The Film Or The Book: Do Film Adaptations Need To Show More Respect?

While The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey has been a runaway success at the box office, its critical performance has been less than sterling.  It’s not a bad film at all, nowhere near; and yet, it certainly doesn’t extend itself into the lofty world of cinematic greatness.  The fourth film to depict adventures in Middle Earth is, well, caught in the middle.  The primary criticisms seem to be two fold, but similar in nature; people don’t like what they are comparing it to.  Certain sections of the audience are disappointed that, in their opinion, The Hobbit… doesn’t match up to the original Lord Of The Rings trilogy, while another section of the audience, seemingly the most disappointed of all, are upset that the film adaptation does not compare to the source material.

But therein lays one of the most enduring debates of the cinematic world: to what extent should a cinematic adaption of literature be faithful to the source material.  Without the book, there would be no material for a film, so it could be argued that the film makers need to treat the material that has inspired their adaption with the utmost respect.  On the contrary, however, stories, both literary and cinematic, have been based on or influenced by other works for centuries, so why should contemporary film makers suddenly feel bound by the overzealous demands of literature fans.

In short, they shouldn’t.

The primary joy of reading a book is that the reader can use their imagination to create the printed world on the pages before them.  Their creation is unique, usually formed by personal experiences and beliefs; it is theirs.  Naturally, any reader is incredibly fond of their own take on their favourite books.  If that book then happens to be adapted for the big screen, and the director’s interpretation is vastly different from their own, then of course that particular person will not warm to the film; but it doesn’t make it a bad film.

As natural as it is to compare a film adapted from a book to the source material, it should be avoided when judging the film on its own merits because, quite simply, the film is not the book.  It’s a film; it should be judged for being a film.  The films Trainspotting and American Psycho are two fine examples of how a film can be adapted from a book while still maintaining the original heart.  The book Trainspotting is a sprawling, multi-narrated mess of a novel that comes together beautifully in its unflinching account of a handful of Edinburgh drug addicts.  Yet, the film focuses primarily on the character of Renton and his misadventures, discarding swathes of material from the book to create a modern British masterpiece.  The book was used, yes, but also discarded, and no one can accuse director Danny Boyle of doing the text a disservice.

The same can be said of American Psycho.  Readers of the book are presented with the gruesome world of Patrick Bateman in incredibly dense detail; everything from the entirety of his outfits to how he deals with the victims of his murderous lust.  However, in the film adaptation there is no gore or graphic violence portrayed on screen; everything is presumed or hinted at, but never actually seen.  This change of pace hasn’t prevented American Psycho from becoming the very definition of a cult hit.

Taking things even further, the adaptation of Fight Club changed the ending as portrayed in the book, and Apocalypse Now is based on source material from the novella Heart Of Darkness, but nearly everything about the story was changed barring a river, a boat, a journey and a mysterious man named Kurtz.  But even with such drastic changes, inevitably going against the images and experiences of readers across the world, these films are fantastic achievements in their own right, regardless of whether or not you compare them to their original source material.  The reality is that the entire book can’t be translated to screen in a like-for-like fashion, there has to be a compromise somewhere.  Whether or not this compromise is handled in a subtle, respectful fashion is key to how the film is received not only by audiences, but fans of the original literature.

In this regard, though, The Hobbit… is slightly different as it has been blighted by the decision to create a trilogy from one book, a worrying perpetuation of a trend following the final two Harry Potter and Twilight films.  The decision was no doubt influenced by the phenomenal success of the original Lord Of The Rings trilogy, and presumably sanctioned by producers with dollar signs in their eyes.  Regardless of everything, though, The Hobbit… is already shaping up to be a highly enjoyable trilogy in its own right, and that is always something to be thankful for.

The book’s not bad, either.