Last time I discussed the basic problem of adaptations and the idea that “the book is always better than the movie”. I came to the conclusion that each must be evaluated by different criteria and making blanket statements about the relative quality of one over the other (assuming, of course, that they were both created with some degree of mastery over their respective mediums) is a futile effort. But there is still the question of how much importance you should put on fidelity to the source material once you have decided to make an adaptation. Once the genius of a source work is decided upon should you change as little as possible to avoid destroying the soul of the work? Or is it ok to plunder the source work, freely using, changing and leaving out whatever parts you want?
Films have undoubtedly taken a rape pillage and plunder approach to adaptations on occasion. I’m not really talking about the people who whine that the Balrog had wings in the Lord of the Rings movies, or that they didn’t include all 40 flashback Pensieve scenes in the new Harry Potter movie. It is nearly impossible to create an adaptation that is entirely without deviation from the source material. But some films are definitely a bit more liberal with their changes. Take Hitchcock adding an entirely new main character (the love interest) and major plot point (the handcuffs) to name just a few deviations from the book in The 39 Steps. Or the even more audacious example of Orson Welles creating his adaptation A Touch of Evil without even reading the source novel it was based on. The question of whether these masterpieces fail as “adaptations” seems beside the point when their obvious greatness is considered.
Which is not to say that movies that slavishly follow the book are to be dubbed pale imitations for their lack of invention. Movies like the previously fawned over Maltese Falcon along with other masterworks like Diary of a Country Priest follow the books very closely (in the case of Diary of a Country Priest, there is apparently an astonishing amount of fidelity to the original story by Bernanos) and are not lesser films by any means.
Of course now we are back to the point of the last post on this subject: when you evaluate a movie on its own terms you will find that both adaptations and non adaptations (and in this case, faithful and non-faithful adaptations) can be equally great. You are first and foremost watching a movie after all, a movie that should be evaluated on its own terms and not held in thrall to the tyranny of fidelity to the source material.
Yet, while I do not think that film adaptations need to follow the book to be successful “films”, it is not quite so simple. If you want to evaluate them as an “adaptation” (whether simply as a thought experiment or as a fan of the original), there will be more involved than just saying it doesn’t matter how faithful it stays to the original.
Take the Lord of the Rings movies. It’s no secret (by the amount of fanfiction I write here) that I’m a huge fan of The Lord of the Rings. And honestly, while they added an action scene or two, beefed up Arwen, took out Bombadill, etc, overall, Jackson’s film versions are remarkably true to the books. But, super fan that I am, they don’t *really* grab me as films and thus are not entirely successful for me (not to say they are bad movies, just not great movies). I think I would have actually preferred to see what John Boorman was going to do with the story in his aborted attempt to make a Lord of the Rings movie. I’m sure many things would have been changed, but if Excalibur (the film he made instead) is any indication, he had a sure grasp on many of the central themes and would have made an adaptation that captured the spirit of the books while hopefully being fine cinema at the same time.
I think the point here is still similar to the last post. Nothing can recreate the same experience you had with the original work, so perhaps the filmmaker should be commended for putting their own touches on the work. An adaptation in this sense could be viewed more as a “variation on a theme”, familiar elements reinterpreted and meant to be evaluated on their own.
Of course, aspiring to fidelity has its own merits. In the essay mentioned in the last post (In Defense of Mixed Cinema), Bazin claims that the increase in adapted work after the late 1930’s was not a sign of film needing literature, but rather that film had grown strong enough as an art form to actually have the tools capable to create a faithful adaptation that could be just as good as the original. It is one thing to make a film using similar ideas from another work, but quite another to try to make something “just like” another work (a lofty goal, and not necessarily one that has been achieved in the relatively brief history of film).
While I think there is something to this idea that creating something “just like the book” and making a fine film at the same time is a fine challenge, too often people assume that this is the most important (or indeed, only) reason to make an adaptation. Just because Bresson supposedly pulled off this kind of a “completely faithful adaptation” with Diary of a Country Priest (according to Bazin…I haven’t read the book myself), doesn’t mean that that is the only reason to make an adaptation, or indeed that all adaptations should aspire to that level of fidelity.
All stories have borrowed elements, from Shakespeare to Howard Hawks, and if they borrow more elements than usual from a story, go ahead and call it an adaptation but don’t forget you are watching a new work of cinema. John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon is quite faithful to book, but it’s no Dashielle Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. Of course Dashielle Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon is no John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon either!