The Rise of the Badaptation

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I had such high hopes. Too high, maybe, but that wasn’t the real problem. Gone Girl was technically wonderful, as are most things under David Fincher’s ever vigilant eye. But a big mistake was made in its creation.

Adapting for film is a tricky business. Novels are the most recognised form of adaptation (I’ve heard around a third of all films are estimated to be somehow derived from books), but there are other sources – plays, games, historical figures/situations, websites, and the latest, childhood board games. There’s certainly plenty of inspiration for studios and filmmakers who want the safety net of a pre-existing audience.

The key word here is inspiration.

There’s a reason video games are yet to have a breakthrough film that shows the potential for good RPG to DVD adaptation. The mediums are much too similar! You play a game, you like the game, and you think ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to see this as a movie?’ You mean on a screen? With people moving and talking and stuff? Haven’t you already seen that?

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On the other end we have Battleship, Lego and Tetris. These have no story (okay, an argument could be made for Lego), so the narrative creation here is left to the writers. These films have the benefit of being able to take the story anywhere, so they can surprise us. But with too much freedom comes unpredictability.

And then in the somewhat happy middle, we have novels and short stories. Most have a solid narrative in place as well as fully formed characters. Overall, they have many similarities to their film counterparts. But books rely on imagination in a way no other medium does. This is why they can turn into incredible movies, because with the right person’s imagination filling in the gaps, we get Psycho, we get Apocalypse Now, we get freaking Die Hard. And here’s the thing. The best book to movie adaptations, at least in my opinion, are the ones that find those gaps, and broaden them. Films and books are made of different stuff, and this should absolutely be exploited. If you’re in charge of bring a book to life, then you should give us a movie, not a scene by scene presentation of what we’ve already read.

Fans wish Harry Potter hadn’t left out specific moments from the series. But I find this to be a misguided longing. Let me tell you, if we had seven five-hour, literally ‘by the book’ movies, Harry Potter would have been horrible. Instead, an almost perfect balance was found between translation (ie. the scenario plays out basically how it did in the novel) and inspiration (ie. not being a slave to the text, but letting it guide the way).

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There are always exceptions.

Drive by James Sallis was a short novel, around 200 pages. It wasn’t entirely riveting, but it was alright. Theoretically, every scene of that book could have been filmed, and it would have been pretty bad. Instead, someone (most likely director Nicolas Winding Refn) looked past the story and saw an interesting character, who did interesting things. A character who inspired him. He put this guy in a situation that resembled, but didn’t perfectly mirror the novel, and made a hell of a movie.

Similarly David Fincher has helmed some incredible adaptations in his career. Fight Club and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo are two of my favourites, because they work perfectly well on their own. They acknowledge the existence of their sources, but they don’t strive to translate every moment from their respective books. Fight Club in particular was an impressive adaptation, and I know this because when someone brings up the movie, it’s rare someone asks ‘Have you read the book?’ The film has become its own entity.

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It doesn’t have to be…

But Gone Girl was another story. Basically, if you’ve read it, you don’t really need to see the movie. I didn’t feel anything new, or see anything I didn’t expect. Fincher did an amazing job translating a novel, probably the best translation I’ve ever seen. But he was completely lacking inspiration. The funny thing is, this is one of those rare cases where the author, Gillian Flynn, also penned the screenplay. So my first thought was to throw blame her way for basically lifting scenes from her novel and plopping them into the script. But no! It turns out, Flynn’s first instinct was in fact to rip out everything she didn’t think right for screen, to find an angle on her story that would work visually. It was Fincher himself who asked her to put all those book things back in.

I think the problem may have stemmed from the novel itself. Reading it, it does feel quite filmic. The imagery is very strong, the scene transitions work in a similar way to Hollywood films, and the narration lends itself well to voiceover. So maybe this tricked Fincher into thinking it would be a simple cut and paste job. And hey, as I said, the film was technically great. I was just surprised to see a director slip on a surface on which he’d always showed such sure footing. Hell, this is the guy who found an interesting angle on Facebook.

As a whole, I’ll always love book to film adaptations (and always hate the phrase ‘the book was better). There’s nothing quite like seeing the characters in your mind come to life. And as a writer, it’s great knowing that people still read, even if it is on an iPhone. It’s just important to remember that books are books, and they can do things nothing else can do. So don’t try to make movies read us the words we’ve already read. Use the characters, use the feelings, use the world, but find your own words, dammit.

  • Lucas Tetrault

    This is so respectively well put. I only have one thing to pose as a thought – what about those of us who just don’t enjoy reading all that much – or can’t find the necessary time to? Sometimes the adaptation from the book to film directly as it’s written, benefits those of us who didn’t read it. I haven’t read Gone Girl – but my mother has and she said that I probably wouldn’t enjoy it. She did however say that since I’m such a huge fan of Fincher that the movie will probably blow me away – that the writing practically lends itself to being an easy adaptation.

    *edit: I do agree with you whole heartedly on Harry Potter … I truly thought that the majority of them were well done and captured the essence of each book quite well.

    • Jake T

      Definitely some credit to that, and I’m sure your mum’s right (aren’t they always?) and you’ll get a kick out of it.

      The main gripe I have is when the book is taken at face value, as in ‘these are the scenes, these scenes in order make up the book, so let’s film these scenes’ without taking notice of the point of each scene. Gone Girl definitely isn’t the worst at this, there were just a few too many things that felt like they were put in simple because they were expected (leading to the 2 1/2 hour run time).

      One of the worst cases I think was Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. It’s mostly faded from my memory, but what I do remember are all the pretty colours. That’s pretty much what we were asked to focus on with that movie. On the surface, both the book and the movie were about a girl entering a fantastical world and meeting crazy characters (which is what you get from a direct book to movie adaptation). The deeper theme of the book, about a girl struggling with growing up was basically ignored.

      All said and done, you’ll enjoy the movie because Fincher knows how to direct. I just wish we’d seen more of that Fincher artistic license we’ve grown to love.

      • Indy Z

        Yes, this exactly. There’s a fundamental difference between what happens in a book and what a book is about. If a movie only hits the first one, it’s not doing it right. I like the translation/inspiration dichotomy, that’s pretty close.

        The Harry Potter movies are pretty fascinating to look at in that light because of how wildly different they are when it comes to where they fall on the translation/inspiration x/y axis. I’d argue that the first few movies were very well translated, but not well inspired, where the later movies, especially the last few, were actually worse in terms of translation (telling the same story as the book, with the same moving pieces) but better at capturing the sine qua non of the books – which made them much better movies.

        Let the Right One In is my go-to example for a movie that did both translation and inspiration exceedingly well.

        • Jake T

          Right on all counts there. I’ll always be impressed by the way Harry Potter was handled. They learned and improved along the way without voiding the efforts put into the earlier films. I didn’t know the term ‘sine qua non’ before, but I looked it up, and it does pretty much sum things up.

          And Let the Right One was definitely an inspired adaptation. I never read it, but the movie played beautifully. So if it was basically a direct book to movie translation, they did well.

          • Indy Z

            Sine qua non is a great phrase, isn’t it? It’s pretty pretentious, but we don’t quite have a word like it in English. “Quintessence” is close, but somehow even more pretentious.

      • David R

        To date, Walt Disney is the only person who’s made an excellent film of Alice in Wonderland. With his animation, he accomplished the same things that Carroll was doing with prose. Amazing. The Burton version was simply an embarrassment, taking a novel that functions as a brilliant satire of logic (among many other things) and mutating it into an anemic heroic-prophecy knockoff of The Chronicles of Narnia. And this comes from a more devout Burton fan than most.

  • David R

    I haven’t read Gone Girl, but all I can really say is that the movie had me nailed to my freakin’ chair and absolutely gushing after it was over. So good. Not a wasted second anywhere in it. So… not sure how to respond to your thesis here, except to say that Fincher was way more into this movie than a mere “cut and paste job.”

    IMO, Harry Potter’s kind of a mismanaged series that creates strange gaps in the overall emotional tissue. Some of that is probably the fault of whoever was overseeing — it’s not David Yates’ fault that he had to grasp for resonance with Dobby that the other films had failed to provide. Still, I’d argue Cedric’s death is the most emotional of the entire series, which is a compliment to Newell… and a knock on Yates. HIS movies only really targeted the series-literate in the crowd. Most obviously, I think, with the absolutely unfathomable decision to not even identify which Weasley twin we were supposed to be mourning in the Battle of Hogwarts.

    Random Note: Hannibal is doing cool stuff with the source material, cribbing inspiration from existing work as it weaves a prequel narrative to the books. Fuller referred to himself as a Thomas Harris remix artist, which seems like a good mentality to approach an adaptive TV series with.

    • Jake T

      On point, for sure. And you’re absolutely right about Cedric’s death. If they were handled properly, Sirius’ or Dobby’s should have overshadowed this one. Newell’s input definitely isn’t my favourite film of the series, but he did know how to grasp and convey the emotional anchor of a scene.

      I’m glad you liked Gone Girl. I made it sound like it I was completely against it, but really, it’s just the film that made me notice this trend. And it was the most relevant example to draw from. I saw the Fincher tribute/study you uploaded, and I have things to say about that to, so I’ll comment in the appropriate place :p

      And Hannibal is the next show on my list. Sounds like Fuller has his head on straight. Remix artist is probably the best title for this kind of adaptive work.

  • Fiefo de la Cruz

    I do agree with practically everything said here. Whenever they try to adapt a book or short story exactly, it can be an issue because movies and books are totally different ways of telling a story. With books, you use your imagination to visualize what happening. With film and TV, you watch the story unfold in front of your eyes.

    My example of a book-to-film adaption done right is the original Lord of The Rings trilogy. Peter Jackson told the story the way he wanted it instead of copying everything point-for-point and they were fantastic!