What Makes For Good Adaptation?

It’s good to be blogging again after our three week trip to Taiwan. I have several posts in the works about that trip, but today I want to write about a really great article I read today on Lit Hub with the rather long title: “How Should a Literary Adaptation Be? We Asked the Critics for the Answer” by Kristen Evans.

I’ve talked a bunch on this blog about adaptation, but I have stressed in my posts that I don’t like to just spend time talking about what makes an adaptation good or bad, and instead I tend to focus on what is being done differently that I find interesting or notable and what is being done well.

On the whole I’ve stayed away from the question of good or bad because I’ve always felt that people’s opinions were mainly drawn from one issue, which is how faithful an adaptation is to its source material. Some people take this to mean whether you can match a movie to its source character for character and plot point for plot point, and some people take this more loosely. In the words of the critic Matt Zoller Seitz “It’s like, did you get the book, or did you not get the book?” Getting the book meaning do you understand the meaning behind the words, the “point,” the atmosphere, etc.

The article mentions this viewpoint, which is a sound one. But then it goes on to have a very interesting conversation about what visual mediums add (namely world building on a sometimes epic scale a la Game of Thrones) and how they struggle with how to portray interiority.

It also talks about the need to look at a visual medium in context–how it responds/fits into the larger cultural conversation, and the need to look at it according to its own merits (aka how does it function as a show independent of its source material).

I found this conversation around what makes for good criticism and good adaptation to be fascinating. I lean towards looking at adaptations in conversation with themselves and with culture in general, but I also think that a good adaptation should “get” its source material. Meaning that the original author if he or she was to see their work produced should be able to respect the artist’s vision of their story, even though it might be quite far from a work that they would produce themselves.

But now over to you–how do you think a literary adaptation should be judged? What’s your favorite literary adaptation? Let me know in the comments.

Remake Review: The Philadelphia Story and High Society

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“The time to make up your mind about people is never.”

There may be no type of adaptation more tricky to pull off than a remake. Unlike a more subtle retelling, a remake matches its subject–sometimes line for line and scene for scene. In many ways, remakes have more riding on them than an original film. An original film has to stand on its own, but a remake must do that and also contain within it some sparkling effervescent quality that contains the reason for its existence.

There’s a lot that can bring down a remake–nostalgia for one thing. Take a film that’s good, but not necessarily a shining example of movie brilliance like The Ghostbusters or The Karate Kid. These films are fan favorites and redoing them, however well, means that you’re putting a beloved film into competition with a film that simply doesn’t have the rosy glow time adds. Its imperfections are not the ones we remember fondly, its strengths are different and sometimes jarring.

Some remakes are done to take advantage of advances in special effects or new perspectives and social attitudes. Some are done to capitalize on successful stories (hello SpiderMan and Robin Hood adventures), and some–well some you don’t even know what people were thinking.

No story is safe from the remake bug, and I honestly think that’s okay. Remakes are part of a process of self invention and adaptation that keeps Hollywood films interesting and engaging not just with current trends but also with its own history. It’s an art form that is constantly engaging with itself and with other disciplines like theater, music, and fine arts.

 

Now let’s look at one:

I rented The Philadelphia Story from the library. I didn’t realize that it was the original and I had already seen the remake (it does say it on the back of the DVD case that I own–but who reads the back of the DVD case? I mean, except me out of curiosity or to find out the run time). This I quickly ascertained from the first few minutes of the film.

Before we get into the pros and cons of each film, let’s take a look at some of the pertinent stats:

The Philadelphia Story:

  • release year: 1941
  • director: George Cukor (also well known for My Fair Lady and Les Girls)
  • stars: Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, & Jimmy Stewart
  • reception: won 2 Oscars (best screenplay, best lead actor-Jimmy Stewart), nominated for an additional 4), 5th most popular box film of the year
  • genre: screwball comedy (or remarriage comedy)

High Society:

  • release year: 1956
  • director: Charles Walters (also known for The Unsinkable Molly Brown and Please Don’t Eat the Daisies)
  • stars: Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly, Frank Sinatra
  • reception: nominated for 2 Oscars, both for music–it almost received a third nomination for best story, which was one of the academy’s more famous gaffes considering that 15 years earlier they gave an Oscar to the original screenplay. It was the 10th highest grossing film that year.
  • genre: musical
  • fun fact: This was Grace Kelly’s final screen performance before marrying the Prince of Monaco.

 

Here’s the basic plot of both films: The divorced Tracy Lord is getting married again. To save her father’s reputation, she is allowing two reporters from Spy magazine to report on her nuptials. What follows is a comedy with plenty of love triangles and emotion before Tracy ultimately decides what’s important and who she’s going to spend the rest of her life with.

While High Society is definitely the more comical of the two, the original black and white film will always be the greater of the two for me.

Here’s why:

  • Both films have a great cast, but no one can steal Katharine Hepburn‘s show. The root of both characters is a seemingly goddess or queen-like disposition, but Hepburn shows much greater range of emotion than Kelly, who often comes off as a little more immature rather than complex.
  • The original film also plays up all the relationships more, so that you can really feel the tension as Tracy Lord flits between Dexter, George, and Mike.
  • Both films are well cast, but I feel that as a musical it would have done even better if they’d picked an actress who could sing. Too much of the romancing is left to the gentlemen.
  • I also think that Miss Imbrie is played better in the original film–instead of being light and comic she is observant, serious, and engaging. Her dilemmas hold more depth and her relationship with Mike becomes more nuanced. We actually see more of the background of both characters–even though they work for a gossip magazine they’re both artists–Mike is a writer with a full-length, published book, and Elizabeth is a painter. Their talent and work becomes another, deeper way of looking at the class struggles that are bared in the film.

However, I really love the relationship between Tracy and her sister as portrayed in the newer film. They have more of a good-natured rivalry going on that’s fun to watch.

Favorite moments:

My favorite stand alone scene (i.e. one that isn’t repeated in the remake) in the original is where Mike goes to the library to do research and finds Tracy there reading his book. This scene goes a long way to challenging both character’s perceptions of each other.

My favorite part of the remake is without a doubt the flashback scene to Dexter and Tracy’s honeymoon aboard the yacht, the True Love. In the original film, you don’t see any of the once-loving relationship between Tracy and Dexter, so it’s nice to have Bing crooning to Kelly.

One of my favorite sequences in both films is when the reporters come to the mansion and see the room full of silver presents and meet Tracy’s sister who has made a pact with her sister to give the reporters a show.

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All in all, while both films have something to offer, the first is more nuanced–even the cinematography (full of close ups) signals that. The characters tend to be more dynamic and display a greater range of emotion. While Cole Porter’s songs make a lovely addition to the remake, they don’t do all that much to spur the plot along or bring much insight (aside from the ‘True Love’ song).

 

But now I’ll turn it over to you: have you seen either or both of these films? Did you like them? Let me know in the comments.

From Page to Screen: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

Untitled design.jpgI’m totally fascinated by (some might say obsessed with) adaptation. If you believe, as I do, that nothing is truly original, then pretty much every cultural product is some form of adaptation or interpretation. I think of it as an extremely creative process: how to make unfamiliar the familiar (fairy tale adaptation); how to bring someone else’s original world to life in a new way (film adaptation); how to put your unique spin and gifts to an old story so that the old story is barely recognizable (aka pretty much every piece of art).

How people do this, and what is added by adaptation are questions that I’m forever thinking about. So I thought this feature could be kind of fun–a look at how films and literature interact, and about what the film brings to the story. These aren’t traditional reviews about how “well” the movie portrays the book, instead I’ll be looking at what I think are the meaningful deviations and how those changes impact our view of the stories together and separately. At least, that’s the goal.

First, some of the vital statistics on the book and film: Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children (click the link for the film Wikipedia page, which has a plot summary)

*Spoiler warning–it’s not intentional but is a somewhat essential part of the analysis process, though I do not talk about the ending.*

Book:

  • Written by: Ransom Riggs
  • Published: Quirk Books, June 2011
  • Intended audience: YA
  • Reception: NY Times Best Seller for 70 weeks, made it to #1 slot

Film:

  • Directed by: Tim Burton
  • Released: 20th Century Fox, September 2016
  • Principal actors: Eva Green (Miss Peregrine), Asa Butterfield (Jake), Samuel L. Jackson (Barron)
  • Reception: nominated for a special effects award from the Visual Effects Society Awards, mixed reviews and reception: Rotten Tomatoes: 64%; Meta critic 57/100= mixed/average reviews

Note: I watched the film before I read the book.

The film and the book have several interesting differences, but first I wanted to comment on the importance that visual media plays in the book. The story was largely inspired by old photographs–photography being the author’s primary interest–and for the most part the characters as well as some minor plot points come from these photographs.

These old pictures, which are in themselves strange and interesting, mean that the book had already been informed largely by visual media. This makes the decision to adapt into film a natural one (beyond the fact that most stories translate well to film and that Hollywood has a long and well-established history of borrowing liberally from literature). It’s even more natural that Tim Burton would be the chosen director, given his predilection for the gothic, slightly dark, but ultimately visually appealing aesthetic that he’s famous for.

Interesting Deviations:

The book’s protagonist, Jakob, is much more of a teenager in the text. He is filled with angst, is often sarcastic–he swears–he is much less earnest than his film counterpart. The film makes less of Jakob’s personality than of his character, by which I mean his actions and abilities and his fascination with the other children. This decision ultimately made his transition into their world easier in the film–he still has that sense of wonder and is more childlike (calling to mind characters like Dorothy or Alice), rather than offering more of a contrast to the children in the home. Still, I love the book version, which feels much more authentic to his age.

The old man from the bog. If you haven’t read the book, you probably have no idea what this is, but the old man is a very old and well preserved human sacrifice in the county museum. The museum curator suggests that the man would have been a willing sacrifice, since it meant he would go straight to heaven. The mummy provides an interesting contrast in the book between the children who are preserved in their own time and the preservation that is achieved through death in the bog. This is missing from the film, but the point the film tries to make about the peculiar children is very different from the one the book makes.

In continuation of the above difference, the children in the book often feel quite stuck or trapped in their safe haven, the alternative for most of them (leaving the loop) would mean death. They feel cut off from the world, and often lash out at the villagers. This is only present in a small sense in the film, which is more concerned with making the world of the peculiar children fantastical and immersive, the darkness lurking more in the background.

Differences in characters. 

  • One of my favorite deviations from the book to the film is the character of Miss Peregrine. In the book, she is a capable matron who cares deeply for her charges, but in the film she has a spark all her own. She’s mysterious and mischievous and looks like the falcon she is. She also seems, possibly because of her reduced age, more of a peer with the children rather than an instantly recognizable authority figure.
  • The other fairly big character change is in Emma and Olive’s characters. In both the film and book, Emma entrances and is entranced by Jakob, but in the book her powers and Olive’s are switched. Emma in the book is a fire wielder, while in the film she levitates. This choice has interesting implications. Emma as the fire wielder exerts more control over her surroundings. She is less passive, less at the mercy of the world around her, and so it’s natural that she’s unsatisfied with her safe haven, as her powers are typically associated with destruction and renewal. In the film, there is some work done to give her more agency (she doesn’t simply levitate, she can control the air…), and I think that the switch is done for visual purposes and possibly because her levitation/floating is a more unique than people who can manipulate heat as we’ve seen in other fantasies/comics. It also imparts a softer, less fiery or temperamental quality to Emma.

The eyeball thing. This is largely an aesthetic choice, but it’s too interesting not to comment on. In the book, the wights and hollowgasts kill peculiar children, but they do not feast on people’s eyes in order to get their humanoid form back. This is a rather macabre movie interpretation. Again, I think this decision is largely done for visuals and to give the hollowgasts and wights a firmer and more understandable goal.

The last major change I’ll talk about is the idea of having to repeat certain events in the loops. In the film, there is a sort of daily “chore” schedule that must be completed to keep everyone safe. This gives everyone a sense of responsibility (increasing the children’s agency), but it also makes the world feel different–less safe and more well rounded. In contrast, the book’s loops don’t operate this way. This gives a little more logic to the loops, in my opinion, but it creates the sense that the loops are not really a part of the world, and the safety is a little suffocating and cloying at first.

In summary, there are a lot of things about the book that make it feel more “real,” and slightly more believable. The author is able to make the magical feel mundane. On the other hand, the film is all about creating a new world. It’s supposed to feel fantastical. I enjoyed both the film and the book for different reasons, and I think the film does a good job of condensing the book’s events even though it ends up taking them in a weird direction (probably something that’s talked about in later books, which I have not yet read).

 

What do you think of movie adaptations in general or this one in particular? Let me know in the comments.

 

 

Top Ten Tuesday: 10 Books that Have Inspired Me to Do Something

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Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly feature from The Broke and the Bookish.

This week’s topic is all about the things you’ve been inspired to do after reading a book, like climb a mountain or tell the truth. It’s interesting to see how reading really does impact our lives and how it changes or aspires to change us. A lot of the time I’ve been encouraged NOT to do something a protagonist has done–learning through their trials and mishaps, but here are ten books that have inspired me in a more positive way.

  • The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank inspired me to keep a diary. I’ve kept one (with more or less success) since high school. Keeping a journal has taught me the importance of writing in keeping my thoughts straight. I’ve read out parts of my diary too, which makes me conscious about privacy–once you write something down, it exists, no matter how personal it is. Even while writing the diary, Anne was conscious that it could be published and actually edited a lot of it.
  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by JK Rowling encouraged me to believe in magic. I was definitely one of those kids awaiting an acceptance letter for my magical education.
  • Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing drove my love of adaptation and encouraged me to write adaptations, which I still love doing.
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde nurtured a longing to get my portrait painted from life in oils. You’d think the book would have the opposite effect, but I hope I wouldn’t be so foolish as to make wishes or bargains with a piece of art.
  • Kevin Henkes’ Julius, the Baby of the World made me want to be a better older sister. In fact, I think that was probably the whole idea behind reading it to me…
  • Shadow Spinner by Susan Fletcher inspired me to not only tell great stories, but to listen for them in other people and find ways to make them my own. This is another great book to read if you’re into Renee Ahdieh’s books right now.
  • The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker has made me want to make strudel from scratch in the worst way. I’ve always been really intimidated by that recipe, but I’m going to try it out and share my results with you.
  • Chasing the Rose by Andrea di Robilant deepened my desire to go on a seemingly frivolous quest that would make a real impact on my life. I’m still working on this one.
  • Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand encouraged me to see the power in words and poetry and inspired me to offer custom love letters on my Etsy site, which are each hand crafted for their recipient based on the information I receive from the giver when they fill out my questionnaire. I love writing these letters, which I hope allow people to express their feelings in a new way.
  • L. Frank Baum’s The Emerald City of Oz was given to me as a goodbye present by my second grade teacher. This is a book that has taught me many things, but it gave me courage to start school in a new place with new people (something that wasn’t always easy for me), and it showed me how importance books were as objects–that they held wisdom and reassurance simply by being books. I love books, and so naturally I give them as gifts, but I think it was this book that showed me that could have great meaning.

 

Books have been extraordinarily important in my life–and a good book always inspires me to learn more and look at the world with a critical eye. How have you been inspired by your (or your library’s) bookshelf? Let me know in the comments.