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From the Wire: Books to Films and Back

Criticwire By Matt Singer | Criticwire March 28, 2012 at 1:04PM

How important is faithfulness to the success of a cinematic adaptation of a popular novel?
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"L.A. Confidential."
"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.

This article is related to: From the Wire, Scott Tobias, Tasha Robinson, The Hunger Games


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