Once upon a time, ages ago, I went to see The Dark Knight, the second of Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, and I went to see it in the company of some friends. Eleven hours later, when the movie had ended, we were walking out into the parking lot and chattering about what we had seen.
On the whole, we all liked it, but I had noticed an interesting thing about the movie and wanted to talk about it at length. (Namely, what I had noticed – if you’re interested – is that in its effort to produce a realistic Batman movie, Christopher Nolan created a fascinating crime-epic which has no need for Batman in it. It isn’t really a Batman movie, it’s a crime movie, more akin to The Godfather. But! The plot and impetus of the movie doesn’t really work without Batman in it. So he has to be there, but is largely unnecessary to his own film.)
I explained this to my friends, pointing out the weird problem at the heart of the film. And it was greeted with the small awkward silence and then the answer of resignation which I so frequently got which was “Well, I mean I don’t really know anything about the original comics…”
This drives me insane, and it always did, for two reasons:
For one, there was an assumption built into the responses that I was somehow more authoritative on the topics of these movie adaptations because I was a big reader. I read a zillion books and a zillion comics and I probably know something about the source material of the film we’re viewing. So somehow, their responses always suggested a defense of “well I liked it anyway, even if I shouldn’t, because it wasn’t accurate to the book…”. It drove me nuts, because I’d rather have an interesting discussion on any topic than be seen as authoritative, my opinions left to stand there.
And two: Because I just do not care about faithfulness in adaptations.
This is where I differ from a lot of readers, I think. Because I still hear a tremendous amount of talk on a regular basis about movies based on books and How They Did. Did they capture the characters correctly? Were hair colors wrong? Did they leave out someone’s favorite part of the plot? And so forth.
And I don’t contribute because I just don’t care. Moreover, I never did. It’s why it frustrated me so much, outside that Batman movie. The movie vaguely referenced The Killing Joke, a classic comic by Alan Moore…but barely. And so what? I was talking about the movie entirely on its own, and they were presuming I was talking about all this other stuff.
Movies have to stand entirely on their own, I feel, and that is as true of movies which were originally books. So while I talk about movies a great deal and at great length (seriously- I go on and on) what I am rarely talking about is the adaptation, from book to film, complaining about the signal to noise ratio.
Nowhere is this more true for me than my endless, ongoing rewatching of the Harry Potter films, about which I could talk for an age of the Earth, because I never grow tired of them. I was an enormous fan of the books as they came out, my fan-love has only increased as time has gone on, and I seem to be perpetually rewatching the films, in and out of order. When I finish writing this article, for example, the boys and I are going to sit down and watch the remainder of The Half-Blood Prince, which we started last night.
Now how faithful are they to the books? Not that faithful. Largely because they’re pretty big books with an awful lot of stuff in there. So the movies have chopped stuff out and streamlined a great deal of other stuff, all for the purpose of telling coherent films, rather than trying to translate the books themselves onto the screen somehow.
I think this is why they’re some of my favorite adaptations. Particularly The Half-Blood Prince, the movie of which I think is the finest piece of Harry Potter-dom in existence (a lean, brooding film focused tightly on a spare handful of characters, with a muggle and wizard world sharply drawn into existence around them). That it leaves out huge swaths of the book doesn’t interest me, because the movie is a complete story in itself, with themes and character arcs and compelling things it wants to talk about.
Sometimes, I see film adaptations which are desperate not to exist on their own, but to convey as much of the book as they possibly can. They aren’t their own things, they’re just an additional format for the book. And what happens is, they wind up with great raggedy gaps in their storytelling and plots as they struggle with the dual desire to fill themselves up with their original book, but also the necessity to cut stuff out. The most recent example of this was Vampire Academy, for me. I see it in a fair number of the young-adult movies that have happened the past few years, trying like hell to launch franchises.
(Please note: this is all personal opinion. If you disagree with me, fair enough.)
I also don’t demand faithfulness, because sometimes the movie is able to improve on the book. I’ve talked elsewhere over the years about how good it was that Swedish filmmakers streamlined Let The Right One In, my favorite vampire novel…because there is some goofy shit that turns up in the second half of that excellent book. And when it all falls out of the movie, you wind up with a tight and powerful horror movie.
So if you take anything away from this, can I implore you to try and…relax? Don’t worry about the movie-to-book translation ratio, if you can help it. Just appreciate the film for the film. And always, always remember that nothing is ruined, even when an excellent book is turned into a stupid movie. That book is still there, on the shelves, and that rubbish film can’t ever hurt that. It’ll fade away soon.
(A final note: The only 100% perfect translation to film I’ve seen was the Coen Brothers adaptation of True Grit, starring Jeff Bridges. Remarkably, almost every line of dialog from the book is in the film. I’ve argued that if you see the film, you’ve effectively read the book. And I’ve also argued that the film is perhaps superior because it gets little touches the book doesn’t, like a heartbreaking soundtrack, for one thing. You should go watch it, if you haven’t already. It’s an amazing work.)