Adaptation – Fans, Films, and Catching Fire

Carl Eden

An English Lit graduate with a love of movies and words, currently living and working in Manchester. I'm an aspiring 20-something film journalist far too involved in pop culture. Big on TV, books, coffee-abuse, The Smiths, Buffy, David Lynch and I consume a lot of Haribo. Follow @cedenuk or check out my blog http://somefilmsandstuff.com/

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Recently released and still going strong, Catching Fire is a great follow-up to 2012’s The Hunger Games – an intelligent, well-acted teen-focused film, miles away from the horrors of Twilight and its ilk (be sure to check out Barry Quinn’s excellent review here). Catching Fire is a good movie, but one which raises interesting questions about the nature of adaptation, narrative, and fan expectation. Cinematic adaptations of popular young-adult fiction tend to bring out the crazy in people, and draw a lot of the same criticisms from the fanbase; noticeably, complaints regarding what’s been left on the editing room floor, and numerous claims about how the movie compares terribly to the original product. There’s always a view amongst fans that something has been lost in translation, and that the plot omissions from book-to-film have had a tremendously negative impact on the narrative, rendering it almost incomprehensible.

The problem is that such claims are unrealistic and hard to justify – cinema as a medium is different to prose, and as such, certain sacrifices need to be made in order to make the film work. Movies have considerably less time to cover the same ground, and it shouldn’t be surprising that certain sequences are dropped, condensed or completely altered. Fans in particular hold a view that the product is their own, and react against any slight hint of unfaithfulness. It’s hard to imagine the kinds of movies fanboys have in mind, but it seems likely that they’re something similar to Peter Jackson’s ‘let’s film everything and then some’ approach to his unnecessarily long The Hobbit trilogy.

It’s understandable that fans would feel close to the novels and want to see them presented in a serious and engaging way, but it can become annoying talking to a long-term fan of say, The Hunger Games, who has decided the movie is dreadful for dropping a few characters. Even without context of the books, the films make sense and work within their own universe. What fans need to understand is that adaptation has nothing to do with faithfulness to plot – great adaptation comes entirely from mood, atmosphere and style. The plot can be tweaked and altered to allow the same narrative room to breathe in a different medium. A movie needs to stand on its own terms, relating to the same themes and ideas of the novel without being entirely co-dependent on it. Slavish attention to the trivial details of the plot – which are welcome in a novel, which has the benefit of time – are not necessary in cinematic adaptations.

Moving past The Hunger Games, here’s a few examples of novel to film adaptations which really worked, and a few which for various reasons, didn’t:

3 of the Best:

No Country for Old Men – the Coen Brothers’ excellent take on Cormac McCarthy’s tense and terrifying chase novel is basically the book distilled into cinematic form. The Coens share a lot of sensibilities with McCarthy – random chance, narrative subversion – and so the themes and style of the novel are perfectly translated to the film. The strong directing, use of McCarthy’s dialogue and amazing cast certainly help, and the Coens’ aren’t afraid to condense parts of the plot to keep the film flowing.

Fight Club – Chuck Palahniuk said after watching the movie, ‘I was sort of embarrassed of the book, because the movie had streamlined the plot and made it so much more effective and made connections that I had never thought to make.’ David Fincher’s 1999 adaptation is basically the novel in film form, capturing the nihilistic mood and tone, with Fincher’s directorial style and mix of comedy and satire actually elevating the material. Fight Club is one of those rare movies which makes the book redundant; if you’ve seen the film, there’s nothing new in the book for you.

The Silence of the LambsLambs is remarkably faithful to Thomas Harris’ crime novel – the plot is generally presented faithfully though director Demme is wise to over-play the camper elements, which would never have been entirely believable on film. The major benefit here comes from a director who respects the material and arms himself with the best tools to adapt – a stunning cast, a great cinematographer and composer, and a lookback to the suspense-styles of Hitchcock. This one couldn’t have come together better.

3 of the Worst:

World War Z – This is a terrible adaptation. The movie isn’t’t bad as such – a little bland – but it’s an entirely different beast from Max Brooke’s genre-defining and highly-developed interview-style novel. All of the novel’s interesting satirical comments, its focus on war, and its sense of absolute horror, are entirely abandoned for a family friendly and heavily studio-tweaked Brad Pitt movie which has nothing in common with the book. An adaptation in name only.

The Beach – Alex Garland’s seminal Generation-X classic is one of the best novels of the 90s. A dark look into paradise lost and backpacker culture which should have been an easy adaptation. And it almost was – Danny Boyle was a great choice of director and the film is beautiful with a great score. But again, there’s a sense of heavy studio interference – an American in the lead is forgivable, but the added love-story elements and completely botched ending, as well as the refusal to deal with the novel’s darker elements, means that The Beach entirely misses Garland’s point. The fact that the movie came pre-packed with an All-Saints tune pretty much sums up all you need to know.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – the first and second Harry Potter movies are a great example of what goes wrong when you try and include everything. Director Chris Columbus, clearly lacking any sort of cinematic insight, transports the novel sentence by sentence onto the screen, leaving us with a flat, emotionally-hollow and by-the-numbers mess; the equivalent of reading a dull Wikipedia summary of your favourite novel. Warner Bros probably had something to do with this, not wanting to lose a drop of the fanbase, but wisely let up by the third movie and let Cuarón actually direct something of his own accord. The third movie is another example of a great adaptation, and noticeably it doesn’t follow the book religiously.

Adaptation is a tricky beast – let me know if you agree!