Reading by the Light of the Screen: Thoughts on Adaptations
I’m working my way through the first season of HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” I’m three episodes in, and so far I’m finding it to be a brutish but often engaging fantasy series, albeit one that’s not quite sure whether it’s fascinated by the physical relationships of another era or just really into naked ladies. (As someone who grew up reading and watching fantasy, I can attest that this is not an uncommon problem with the genre.)
But what’s been on my mind as much as the show itself has been — typical for me — is the way I’m experiencing it. When I last wrote about the divide between narrative and its consumption, I focused on the way serialized dramas demand more from us over longer periods of time than ever before, and how our rush to judge each installment can often prevent us from seeing the big picture. Lately, though, I’ve been thinking about the world of book-to-film and book-to-series adaptations. The coming of “Game of Thrones” brought an outpouring of excited writing from fans of George R.R. Martin’s novels, so much so that the A.V. Club decided to post separate recaps of the first season for those who’d read the books and those who hadn’t. Similarly, the recent release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 is bringing out comments from the dedicated fan base who are able to cite chapter and verse from Rowling to note the ways the film differs from the book. In both instances, the visual media are being treated by some as extensions of the brand instead of works in their own right. And this, I believe, is bad for everyone.
Every adaptation is going to be just that: a change, an abridgement, a reworking of text to fit a visual medium. That’s an inherent part of the process, not a negative side effect of it, and to cite the existence of such changes as failures is to miss the point entirely. Every film or TV series adapted from a book has to be given a chance to stand on its own, and it has to be judged not on its fidelity to details in the source material but on how it tells a story. Film and television are graphically oriented spaces that convey emotion and intent with the juxtaposition of images; books are able to get fully inside the heads of multiple characters and narrators in unique and dazzling ways. They will always and ever be different, and that’s a good thing.
I’m not usually one for lists, but the 1998 ranking from the American Film Institute of the greatest American movies contains some undisputed classics. What’s worth nothing, though, is that five of the top ten are based on books: The Godfather (No. 3), Gone With the Wind (No. 4), The Wizard of Oz (No. 6), The Graduate (No. 7), and Schindler’s List (No. 9). Each of those films is a masterpiece, the kind handed down from parents to children, and they all take enormous liberties with their source material. The Wizard of Oz alone has dozens of changes and alterations, from the deletion of entire characters and subplots to the alteration of certain details (Dorothy’s ruby slippers were silver in the book, etc.). Another modern classic and personal favorite, L.A. Confidential, drastically streamlines its central literary story for film. Yet no one ever speaks of those films as failures, or betrayals, or any of the heated and unthinking comments hurled at modern adaptations that differ from their texts. No one sits down and tells their kids that they’re about to watch a magical adventure story that’s pretty lame compared with the book. No one sits enthralled by the shootout at the Victory Motel and grunts that the original was better. Why?
I believe it’s because modern fan culture brings with it a sense of ownership and possession that makes it difficult for some people to delineate between a book or graphic novel on one hand and a film or TV series on the other. We don’t just fall in love with stories anymore; we confuse the passion of experience with the fever of creation. And this is the surest way to cheat ourselves out of good art. The adaptation is always, always, always going to be different from the book. Always. It will never be the same. It will never look just how you thought it would, or capture all the dialogue, or feel the way you’d imagined. The question we have to ask ourselves when watching an adapted work is not “Did they get all the details in that I think they should have?” but “Did they tell a good story, and tell it well?”
I started coming to these conclusions a few years ago when I read Ian McEwan’s Atonement and then shortly thereafter saw the film version directed by Joe Wright. The book devastated me: McEwan’s masterful tone was unlike anything I’d read, and his phenomenal attention to the individual psychologies of his characters was riveting. The first half of the novel unfolds over a few mere hours, chronicling the desires and fears of its cast with stunning precision and reality. The book is still with me years later, by which I mean I can still remember how I imagined the places, how I felt when I read about the people, and what I went through as McEwan chronicled a decades-long tale of penance and regret. Wright’s film, from Christopher Hampton’s screenplay, eliminates whole swaths of that action, most notably in the character of the mother, who goes from a prominent player in the book to an afterthought in the film. It’s because Wright’s working in a different medium, and he had to tell a story for film, which meant conveying relationships through action, not inner monologue, not to mention condensing more than 350 pages of quiet character development into two hours of film (with credits). And you know what? He made a beautiful, romantic, gorgeous film. It’s impossible to weigh it against the book because the two are fundamentally different experiences. Yes, the book came first, and yes, it’s got more detail than the film. But the film is good — and this is the important part — in its own right. It exists as its own thing, a visual version of a story first told on the page. Wright’s work is an adaptation, but it’s also an original. They’re both good. I enjoy them both.
The Shining is another perfect example. Stephen King’s 1977 novel is chilling and one of the best he’s ever written, thanks in large part to the way he subconsciously poured his own alcoholic personality into the jagged persona of Jack Torrance. At the same time, Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film version is a revelation of horror cinema, playing with tone and light and space so beautifully that it remains one of the best scary movies ever made. They’re both amazing in their own ways, and neither’s glory overshadows the other. More than that: It’s OK to love them both. It really is. Loving the film does not mean betraying the book, or forgetting its power, or choosing one over the other as “better.” It simply means letting them stand on their own, to succeed or fail under their own power.
All of which is a long way of saying I finally let myself off the hook, and I cannot do enough to encourage you to do the same. Because I have news for you: no movie or TV series will ever capture the book the way your mind does. No director will get the light the way you dreamed it, no casting director will ever get the body types right, no set designer will ever find the right shade of green for that door. The movie will cut out whole plot lines; the TV show will change the order of the story. The beat that felt like the emotional climax for you will be a bland transitional one on screen. The penultimate chapter will turn out to be the final showdown. Those things will happen, and they have to happen. Accepting this is the only way to actually see and enjoy a film or TV series for what it is.
It’s about letting go, really, and about giving ourselves permission to like two different things. We get so caught up in a proprietary fandom that our passion can turn to anger before we know it, and that’s awful. Can an adaptation be terrible? Absolutely. (Off the top of my head, Ghost Rider deserves special consideration for being even crazier and more laughable than you’d think a movie about Satan’s bounty hunter could be.) But its flaws must be measured as a result of its execution independent of its source material. If a film or TV series is bad, it’ll be bad because it failed to create drama and be honest about its characters, not because it didn’t copy and paste every detail from the book that inspired it.
That’s why I can’t get behind dual recaps like the A.V. Club’s twin approach to “Game of Thrones.” The only way to talk about the show — to talk about any adaptation — is to genuinely appraise it as its own work. Yes, let’s talk about fantasy, and Martin’s success, and maybe even the nature of the divisive fan culture that’s sprung up around his lengthy and still unfinished series. But the only way to really see what’s happening is to let the show be the show, and let the book be the book. I’m looking forward to finishing the first season of “Thrones,” and I’d like to give the books a whirl, too. Maybe I’ll like them both, or like one but despise the other. All I know is that I have to give them both a chance.