways while looking like they don’t at first blush.

Throw out everything except the title.  This is the approach that pretty much all the James Bond movies after “Thunderball” took – they keep the title and (most of) the character names, but everything else is thrown out, to be replaced by whatever the filmmakers come up with.  This isn’t really adaptation at all, but simply using a familiar title to sell movie tickets to the new story the filmmakers really wanted to tell.

In the next post, I’ll come back to this and talk about how I see my books fitting into this scheme, and what I’d want to see happen…



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