What Are Your Movie Adaptation Non-Negotiables?

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Screenshots of the protagonists arrival on a suburban street on the fallen planet of Camazotz, from two different adaptations of A Wrinkle In Time
A Tale of Two Dystopias: 2004 on the left, 2018 on the right, both via Disney, but only the one on the right captures the essence of the arrival in Camazotz in the original book version of ‘A Wrinkle In Time.’

Last weekend at the D23 Expo the first teaser trailer for Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle In Time adaptation was released (yes, it’s been a week: I’ve been incapacitated). I’ve discussed before how A Wrinkle In Time is my favorite book, and how certain major changes this adaptation is making from the source material don’t bother me. I feel like, as a superfan of the source material, I ought to have some opinion toward this trailer, but it’s just too early for me to make any sort of call: neither “So excited!” or “No, all wrong!” but more of an “interesting, we’ll see how this plays out.” I am sure of this much: this version of Camazotz is absolutely an improvement over the 2004 made-for-TV-movie version.

Uh, Amy? you interrupt at this point. Have you seen the made-for-TV movie? It’s not hard to improve on any part of that.

Except—heresy of heresies—I liked the made-for-TV movie. Sure, it was hardly a fine work of cinema, but I enjoyed it. The wrongness of its interpretation of Camazotz was only one of two major problems I had with it; and, for all its increase in budget and effects and star power, I’m not convinced the new adaptation will do any better with the second problem, either.* But that’s all right. I can’t expect someone else’s vision of a book to be identical to mine. Just as long as it works.

But what makes a film adaptation of a beloved book work, anyway? Why do I have generally kind feelings toward the cheesy TV version of A Wrinkle In Time, while certain critically-acclaimed and widely beloved movies, like—drawing the curses upon me now—Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Howl’s Moving Castle, set me ranting?

I believe the answer lies somewhere in the interaction of two factors: viewer expectations and movie-makers’ respect for the source material.

On Viewer Expectations:

The fact that the made-for-TV adaptation of Wrinkle was made-for-TV was actually a vote in its favor. I had low expectations, so I got to enjoy it for what it was—an evening’s diversion based on my favorite book. If I’d bought a movie ticket and incorporated it into some sort of date night, I might have cared more about the quality.

But when critics are gushing about a big-screen adaptation of a book you loved, claiming it’s better than the source material, and you loved the first two movies in the series, it’s a let-down when the movie seems to be missing important points or casts a rather creepy guy as one of your own fictional crushes Professor Lupin.**

Of course a book lover always does have to tamper their expectations ahead of time. Putting aside that no one else has the exact same visions in their head when they read a book as you do so there’s no way anyone can match what you yourself pictured, books and movies are different media. In order to fit the format of a movie, the movie makers may need to cut or combine characters and scenes, change how reveals happen, or even invent whole scenes to replace plot or character beats that may have only come out in a character’s thoughts in a book. The moments that veered from the book were actually some of my favorite moments of The Hunger Games movie: it made perfect sense for Games commentators to fill in backstory and world building details as the Games progressed. I actually thought the movie could have improved its pacing if it only veered farther from the book at times. And aside from not nearly doing enough justice by Faramir (another fictional crush, apparently the portrayal of fictional crushes is another important factor), nearly every other change the Lord of the Rings movies made to the books (at least if you watch the extended editions) improved upon them. Maybe it was no longer a truly accurate history of Middle-earth, but it made for a much more watchable set of movies.

Some people can be very sanguine about allowing movies and the books they’re based on to exist as separate entities. I can, in certain circumstances. I feel that way about, speaking of Peter Jackson’s Middle-earth, the Hobbit movies. They’re not an adaptation of the book, The Hobbit. They’re a history of Middle-earth during the time period of The Hobbit that uses the story of The Hobbit as a framing device. The changes from the book make them suffer from the opposite effect as the LotR changes: they could have used some tightening up to flow better (two movies instead of three probably would have done the trick) but darnit isn’t it just lovely to spend time in that universe and also that’s one handsome Bilbo Baggins?

But I cannot do it for Howl’s Moving Castle. Studio Ghibli’s adaptation is a work of art and many of my friends who have both seen the movie and read the book insist they can enjoy the movie on its own as a lovely work of art unrelated to the book. But for me there are far too many similarities to the book to tune it out instead of blowing up about how that is SO NOT HOWL and it ruins the whole story if they can’t get his character right!

I think it’s because they saw the movie first. It wasn’t always associated with a book to them. So when they did read the book, it was a whole new experience. I never thought I’d be one to say this, but…

…maybe it’s better to see a movie, then read a book?

The fact is that rarely happens for me because usually I read books before they’re even optioned for movies. But when you read the book first, you go into the movie with preconceptions, and then you’re likely to be disappointed. But when you love a movie, then find out there’s a book, reading the book fills in the blanks and is just additional awesome to add on to your movie feelings. There are some exceptions: I think it’s a mistake to watch the Holes movie first because then you know all the plot twists and you don’t get the elation of watching them all unfold in the book for the first time: the movie is one of my favorite adaptations, but it can’t beat the book for teasing out its secrets one throwaway clue at a time. And it doesn’t matter what order you read or see Mary Poppins, because only the movie has Julie Andrews being the epitome of awesome, so there’s no possible way the book can live up to it. But I do wonder if doing Howl’s Moving Castle the other way around would have changed my opinion. I may have still decided Book-Howl is a way more interesting character than Movie-Howl, but the movie wouldn’t have that stigma of disappointment tied to it, so I wouldn’t feel compelled to correct everyone every time they bring it up.

I mean, there are movies based on books you’ve never heard of that come out all the time, and since the book means nothing to you, all that matters is whether the movie itself is a good watch. Most people don’t know that Mrs. Doubtfire was based on a British YA book by Anne Fine called Alias Madame Doubtfire. I did, because I had actually read it before the movie came out. Aside from the basic concept and a few other plot points, it’s a completely different beast. But I didn’t care, because the book hadn’t been anything more to me than a passing read, and nobody else cared because nobody else even knew about it.

Which brings me to my next point: Respect for the Source Material.

When a studio exec buys a book nobody’s ever heard of and says to their writers, “What can you do with this?” and the writers say, “Well, it’s an interesting concept, but it’d be much more believable if the dad posed as a lovable granny than this wild gypsy character, and lets make him a voice actor instead of a stage actor, more child-friendly, and obviously they need to be American,” well, hey, more power to them. They’re not interested in bringing a book to life, they’re just interested in making a movie.

But if that book is one that people have read over and over, that holds a place of honor in their childhood memories, that they named their kids or pets after, that has inspired fandoms, this do-your-own-thing movie-making approach is not going to fly. Just ask the people who tried to do their own thing with Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising a decade back.

You don’t always have an interview to point to where a filmmaker outright states their love of the original, but sometimes it shines through. That made-for-TV Wrinkle In Time had a few such Easter eggs in it that made me smile, like how Calvin, upon finding out Mrs.-Dr. Murry is a biochemist, immediately asks her about starfish regeneration, because of course he did; or how Mr. Jenkins, a part so small he wasn’t even named in this adaptation, nonetheless radiated exactly what he should be if you know him from his much larger role in A Wind In the Door. But the new adaptation already goes a few steps further: unlike the earlier movie, this cast listing actually gives Meg’s parents the first names L’Engle gave them in An Acceptable Time.

Contrast this with the special features on at least the English-language edition of the Howl’s Moving Castle movie (perhaps the Japanese edition gave the source material more credit, but I’ve not seen that). I watched them hoping for some mention of Diana Wynne Jones, one of my very favorite authors—maybe that would make up a little for them having gotten Howl so utterly wrong. Not one mention of the book was made. There was plenty about how Miyazaki was a genius and everyone in the English-language production team was so excited about bringing his unique imagination to life. They did mention making some changes to Howl’s dialog in the English dubs (note: the NOT-HOWL-ness of the character goes way beyond changes that could have happened in overdubs. I mean, flying through a war zone? HOWL? Are you KIDDING?), because he was a “very Japanese type of character” that might not be understood by Western audiences. And I’m like, “He’s WELSH!*** He was created by a PROLIFIC AND GENIUS ENGLISHWOMAN TWENTY YEARS BEFORE! WHY DON’T YOU UNDERSTAND THAT?!”

(Fun fact, though: Jones DID like the Studio Ghibli movie. She had action figures of all the characters. L’Engle, on the other hand, said of the Wrinkle TV-movie that, yes, it met her expectations: “I expected it to be bad, and it was.” I am not sure what this says about me).

I realized that what I really want out of a movie adaptation is fan fiction.

It sounds funny, but hear me out: Why do people write fan fiction? It’s an opportunity to play in that universe, with those characters, to see how they react in new situations. Spend any amount of time glancing at the exploits– fanfictiony or not– of any rabid fandom and you’ll see the passion directed not at the story but at the characters, whom fans refer to as if they were real people, and the worldbuilding: the intricacies of Hogsmeade and the myriad treats at Honeydukes, the customs and philosophies of the Jedi Order. The movie adaptations that work for me work like this, too: the movie makers believe in the characters and the universe, and they’re playing around with that, taking the characters they love and putting them in a visual, usually shorter, movie-shaped format.

This is why Peter Jackson’s Middle-earth movies work for me as adaptations. The detail put into the costume and set design, the amount of info scoured from appendices and related works—it’s a pure Tolkien geek-fest. The filmmakers were so in love with Middle Earth that they were loath to cut any of what they filmed!

I specifically want to point out here some of the additive changes they made to increase the female presence in this story. There’s even a fanfiction term for this: “corrective fic.” No matter how much you love Tolkien, you have to admit that there aren’t a lot of female characters, and the scriptwriters (two-thirds of whom are female) wanted to fix that for the movies. Some fans had a burning hatred for the heresy of adding the character Tauriel to The Desolation of Smaug because she wasn’t in the book. But I loved her from the first trailer, because even if she might not have been in the books, she could have been. Everything about her radiated what I knew about wood elven warriors. She fit seamlessly into the universe.

Further back, some fans originally balked at Arwen’s increased role in Fellowship of the Ring, but it made perfect sense to me. For one thing, there’s a practical matter of not having too many characters in a movie—why not give the actions of various one-shot elves to someone who’d be back later in the story? And for that matter, giving this basically-background character more actual involvement in the plot made her mean more, and, I don’t know about you, but when I read The Two Towers I spent a lot of time, while watching Eowyn and Aragorn interact, shouting “What is the MATTER with you, Aragorn, AWESOME WOMAN WANTS YOU WHY ARE YOU PASSING THIS UP?” Only to encounter Arwen at the end of Return of the King and think, “HER? You were holding out for HER? WHY?” The movie gave us a “why,” and I appreciated that.

Which is not to say it wasn’t almost a problem. In the bonus features—yes, I am a bonus features geek, how can you tell?—Philippa Boyens admits that for a long while they considered making Arwen a warrior, to the point that they even gave Liv Tyler swordfight training. That wouldn’t have sat as well with me. It’s one thing bringing in a new warrior-woman character, but to change an established character’s very essence, even if it’s a relatively boring essence? That’s going too far.

And when you get down to it, I think that’s my biggest adaptation non-negotiable: staying true to the characters. After all, as someone has said, there are only really, like, three different plots in the world. It’s the characters that make each story unique. If you change who those characters are, how are you really telling the same story at all?

In the end, I think all I really want from an adaptation is some sense that the people making it actually read the same book I did. That they did their research. That they’re not just exploiting somebody else’s work to make something different, but that they’re ACTUALLY FANS, like me.

Obviously, people have different opinions about how well movie makers accomplish this, but I think it boils down to some variation of that for everyone. What do you think? What are your movie adaptation non-negotiables?


*Actually explaining this problem didn’t fit into the rest of the article properly, so here it is, summed up. In the book, the battle of good and evil is clearly a massive, eternal undertaking that people have been fighting in their own ways for eons. Defeating evil once and for all is not something one angsty teenager is going to accomplish, even on a planetary instead of universal scale. But the movie had her not just save her father and then her brother, but single-handedly take down a planet-wide totalitarian system that controlled people’s brains, which just seems a little too perfect to me. In the book it’s enough that she’s able to fight IT at all, let alone pull her brother out of the hive-mind without hurting him or getting sucked in herself. This is amazing and unprecedented as is. That’s part of why the message of Wrinkle is so powerful: that in the Grand Cosmic Battle of Good and Evil, even ordinary people can and do make a difference: that one girl saving her brother is just as important as a star exploding to burn away the darkness. But saving the world is flashier than saving an obnoxiously precocious little boy, and from the sound of things, it looks like the new adaptation is going for that flashier Hollywood ending, too. Eh, but that’s the movies. Gotta be larger than life.

**It’s even worse when you’ve just watched this past season of Fargo. You’re afraid an evil gross Lupin is going to pop out any minute instead of a werewolf. (Yes, for an adaptation I claim not to like, I just watched it again a few weeks ago. My kids had just finished the book! They wanted to! And it’s not a total waste of a movie: I happen to love the way it portrays the Mauraders’ Map, actually).

***The most bewildering irony is that the English-language overdub of Howl is performed by Christian Bale, who, like book-Howl, is Welsh. But he didn’t use his native accent. He decided to make him BATMAN-HOWL instead. Ah, the missed opportunity.

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