Samuel Brace on adapting material for the big screen…
You’re not entitled to a faithful adaptation of your favourite book. You’re not entitled to an accurate depiction of your favourite comic characters in a subsequent film. You’re not even entitled to a good movie or product. You’re not entitled to anything. And I start of this article firmly telling you the things that you’re not allowed because sometimes — this being one of them — we all need a reality check. Sometimes we need to be told when we are over stepping, when we are acting like children that don’t get what they want.
We live in an age of cinema, and an age of TV, where adaptations of material from other mediums is rampant, an age when the word lucrative rarely appears without the prerequisite, ‘Based on’. And whatever you think about adaptations, about originality and the lack of new ideas in our films and in our TV, whether you like or dislike their dominance, what we all seem to dislike even more, is when those adaptations aren’t faithful. We can’t stand when they don’t turn out like we had imagined. We get annoyed when what we wanted, what we thought we were entitled to, doesn’t present itself. We act like children.
Less Than Zero, adapted from the seminal Bret Easton Ellis novel of the same name, is one of my favourite books, from my favourite author of all time, one that’s important to me and a lot of other people that have read it. Less Than Zero was adapted for the screen in 1987, and when I first watched this movie I nearly turned it off. It was not what I wanted. That much was clear very quickly. Firstly, I didn’t think the film was good — an opinion that has since changed — and second, it was not a faithful adaptation of this book I loved so much. The reason why I bring the movie up today, a movie that most probably don’t remember or just never watched at all, is because the other night, for a couple of reasons — neither particularly relevant — I found myself watching Less than Zero again. And watching this movie, and then thinking about this movie, made me think about the adaptation, faithfulness to the source vs. unfaithfulness, and more importantly, why being unfaithful is not necessarily bad, and at times, why it doesn’t matter at all.
My major gripe with LTZ, on first viewing, was that it was so untrue to the source material. It really bared no resemblance to the book that brought me to the party. Sure, the characters shared the same names, the location hadn’t been changed, but this was a completely different story from the Ellis novel that I loved, and that at the time, really made me quite mad, at least at first. What I realise now, with perspective, is that Less Than Zero is a bad adaptation, but it’s also a fantastic movie. You see, those two things aren’t one and the same. They aren’t mutually exclusive. There are plenty examples of this in film history, examples of books that were taken, adapted to screen, made into something nearly unrecognizable from its source and turned into a fantastic (sometimes great) movie. Films like The Bourne Identity and its sequels. These movies are nothing like the books that spawned them. All that remains from Robert Ludlum’s novels is a man with amnesia, a man named Jason who used to be a spy. That’s essentially it. The adaptation of this tale was pretty poor in terms of its faithfulness, but what had been created was a series of exceptional movies. Films with fantastic direction, superbly crafted actions set pieces, and nerve racking tension. The fact that much of the plot was fabricated, not lifted straight from the page, doesn’t make the film a bad one.
Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is a paramount example of what can be achieved by a film divorced from its source. Both book and film, individual from each other, are considered great works of their respective mediums, but Kubrick’s film is not a faithful adaptation of the book Stephen King had written. If you went into that cinema in 1980 with the hope that your favourite Stephen King novel would be recreated on screen, just as you had imagined, you would walk out of that cinema thoroughly disappointed. The differences between the two are plentiful and rampant. Things like Wendy’s hair colour, how and when the main character got his job at The Overlook Hotel, the line, “all work and no play” is not even in the book, right down to the protagonist’s name being changed. Now you can argue that the changes benefited the film, that what was added or subtracted were improvements, but what you can’t argue is that these changes led to an unfaithful adaptation of the source. The point however being, that the film didn’t suffer because of it, Kubrick produced an all time great film, a classic of the genre, despite wandering off the path King had started him on.
None of this is to say that there can’t be film adaptations that are adapted as faithfully as possible and end up also being spectacular movies, of course there can and there is. A faithful adaptation that equals a great movie, is without doubt the ideal result from any source to film/TV translation. However, more often than not, you will find yourself going to watch the adaptation of your favourite IP and being disappointed. That’s just how it is. Things sometimes need changing to work on film. Whether it’s The Hunger Games, Twilight, or Stephen King’s latest, cries of “it didn’t happen like that in the book” will inevitably be heard. Most will then label the movie they saw as bad because of this, and in some cases, the movie they would have just saw is in fact bad, but not because it was an unfaithful adaptation, but more often than not because it was a poor film. There are examples of adaptations were the end product might have fared better if it had a more faithful transition from book to screen but sometimes a bad film is just a bad film. At the end of the day, these cries of disappointment, and even anger, come from a place of false entitlement, a notion we need to kick, and kick hard.
Comic book movies and TV shows are the latest craze to hit the adapted shelves. Every couple of months, another one of these things is cranked out, and every couple of months, you’ll find someone ranting about how their precious favourite character isn’t being depicted correctly, that they are being ruined and that this ‘bad’ movie is wrong because of it. Harley Quinn is the latest face to be stuck to protest signs, her depiction in a film, that I remind you hasn’t even come out yet, is seen by many a loyal fan to be borderline blasphemous. The fact that she dresses like a promiscuous sex diva, using the stupid levels of attractiveness stemming from the actress behind the makeup to sexualise her, is seen as not only downright wrong, but sexist too — a different topic entirely. These confused young men and women believe that they are entitled to some idealistic version of a make believe person. Creative liberty, in their eyes, is not something that should be permitted. These people are so enraged with their sense of entitlement that they are seemingly unwilling to give the film a chance, not based on any gauge of quality but on faithfulness alone.
Listen, I get this prospective, like I’ve said, I’ve been there, I’ve seen this side of the argument. When you are so attached to a character, a book, a whatever, you want to see it brought to life like you had always imagined. This is rearing its head again for me right now. The Dark Tower is being talked about once more, an adaptation may finally be coming, and from everything I’ve heard, it probably won’t be very faithful to the source — my dreams may not come to life quite like I had hoped. But what we all have to understand is that this is okay. A film or TV show being unfaithful doesn’t eradicate the source from which it spawned. No one can take it away from you. So stop acting like children.
Faithfulness, while ideal, isn’t the be all and end all. Sometimes, things just happen for the better. Not always, but sometimes. If Bourne had been a word for word copy of the book, it would have been a bogged down, convoluted, political snooze fest (I love the books but they needed a lot of work to translate well to film). What we got in its place was a classic thriller that took the essence of what made those books great. Less Than Zero was changed to appeal to a more main stream audience, a decision you can’t be mad at — cinema is a business after all, but what came out of that choice was a time capsule for everything that was great (and bad) about this period in time. So next time your blood boils because your favourite YA series, that classic tale from your childhood, or your favourite comic, turns out to have some differences from its source by the time it arrives on screens, try calming the fuck down and take a breath. By paying money for a ticket, you have the right to expect a product worthy of that purchase, but, and please listen carefully, you’re not entitled to a faithful adaptation, you’re just not. So stop whining kids, enjoy or don’t enjoy, but if you’re going to moan about this… just go to bed, would you, please.