Book adaptations: To stay faithful or not to stay faithful

Sitting down to watch The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug made me ponder about book adaptations. More specifically, it made me wonder whether or not it is better to keep the film faithful to the source material, or if a little creative input and additional exposition makes for a better film?

The Hobbit is faithful but...

It’s a difficult one to call because not all books make good films. Or perhaps they would if they were placed in the hands of a different director, a better screenwriter, a studio with a clearer grasp of the financing needed to pull it off successfully.

Take the Lord of the Rings trilogy as an example: everyone said it couldn’t be done. Those who had read their way through the entire trilogy could not see how a literary work of such ambition could be translated on to the screen without it looking like a joke, a poor parody of itself. An animated feature, sure, but live-action? Forget it. And yet Peter Jackson proved everybody wrong, filmed The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and Return of the King back to back and stunned the naysayers.

The Lord of the Rings comes under the category of ‘films which stick closely to the narrative of the books’. Of course, anyone who has read the trilogy will know that Jackson made a few changes – Merry and Pippin never do grow any taller, Arwen and Aragorn’s romance is played up in ways Tolkien didn’t, and he misses out Saruman’s invasion of The Shire entirely from the end of the trilogy – but nothing that stands out as a glaringly obvious piece of padding.

Which brings me to The Hobbit trilogy. When we heard Peter Jackson and co were splitting the book into two parts, it was shrugged off. This method of translating a book to screen has almost become the norm in the fantasy genre, thanks to the success of Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows Parts One and Two. However, when it was announced The Hobbit would be a trilogy instead – it’s claimed they had so much footage it seemed only logical to use it all – everyone was baffled, from Tolkien purists to relative newbies.

TaurielEven Stephen Fry, an actor who makes an appearance in the second film, poked fun at the decision at last year’s BAFTA ceremony. Why on Earth did a book slimmer than all three books in the Lord of the Rings separately, warrant an entire trilogy?

Having watched The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and now the second part, the answer is: it doesn’t. While the first film had taken a few liberties, introducing a wizard who does not appear in the book, inventing a company of Orcs who are hunting Thorin Oakenshield with intent to stop him becoming King Under the Mountain, and included Cate Blanchett and Christopher Lee in a scene intended to link the trilogy to its superior big brother, the second film is made up of a staggering amount of padding.

Which is what brought on this feature in the first place, because I’m struggling to decide whether the films are better for the additional characters, plot points and arcs, or if they would have been better off sticking to the story as it was told by J.R.R. Tolkien.

The problem for me, is that I know the book so well. Part of me wishes I was watching with a degree of ignorance to what’s legit and what’s been shoehorned in, because I suspect I would have enjoyed the experience more. I wouldn’t have spent a distracting amount of time, leafing through the encyclopedia I have etched in my mind from a childhood spent adoring Middle Earth, trying to pinpoint where the elves Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and Legolas (Orlando Bloom) fit into the original narrative and why, for goodness sake, is romantic tension between Tauriel and the dwarf Kili even necessary?

Do the additional details make for a better viewing experience for those who do not know the book, or are Hobbit purists right to be a bit miffed about the whole thing?

When book adaptations don’t work

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate FactoryIn a lot of cases with book adaptations, especially books set within the fantasy and sci-fi genres, you leave the cinema feeling disappointed. The film just didn’t live up to the heights you built the book to in your head. You wonder what the filmmakers were thinking when they decided to cast that actor, move the setting there, or make the characters do things which seem out of character for anyone who’s read their inner thoughts and motivations in the source material.

We’ve all dissed a film for one or all of these reasons. For me personally, the first film I ever heavily criticised for the details that felt wrong was Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. I was six-years-old, had listened to my parents read Roald Dahl’s book to me countless times and knew it word for word. Even then I was vocal about my displeasure for unnecessary changes to the story.

For starters, I thought the kid who played Charlie Bucket (Peter Ostrum) was a bit wet (I prefer Freddie Highmore‘s portrayal); I didn’t understand why he was American when I’d been given the impression Charlie lived somewhere on this side of the Atlantic. While I liked the portrayal of Veruca Salt, I was disappointed to not watch a swarm of squirrels declare her a ‘bad nut’ as Roald Dahl wrote, although I suppose the goose deciding she was a ‘bad egg’ was a half decent compromise. And as for that, frankly, disturbing and wholly unnecessary sequence in the boat on the chocolate river, you know the one, where images of creepy crawlies etc flash up over the walls, I despised it.

I know, I know, it’s a classic. More people love it than hate it and I’m in the minority for thinking Tim Burton’s Charlie & The Chocolate Factory was better (weird dentist dad plot and Depp’s performance as Wonka aside), but Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is far from the last time a film adaptation disappointed me.

P.S. I Love YouP.S. I Love You, based on the book by Cecelia Ahern is a doozy for me. A charming tale set in Ireland, with Irish humour and Irish characters, the story centres on Holly and Gerry, a couple who are happily together until he passes away. Months later she discovers twelve notes from him, which she is instructed to open once a month. They each contain a task he thinks will help her move on without him.

The narrative became a lot less charming (and Irish) when a film adaptation was made. The setting was moved to New York (although they did visit Ireland), the lead character was portrayed by Hilary Swank – Sorry, I didn’t agree with that casting – and her husband Gerry is played by the Scottish actor Gerard Butler who tries in vain to pull off an Irish accent.

The Golden Compass is another example. The film is based on Philip Pullman‘s The Northern Lights from The Dark Materials Trilogy. Everything seemed perfect. Lyra was to be portrayed by newcomer Dakota Blue Richards, Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig were cast perfectly as Mrs Coulter and Lord Asriel, the director was a big fan of the books and the special effects were admittedly very good.

So what went wrong? I fear it may have been the watering down of the subject matter. Philip Pullman’s work is a stroke of brilliance; complex, enchanting, crafted with passion. How daunting must it be to take his ideas and make them accessible to an audience who hasn’t read the book? Very, and in this case they did fall short of the mark. Those involved seemed so intent on erasing any elements which might offend people (there were protests to boycott the film due to the trilogy’s atheist leaning), that they dumbed it down too far. The audience felt pandered to, like the filmmakers assumed they couldn’t handle the more complex material.

Or perhaps I’m being unfair. Either way, the film bombed at the box office and the planned sequels never made it into development.

Striking a balance

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's StoneFilmmakers face all manner of problems when they bring books to the big screen, walking the line between staying faithful to the original source and finding a way to make the material work on screen.

The Harry Potter franchise opened with The Philosopher’s Stone and The Chamber of Secrets. Both two and a half hours each, they feel that way too because the screenplays are practically identical to the books, from dialogue to staging cues. It was only when Chris Columbus stepped down as director and Alfonso Cuarón took over that we recognised the future potential of the franchise. He seemed less concerned with keeping every detail exact and focused on finding the best way to tell the story visually.

And it worked beautifully. The next five films followed by example and we no longer felt like we were in a word-for-word reading of the story. Not that fans were complaining.

Of course, fans of the books have vocally criticised David Yates for his work on the last four films, namely the parts where important details were left out and additional scenes inserted with an eye to sprucing up the action, rather than spend time explaining a half of the important layers which built up the wizarding world and characters we all grew to love.

The Half Blood PrinceHarry Potter and the Half Blood Prince is the key example here. Do you remember that part in the sixth book when the Death Eaters attack the Weasley family’s home and blow up The Burrow, reducing it to burned rubble and ash? Me neither. People who have only seen the films can be forgiven for not knowing this was an addition from the filmmakers, because they decided the film didn’t have enough action sequences in it.

The issue fans had with this decision was that the vast majority of the book is spent explaining Voldemort’s past. *Spoilers:* We learn that his mother enchanted his muggle father and that he was conceived under the effects of a love spell. We learn about his fascination with Hogwarts and the significance of each object which has been turned into the Horcruxs that keep him alive. In the book, that is.

These details would have been preferable to a pointless action sequence that adds little to no value to the plot, because they would have clarified to the audience just how deep the troubles of the wizarding world were at that point. Not quite at war yet, but aware of its inevitability. Would the film really have been less appealing without its addition?

And the profit goes to…

One indication of whether or not it’s best to stay close to the source material or not, is the amount of revenue the film receives. In the last decade there’s been a noticeable increase in the amount of films based on best-selling novels or series.

Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, The Hunger Games, The Da Vinci Code, The Chronicles of Narnia and The Twilight Saga all have a few things in common: they are faithful adaptations of novels, they were released in the last thirteen years, and they earned a lot of money at the box office. Setting aside the question of quality, that’s a lot of people going to watch a film based on a book they liked, and the internet buzzes from opening weekend about the faithful and the unfaithful aspects.

The Hunger GamesSo what if the films are so terrible that even the actors hate their jobs (Robert Pattinson of Twilight fame is particularly hilarious about his ordeal in the franchise); if the film does not follow the same narrative as the book, the fans notice, they spread the word and people don’t go and see the film.

And with the rise of social media, it’s easier than ever to discourage or encourage people to fork out their well earned cash.

Basically if the director decides her ideas are better than those of the original author, the studio can kiss bye bye to their box office revenue. Or not in the case of The Hobbit which is selling very well, despite criticism, but as Tolkien’s fans range beyond the young adult market, perhaps reputation alone is enough here to attract revenue.

Which brings me right back to the original question: should a film remain faithful to the source material, even at the cost of quality? Or is a little leeway here and there acceptable?

I’ve come to the conclusion that a little extra exposition is fine, so long as it fits and the decisions made benefit the story. In my opinion, The Hobbit may have taken too many liberties and over stepped. I can understand their reasons for adding the female elf Tauriel; Tolkien’s book is noticeably devoid of females and if the last ten years has taught us anything, it’s that female representation goes a long way to helping box office figures. It just feels like they are dragging the story out for the sake of money now, and not for the benefit of the faithful audience.

With barely a quarter of the book left to cover, I fear The Hobbit: There and Back Again will be mostly additional content. For those who have never read the book, you’ll barely notice I’m sure. For those of us who have, it might be a case of gritting our teeth and going along with it. Just this once.

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