Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Novel Ideas

The other day I had the opportunity to see William Wyler's 1939 adaptation of Wuthering Heights and can firmly say I enjoyed it. There's a lot to chew on for fans of classic studio era productions, not the least of which being the SUMPTUOUS cinematography of Gregg Toland (Citizen Kane, The Grapes of Wrath) coupled with great gobs of melodrama. What struck me the most about the film is how clever it is in parsing down the non-essential elements (though fans of the novel may disagree) of the story; particularly Cathy and Heathcliff's children.
As we get oh-so-closer to the Oscars I find myself thinking more about adaptations (which comprises a good chunk of the nominated work) and how the various films do and don't work for me. My friend Frank really changed my thinking about No Country by pointing out that the film offers up very little different from the book. This is not to say that the film is not a remarkable technical achievement or has insightful things to say about the modern world, HOWEVER, these are not things that the film itself offers up as an independent work of art, these are things that the story provides as it's own entity. Now compare this to Wuthering Heights which sacrifices huge chunks of plot to streamline the story and make it about one thing and one thing only, the romance of Heathcliff and Catherine. The novel talks about fate and families, social mobility and revenge but the movie is built around the romance. As a result the emotions and dynamics are heightened by the film (especially the lush lighting and cinematography). Now all these themes I mentioned are touched upon in the film but it's not the primary focus. By making the film really clamp down and focus, Wyler is able to make a film that stands on it's own merit.
For me, the best films that start out as books tend to be the one's that streamline or alter their source material. Whether it be There Will Be Blood, The Godfather, Beowulf, Naked Lunch, Jaws or the Unbearable Lightness of Being adaptations are best when they stray away from their source material, otherwise what's the point? Now the moment you start altering things to the point of being unrecognizable then you're screwed BUT as longs as you keep the basics of the story then my feeling with a film is go with it. If you don't believe me ask yourself, which Harry Potter film is your favorite? I can virtually guarantee you it is not the rote first two films of Chris Columbus.

Question for visitors, what are YOUR favorite novel-to-film adaptations and what changes from the source text work for you?


Frank said...

I think "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" did a tremendous job conveying the tone and ideas of the book while radically straying from the events of the book.

Also, where does "Adaptation" fall on this scale?

elaine said...

i liked "stand by me" which technically is a novella by stephen king called "the body". the novella is much darker.

El Gigante said...

Frank: Yeah as written Hitchhiker's Guide would amount to a group of actors standing around having funny but circular conversations with each other for an interminably long time. The movie was fun, had forward momentum and unquestionably upheld the central themes and ideas of the book.

I think Adaptation count as it's not only considering the nature of adaptation (not just of a book into a screenplay but of Susan Orlean and her relationship with John Laroche) but does cover at least some of the content of the book (though I say this without having read any of The Orchid Thief).

Elaine: First off cool blog keep it up. Secondly, I think you could devote an entire film school class to Stephen King adaptations and one of the things you'd find is that his shorter stories usually tend to come out best. Anyone got any theories as to why that is?

sarah said...

Favorite--the Chronicles of Narnia that was on PBS a long time ago. I loved the books but really thought the first three adaptations were amazing (and had great music). I don't think there was ever an adaptation of the last four books, which is probably better, because they're much less story/narrative-oriented. I haven't seen them in a while, though....

Least favorite--Everything Is Illuminated. Again, loved the book, but I thought that Schreiber tried to do too many cutesy things, and that much that was cute (but not coddling) about the book was left out. Excepting Eugene Hutz, nothing about the film felt great, and nothing felt powerful, whereas I left the book feeling really moved. I wonder if because the book used so many conventions from other writing that no movie would have really worked for me.

elaine said...

Thanks, el gigante...I don't think I can answer why King's short stories were better adaptations than his novels. I just think short stories in general are easier to adapt and (sometimes) make better adaptations. Novels cover so much. What you pare down can really make or break the film.

Also forgot to mention Fight Club which (surprise surprise) started out as a short story. I like the film better than the book.

P.S. Gregg Toland is amazing.

Joel Swedove said...

I think High Fidelity was a great adaptation of the book because by changing the setting to chicago a lot of the story becomes metaphorical (i.e., the rain)