Movies have been adapted from other sources since the very beginning. In the early days it was books and plays that Hollywood would mine for big screen gold. Later they would start to take inspiration from television, comic books and even video games. For fans of any given piece of source material the news that Hollywood would do a movie based on what they loved has always been a mixed blessing. Fans would understandably get excited about characters and stories they enjoy being seen on the big screen, but usually Hollywood would screw things up along the way. They would cut characters, over-simplify plots or just change it so much that it would be barely recognizable to those who loved it before it was a movie. This is an issue that actually seems to be far less prevalent as film adaptations are now more faithful than ever to their source material. Unfortunately this has created a whole new problem: films that aren’t properly adapted to work as movies.
In the past studios didn’t seem to care excessively about whether or not they got fan approval on their adaptations. It was assumed that the fans would come to see the movie no matter what so they were considered a guaranteed ticket sale. With the fans in their pocket studios generally focused on making their film adaptations as palpable as possible to the mainstream audiences who may have had no knowledge of the source material. This of course lead to a rather large number of films that bore little resemblance to the books/plays/etc on which they were meant to be based. It took a while but eventually the mainstream started paying attention to what the fans thought about a movie. General audiences realized that if the fans were screaming that a movie studio ruined the source material that it probably wasn’t worth their time to go see. The internet is what really exploded this phenomenon as it gave the fans (both pleased and angry) more of a voice than ever before. Famously Warner Bros. tried to blame the tanking of Batman and Robin on the scathingly negative reviews that came out of the Ain’t It Cool News website. In this case the movie was just flat out terrible. However the reviews certainly didn’t help and the fact that a studio would even try to lay the blame on the fan reaction back in 1997 shows the power they now had. The fan communities have only become more vocal and arguably more powerful since then. The result is a near 360 degree turn around where studios are so afraid of angering the fans that they change next to nothing. That might sound like a good idea except movies aren’t structured the same way in which books or plays or comics are. If a story is not adapted and altered to fit the new medium it’s being presented in then it’s not really a proper adaptation.
There have been a number of recent examples of this issue and I’ll be citing more than a few of them but I think it first became noticeable with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. The Harry Potter series of books were hugely popular before the first film was even announced. Fans were in an uproar over such minor details as the fact that young actor Daniel Radcliffe who was cast as Harry Potter had blue eyes instead of green. The result was basically cut and paste film making for the first two films in the series. The makers were so worried about missing fans favorite moments that the first film has a very poor flow from scene to scene and the movie as a whole is really rather clunky. The series had a significant uptick in quality when the producers started experimenting with hiring more daring directors (first was Alfons Cuaron who was hired to direct Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.) Starting with the third entry in the franchise the stories were more streamlined, more of the subplots were cut out to allow the main story to flow more naturally. This might have annoyed some fans who saw their favorite material go but nearly all could see the general improvement in quality. The books in this series include a great deal of classroom material, much of which doesn’t move the plot forward. However by the nature of a novel it’s alright to have some extraneous material to flesh out the world. In a film it’s generally better to cut the fat and keep things moving, and once they began to do that the Harry Potter movies became better films. While fans of either the books or movies may not always agree on which of the six films so far is the best, one would be hard pressed to find any who claim it to be either the first or second movie in the series.
While the Harry Potter series was able to move on from it’s initial slavishness to the original text not all film series have been so fortunate. Take the Twilight Saga for example. Even the most die-hard fan of the books and films would have to admit that in terms of actual events there isn’t really all that much happening in these stories. Films (much more so than books) really need to be event driven, because otherwise all that you have a is a movie where people sit around and look at each other. This is actually what Twilight Saga: Eclipse felt like for most of it’s run time (my full thoughts on the film can be seen in my review.) In order for the story to have worked properly as a film it needed to be restructured to build more forward momentum rather than just dwelling on a very static love triangle. Books can delve into the minds of characters in a way that just can’t be done in movies and as a result they don’t require as much external action to keep things going. Twilight Saga: Eclipse desperately needed more physical events to keep it active and engaging. However fear of fan backlash to any changes resulted in the film sticking almost to the letter of the original novel (as the previous two had done before it.) The result is a film that is almost impossible for anybody not already a fan of the books to enjoy. It’s not structured in the way a film should be, it’s still structured and flows like a wordy novel and that just doesn’t work on screen.
Another recent example was Watchmen. I went into great detail about this in my initial review of the film, but much like Twilight the movie suffered greatly from not having the necessary changes made for it to work on screen. Watchmen was (and still is) a monumental achievement in comic books and it was written in a way perfectly tailored to that medium. Due to the format of monthly issues each issue could tackle something different. One issue could deal with the back-story of Dr. Manhattan, the next could delve into the psychology of Rorshack, the next could follow Nightowl’s romantic entanglements. The breaking up of the overall story into monthly installments allowed for this kind of story telling to flourish. But when that story was taken from the page and put up on the screen without reworking the flow it just failed as a movie. For the film to jump around in the same way the comics did felt disjointed. The comic could spend a great deal of time on the past and fleshing out the back-story of the characters, but when the film did that it all felt like it was stalling the story from moving forward. It’s just another example of a story written for one form of entertainment and then rather than fully translating it to film it’s simply a matter of “copy and paste” resulting in movies that just don’t feel right.
It is possible for a film adaptation to maintain the integrity of the source material but still work wholly as a movie. Probably the best example in modern film is the Lord of the Rings trilogy. In the films characters and scenes were cut or condensed. Action scenes which were mere side notes in the books became the backbone of the films because they kept the film active and engaging. Yet despite these changes the films were embraced by fans of the books and hailed by audiences across the world. They were adjusted just enough to work as a movie even for those who had never read the books but were kept true enough to the original text to please the fans who had always loved the stories. So it can be done, but studios seem to have lost the guts to bother trying to do that. They would rather keep the fans happy by leaving things almost identical to the source material and the resulting movies are frankly not fair to those who don’t know that source material. If a film doesn’t work in and of itself then it needs to be changed and altered until it does work. A book or comic or any other source can’t simply be copied and pasted to script form and then thrown up on the screen. It must be carefully tinkered with to take advantage of the strengths and avoid the weaknesses of a movie, otherwise it simply shouldn’t be made as a movie.