High Fidelity: Why Fans Demanding Faithfulness To Their Favorite Source Material Is Damaging Movies

Features
by Oliver Lyttelton
March 28, 2012 3:56 PM
22 Comments
  • |

Let's face it, we see more adaptations than original material in movie theaters. And that's not something new: adapting from plays or novels (and now, other movies and TV shows and video games and board games and action figures) is as old as cinema itself. But what has changed, or at least become more organized and noticeable in the age of the Internet, is the way these adaptations are approached even before they hit theaters. Something which quite often, leads to what HitFix's Drew McWeeney terms "fantrums."

Making films of properties with pre-existing fanbases is a double-edged sword: you're essentially guaranteed an opening weekend from people eager to see how their favorite book/comic/game turned out in another medium, but you're also competing with the picture that they've had in their heads for years. And with pre-production and shooting on movies such leaky ships, details of what's planned for an adaptation can come out even before a final script is approved. And if the fans don't like what they hear about a film departing from the source material, they'll let everyone know about it, tweeting and Facebook-ing and petitioning and blogging about it in what seems like huge numbers. And fandom is not know for their nuanced, moderate reactions, which is why McWeeney terms them "fantrums"; kneejerk, reactionary responses to rumors, whispers and half-truths.

It's not much fun for anyone, but it's also at the point now where the studios seem to be running scared, and adverse fan reactions -- or even the possibility of an adverse fan reaction -- could be seen as hurting the eventual film. The studios have been running scared from the geek crowd ever since the box office failure of "Batman & Robin" was credited to a negative review from Harry Knowles (rather than it being, you know, a terrible movie), and courting them with talk of being faithful and respectful to a source material is now common practice when a filmmaker signs on to adapt a popular property. But could most adaptations stand to be less faithful?

"The Hunger Games" being the most recent translation of an adored property stands as the best example. Putting aside the tiny minority of racists who didn't read the book closely enough, the fans seem to be happy, and it's clearly crossed over to a far wider audience than those who've read the novels. Author Suzanne Collins, director Gary Ross and co-writer Billy Ray did a solid job with their screenplay, it would seem, but like many such adaptations, it has a tendency to feel a little pedestrian -- faithfully hitting plot points without necessarily giving room between them to flesh out the world or the moments of drama. And in places, there's a fear of tinkering with aspects that might not work on screen.

For instance, one of the issues we raised in our dissection of the film on Monday is that the forest setting for the Hunger Games themselves looked dull and repetitive. One of our commenters, MIGHTYMAD, took exception with the point, writing "I know the average movie viewer probably didn't take the time to read the books, and therefore doesn't know that the Hunger Games have taken places in various environments over the years [...] but these games were set where they were suppose to be set for that particular year. What, where the filmmakers suppose to change the whole story of the book just to make the whole thing more 'cinematic?' "

Well, ideally, yes. A book is a book, and a movie is a movie, and what works in one medium doesn't necessarily work in another (a piece at the AV Club today expands on this better than we ever could). Ross & co. could have quite easily thrown in more variety to the environment of the final act of the film, or even changed the location entirely, without harming the basic essence of the story -- Katniss, and her fight for survival. What fans love about the material is not that the ending takes place in some woods in Canada. But the most of vocal of fans will object to any kind of change, no matter how minor, and Lionsgate erred on the side of safety, so as not to risk alienating fans.

A not dissimilar story is playing out with the latest fantrum -- over "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles." Producer Michael Bay let slip in an interview that for his Jonathan Liebesman-directed live-action reboot of the popular characters, now entitled simply "Ninja Turtles," Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael and Michelangelo would be aliens, rather than turtles mutated by radioactive ooze. And the internet exploded, with multiple (and rather ridiculous) petitions circulating, and vows to boycott the finished product. And if you're one of those that are upset about the idea (which has, obviously not been described in full yet, and may be more palatable in the script itself), we'd ask you to think about this one thing: do you honestly love the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles because they're mutants? Does them being aliens prevent them from being the characters that you fell for in the first place?

We'd argue not. Of course, with Bay and Liebesman in charge, the characters being aliens is the least of fans' troubles, and it's more than likely that the film will turn out to be terrible. But even so, we're sure there's a reasoning behind the alien thing, something that the writers (who were behind the very well-regarded "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol," let's not forget) feel will give a new spin to the characters. And the plus point is that Bay, who is at least strong in his convictions, is unlikely to be swayed, just as Bryan Singer didn't change courses when fans erupted at the casting of a six-foot-plus Australian actor as Wolverine, just as Christopher Nolan ignored objections to Heath Ledger as The Joker, and just as the producers of the Bond franchise failed to recast Daniel Craig because he was too blonde. In all cases, they know more about making movies than fans do, and we'll happily take the actor who embodies the spirit of a part over one who bears cosmetic similarities. But whether because of studio pressure or filmmakers fearful of pissing off the fans, some do cave, with entire projects scrapped, or in the case of "The Hunger Games," neutered. And it's this "customer is always right" mentality that is making the fan communities increasingly damaging to the process of developing movies.

It doesn't always come from fans, it should be said. J.K. Rowling vetoed Steven Spielberg as the director of "Harry Potter," and Chris Columbus' first two installments are easily the weakest of the series, principally because they're pedestrian traipses through the source material, hitting all the right notes without much of the inspiration. It was only when a director with the kudos to mess around with Rowling's originals took over, in the shape of Alfonso Cuaron, that the films started to work in and of themselves. This doesn't mean that the material should be disregarded (breaking entirely from what makes the material work in the first place is a recipe for disaster). But there's a middle ground to be found. Think of Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" films, which capture the spirit of Tolkien's work while expanding some characters, and cutting other non-essential sections entirely. Fans may have been irked by the excision of Tom Bombadil, but it's detrimental to the series.

Ultimately, whether it's a comic book or a Pulitzer Prize-winning literary classic, the question of whether or not it's faithful should come second to whether or not it's a good movie. Some of the greatest films of all time were ones that departed heavily from their subject matter -- "The Shining," "The Godfather" -- and you can bet that Stephen King fans would have been tweeting their anger at Stanley Kubrick's changes, had the technology existed at the time. Ultimately fandom should be less concerned with the details, and pay more attention to whether the filmmakers will deliver a piece of work that's worthy of the source material without simply recreating it.

You might also like:
Free Indie Movies and Documentaries    

22 Comments

  • dashay howard | November 12, 2012 10:37 AMReply

    i love this sonz this girl is on fire

  • Sasha | March 31, 2012 1:03 PMReply

    I think this is a case of 'Everyone is important on the internet' syndrome. Hearing the opinions and input of fans is always great for sure, but unfortunately it's the unhappy ones who are the loudest. One shouldn't give too much weight to their opinions.

  • Joel | March 29, 2012 5:04 PMReply

    To be fair, Rowling vetoed Spielberg because he reportedly had no respect for the books at all and wanted to cast Haley Joel Osment as Harry and set things at "Hogwarts High" in the U.S. If that had happened, the movie would have been a disaster and the franchise would never have grown into the behemoth it became.

  • Hipster At Large. | March 29, 2012 4:09 PMReply

    "do you honestly love the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles because they're mutants? Does them being aliens prevent them from being the characters that you fell for in the first place?"

    Hmmm... yes. Christ, why is it so diffcult to understand when the word "Mutant" is in the title. I'm all for taking creative liberties but changing the fundamental aspects of what makes franchise intriguing is something else entirely. If someone can't do something new and different with source material without changing everything then they probably shouldn't do it.

    Oh and choosing actors that wouldn't be the fans first choice is NOT the same as changing the origin of their title characters.

  • Beverly | March 29, 2012 10:21 AMReply

    Seriously! Prim's cat in the book was a blonde named Buttercup. In the movie it's a black and white tuxedo cat! Details matter!

  • frenk | March 29, 2012 10:52 AM

    You're right the movie is fucked because that detail is off. :cue massive eyeroll:
    You are the exact misguided fan they are talking about.

  • M. B. | March 29, 2012 1:52 AMReply

    There's a difference between the necessary changes inherent to adaptation and stripping away the essential nature of the source material.

    To use your example, changing the turtles to aliens ends up leaving them as neither mutant nor ninja nor turtles (and possibly not even teenage, depending on how aliens measure age). By that point it's unclear what the point of linking it to the earlier property at all is supposed to be, other than brand recognition.

  • cosmicfish | March 30, 2012 9:56 AM

    Exactly - there are a million stories out there that they COULD make, if they are going to adapt a book or other property then they should make the attempt to stay faithful to the material. Small changes, or changes necessary to the adaptation? Those are fine, but when you mess with the fundamentals you change the fundamental story and eliminate the reason for the adaptation. Give it a new title, change some names. Say it was "based on" the book or comic or whatever.

  • jason | March 29, 2012 12:47 AMReply

    Although, I see your point with this article, and it makes sense. I doesn't apply to TMNT. Reason being is that you say changing things for film is important so that you can make the story work under a new medium. TMNT was already a film FOUR times prior AND a long running cartoon series. So there's absolutely no reason anyone could give that would make any sense as to why this is necesarry. Plus its Bay so its gonna be crappy anyway. The only thing he does well is make things go boom.

  • Gabe Toro | March 28, 2012 10:44 PMReply

    Needed to be said. Great piece.

  • Mike | March 28, 2012 8:18 PMReply

    While I agree with the sentiment, I don't think The Hunger Games was the best example, just because its in the zeitgeist at the moment. You say it was faithfully hitting plot points instead of giving things room to breathe, I felt that while the book is no masterwork if they had dedicated the time they gave to the things they did change they would have been able to let things live as you said and make things clearer to the audience. They needed to spend more time setting up life at home, and more intimate moments with the characters so their interactions would be worthy of weight, and so things could be more understood by the uninitiated. But at the same time it did push 2.5 hours & is for the most part meant to be a thriller. The book is fully first person, and the film tried to present the material as such about 85% of the time, but their use of the people pulling the strings or showing events that don't take place/aren't revealed until part 2 breaks this set up (the whole reason for the visceral camerawork) and wastes precious time that could have given the new audience more understanding of why the people in the Capitol are the way they are, the relationship between Gale & Katniss/Katniss & Rue, the reason the former United States is the way it is, etc. They demonstrated the ability to get a lot across creatively in little bits of dialog or scenes without berating us with exposition, they should have pushed that instinct a tad further.

  • Jacques DeMolay | March 28, 2012 5:30 PMReply

    Great article, as usual, Playlist, but I have a few quibbles...

    First, the Hunger Games points you bring up are very valid, though I completely fail to share your views on the setting for the Games. The forest was very unremarkable in that it was just like any other forest, but it seemed like a cool place to play paintball, which is basically what you want out of a battle-to-the-death. I think the shaky-cam stuff was 1000x more detrimental to what was an otherwise good film. Beyond that, your point is utterly dead-on - faithfulness to the source material, coupled with some bad directorial decisions and some cheapy visual effects all combined to make what could have been great merely good instead.

    Second, on the TMNT thing, I think you guys are just grasping. No, I don't really get the "fantrum" around that - it's clearly a typical internet overreaction and folks should just chill. I'm not even really a TMNT fan, but I have to say that, to me, the idea of making them aliens is just so damned absurd that there is no way I can give it the benefit of the doubt. If it were someone like Nolan, that MIGHT not be such a tall order - he's made a career out of doing things seemingly way out off base, then pulling it off like a genious (for instance, your example of Ledger as the Joker). But, since this is a Michael Bay production, there is no chance in hell you're ever going to get me to give that guy the benefit of the doubt. Simply BECAUSE it's Bay, it sounds like a terrible idea, not because of the idea itself. So, really, I think this particual example is worthless as support for your argument (which, I might add, I DO agree with overall).

    Third, while your Harry Potter example is pretty much true, I have to play devil's advocate here and say that it's easily more the source material's fault than the directors for the first two films - you talk about how Cuaron's thrid entry was when the franchise started to be good, and I agree with that statement 100% - however, I felt exactly the same way about the books. I almost quit reading after the first two, as they were just a tad to silly and childish to really grab me, but after seeing the third MOVIE, I picked up the third book... and the jump in quality you see between Movie 2 and Movie 3 is mirrored in the books - the third one was when I actually started to REALLY enjoy the series. So yeah, I do think Cuaron made a better film than Columbus ever could have, but he was also working with much better souce material than Columbus ever had! While this does not invalidate your point at all, I feel it's important to note that the director having the guts to stray from the source material was far from the ONLY reason the third movie was so much better...

    But, as I said, I do agree with you for the most part, that in most cases, that a rigidly slavish approach to adaptations can do more harm than good, especially with movies.

    On the other hand, it's a TV show, not a movie, but Game of Thrones is remarkably faithful to it's source material, and it's been amazing... maybe it's just the medium, but sometimes the source material is just good enough that tampering can only make it worse....

  • Nik Grape | March 28, 2012 5:04 PMReply

    This article is bulletproof. The Hunger Games example is perfect and fresh: adapting page-by-page doesn't immediately make it a great adapation and it really hampered the film from being a mighty beast of its own. "Tinker Tailor" is a great recent example of adaptating a novel the right way: in spirit, not detail. Great stuff Oliver.

  • cosmicfish | March 30, 2012 9:59 AM

    And making the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles into Random Weird-Looking Martial Arts Aliens is adapting the story "in spirit"? It sounds more like one of those dodges Korean and Chinese toy companies use to rip-off trademarked material and sell crappier versions in drugstores.

  • Nolan | March 28, 2012 4:58 PMReply

    I do my best to separate my feelings towards a book from my experience in seeing the movie adaptation. I can't stand the people who won't shut up about "what they changed," yet find it it difficult not to be that person myself if it's a property I really love. The worst experience I can remember is seeing "Everything Is Illuminated." I didn't know anything about the book, so enjoyed the film more or less. Yet, this girl in front of me, who apparently treated the book like the Bible, was literally FUMING and loudly voicing her displeasure over anything and everything they changed. My solution? Don't see a movie based on a book you really love. You won't enjoy it as much as you enjoy the book. So either temper your expectations or just don't go. Do I love "Love in the Time of Cholera"? Absolutely. Did I have any desire to see the film version? Absolutely not.

  • Lindsay | March 28, 2012 4:51 PMReply

    I've been contemplating this myself. Well-written and great points. Thanks!

  • Chris | March 28, 2012 4:38 PMReply

    I love you for writing this. The idea of fidelity to source material of having really anything to do with the quality of a movie is completely absurd - and it's one of my pet peeves. I've written about that from time to time in my own reviews. I'm pleased as punch whenever I read or hear someone else who feels the same way. So, bravo.

  • Michael Bay | March 28, 2012 4:14 PMReply

    "The Watchmen" is another great example of why you shouldn't give the fans what they want.

  • hg | March 28, 2012 10:49 PM

    not really i feel watchmen is one of the best super hero films ever

    plus watchmen is different

    because the whole book is like dominoes

    you change 1 thing that means you gotta change 6 other things or it will crumble because everything is so connected

  • Tyrannosaurus Max | March 28, 2012 7:04 PM

    obvious troll is obvious

  • Carly | March 28, 2012 6:06 PM

    Exactly. Trying to cram so much of that book into the movie ultimately hurt it. Just because you CAN do a big blue penis on the big screen doesn't mean you should.

  • Christian | March 28, 2012 4:09 PMReply

    Great article! Superb points as always, Playlist. I'm going to do an analysis of Kubrick's The Shining for my exam at university this summer and I definitely intend to compare the thematic ideas of the film with the narrative of the Stephen King novel. They are two completely different works of art with different thematic ideas, yet both the film and the novel are magnificent. The point is that your article is spot on!

Email Updates