Of Books and Film: Ranty-Rant

Screw it, today, my hour of writing will involve blogging.  Because I’m not getting any of the articles done that I want to do.  And this one’s been bothering me.

Right.  So.  Books get adapted into movies and, more recently, television shows.  (For clarity’s sake, I’ll stick to the term “film” to designate both movie and television adaptations in general.)  This is not a new thing.  Creative ideas get cycled and recycled around the media.  It makes good business sense, as adapting a book to film guarantees a certain crowd of the book’s fans will watch the film adaptation.  It also works nicely for the author(s) of the adapted book(s) because the films will introduce a new audience back to the books.  I heard once, years ago, that you have a much, much higher chance of getting a book published than getting your script produced.  They recommended that aspiring screenwriters consider penning novels, at least at first, in order to gain some coverage.

Sometimes it works out beautifully.  The Hunger Games and Game of Thrones are enjoying massive, massive followings.

Sometimes, it flops.  The Percy Jackson movies were terrible.  I’m honestly not sure why they made a second one, as they didn’t set up the first one to continue the story (yes, I’ve seen both, even though my gut told me that the second one couldn’t be any better than the first one.)  Maybe it’s just me, but I’m seeing fewer and fewer total flops in theatres and on TV.  Yes, some of them (like World War Z) I haven’t read the original text yet, but I still enjoyed the films as they stood (and hell…those WWZ zombies were frigging creepy.)  But I think that’s part of the goal of adaptation: make the new form a complete story just as entertaining as the original form, and as a bonus, get the viewer to pick up the original text.  Maybe it has to do with how vocal fans are these days.  With the rise of the internet and social media, it’s far too easy to post your opinions and have them read by somebody.  (When I was a kid, the closest you could get was joining official fan clubs, usually at a cost.)  The fans have become more vocal, and the fans can shut down a film through the sheer power of Internet Wrath.  So the directors and producers are paying attention to things like casting, costuming, set design, and dialogue in an effort to appease the fans.

But I’m starting to think that fans are going a little too far.  The Lord of the Rings fans are one such group.  First, they jeered at Peter Jackson for removing sections of the original book trilogy in order to keep the movies as a trilogy.  Well, for starters, there are always things that have to be axed from books in order to create the film.  Second, as someone who can’t stand to read Tolkein (don’t get me wrong, props to him for creating such elaborate worlds that are still holding thrall over large portions of the population, but his writing style makes me go cross-eyed) I felt the movie trilogy presented a complete story with enjoyable characters, lush settings, and a grand plot.  Anyway, then the fans heckled Jackson because he’s made The Hobbit as a trilogy, even though it means he can include more of the story AND segments of The Simarillion.  Talk about a catch-22, hm?  (Not that it’s stopping the fans from pouring billions of dollars into the film franchise.)

What fans seem to not realize (or to ignore, I’m not sure) is that books and films are completely different media.  Maybe it’s because I’ve taken screenwriting as part of my degree, which included a look at adapting books and other media to film, or maybe it’s because I’m a huge fan of both books and movies, but I don’t have this struggle.

A book is a book.  A film is a film.

Films engage the visual and aural senses.  Pages and pages of story can be told in a few quick seconds through visual cues including costume and set design.  Orchestral arrangements and foley work (or lack thereof) add impact to the scene.

Books don’t directly engage any of the senses when it comes to the story.  Books instead engage the imagination, allowing the reader to piece together the writer’s cues to create a mental map of the story.  While the majority of writers work primarily with sight and sound, the really good writers engage scent and touch (and taste, where possible) to create a full experience.

So there is no way to take a book and wholly recreate the experience on film.  Period.  Forget the fact that everyone experiences the book differently.  Forget the fact that I can write about an 800-foot dragon that sings in Japanese and shoots marbles out its nose, while film might struggle to bring that character to life, limited by the constraints of time, money, and current computer technology.

Film simply does not engage all the senses in a way that mimics the magic of books.

Film employs an entirely different language to tell the story than books can use.  A good director will take that language and use it to create a similar world to tell a similar story.

The trick lies in figuring out what are the core elements of the characters and story.  Those core elements are what the fans should be falling in love with, anyway.  Not thirteen pages of intricate dialogue, or a particular description of an alien landscape.  The creative team, including the screenwriter(s), set designers, costume designers, and actors, will figure out what those core elements are, and what’s needed to bring those elements to life on the screen.  Maybe it’s something secondary or background characters say about the main character.  Maybe it’s the way the hero’s jacket is distressed, or how the charming but awkward nerdy guy gazes adoringly at the woman he’s crushing on, or the details in the sculpture work of the evil queen’s castle.  It’s that whole “picture is worth a thousand words” thing.

When I go see an adaptation of a book I’ve enjoyed, I look for certain things, but I can rationalize away other details.  Let’s take the Percy Jackson example listed above.  The books start when Percy is all of twelve years old, and the first series progresses through the next four years as Percy grows into his demigod abilities and struggles with the knowledge that he’s likely to decide the fate of the world when he turns 16.  The movies start when Percy is older, I think 16-17.  Which I can understand.  There are a huge stack of strict laws governing the employment of child actors, including much shorter hours than adult actors can work.  And it’s much easier to pass an 18-year-old actor off as 16 or 17 than 12.  A similar thing happened with Game of Thrones.  All of the children were aged up at least a couple years.  The youngest Stark boy is what, four years old in the first book?  And while he doesn’t have a huge part, I totally understand that the director would probably have had a hard time finding a four-year-old boy who could carry such a serious role.  I can’t imagine it was easy finding the kids they did cast.

That’s not what I hated about the Percy Jackson movies.  I was disappointed by the first one, because they stunted the story to cut out the larger story arc that carried through the entire five books.  I really thought they weren’t going to make a second movie.  So when the second movie came out, I was more than a little curious as to how they’d work the major story line back into the movie.

What really cheesed me off was how they handled the mythology.  What I love about Rick Riordan’s books is that he not only bases them on mythology, but he stays true to the mythology.  Athena has children, but her children are born…differently, in a way that better suits an intellectual virgin warrior goddess.  I won’t say exactly how, as it’s explained in…the fourth book, if I remember rightly.  Riordan crafts his plots and characters so they work with the mythology.  The creators of the second movie twisted the mythology to fit their plot.  For example, Poseidon had a sword.  A SWORD.  If you know anything about Greek mythology, you’ll know that Poseidon does not use a sword.  They also warped the defeat of Kronos to suit their plot.  So, in short, they made me hate the movie in the first five minutes.

Though I still adore Grover.

Anywhoo.  I’m trying to get around to the exact issue that’s been bugging me for the last few days.  It relates to a specific, recent adaptation: Bitten, based on the novels by Kelley Armstrong.

I’ve adored The Women of the Otherworld series for roughly the last decade.  I picked up the series around the time the fifth book, Haunted, came out.  I picked up the new books shortly after they were released.  I hold a deep affection for each of the narrators, and most of the secondary characters, and I admire how Armstrong crafted the world.  And I wish I had the time to go back and reread all thirteen books, to follow along the overarching story that starts as just subtle loose threads in the early books, slowly building toward the final novel.

Bitten hit the airwaves in January.  Armstrong promoted the series leading up to the premiere, and she continues to encourage discussion about the episodes (well, until recently, which I’ll get to in a moment) but she was adamant that she had nothing to do with the show.  She’s said several times that she’s read early drafts of the first two episodes, and that’s it.  She’s purposely chosen to trust the creative team adapting the book.  She was on tour promoting the first book in her newest series and came to my city (and I was lucky enough to have the evening off!)  During the question period, yet another fan asked her what her creative role was in Bitten.  She joked about it at first, but then said, yet again, that she had taken a complete hands-off approach to the show.

Armstrong shared the announcement of the casting, and it was around that point that she also announced that the producers of the show had decided not to adapt the entire series, but just the werewolf part of the world.  Which was why they didn’t cast a half-Japanese man as Jeremy (in the books, he’s the Alpha of the North American werewolf Pack, and in one of the supplemental novellas, he learns his mother was a Kitsune, a Japanese fox supernatural.  Because of this, he has some extra abilities, which do not come up in the show.)  Fans lost their ever-loving minds because Jeremy wasn’t right.  Well, since there are no Kitsune, there’s no reason for the creative team to make him half Japanese.

Fans continued to whine over and over up until the premiere of the show, and most of them haven’t stopped.

Yeah, I’ll admit, I’ve been watching the show and comparing the core aspects of the on-screen characters to the characters I hold in my head.  For the most part, I’m quite happy.  I like Elena, I like Jeremy.  I knew they were introducing Nicky before he actually showed up on-screen.  Clay had to grow on me a little, but I like him now, too.  Logan and Pete, honestly, I barely remember, as it’s been about ten years since I’ve read the book.  I like Stonehaven, even though I’d pictured a different type of house, the house they’re using fits the bill, too.  And I love that they’ve developed more of Elena’s life in Toronto, the normal life she’s trying to return to, even though her werewolf nature won’t really allow it.  I can see real affection and love and lust between her and Philip, where I felt some of that was lacking in the books.  But to compare is natural.  After all, they’re taking some of my favourite characters in the world and placing them on my television screen.  If they’re not going to be true to the cores of those characters, why bother with the adaptation?

But I also went into the series intensely curious about how they would handle the future of the series.  Bitten the book sticks exclusively to the werewolf Pack.  In the second book, Stolen, Elena is kidnapped from the Pack and meets members of other supernatural races, and then the series expands from there.  Jeremy goes on to form a relationship with a non-Werewolf character.  I wanted to know what they were going to do with the characters after the original arc is done, if the rest of the world Armstrong created is not there.

So far, all I can say is the fans will outright revolt if/when Jeremy forms a romantic bond with another character.  Especially since they seem to be close to the breaking point after this past episode.

This newest episode broke my heart.  And not because the creators made a major change.  Well, the major change did make my cry (I don’t want to spoil it) but not because it was a change, but because of the substance of the change.  Thank goodness there was a commercial break, so I could pull it together and finish the episode.  But the very end of it made me sniffly again.

All I will say is I just wanted to hug Nicky.

But the fans seem to be taking out their confusion and hurt over this change on Armstrong.  Which is unfair, as Armstrong has said over and over (and over and over and over and over and over) that she has nothing to do with the show, aside from providing the creative inspiration.  Apparently, there’s a noisy group of fans who just can’t seem to read Armstrong’s Facebook posts.  Weird, right?

Armstrong posted a great answer to the (repetitive) question seeking her opinion of the books versus the show.  Every single butthurt fan should read it and shut the hell up.   (Cliff Notes version: she hasn’t seen the episodes, and she’s had nothing to do with them.  Surprise, surprise.)

And I’ll say it: if you don’t like the show or how the creative team is handling the subject matter, stop watching it.  Period.  And that applies to other adaptations.  Don’t like that there are three Hobbit movies?  Stop going to them (though you’ll be missing out.)  Or at the very least, don’t hate on the original writer, or the creative team for the film.  Unless one or the other was truly terrible.

(That was worth today’s hour.  I spent at least three on it.)

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