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From the Wire: Books to Films and Back

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by Matt Singer
March 28, 2012 1:04 PM
4 Comments
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"L.A. Confidential."

If you and the rest of your book club are still debating the relative merits of "The Hunger Games" novel and film, the article you need to read today is the conversation at The A.V. Club between Tasha Robinson and Scott Tobias about the qualities that define good and bad cinematic adaptations.  Though neither Tobias nor Robinson particularly cared for "The Hunger Games" movie, they don't necessarily agree on where director Gary Ross went wrong, or even how he should have approached the adaptation in the first place.  Tobias is much less concerned with faithfulness than with quality, whereas Robinson -- who writes an occasional column called "Book Vs. Film" -- believes the two are not mutually exclusive concepts.

The whole piece is full of sharp observations, but while my attitude toward the "right" way to adapt a novel is probably closer to Tobias', I particularly liked this comment about "The Hunger Games" by Robinson:

"Where 'Hunger Games' fails for me is in the 'bringing something new to the table' aspect. I don’t think it’s too faithful of an adaptation. It’s just too literal. It lacks its own distinctive personality. It leaves out the internal chatter and gobs of background from the book, but doesn’t come up with anything distinctive to replace them."

I haven't read "The Hunger Games," but that's exactly how I felt watching the movie.  It was as if I was looking at visual CliffsNotes: all the most "important" elements of the plot and with very little of the flavor of the characters and their relationships.  If "Hunger Games" fans love the movie, that's wonderful -- and I'm not surprised if they do, it was clearly designed to cater to their every fantasy of what a "Hunger Games" movie would look like -- but its overwhelming literalness turned me off.  It wasn't concerned with creating new fans, just validating the visions of existing ones.

Tobias and Robinson also name their go-to example of the "perfect adaptation;" Tobias picks Martin Scorsese's "The Age of Innocence," Robinson cites Joe Wright's "Atonement."  Ever since the Friday night in September of 1997 when I saw it for the first time, my favorite adaptation has been Curtis Hanson's "L.A. Confidential."  I hadn't read the book when I saw the film, but I did immediately afterwards, which is when I realized what a monumental task Hanson and co-writer Brian Helgeland had faced in adapting James Ellroy's sprawling crime novel.  Hanson and Helgeland's "L.A. Confidential" featured a greatly condensed storyline and a much different ending than Ellroy's (who continued several of the characters' stories in his next novel, "White Jazz"), but it nonetheless captured the grimy flavor of Ellroy's Los Angeles and its lost souls.  Hanson and Helgeland succeeded by making a movie that felt faithful, even though it really wasn't.  

Read more of Tobias and Robinson's "What makes a good book-to-flm adaptation?" And let us know your favorite book-to-film adaptation in the comments below.

4 Comments

  • Claudia | April 2, 2012 10:32 PMReply

    I loved the book The Constant Gardener, and I loved the movie by Fernando Meirelles. Both great examples of their formats.

  • Edward Copeland | March 31, 2012 3:40 PMReply

    It can vary widely. Scorsese's The Age of Innocence is one of the most faithful adaptations I've ever seen and I love it. I had seen both the movies Jaws and The Godfather before I ever read the novels they were based on and was amazed that such great movies could be created out of what were really awful books. In a different case, The World According to Garp is one of my favorite books of all time, but it didn't stop me from liking the movie which deviates greatly from the novel. There are many examples of bad adaptations (and I'm putting my money on whatever the hell Baz Luhrmann plans to do in a 3D Great Gatsby to be one of them) but my mind always travels to The Bonfire of the Vanities where it seems as if they purposely went in the wrong direction every chance they could.

  • Steve Greene | March 31, 2012 12:51 AMReply

    Both sides of the "No Country for Old Men" book/adaptation complement each other really well. Cormac McCarthy's prose reads like elegant stage directions and the Coen Brothers' decision to forego a traditional score strips down the storytelling to its source material.

  • Goodman | March 28, 2012 2:51 PMReply

    Please support this film, made by a group of student filmmakers from Hunter College for Campus MovieFest 2012. We need as many views as you can give us in order to win Wild Card entry.
    http://www.campusmoviefest.com/movies/13469-goodman
    http://youtu.be/_K90tNUNKws

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