Saturday, 7 July 2012

Why Some Adaptations Just Don't Work

Some of the best movies in history have been adapted from other sources. The Godfather was originally a novel by Mario Puzo, The Shawshank Redemption a novella by Stephen King, The Batman series a comic by Bob Kane, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest a novel by Ken Kesey – you get my point. Interestingly, these novels are not necessarily considered the best of their medium, yet their film counterpoints often are. How does this happen? Some stories work really well in film, yes, but it’s also due to the writers knowing how what may work for one medium, works much differently in film.

I really enjoy adaptations when they’re done right, and I wanted to know what some people thought were bad adaptations compared to the ones I just mentioned. So I looked up a number of “Worst Film Adaptations” lists and was surprised to find, despite all the regular inclusions, that Dragonball: Evolution was not even on one of them. I’m sure there is a list out there that has DB:E located at number one (I know mine would place it there) but I suppose the fact that people aren’t really discussing this movie as one of the worst adaptations ever made isn’t that big of a deal. And for the purposes of this post, I have no intention of completely bashing the movie for what it is, because I believe that the movie is actually so bad, it is such a piss-poor adaptation of one of the greatest modern mythological stories, that it can actually teach us why some adaptations just don’t work. Yes, I want to learn from DB:E, not just laugh at it.

First things first, I don’t believe that it’s impossible to adapt Dragonball’s convoluted and overreaching story. There is a way to do it. But DB:E isn’t the shining example.  

The first sin of the piss-poor adaptation, not just DB:E, is focus. When a fan thinks of what he/she likes about a show or movie or book, the first thing that comes to mind is what makes it cool. Dragonball allows for fans to fall in love with and personally imagine the possibility of flying, fighting, teleporting, creating energy blasts, having super-strength, telekinesis, etc.

The problem becomes the desire to focus too much on the spectacle and not enough on characters. At most, a writer can balance the two equally, but if the spectacle becomes more important than the characters, the film is lost. Very, very rarely does a film work where this is the case, and even when it does work it doesn’t make for a great film, just an enjoyable one.

An excellent example of creating an effective balance between spectacle and character is the movie 13 Assassins. No, it’s not an adaptation, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from it. Anyone who knows anything about this movie knows they are going to watch it so they can see samurais do what they do best: kill. But for the first hour of the movie, the audience might be left unsatisfied with this desire. There are hardly any moments of samurais swinging their swords around and all we get is an old samurai recruiting many others. There are a few scenes which tease us, giving us a splatter or two of blood, but the majority of the first half develops the assassin’s motives, and the truly malicious nature of the younger brother of the Shogun.

The writers of movies like DB:E think completely opposite to those of 13 Assassins. “They’re coming for the action,” they say, “so let’s just give it to them right at the beginning, not waste any time with characters”.

The problem with writing an adaptation is the mistaken belief that your audience already knows the characters you’re trying to present, and therefore won’t have the time or the attention or the need to relearn the facts they gained from the source material. This then leads to the thought that you don’t need to develop the desires of your characters as much as in other movies because it’s already been done, and the audience would much rather see the action of the source material rendered as semi-realistic CGI.

If anyone reading this is thinking of adapting anything, ever, never skip out of character development. I don’t care if every person in the world already knows the stories of the characters, retell it for film. If the audience doesn’t care about the people in a fight, the fight is shitty, no matter how well choreographed (refer to The Protector). We need ample time to know and experience the people involved before getting to the visually appealing stuff. Think of it like sex. Well, like good sex.

Any great lover will tell you that foreplay is probably the most important part of the whole process, making the finale multiple times better than it would be without it. And character development, my dear friends, is that foreplay. DB:E is a terrible movie because Piccolo is never shown to be a deplorable villain like the one in 13 Assassins is. The Street Fighter and Dead or Alive writers think all we want is stupid people fighting each other. Joel Schumacher believes the appeal of Batman is over-the-top bad guys in colourful clothing, who often yell when speaking their lines. Of course, there are many other reasons why these adaptations are poor films in general, but I think you get my point.

 And if you don’t get it, this is my point: you can’t tell the same story in the exact same way for two different media.

The adapted material MUST exist as a different entity. The storytelling rules of film are not congruent with the rules of television or novels or video games. The same story that is told by a critically acclaimed video game (such as Max Payne) does not translate to film as easily as taking what worked in the game and making actors act it out in real-time. Even within those categories, there are subdivisions that have their own set of rules as well. Television can be divided into sitcoms, one-hour dramas, cartoons, anime, etc. – and each of these formats tells their story in very specific and unique ways. Dragonball Z, for example, is not a cartoon, and does not follow the same storytelling principles of a show like Powerpuff Girls, despite both being stories about superhero-esque adventures. They are vastly differently is their approach. DBZ is an anime and must be adapted from that perspective. (I have heard that there’s a Death Note movie in the works. I am, of course, highly skeptical of the acclaimed anime being converted to film because so much is necessary in the story that I wouldn’t know where to begin to cut scenes, I wouldn’t know how to make what seems natural in the anime (the shinigami, for one) and convert it to seem natural in a live-action film. They’ve already tried to do it in Japan and the movie was terrible. Plus, the show is already so tight at 37 episodes, cutting it down to 2 hours seems like a grave error. But hey, stranger things have happened.)
So without this mentality, what we often receive are adaptations that don’t live up to the source material, causing a whole audience who loved the original to bash the adaptation because it didn’t feel the same. But there are two errors here. First, the director/writer must think about adapting material in a way that works for film. As I’ve said, DB:E takes on too many properties of an anime, which don’t work in a 90 min movie. The original must be changed so that it can function as a good piece of art.
If this first error is corrected, the second error is on our part, the audience. We have to stop griping and moaning when a film is not exactly like the source material. We need to accept that the story will change from one medium to the next and that it is a necessary change. Nothing irked me more than Harry Potter fans bashing the movies because they left out some good scenes from the 700 page novels. It’s going to happen.

Or even worse are the complaints that the actors in adaptations don't really match what readers imagined the characters would be like. Again, continuing with Harry Potter, some people were angry that Daniel Radcliffe was chosen as Harry (bad acting, maybe?), or Emma Watson as Hermione (don't understand this one). It is the closest thing to impossible to have real life actors match what you've come up with in your head by reading the source material. And furthermore, resemblance shouldn't be the criteria for determining whether an adaptation is well done or not.

Yes, these are not perfect movies, but neither are where they come from. Harry Potter has its problems. So does Dragonball Z, The Road, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Lord of the Rings, and yes, even The Godfather.

There is a responsibility of the viewer to know that not every aspect fiction will translate properly onto film. Directors need to shift focus, choose actors based on different criteria, even reshape the original story to create something that is worth being put on film. They also need to do it properly, and with DB:E as an example, we know how easily it can fail. But if you want the feeling of the source material, return to the source material. The film is going to, and should, give you something different. If it doesn’t, what the hell is the point?

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