A Possibly Failed Defense of Book-to-Film Adaptations
by Andrew Mangan, Colorado Review Editorial Assistant
I haven’t read Gone Girl, so when the news struck this week that Gillian Flynn and David Fincher, who are doing the filmic adaptation, rewrote the third act of the story, it fell on uncaring ears. My ears. My mother’s—different story. She worried at me over the phone about how the narrative was so elaborately and enjoyably structured, and because none of the names or situations clicked with me—again, uncaring ears. I talked with her a bit about it, but her boiled down her sentiment was this: “It just won’t be as good.”
2009: The Watchmen movie comes out, and I feel crestfallen on floors sticky with old soda. Going in, I knew they wouldn’t be able to condense the 416-page opus of superhero deconstruction down to even the 162-minute running time. The inter-issue prose narratives structured as police reports; documents from a fictional novel-in-progress; the long but sublime fourth chapter, which is almost all flashback and cogitation from Dr. Manhattan as he sits on the surface of Mars; the comic-book-within-the-comic-book Tales of the Black Freighter—I knew they couldn’t cram it all in. I knew things had to be left out. I was fine with the film, even enjoyed it, up until the last thirty or so minutes.
See, they changed the ending, and it was horrible.
I haven’t read any of the Harry Potter books, but I’ve seen most of the movies. When I was ten, my mother brought home the first book in the series and I read about two or three pages, promptly fell asleep, woke up, forgot about the book, and then watched Nickelodeon or something. And when I drop this fact of my literary history—none of the books, a few of the movies—people get strangely incensed. I once even got into a serious, we-don’t-talk-for-days fight over it. See, people say, the movies, they leave stuff out. Dudley and Harry’s reconciliation is absent from the last films; a character named “Peeves the Poltergeist”—coincidentally, like real poltergeists—doesn’t exist, or at least can’t be seen and documented, in the films; and then there’s something about “Squibs.” There is also a bunch of Quidditch left out, which is totally fine with me because I found them mostly distracting from the narrative at large and, despite nifty camerawork, sort of dull. Still, it didn’t grab my interest, and I haven’t seen the last three (maybe four) films of the series and have no intention of reading the books proper any time soon.
Nevertheless, these discussions have occurred nearly once every few months since about 2008, and around a year later, I had Joycean-ish epiphany. A friend of mine got so miffed about the changes in the filmic adaptation—changes, I suppose, that were piling up over the course of like twelve hours of story, and so made the narrative feel like another narrative almost entirely—that he utterly refused to see the sixth film. Now because my memory works as well as deep-sea fishing with safety pins, I can’t remember the exact words he used, but the sentiment was, again: “It’s just not as good.” But given my almost impressive remove from the series (if not reading something can be considered “impressive”), the words fumbled out: “So what?” So what if the movies changed the books. The books are still the books, and the movies are merely adaptations thereof. Treat it as a different artistic expression of similar core truth, not as a filmic facsimile of the book.
My friend didn’t like that, and inevitably we didn’t talk for a few days. But the message stuck with me. And then, a few months later, when I witnessed Zack Snyder’s bastardization of Watchmen, well, my epiphany started to feel like one of those practical-joke lotto tickets people buy to (I guess) piss off their friends.
Quickly enough, though, I came to realize this case was different. With Watchmen, Snyder altered the ending (rewritten with the aid of the book’s illustrator, Dave Gibbons), but removed its logic. In the comic, there’s a big twist and one of the characters introduces an outside force—an otherworldly one—to create an impetus for world peace by uniting Earth’s countries against a common, easy-enough-to-beat enemy. I’m not giving the story enough gusto by my vague, spoiler-free paraphrasing, obviously, but it is really rather clever. The film, however, in the hopes of making the narrative more believable (I guess), nixes the otherworldly threat in favor of reformatting another main character as the threat to unite the world. And despite its attempt at verisimilitude (in a world where superheroes, you know, exist), it doesn’t make any sense, as it creates a conflict of interest. The character that replaces the outside threat was more or less the patented weapon of mass destruction of the United States, and so we’re supposed to buy that the rest of Earth is just cool with the fact that we were harboring something that nearly destroyed it? I didn’t buy it, was very miffed, etc.
A few years later, I talked to my Potter-fanatical friend again, and he jumped on me about this seeming hypocrisy of mine, and I felt bad. After all, I hadn’t read the HP books, hadn’t seen the films, couldn’t accurately assess whether the films changed too much so that the logic of the narrative became corrupted, but I stuck to my argument—“It’s an adaptation, not a facsimile”—and eventually we just decided to talk about something else.
It was anticlimactic, sure, but who cares? They’re stories, and interpretations of them. Whatever their quality, he still had the books, and so did I.
I told my mother the same thing at the end of her Gone Girl harangue, that she should go into the film expecting not the book exactly but a reading of the book, that if the ending’s logic is corrupt, then it sucks all the same, but not to negate the film’s value based solely on the changes to a story she loved. But she wouldn’t listen; she too was quite miffed, and she changed subjects.
“Did you see the man they’re having play Christian Grey?” she said of the 50 Shades of Grey adaptation. “Doesn’t look a thing like him.”
I asked her if she was still going to see the movie.
“Of course. I loved the book.”