Adaptation Troubles

After my rants of recent posts, this one is a little more light-hearted, you will be pleased to hear. Or maybe you won’t. Anyway.

I’ve recently finished re-reading all of the Harry Potter books. I do love that series. I have to admit I resisted reading them until they’d been out a while (I think it was when The Prisoner of Azkaban was out that I read the first one) as I have a bit of an aversion to hype, and I’m generally more likely to avoid something that’s massively raved about. I know, I’m awkward. But when I read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone I was hooked and have been ever since. The reasons WHY I like Harry Potter so much could fill another post (and probably will at some point) but I imagine they’re the same as most people.

THIS post is not about the books in themselves but more about adapting books for film. Or vice-versa. There’s four specific examples I’m going to talk about here – Harry Potter, A Little Princess, Disney, and The Polar Express. 

I quite happily watched all the Harry Potter films until The Order of the Phoenix. Granted, there were things I had seen differently (Sirius just wasn’t Gary Oldman in my head, I’m sorry, and the floo network didn’t quite work in my humble opinion), and The Goblet of Fire was rather different. But then The Goblet of Fire is an incredibly long and densely-packed story so obviously they had to change it to fit to the strict time limits of a film. After all, isn’t that what ‘adapting’ something for film is all about? That’s fine, I’ll allow that. But when it got to Order of the Phoenix, I have to admit I was very disappointed. It wasn’t just that they’d cut stuff. They didn’t rearrange what they’d left to make it work. It felt like it lacked cohesion and depth, which I emphatically argue the books do NOT. It just did not do the book justice, not by a long shot. And I’m not talking about effects and ‘magic’ here; that was there in bucketloads. The special effects were pretty good and it sorted out the problem I’d had with the floo network. My problem was it just didn’t have the emotional punch of the books, and that’s not because it was on film as there are countless films that have the same gut-pulling heart-socking effect as the Harry Potter books. Now, it’s ages since I’ve seen The Half-Blood Prince and I haven’t seen either of the Deathly Hallows yet so I’m hoping they’re back on form. A problem with little children and a lack of nearby grandparents is that you see films about a year after everybody has finished talking about them.

A particular bugbear of mine is A Little Princess. This has always been one of my favourite books and when I watched the film I wanted to cry. First of all, why change the setting, both place and time? What purpose did that solve? The book was perfect in Victorian London and the distinctions of class and money and the skydive of Sara’s social status made absolute sense. Don’t change things for the sake of it, PLEASE! And another thing – Sara’s father is dead. Not missing, dead. She is orphaned. It makes her strength stronger, her pathos more pathetic and her eventual rescue more wonderful. Children can cope with this. You do not need to keep her father alive to make it more suitable for children. Here, they’ve diluted the magic (magic does NOT equal special effects, I think I was quite firm about that with Harry Potter) and juggled things around for no reason. Pah.

The problems aren’t just one way though. Grolier produce storybooks of the Disney films which make me want to rip out my eyeballs and conk my head off a cement floor. I like Disney films. They may be diluted versions of gruesome fairytales and they may perpetuate stereotypes of girly-girly glittery princesses (again, a debate for another post…) but I like them. I like the songs, the magic, the stories, most of the characters. Beauty and the Beast is my favourite, The Lion King, The Jungle Book and The Sword in the Stone follow behind with Cinderella taking up the rear. I also like reading books to my son and I love fairytales, so you’d think this would be a win-win situation. Unfortunately the books are dull, turgid and far far too long. They’re no good as picture books or reading aloud books, they take so long to read that you’ve fallen asleep before you’re half-way through. They’re no good as early readers as they’re so boring to read that the same thing happens. Basically, it’s taken the bare bones of the story and stripped away the magic.

I know I’ve talked about magic in all three examples so far. But it’s important; whether we’re talking about actual magic, conjuring like in Harry Potter’s world or Sara Crewe’s or simply the key ingredient that makes you sigh happily at the end of a Disney film, magic is the secret part of the puzzle that grips you when you read or watch a story and makes you want more. And that, surely, is why we turn books into films or films into books. So are there any examples where I think they’ve (the mysterious They!) got it right?

The Polar Express. We watch this every year with Daniel – the first year we didn’t realised it had been a book first; last year we did but it was just a little too advanced for him but this year he’s devouring books by the dozen and when he saw Polar Express in the library last week he just had to have it and we’ve read it together nearly every day. The film was enchanting. The animation was really good but also the characters were charming, even the annoying one (ask me if I still think that when it’s been on fifty times by Boxing Day), and the story was a nice balance of action and reflection. It’s a full-length film, so obviously they’ve had to stretch it out a bit from a picture book but it didn’t FEEL stretched. The book, when I read it, was a joy to read. It used lovely lyrical language and the main character was engaging. Comparing the film to the book you could understand why the extra characters and scenes had been introduced but the essence of the book was still in the film. That’s the difference, in my opinion, between this and the other examples above. The people responsible for the adaptation had lost the essence of the story . I understand that changes have to be made but it’s no good losing the soul of the story along the way. I guess that’s something I need to watch out for in my writing – the soul of the story. The thing that if it were lost would ruin the magic.

Anyone got any thoughts? Or any examples of book/film adaptations that have worked either spectacularly or spectacularly badly?



Twilight vs Harry Potter, By Request

I’d like to see a post on Twighlight vs Harry Potter please. Apparently that is incredibly important in the world of 14 year olds.

If you’ve been following my blog at all over the last few months, you may remember a post here about needing a challenge in my writing, so I asked people to leave a comment with a particular topic for me to write about. I’ve had a bit of a gap since the last one, but I’m taking up the baton again. So, thanks to Rebecca for this one, and I’ve now done my homework. Such a hardship, having to read four new books. Sigh, the things we writers do for our art…

First off, this is absolutely NOT a discussion of the theological or moral arguments around either Twilight or Harry Potter. I’m happy to write about my thoughts on this but this isn’t the place. If you’re interested in hearing my views, say so in the comments and a post shall be forthcoming. This one, however, is purely around the merits of either series as stories, in my own humble opinion. Second, THERE ARE SPOILERS! If by some miracle you haven’t read either of these yet and you want to, don’t read this post. Bookmark it and read it later, once you’ve read the eleven books in question (I’m not counting Bree Tanner as that’s a spin-off).

Ok. Now that’s out of the way, I really enjoyed both series. I resisted reading Harry Potter for so long out of a kind of mis-placed snobbery – there was Potter-mania, and I was determined not to read them just because everyone else was. When I did, I absolutely loved them and devoured each book as it was released. When Twilight was released, I resisted for different reasons – I knew it was about vampires and I have a kind of love/hate relationship with vampire stories. Also I was broke and there were other books I wanted to buy first. But when I did read them for this assignment, I enjoyed them and found the storyline rather compelling. Overall though, I think the writing in Harry Potter is better than Twilight. Rowling gives me more of a connection to the characters, the language was lighter and more engaging without losing any of its power. If asked to recommend a series for a 14 year old, I would certainly choose the Harry Potter ones.

I found the Potter books more universal in appeal as well if I’m honest. They deal very well with a range of issues that adolescents face, including but not limited to relationships and insecurities, whereas the Twilight books concentrate more on a young girl’s intense love and her own deep-rooted insecurities without really expanding from that theme. They did, however, deal more thoroughly with these issues.

In terms of storyline, obviously both series have a similar arc in that the protagonists deal with varying degrees of danger both to themselves and their loved ones and as they grow the danger also increases. In both series, too, the threat is almost always targeted at the one specific teenager rather than a general threat to mankind.

The story for the Twilight saga was, as I said, compelling, and I wanted to find out what happened to Bella, Edward and Jacob. I certainly did not expect the harmonious resolution to their triangle. BUT, this brings me neatly on to the problems I have with the series.

I found it just a little too safe. This may seem bizarre in a series where a young girl is fairly constantly fighting for her life against vampires and werewolves. But that’s the problem. She always won – in fact no, she was always saved. This isn’t as heartless as it seems – it’s just that the happy endings were just a little too contrived, and fortuitous. There was a lot of arriving in the nick of time – in every situation to be honest. In a book of our current era, starring a pretty feisty and strong girl, it seems little backwards to have the damsel in distress always rescued at the last moment, and this was only saved by the use of her shield in Breaking Dawn. This, though, wasn’t the resolution, which happened when Alice arrived in the nick of time with the evidence needed to stave off the Volturi attack. And, also, every fight situation ended happily, in every book. No-one that we cared about lost. I have two problems with this. First of all, tension-wise, in a series I would have thought it would be better to have some losses to ratchett up the suspense a little. If you think everyone is always safe, why bother about the outcome of the next fight? For example, in Star Wars – Han Solo seems lost in The Empire Strikes Back, and you need to watch Return of the Jedi to find out if or how he’s saved. Yes, you kind of know he will be, but it looks tense. More pertinently, in Harry Potter, Dumbledore dies. How, HOW can Harry go on without Dumbledore? How does he have a chance without his mentor? How can Sirius die – the first adult to take responsibility for Harry and provide a pseudo father-figure?

Secondly, it doesn’t fit. In a series which discusses intense relationships, sex, violence in some pretty graphic detail (dismemberings and beheadings occur frequently as well as burning bits of vampire on fires), supernatural monsters and drinking human blood, you might expect more casualties. No-one dies other than a couple of villains, a few human extras and one very minor character at the end of Breaking Dawn. Now, I am all for the victory of good over evil. I think it is absolutely right and proper that the bad guys are punished and the good guys aren’t, especially in what is marketed as a teenage book. But in the interests of a good story, surely there should be a little more tension than that? As I said, in Harry Potter there are actual casualties, people we care about. The final battle kills off one of the Weasly twins, Lupin and Tonks, and more. It’s upsetting, because we’ve come to care about these people, but it’s more real and it makes the survival of the protagonists more meaningful because you can see they were actually in danger. In the Twilight world, the good guys are, apparently, never in real danger because it’s always going to be a happy ending. This is good because you do care about the characters – the good guys really are good, Alice in particular is wonderful, but it does take away from the tension a little. To be honest, by the third book Bella’s preface, just as she’s about to die for someone she loves (yes, in every book), was getting a bit tiresome rather than suspenseful. Now, if you decide that your teen is old enough to deal with the issues discussed above, and to deal with the idea of a vampire romance, then surely they are old enough to deal with characters dying? Not the main ones – this is still young fiction after all, but important ones nonetheless?

I know the later Harry Potter books have been criticised for being a little too dark, too many deaths, and I would certainly want to feel that my children were mature enough to cope before they read them, but after all, fiction is one place where kids can explore issues like death and bereavement safely. And in defence, Harry Potter has the death without the gore. Twilight has the gore without the death – the visual without the substance. Without addressing grief and bereavement and mortality, it glorifies violence and gore. This is, to me, a disappointment in what is otherwise a very enjoyable series.

Character-wise, I think both books are very good. Twilight has a heroine almost all teenage girls can identify with, heroes girls would give their right arm for and an engaging supporting cast. Of the main three, Bella is a little on the depressive side for my taste, but Edward and Jacob are lovely, and their triangle is very interesting as the power shifts around. The relationship between Edward and Bella is very intense and believable (leaving the immortality aside!), and probably key to the series’ popularity. The idea of an incredibly attractive man waiting for decades or centuries, searching through the most attractive women possible, for his soul mate and deciding that you are it, with all your frailties and ordinariness, is intensely powerful and has drawn women to vampire romances for years.

Harry Potter has a wonderful cast of characters, who probably make bigger journeys than the Twilight crew – perhaps excepting Jacob. The fact that they are all ordinary teens who grow and develop and deal with minor issues like spots and dates as well as fighting the forces of evil speaks to all readers, who have been through the same torments themselves – apart from, I’m assuming fighting the forces of evil! It gives us hope that even we can fight evil if needed to, even we can rise to the occasion.

In conclusion, because I know this is a LONG post, I have to say that both series are excellent, with good plots and strong characters. Whatever my personal opinion on the weaknesses as I perceived them, there is no doubt that they are appealing, and I can only hope that in years to come my own books are read enough to provoke a blog post from someone about them. My preference though, has to go to Harry Potter. If you’ve read this and haven’t read the actual books yet, and haven’t been put off by the spoilers, here’s a link to Stephenie Meyer on Amazon and here is J K Rowling.

This is, of course, all my own opinion which is only of value to me and hopefully of interest to you! I’d be delighted if you commented on any of the points I’ve made, in agreement or otherwise, and please let me know if anyone is interested in the theological or moral aspects as I mentioned earlier.