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PostPosted: Tue Aug 29, 2006 1:45 pm 
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What make a successful adaptation?

This post arises out of the infamous P v R debates on TORC and my thoughts on the two recent adaptations of Pride and Prejudice.

By way of background, I consider the following to be great adaptations of books I know well and love, and which I knew before encountering the adaptation:

1995 BBC Pride and Prejudice
BBC Radio’s LOTR
The Three Musketeers/Four Musketeers [1970s Michael York, Oliver Reed etc]
Master and Commander
BBC Radio’s adaptations of Life the Universe and Everything, So Long and Thanks for All the Fish and Mostly Harmless.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Johnny Depp)

Other adaptations I like where I generally saw the adaptation first:

Most of the Sharpe Books (latterly I’d read the books before seeing the adaptation)
The Killer Angels/Gettysburg

These are other adaptations I like but have only read the book once or not at all. I put these in because there are probably people who know the books better who can say that these are not faithful adaptations at all

Emma (both the Gwyneth Paltrow and Kate Beckinsale ones)
BBC’s Persuasion
Sense and Sensibility
BBC’s Great Expectations
BBC’s Tom Jones (not read completely)
Hornblower (never read)
BBC’s Martin Chuzzlewitt (never read)
Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes (I’ve only read some of the books)

And finally, the adaptations I have real problems with:

Keira Knightley’s P & P
Olivier’s P & P
PJ’s LOTR
The recent Hitchhiker’s film
Ted Danson Gulliver’s Travels.

What it seems to me that all of the ones in the first category have in common I would loosely describe as ‘faithfulness’. They capture and put on screen what happens in the book. The characters act in the manner and from the motives that they are given in the books. Where changes are made they are largely to fit the subject matter to the medium.

This is especially true of the Master and Commander film.While the film bears no relation to the plot of the first book, and there is the change of the nationality of the Acheron, the film capture what the O’Brian books are about: bringing to life the Royal Navy of Nelson’s time. Both Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany portray Aubrey and Maturin as they are in the books.

The same is true of the Musketeers adaptation. The screenplay was written by one of my favourite authors George Macdonald Fraser, who has a penchant for historical swashbuckling. Although it tends towards the comic it captures the spirit of the books: in the books the Musketeers pawn gifts from the Queen to raise cash: it’s not something the more po-faced, ‘chivalric’ Musketeers of other adaptations would do. Again the fine ensemble cast: Frank Finlay, Richard Chamberlain, Oliver Reed, Michael York, Christopher Lee, Faye Dunaway and Charlton Heston bring Dumas’ characters to life on the screen.

That fact is true of some of the other adaptation I have listed: Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke simply are Holmes and Watson; Sean Bean is Sharpe (I enjoy all of Bernard Cornwell’s books, but they are not Great Literature).

Gettysburg is a fine account of the battle. It is not bloody enough by the standards of Glory and Saving Private Ryan, but I think it gives a great impression of the clash of large armies (the one thing that is lacking in the Sharpe series compared to the books: a dozen reenactors are never going to convince anyone they are a French regiment). I was surprised just how closely it follows the book, The Killer Angels.

I suppose it can be said that the radio adaptations of both LOTR and the later Hitchhiker’s books are little more than dramatized readings of the books, with actors reading different bits of dialogue. That may mean that the adaptation was not as difficult to bring the work to life, but it does retain the faithfulness. The characters act in the way that they do in the books, just as they do in the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice.

That is the essence of my ‘Purism’. It is not that I expect every scene in the book to appear in the adaptation, nor every piece of dialogue. Rather I expect more than just loose plot details to be on the screen with characters with the same names, but not unfortunately, the same characterisation. This may be what a Torcer (I think it was ArPhy) called a ‘Classics Illustrated’ version, but that is what I want to see with these sort of adaptations. (I don’t have the same approach to Shakespeare, but that is something perhaps to deal with later.)

The problematical adaptations all lack this quality of ‘faithfulness’. The Gulliver’s Travels with Ted Danson tells the tale as an 18th Century fairy tale and misses the satire. In neither of the P & P adaptations do the characters act in the manner represented in the books. In the Olivier one Lady Catherine is not only not a dragon, but testing Elizabeth to see whether she is worthy of Darcy: it seems his snobbery may be just after all. In the modern one it’s all about shyness and being held back by social niceties. A quick snog would have sorted it all out.

Of course the problem with criticizing the recent Hitchhiker’s is that there is nothing for it to be faithful to: the radio series is different from the TV series which in turn differs from the books. In that films case I think perhaps it is the fact that some of the punchlines of the humour was missed; simply clumsy execution of the adaptive process. It also had to be too neat and cute, with a happy romantic ending. Adams isn’t like that: except of course he had a large hand in the screenplay.

That leaves of, of course with PJ’s LOTR. I think the fact that it ‘looks right’ has allowed the multitude of its sins to be overlooked. Many, many, characters: Aragorn, Faramir, Théoden, Elrond and even Denethor act completely different from the books. Others, such as Gimli are reduced to comic relief. Some of this has clearly been done to pander to the supposed sensibilities of the ‘modern’ audience: that didn’t seem necessary to the BBC in adapting either LOTR or Pride and Prejudice. The adaptations still worked. The crux of it, as has been discussed elsewhere is that JRRT and PJ live in different ‘moral universes’. For me a successful adaptation of JRRT or Austen has to be one that lives in the same one.

This is rather lengthy, and could have been much longer. I’ll stop now.


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PostPosted: Tue Aug 29, 2006 2:09 pm 
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that didn’t seem necessary to the BBC in adapting either LOTR or Pride and Prejudice.


Very little seems necessary to the BBC when adapting. :D I swear their scriptwriters use a Xerox more than a keyboard.

If you're not careful I will drag out my old chestnut of an argument concerning the adaptation of novels vs. that of romances/legends and where LOTR really belongs. :P But to a great extent I have come to believe that once the cultural context of any story (whether novel, play or myth) is sufficiently lost in the fog of history, what were adaptations become retellings, with the attendant freedoms and limitations.

I don't think one can call any of the Hitchhiker's stuff adaptations of any of the other Hitchhiker's stuff, simply because Adams contributed so heavily to all of it. They are different, parallel manifestations of the same basic plotline, with some changes based on the length of time necessary for telling the story.

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PostPosted: Tue Aug 29, 2006 3:30 pm 
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*swoons for Aravar*

I haven't seen all the movies nor have I read all the books mentioned. But where my experience intersects with Aravar's, I agree with all my heart!

One well-known adaptation that makes my teeth ache is the CBC version of "Anne of Green Gables". It was universally acclaimed, and went on to fame and glory. It ran forever, ending very far indeed from Green Gables. But in was really never there to begin with! It seems as though no one ever sees the "real Anne". (I do, of course. :D )

The Olivier P & P is atrocious. It fails on nearly every level. Even this most recent one was not so awful.

I haven't read the Sharpe books and will now make a confession that will likely have me chucked out of HoF: I cannot abide, as they say, Sean Bean. I simply cannot. And although I haven't read Sharpe, I have read a very great deal about the Peninsular War and when I think what the real Old Hookey might think about the TV series I go all over funny. How I wish such a thing could be!

Another dreadful adaptation of Austen was the fairly recent one of "Mansfield Park". Jeez. Words pretty well fail me.

As for LOTR, the farther away I get from the movies the more I dislike them. I have the whole set in various incarnations, EE's and what not, people give them to me for gifts. Yes, they were pretty to look at. The music was quite lovely. But they aren't LOTR, just a story that has some of the same people and some of the same incidents.

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PostPosted: Tue Aug 29, 2006 3:49 pm 
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BTW, the Donner/Lester 3/4 Musketeers does, in point of fact, beat the living snot out of the Disney version of the 90s. Or the Gene Kelly verson of the 40s for that matter.

Vison--
There are parts of the movies I prefer to the books, and vice versa. Some of what I was initially uncomfortable with grew on me, and some of what I liked at first is less satisfying with time.

That applies to both. ;)

What the books will always have, alone, is the feeling of awe from my first few readings of them. But that's a byproduct of timing and circumstance, not superiority across the board. I imagine someone who saw the movies and then read the books might have different memories twenty years from now, and that's OK too.

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PostPosted: Tue Aug 29, 2006 3:51 pm 
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Oh, and in regards to the original question, respect for the source material can harm an adaptation just as easily as it can help it, if it becomes an inability to weed out or change stuff that won't translate to the new medium.

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PostPosted: Tue Aug 29, 2006 3:54 pm 
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I still think I could write a book on adaptation after all the discussion of LOTR.

My two favorite adaptations:
Jurassic Park (which is usually heavily disagreed about)
Prisoner of Azkaban (also seems to be misunderstood)

To me the key to adaptation is to accomplish two things. The first is to make a good film telling the same essential story as the original book. The second, is to not change anything to the extent that it changes the meaning or "world" of the book.

Those two points (really, it could be 4 I guess: good film, same story, no change in meaning, no change in world), are easily seen in the two films I discussed, despite them being FAR from "literal" translations from book to film, which is what most mistakenly assume is the desire of a "good adaptation." Yes, some people desire this but they are ignoring the differences in media (something I have been accused of many times, to my great annoyance).

Both (or all 4) points are entirely lacking in say... PJs LOTR :). I know many still consider them good films, but I think while I understand most enjoy them... they are not really good films when compared to historically good films. They are entertaining, certianly, and visually breathtaking... but they are sub-par in other areas. As for telling the "same essential story," you could make the case they do... but I would argue with you ;)

I think it's difficult to dispute PJ changed the meaning in many areas, and heavily changed the "world" of middle earth... despite doing an amazing job of "showing" it visually.

I have, of course, written far more on this subject in the past, but will leave it at that for now. I could also go through how I think the two films I mentioned achieve those aspects of adaptation I find important, but this is already the longest post I've made in weeks... ;)

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PostPosted: Tue Aug 29, 2006 4:45 pm 
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The problem with those criteria, hal, is that all four are open to broad interpretation.

What makes Middle-earth Middle-earth, or Oz Oz, or Hogwart's Hogwart's? Ask ten different readers and you will get ten different answers. What does LOTR, or Pride & Prejudice, or Hamlet mean? If there were a single answer, literature would be cryptography and not art. Is the story of a book the series of actions that the author relates? The change or growth in the characters? The causal chain of events?

And who gets to decide what a good film is? :help: Box office? Critics? Awards? Historians? Other filmmakers?

And yet there is little doubt that some adaptations don't work at all, on any level, for just about anyone.

I think it would be infinitely more instructive to look at those, and at those that everyone agree worked, instead of at ones that are merely controversial in some quarters, if the aim is to discuss where adaptations go bad...or good.

Of course, if people just want to find a new way to bitch about PJ more, that's different. :roll:

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PostPosted: Tue Aug 29, 2006 4:54 pm 
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everything we're discussing is broadly subjective and subject to different interpretations.

There's a vast difference in what an adaptation even IS. If we're going to discuss the quality of adaptation, the criteria for what determines that quality would have to be discussed first. It's far more subjective to just say an adaptation "worked" or "didn't work."

Now, I have no interest in arguing about any of this, I was just presenting my opinion on adaptation, and tying it into LOTR, as that's what brings us all here.

I'll be happy to talk about any other adaptation I've read and seen... but when I do, the criteria I've just described is the criteria I will be using...

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PostPosted: Tue Aug 29, 2006 5:46 pm 
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I can accept Hal's criteria as the basis for a personal judgment about an adaptation, with a few modifications:

    good film by my standards

    same story (the meaning of "story" is arguable)

    no change in meaning as I understand the meaning

    no change in the aspects of the world that are important to me


But as Ax points out, "story" and "meaning" have different definitions for different people and different schools of thought. One person may say that a story has been too radically changed because the heroine is a different age and lives in a different town than she did in the book; another person might find the story entirely unchanged because what happens in that town, and the changes to the character, are the same as in the book.

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PostPosted: Tue Aug 29, 2006 5:50 pm 
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Great first post, Aravar, and thanks for starting the topic! :D

Hmmh, maybe as a caveat I should first say that I think one problem with adaptations is how you read a book - which is a very personal thing and might differ greatly from how others read it - and hence, what you consider "faithful" might only be faithful to your reading of the book, as there is no "the" book.

That said, I pretty much agree with your definition: an adaptation should show the world created in a book, propound the same values and ideas, and have characters that match the characters in the book both in outer and inner shape, otherwise it's a different story.

It is, however, possible for me to like a movie for its very unfaithfulness in those instances where I'm not entirely happy with the book!

I have only seen/heard a few of the adaptations you list, and the same with books.
So, here's something about books/movies already mentioned, and some additional ones.

18th century literature is always a problem, I think, because there is so much topical allusion and secondary meaning in it.

I agree that the Gulliver's Travels (love that book!) version with Ted Danson was pretty but also pretty meaningless, although I seem to remember that something of the general criticism of human society was maintained in the part about the yahoos, and I guess it's to the movie's credit that it filmed the complete book in the first place, instead of just Liliput and Brobdignag.

In the P&P thread you mentioned Moll Flanders. I haven't seen the movie, so I can't comment, but you said that you thought the bawdy nature of the movie was particularly beside the point, and I wondered if that was so, because I think that Moll's sexual extravaganza was what made the book popular.

I don't think I've seen the BBC version of Tom Jones, but I know the 60s movie with Albert Finney - one of the worst adaptations I've ever seen! And yet it's a generally appraised movie as a literature adaptation.
The reason is that I love "Tom Jones", it's one of my favourite books, and the reason I love it, similar to LOTR, is because of the morals propounded in it: selflessness, altruism, benevolence (even though there's also the slightly cynical warning about appearances ;) ).
The book however also contains a lot of sexual adventures, and that is what audiences ever since its publication have mostly seen - and that is the only thing, IIRC, the movie version was interested in.

19th century books are easier, I think, in that they mostly don't contain too much in terms of "a message".

I liked Gwyneth Paltrow's Emma (though I didn't expect I would) - I read the book once, loved it, but couldn't say now where the movie was unfaithful or not. It certainly didn't strike me as too unfaithful for my liking or for considering it to still be Austen.
Same with Emma Thompson's Sense and Sensibility.
As to P&P, it has its own thread, and I need to re-view the movies, but I liked the Keira movie as much as the Colin Firth one, even though the former is definitely further removed from the book. I guess that the instances where it strayed from the book were just not all that defining to me.

Similar with Dickens - I seem to enjoy most movie versions, and I enjoy the books. I realise that many movies are far from the books, but they are enjoyable in their own right, and maybe I'm just not so particular about the books.
(Haven't seen a Dickens adaptation in quite some time, though - apart from the new Oliver Twist a year or so ago - and haven't read anything by him in ages, so it's hard to say anything definitive.)

vison brings up a great example: Anne of Green Gables
I take it, the CBS version is the one with Megan Followes?
I loved that one! (Well, the first series, and some parts of the second.) Here we have an example, though, of where I only read the book because of the movie. And while I enjoyed large parts of the first book, I think the movie is more colourful, lively and dream-like. The book did not manage to make me wistful for its world - maybe that was not the idea?
But vison is right, I think: movie AOGG retained hardly anything of the book versions. But, to me, the books have great weaknesses, as well as great beauties, and that makes it easier for me to like the changes.

I think this brings us to LOTR quite smoothly.
Most people, it seems, who approve of the movie changes also find the books imperfect - they feel that the movie improved upon the books where they were deficient.
People who find the changes intolerable usually find the books perfect and unimprovable, and I think I belong in that latter group.
I don't think an adaptation should preserve every bit of dialogue and plot, but I think that all the changes to the characters were bad choices because the characters as they are in the book, are ideal for the story.
I don't hate the movies, because, as has been said, they mostly look and sound lovely, and at times someone of the team of screenwriters apparently did catch something of the real meaning (i.e. my reading ;) ), but that was an on and off thing.

Next, Master and Commander - I loved the movie. I had read half the first book by the time it came out, but given up on it, way too much naval jargon for my taste, and I can't even say whether Aubrey and Maturin were faithfully caught, I just thought that the world of an early 19th century ship was very convincingly presented, something that all the naval jargon in the book also set out to do, but, because of the nature of jargon being off-putting (to me), could not achieve with the intensity of the images of the movie.

Lastly, the Harry Potter movies. At the time, I thought the first movie was better than the first LOTR movie in faithfulness of adaptation. I haven't seen it since, so I couldn't say if I'd still feel the same. I was disappointed with the second and third movie (the latter because the third book is my favourite, and the movie just was not what I had pictured in my mind) - I was, however, thrilled with the most recent one, which so many others thought disappointing. The reason here was that I thought the book utterly boring, and the movie left out all the boring stuff, reduced it to the essentials, and came up with some stunning visuals and interestingly aged actors, plus awesome film-music, using the bare essentials of an otherwise weak book to make a captivating movie.

I'd love to come up with more, but for now it's long enough, and I think the most interesting conclusion to be drawn from it, for me, is that how I like an adaptation depends a lot on what I like about a book.


Edit: cross-posted with Prim :D

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PostPosted: Tue Aug 29, 2006 5:52 pm 
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my criteria is somewhat intentionally vague. If you qualify each bit by making it a personal opinion, you are inherantly creating a roadblock to consensus. Now granted, there's no need for consensus in any way... but things like saying something is a "good film" can be objectively discussed. How people feel personally is always subjective, but things can still be discussed objectively.

to define the criteria as inherantly subjective and individual seems wrong to me. In that case, all we're really discussing is what each of us likes to see in an adaptation... a fine topic... but doesn't answer the question this thread has posed.

all IMHO of course ;)

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PostPosted: Tue Aug 29, 2006 6:02 pm 
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I guess what I hated about the Anne of Green Gables TV series is that eveyone always sees Anne as this yakky bouncy girl who goes about talking breathlessly and is much more of an extrovert than the girl in the book.

At the "Green Gables" farmhouse/national park in PEI there is a photo of the young Lucy Maud Montgomery: a wistfully plain wee lass with big sad eyes, hungry for love, you can see it in her thin little face. THAT's Anne, and that's who Lucy Maud wrote about. It's hard to put in a film, I guess.

Certainly Megan Followes did a better job than anyone else ever did. But I still didn't like it. Perfection or nothing!!!! =:)

I have only read the first Harry Potter book and don't care one way or the other about the movies. As movies, my grandkids like them. But Tay is very fond of the Lemony Snickett books and he did not like the movie, he said it felt wrong. Good critic, that boy. :D

There is little use of me going on about PJ's LOTR. I thought the movies almost completely missed the point and were turned into straight fantasy/adventure stories with about 50 million times too much emphasis on SFX and I guess I can only be thankful that they are all made and any new SFX technology can not now ruin the tales even further.

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PostPosted: Tue Aug 29, 2006 6:31 pm 
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Actually, I can think of some excellent adaptations that I nonetheless didn't care for, primarily because NEITHER the book nor the movie were to my taste... :D I know what my personal favorites are as adaptations, and it's because I left the theater with much the same feeling as I left the book.

Let's see...adaptations that we can come to a consensus on, yea or nay...candidates? I remember an old TORC discussion on High Fidelity that went on for some time, so that's out. :D And I refuse to participate in a discussion of anything Jane Austen wrote besides Northanger Abbery, so she's out. :twisted:

I do find it interesting that some of the better adaptations I can think of came from short stories or novellae:

Stand by Me
Blade Runner
A Christmas Story

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A Christmas Story!!! Wonderfully well done.

Northanger Abbey? Now, why only that one? It's delightful reading. Has it ever been adapted to film?

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vison, I believe there's an old BBC adaptation out there on VHS, but I've heard that it's dreadful.

Ax, it doesn't surprise me that shorter forms make better films more easily—there's so much less you have to take out. A typical screenplay runs maybe ninety pages and is largely white space.

An adaptation I've heard very few people complain about is Master and Commander. I've read all twenty books at least three times, and the film is vastly different from any one book—but I love it more every time I see it. The characters are there; the seafaring details are there and, as far as I can tell, accurate; and the feeling of the books is there. All highly subjective, but most people I know who came from the books to the film seem pleased with it.

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PostPosted: Tue Aug 29, 2006 7:51 pm 
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Well first of all thanks aravar for starting this thread :)
Now due to my young age I have seen a lot fewer adaptations of books than the rest of you but still I still I will voice my own personal opinion.

I will begin with PJ's LOTR. Now quite frankly I believe that I am a bit biased towards the movies because I only discovered the book after watching the first movie and so I feel that I owe the movies becasue they introduced me to the world of Tolkien.
The first movie I thought was brilliant when I first saw it but that was mainly due to Tolkien's work not PJ's. However even after reading the book and other works of Tolkien I still find the first movie to be quite nice I personally like it. The second movie was for me a disaster, everything that PJ changed seemed to be for the worse, from almost killing Aragorn to sending Elves to Helm's Deep -it was still a good movie but no thanks to PJ. The third movie was more to my liking because I had learned by then not to sweat the little changes made and to stop fretting about every little tiny thing. The only thing that really disturbed me in that movie was the portrayal of Faramir (one of my favorite characters).
Could the movies have been better? Yes but they weren't really that bad, some parts were really good like Aragorn's speech at the Black Gate and his challenge to the Men of the Dead. You have to like the movies at least a bit after all without those movies I wouldn't be here annoying you all :P

As for the Harry Potter movies I liked the first one and the fourth one (mainly becasue by that time I had no expectations whatsoever). The second movie was okay but the third one was for me a huge dissapointment. My favorite book is the third one and I had great expectations for the movie but I was disappointed. When I saw Lupin turn into a werewolf I was going to freak out. :shock: I mean that werewolf looked pathetic! I had just seen Van Helsing the day before and all I could think of during the HP movie was that they should go back and talk to the creators of Van Helsing and learn how to make werewolves. Of course there were other problems with the movie but that was my main one (scenes like harry riding buckbeak just seemed like a waste of time IMO)


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I would posit that Master and Commander worked as a film adaptation for so many precisely because it didn't limit itself to the contents of one book, but series adaptations are a special case...there is a formularity to the installments by design, so some episodes are in effect interchangable parts.

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PostPosted: Wed Aug 30, 2006 8:55 am 
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Interesting.

I thought Van Helsing was easily the worst movie I have seen in 20 years. No exceptions. There was nothing of merit in it.

I agree that we should avoid PJ's LotR in this discussion as we all are far too personally attached to the subject matter and what is vital to some is dispensible to others. We could have another thread on "All the Tolkien Adaptations" somtime. That would be fun. I'd particularly like to discuss the "Minds Eye" Radio production, but that would require me to listen to all of it, something I have yet to achieve.

I'll talk Harry Potter though. The first film was a "cliff notes" version. It got all the story right and looked well, but it just had no substance. Enjoyable as a kids movie, but doesn't really work as an adult movie.

Chamber of Secrets was the weakest for me by far. The whole climax was a series of deus ex machinas one after the other. The whole magic sword from a hat was cringeworthy. Now, I understand that these were in the book, but there is at least explanation in the book. Cause and Effect. In the film, its "Harry gets attacked by Giant Snake, magic phoenix flies in and blinds snake", "Harry needs a sword, magic hat has sword inside", "Harry gets poisoned, magic phoenix cures Harry". Also, in trying to keep this kiddie friendly, the blinding of the snake (can't remember the proper name) is really lame.

Prisoner of Askaban worked really well for me. The tone changed completely. We weren't as concerned with winning the house cup as we were with staying alive. Alonso Cuaron captured this shift perfectly. This was the first movie that an adult could watch as an adult movie. The only real problems were with child actors growing up and learning to "act" as opposed to "say lines"

Goblet of Fire was fantastic. No quibbles, except for Hermione using her eyebrows a bit too much... :)

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PostPosted: Wed Aug 30, 2006 9:14 am 
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I think that Mastere and Commander works because after the first few books the stories are no longer self contained: at the start of the book they may have received orders to sail for the East Indies, but at the end of the book they're in Sweden. They don't get anywhere near th East Indies for a few more books. The books also leave any sensible semblance to chronology, as O'Brian himself concedes in one of the forewords. 1813 has to happen several times. The books then are about the journey and not the destination. They are about spending time with these well-drawn characters in this alien world. The film, while not following any particular plot too closely does exactly that.

One adaptation I do like which is radically different from a short story, but a fun film in its own right is Scrooged, with Bill Murray. That updates the plot very well, I think.


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PostPosted: Wed Aug 30, 2006 10:11 am 
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Another excellent adaptation of a short story is Shawshank Redemption, based on the novella (not really a short story) Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption from Different Seasons*. In fact, the novella is more or less unknown, while the film is rightly considered a modern classic.


*which incidentally also contained Apt Pupil and The Body which were filmed as Apt Pupil and Stand By Me.

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