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The Art of the Adaptation

June 8, 2008

Today I saw The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian for the second time.  This time I was surprised to find myself crying during the scene at Miraz’s castle, probably because I knew what was coming.  Any book, movie, or t.v. show that can get a few tears out of me has done its job – provided I’m not crying with horror and disappointment.

I am typically not a fan of books-turned-to-movies, especially if I happened to be a big fan of the book.  That’s hardly unusual.  You can’t please everyone all of the time, and fans have a tendency to get persnickety about their canon, but all too often the writer tries too hard to please the book’s fans that he forgets he’s trying to make a movie.  Better to disappoint a few die-hards and make a watchable film for everyone else.

I say that of course, fully ready to own up to hypocrisy where Harry Potter’s concerned.  As a devotee, I found the first three movies terribly disappointing, with the third earning a special black mark in my book.  My distaste for that movie grows every time I see it.  The fourth, on the other hand, I was fully prepared to boycott, believing as I did that it was impossible to make a decent movie out of a 700+ page book.  I was pleased to be proven wrong.  Goblet of Fire, though one of the longest novels, made the best movie.  It focused less on the details and more on the story arc – there was also much less of Hermione the Pink Power Ranger and Ron the Perpetually Terrified, for which I could only be grateful.

Sometimes a movie adaptation has nothing to do with the book beyond the initial premise, and occasionally that works (as in the case of Ella Enchanted) though usually it doesn’t (like the abysmal Timeline).  In that case there’s just a sense of disappointed expectations, and the line ‘Based on the book by’ should really just read, ‘Totally not resembling the book that bears this title, not at all.’

And for the love of god, we will not speak of the horror that is Adaptation.  

Aside from the adaptations of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, I think the Chronicles of Narnia have succeeded best at crossing from page to screen, and curiously for opposite reasons.  In the case of LoTR, the books are so dense that by hacking away at chapters of description and pages of drinking songs, Peter Jackson was able to make a comprehensible plot for everyone who wasn’t a Tolkien scholar.  The Narnia books on the other hand, are in many ways just outlines of stories, the bare bones, giving the writer a lot of room to work and breathe – and by not sticking to every comma and period of the book, but remaining true to the spirit, he succeeds.  As opposed to having to take things out, he was able to put more in, to enrich the world of Narnia.  And for the level of detail and the well-drawn arcs to my favorite characters, I can forgive the bizarre and ridiculous inclusion of a romance between Susan and Caspian. (Seriously, what were they thinking?  To quote my friend Rodrigo, “I didn’t think it was possible, but they did it.  They sexed up Narnia.”)

When I was about, oh, fourteen or so, I decided that my favorite Elizabeth Peters’ mystery would make a terrific movie – and I was just the person to write it.  I discovered very quickly that adapting a book into a script was a lot harder than I thought, and the project died just as it ought.  I still maintain He Shall Thunder in the Sky would make an excellent movie, and I may take another swing at it just for fun, just to try something new and say I did it. 

Part of the reason I crashed and burned was because my love for the source material was too great.  I think in adapting something for film, the number one rule of writing applies: murder your darlings.  In this case, though, it’s not your darlings that need to be taken apart with a chainsaw.  It’s hard, but it may just be a fact that your favorite scene in a book doesn’t work cinematically, or in fact contribute to the story in a meaningful way.  It’s double duty again.  Plot and character, if it doesn’t do both, there may not be room.

Prince Caspian does that well, I think.  There is a whole layer in the film absent from the book that really enhances the characters.  And aside from the romance (because everyone knows there’s no sex in Narnia), I didn’t take notice of differences between the book and the movie, and certainly didn’t think the movie suffered any for it.

Of course, as I told my mother – and my friend Rod the first time I saw it – for the portrayal of Reepicheep alone, I would have loved this movie.  


Quote of the Day: 

“I didn’t want to make the book as it was, I wanted to make the book as I remembered it.” – Andrew Adamson, director and screenwriter The Chronicles of Narnia

Link of the Day: 15 Book-to-Movie Adaptations That Live Up to the Source Material

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