Thinking about Movie Adaptations

March 6th, 2010

Note: just realized I had comments and pingbacks turned off on this post.  I’m an idiot.  They’re on now, if anyone cares . . .

It’s Oscar Eve

All my life, I’ve loved to read and I’ve eagerly looked forward to seeing movie versions of books I’ve loved, an experience not unlike coming home from a trip alone with your spouse when you walk into your house thinking, “I can’t wait to see my kids! I love them so much!” and the first few minutes of reunion are, indeed, wonderful . . . and then someone starts whining, someone starts demanding, someone throws up–in short, reality sets in. So it is with going to see movies based on your favorite books. The opening titles throw you into a frenzy of delight and anticipation. And then the movie starts. And you’re like, “Wait, that’s not what he should look like . . . She never said that in the book! . . . They were supposed to go to Italy before getting married . . . Oh, come on, everyone knows she would never do anything like that . . . Wait, what happened to that whole scene in the park? . . . Her mother shouldn’t look that old . . .” And so on.

We’ve all been there.

Now I know that an hour and a half long movie can’t possibly cover everything that’s in a four hundred page book. You’ve got to edit. Scarlett O’Hara lost a couple of kids along the way between novel and movie and I don’t think anyone minded (especially since she was such a lousy mother to them in the book).

In fact, one of my favorite adaptations of Pride and Prejudice is the old Laurence Oliver version, the screenplay of which is so smart and fast-moving that even though it discards huge portions of the novel, it still captures its essence. Plus . . . Laurence Olivier as Darcy. I’m not going to argue with that. (Matthew Macfadyen, I’m going to argue with, although he redeemed himself in the BBC mini-series of Little Dorrit–an absolutely brilliant adaptation and he’s perfect in that role. But I know Mr. Darcy and you, Mr. Macfadyen, are no Mr. Darcy.)

Hey, there, mister.

Got a little off-topic here, but that’s kind of my point: you get passionate about the books you love and that makes you care a lot about how good the movie adaptation is, especially since it’s hard to get those images out of your head once they’re in there. I mean, does anyone really picture Harry Potter as looking like anything other than Daniel Radcliffe now? I don’t recall that HP was originally described as round-faced but Radcliffe is, so now Harry is, in all our minds. Our imaginations glom onto visual information pretty quickly and then don’t want to let go. So this stuff matters.

And when a director or writer changes small details it can have huge consequences–some of them wanted (sped up storyline, more immediately graspable motives) and some of them destructive. I just reread Nabokov’s Lolita for the first time in decades. I had forgotten what an absolutely incredible wonderful brilliant upsetting intriguing poetic perverse book it was. I couldn’t put it down and when I finished it–much too quickly–I felt lost and deprived the way you do when you finish a book that completely enthralls you (and by the way, that sadness on finishing a book used to hit me all the time when I was a kid and is so much rarer now, so I appreciate the value of a book that I don’t want to finish all the more). Anyway, the book lingered in my mind so I went in search of more Lolita and found her on youtube.

Years ago, I’d seen the 1962 Stanley Kubrick version starring James Mason. A few minutes of revisiting it were enough for me: the censors’ restrictions so declaw the story that it becomes a 17-year-old teenager seducing a sad older man while Peter Sellers as Clare Quilty steals the movie so completely that his charisma far outshines Lolita’s appeal. Shelley Winters is brilliant and James Mason’s pretty well cast–and the look of the film is great–but it’s nothing like the book.

So I turned to the 1997 Adrian Lyne version. Dominique Swain makes a far better Lolita than Sue Lyon, since she looks scarily young in scenes and does a good job being both seductress and victim. And Jeremy Irons is pitch perfect. Frank Langella is closer to the book’s Clare Quilty than Sellers and the plot follows along the original novel much more closely than Kubrick’s version . . . but that made me all the more aware of subtle differences that change, well, everything.

I won’t bore those of you who haven’t read or seen Lolita recently by listing everything that made me realize why, ultimately, the movie betrays the book: I’ll just give one example. In the book, Humbert Humbert admits that Lolita gets no sexual pleasure from his constant lovemaking (as she shouldn’t: she’s twelve). In the movie, Lyne shows his Lolita in the throes of cinematic ecstasy whenever Humbert makes love to her. (You know: head thrown back, eyes closed, little noises coming from her throat . . . the whole “male directors like women to look transported during sex” thing). A tiny moment . . . but what a huge difference in meaning: her pleasure takes Humbert from a crass and icky molester to someone having a love affair–albeit with someone young.

So movie adaptations can, with the subtlest of details, change something huge about the book. That doesn’t mean they fail: sometimes those changes add up to something equally interesting and valid. Different doesn’t always mean worse. Sometimes it may even be better: I’ve never read the book that the movie The Graduate was based on, but I’ve always heard Buck Henry’s screenplay made it into something much more meaningful. There is, in fact, a Hollywood belief that bad books make good movies and vice versa.

So long as they keep making movies out of my favorite books, I’ll keep running to see them in the hopes of recapturing the joy of reading them in the first place. And I may keep getting disappointed. But hope springs eternal.

Anyone know who they’re thinking of casting as Peeta and Katniss in The Hunger Games?