A novel idea

Bentley Ford

Film has always been a retelling of another story,” says Scott Proudfit, a Northwestern graduate student studying English. He says he is interested in the way film can realize, rethink, and retell another story. A list of this summer’s hopeful blockbusters certainly supports Proudfit’s claim.

This summer will feature many adaptations of popular novels (The DaVinci Code, The Devil Wears Prada), celebrated comic books (X-Men 3: The Last Stand, Superman Returns), old television shows (Miami Vice, Mission: Impossible 3) and even an adaptation of a Disney amusement park ride (Pirates of the Caribbean 2: The Curse of the Black Pearl). With a pipeline full of adaptations, we can only hope that the biggest films of this summer avoid the all-too-common criticism: “I liked it, but the book was better.”

But how does a movie avoid this criticism? Weinberg sophomore Jill Zaveri has a theory. Concerning the Harry Potter films, some of the most lucrative and well-known adaptations to date, Zaveri says that the success of the adaptation depends on the focus.

“For example,” she says, “the first one focused on plot. The last one that came out focused on special effects.” Given the nature of cinema as a primarily visual medium, a director’s focus on special effects and imagery can certainly bring success – just look at Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, hailed not only as a masterful visual spectacle but also as a near-canonical realization of what Tolkien may have once envisioned when he wrote the series.

A filmmaker’s realization of the novel’s world, however, can differ from that of a fan’s, often violating the fan’s imagination.

“I think it’s cool when you imagine things for yourself,” Zaveri explains. “You imagine that things will happen a certain way.” When a director’s vision does not agree with hers, Zaveri says, “it can be a letdown.”

On the other hand, Lindsay Meck, a Communication junior who works a great deal with adaptations, would see a director’s take on the material rather than a dry translation. She prefers Mike Newell’s interpretation of the fourth Harry Potter film, The Goblet of Fire, because it is “the most captivating, in that the others were so close to the text, whereas this one was more cinematic.” She admires the director’s bold decision to take advantage of the film medium, manipulating the original story in order to create a better cinematic experience. The first films chose to play it safe, opting to remain utterly faithful to the books instead of risking fan disapproval. Adaptations such as these practically beg the audience to prefer the book.

“I think the filmmaker’s only true responsibility is to give a unique viewpoint to his or her project,” graduate student Racquel Gates says. “Give me a reason to see the film and not just read the book.”

Gates, who has spent the past few years studying film, here highlights the ideal adaptation: one that offers the audience a radically new perspective on the material. A director can do this by rethinking and repositioning the book’s world (as Baz Luhrmann did by modernizing Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet), or by reinventing the material entirely without straying too far from the themes and texture of the original (as Francis Ford Coppola did with Heart of Darkness in his classic Apocalypse Now).

“A good adaptation manages to stay true to the themes of the source material, if not necessarily the exact details,” she says. “It’s similar to doing translation across languages. You want to translate the ideas and not just the words.”

Yet, by positioning the filmmaker as a translator, it becomes difficult to give the filmmakers credit for the success of an adaptation when they simply lifted the idea from elsewhere.

English professor Jules Law, who has taught a course that briefly tackled the art of book-to-film adaptations, wants to ensure that the filmmaker gets due credit. As he sees it, the person adapting the idea is as much an artist as the original author or creator, and he can often create something superior to the original.

“I wouldn’t even say my favorite books produced my favorite adaptations,” he says. “What’s most interesting about an adaptation doesn’t usually have anything to do with the book itself. What I like about an adaptation is precisely how the adaptation and the original differ.”

With all of this in mind, Jessica Saltiel, a Communication freshman who takes movies seriously, wanted to forecast the success of this summer’s adaptations.

“I really think most of these adaptations will just ride the success of their source material,” she says. “But there’s one exception, and that’s Pirates. It’s the only adaptation so good that they’re revamping the ride in order to fit the films. They’re adapting the adapted to fit the adaptation.”

Communication freshman Bentley Ford is a PLAY writer. He can be reached at [email protected]