Writes of Passage (Adapting for the Silver Screen)


20.-The-Shining_imagelargeThe American Academy Awards still befuddle me with their multiple categories. Why do we need a Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress award? Who thought this division was significant?… a good performance is a good performance despite screen-time. 


In the 1950s and 60s there were two categories for Best Cinematography, color and B&W. Categories which have since been reconciled. Was there ever a need for the two? Furthermore, why are there two distinct awards for screenwriting? A solid screenplay is a solid screenplay. Whether it is based on a previously produced work or not does not alter the fact it is well written. 


Or maybe it does. 


Nevertheless, why and how did this come about? Is the writing category so important it needs to be segmented? Last time I checked writers do not get that much respect in cinema. Especially in Hollywood where the producer gets the credit for the final film. 


So, what makes a good adaptation? I’m not sure.


I do know my own personal criteria is simple: does the film expand on or re-interpret the original novel, comic book, Disney thrill-ride in such a way that sets it apart from the source material? In other words, does the filmmaker not simpley translate the scenes onto the screen but re-think the story as a film? Does (s)he make it their own?


There are a number of films that I feel are not only great adaptations but terrific examples of original thought. (Perhaps this is a bit of a paradox.) These are works that take a novel – in most cases a less than stellar work of literature – and transform it into something entirely unique on the big screen. 


Here are three Hollywood films that I believe improve/expand on the original source material: 


Fight Club (1999) dir. David Fincher 

The Shinning (1980) dir. Stanley Kubrick. 

M.A.S.H (1970) dir. Robert Altman 


I found the source material for each of the above less than satisfactory, even dull in some cases, but the screenplay and final film a vast improvement in every respect. 


Also, it made me consider that not-so-great novels can be transformed into great cinema. Instead of adapting a solid work of literature, one might considering a story with a good premise or idea behind that did not reach its full potential. There is also the matter of mediocre directors adapting notable works of literature. 


One could also go further and discuss the controversial subject that is the “remake.” But that would be another blog post completely. 


Are there adaptations you feel are better than the original? What about remakes? What remakes surpass the original?


And why?





*Poor adaptations that come to mind: “Watchmen,” “Emma,” “Perfume,” and “DaVinci Code.” And by poor I mean that film may have been entertaining but is not as good as the original. The term “faithful adaptation” is always a red flag for me.  


One thought on “Writes of Passage (Adapting for the Silver Screen)

  1. I’m interested to hear why you thought ‘Perfume’ was entertaining, but not as good as the original.

    I highly recommend the book “A Theory of Adaptation” by Linda Hutcheon if you’re interested in a more academic approach to the adaptation process.

    Regarding your question on adaptations that are better than the ‘original’ – in my humble opinion, having read the respective literary material and seen the films, the following:

    Blade Runner (1982) dir. Ridley Scott
    Adaptation (2002) dir. Spike Jonze
    Short Cuts (1993) dir. Robert Altman
    The Third Man (1949) dir. Carol Reed (however, Greene also adapted the screenplay from his novel, essentially writing another draft more suitable to film, but nonetheless better than his novella)

    Although I think Fight Club is an interesting movie, I think its an excellent example of being a fluke film that became a successful cult film for the wrong reasons, and was made for even wronger ones.

    I’d guess anywhere between 60-80% of Hollywood films are essentially adaptations; I doubt many films are based on original screenplays these days.

    What do you make of a film franchise adaptation taken from a Disney theme park? (Cap’n Jack Sparrow)

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