I Liked The Movie Better. No, Really.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2020-07-29 17:00:00-04:00 No comments

The other day we got to talking about when remaking something actually does it a favor. I deviated from the original ideal a little and thought about how adapting something, as one form of remaking it, can do it a favor.

Many mediocre books can be turned into good-to-great movies, for instance, by stripping away everything that doesn't need to be there (turgid prose, irrelevant "atmosphere", nonsensical convolution) and replacing them with the directness and elegance of visual storytelling. I'd rather see a good movie version of a bad book than a bad adaptation of a good one. But that doesn't mean I'd rather see people never attempt to adapt a good book into a great movie, and only go for the low-hanging fruit.

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Harold Pinter was once commissioned to write a screenplay for one of the most notoriously unfilmable of all books, Proust's Remembrance Of Things Past. The script would have constituted a movie of about 130-140 minutes, and mostly consisted of material from the first and last books in the series. It was never filmed, but published in book form, and I read it all in an afternoon with great pleasure. Today, we might well just try to turn the whole book into an Netflix miniseries, and I wonder if that much fidelity would be a good or a bad thing: since Proust's prose is unfilmable anyway, the whole point is to turn it into Something Else, and let that Something Else find what audience it ought. Most of the lit snobbism contra filmed versions of books never made sense to me on the face of it, but I think that was because I was at least as enthusiastic about film as an art form as I was about books, and always had an eye out for how the two could enrich each other. The other booklovers I ran into didn't always share that enthusiasm.

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Better a good experience that mutates the original into something flavorful than a bad fidelious one that just tastes stale. Kamikaze '89, the freakazoidinous, pop-80s movie adaptation of the intentionally monochromatic Per Wahlöö novel Murder On The Thirty-First Floor, at first doesn't look like it has anything to do with its source material, especially not tonally. But by the end of it, I realized the wild staging wasn't a betrayal of the original material, just a reinvention of it, and it all worked. (Go dig that flick up, by the way; it's one of those mutant cultural artifacts, like Max Headroom or The Prisoner or the entire recorded output of the Firesign Theatre, that's only grown more relevant with each passing year.)

The list goes on. A Clockwork Orange was more filmable than people might have originally thought. The slang was mostly there for color anyway; the real story was quite visual. The Accidental Tourist works wonderfully in either medium. Mrs. Dalloway was made into a good-but-not-quite great film, in big part because there was no filmed equivalent for the way Woolf told her story, but the underlying story is still intact (if not quite conveyed in the same way, and to the same end). Red Harvest got turned, excellently, into Yojimbo, in big part because Kurosawa and his screenwriters were willing to leave off as much as they kept. Even The French Lieutenant's Woman, with all its multileveled fictional devices, got filmed (Pinter again!), by essentially turning it into a different but equally ambitious project.

I guess a lot of this, for me, revolves around expectations. I wouldn't expect a filmed version of Proust to be Proust, but to be a riff on his work: what else can you do when it's not the printed page? But I'd expect a filmed version of Ed McBain to be pretty close to what's on the page, because it's easier to correlate the two one-for-one, and any changes made are mostly going to be for the sake of story efficiency or locale (see: King's Ransom to Kurosawa's High And Low).

Tags: adaptation books movies remakes