About two months ago, I went to the midnight premiere of Catching Fire. I’ll admit, I entered the theater moderately terrified about how I’d feel coming back out. My angst could in part be attributed to my lackluster experiences with midnight premieres, as well as to the fact that I adore the source material. As such, I couldn’t be more pleased to say that I found Catching Fire to be almost perfectly satisfying.
Adapting young adult franchises to the screen is always tricky. The fickle nature of the fan base makes it exceedingly difficult for filmmakers to realize any sort of unique vision. One term in particular we young, clingy readers often use when judging such films is “compromise”. We love to highlight all the parts of the books that are left out of the film adaptations, and to condemn the films based on omissions that are made. Though I used to do this all the time, I now tend to think of “compromise” as a dirty word. I’ve come to feel that we do everyone involved a disservice when we identify omissions or diversions from the books as compromises made in the adaptation process.
While compromise can have good connotations, it is generally associated with settling for something less than desirable. When we say that a compromise was made between politicians, our instinct is often to express fury about the concessions made by our side. Going into a movie adaptation of a beloved book with this idea in our mind destines us to be unsatisfied. It’s as if to say that we will naturally be settling for less when we go to the movies. Of course, changes are going to be made when translating a novel to the screen. The story will get trimmed down, scenes or even entire sections will be cut. Yet, does that mean we’re getting a lesser or weaker story?
We shouldn’t go into movies expecting to see the book on the screen. Rather, we should go to see the story and the characters represented in a way that only cinema can. This requires us to entrust the filmmakers to realize their vision, to take the original work and make it their own. I understand how difficult this can be as a reader. I completely sympathize with being upset when certain parts of the books are left out of the movies. However, I also have to recognize that my satisfaction with a movie does not come from it’s level of adherence to the source material. I don’t cheer for Finnick when he reveals his loyalty to Katniss because I remember he said the exact same thing in the book. I cheer because the tension and the reveal are brilliantly executed.
I find myself most fulfilled in these movie adaptations when I’m able to forget the book. I want to get lost in the story all over again, to feel the emotional punches, and have them ring and resonate. Frankly, this just didn’t happen for me in the first two Harry Potter movies. They felt more like a stale reading of the book than a carefully crafted work of film. On the other hand, the third Harry Potter movie changed the mold quite a bit. What’s important to note, however, is that the changes don’t just chalk up to a list omissions here and there for the sake of time. The revisions reshaped the story into something very well suited for the silver screen, while staying true to, and simultaneously expanding upon, the core themes of the book. Unlike the first two, I was not left feeling like the script was the text of the book, with a few scenes being deleted in the editing room.
There are certainly examples of films diverging notably from the source material in ways that do not further or support the original (Percy Jackson could be cited as an example from within the genre). Putting faith in the filmmaker to adapt another’s work by all means requires a filmmaker worthy of that trust. Anyone who takes on such a task has a great responsibility to the creator. Still, when great work is put in the hands of respectful and talented artists, we should embrace creative vision. Without it, the resulting value that can be offered to the viewer is needlessly constrained. After all, what is to be gained from dedicating all the time needed to create a film to merely be told the exact story all over again? Even when we disagree with the liberties taken by filmmakers, it drives us to an even greater understanding and appreciation of the original.
It is my opinion that the chief responsibility of the filmmaker is to tell a good story, and to tell it well. If this involves embellishments or cuts, I’m more than willing to accept that. I’ve always disliked the sentiment that films are rarely as good as the books they’re based on. If we think of revisions as mere compromise, isn’t that inevitable?
So how do you feel about books adapted to film? What are some of your favorites? Any in particular that severely disappointed or frustrated you?
Note, I decided to focus on young-adult novels in this post for the sake of simplicity. The best (or most fascinating) adaptation of a book I’ve ever seen is probably The Shining. Since that would open a massive can of beans for discussion, I’ll save it for another time.