Can someone please explain to me the logic behind film adaptations of books? Because I really don’t get it.
We came back from a surprisingly whinge-free trip to the beach at Burnham on Sea, shovelled two tired boys into their respective beds and, while HWSNBN went for a late cycle ride, I flicked through the fairly limited Sunday evening viewing.
Film 4 was showing something called The Seeker After a swift perusal of the blurb I jumped up and down with excitement and switched channels. It appeared that The Seeker was in fact the film adaptation of one of my all-time favourite children’s books, The Dark is Rising, by Susan Cooper.
After watching for about five seconds I was angry. Very angry. The kind of angry that involves bouncing up and down on the sofa and shouting at the screen. The film bore absolutely no resemblance to the book.
Well, perhaps a teeny-tiny resemblance. The kind of resemblance you get between sixth cousins three times removed. Actually, perhaps make that half-sixth cousins. And possibly four times removed. Certainly not any close relation anyway.
If I had heard that someone was making this book into a film I would have expected something along the lines of the TV adaptation of The Box of Delights. Something understated and quintessentially British.
But clearly something happened between the idea and the finished project. Something which always seems to happen with books I love. I think it must be something along the lines of what happened in those Orange Wednesday adverts, where the panel from the film company made all sorts of daft suggestions for changes to the ideas pitched by famous actors.
Presumably the whole process begins when someone reads a book and thinks “What a great story! I think I will make it into a film.” And it ends when that film is released. However, there seem to be a number of intermediate steps. In the case of The Dark is Rising, these steps seem to be something like this:
1 What a great book! I think I’ll make it into a film.
2 Right. So the main character of this book is young Master English of Englishtown in England, son of Mr and Mrs Johnny English, protégée of a legendary English wizard who served the most famous mythical English king in English history.
We’d better cast an American actor and tell him to make no attempt to sound English. If we surround him by an English supporting cast, all doing very bad impressions of assorted regional accents, no-one will notice he isn’t, in fact, English.
3 One of the points of the story is that the forces of darkness can’t actually do any harm to mortals – they can only make men do harm to themselves by playing on their hopes and fears. It’s all psychological, you know.
This is clearly pants. Let’s make the leader of the forces of darkness really, really handy with a sword. And let’s give the main good guy one of those spiky mace things. And then let’s make them fight. A lot. And maybe blow some shit up.
4 So the main character has to collect six hidden signs. He achieves this and saves the day. But you know what would be even better? How about the main character only collects five signs and then reveals that he himself is the sixth sign. After all, it worked a treat in The Fifth Element.
5 The forces of good win the day by enlisting the help of some ancient mythical characters.
Or perhaps the main character could repel some evil smoke stuff with the light rays emanating from his hands. That would be so much better.
6 This book is part of a series. One of the later books won an award. But let’s kill off the main bad guy at the end of this film, thus scuppering any possibility of making a sequel. Unless we change the story entirely. Oh hang on a minute….
7 The characters all have names. But they are rubbish names. Let’s change them. The lead character’s brother is called James. But let’s call him Tommy. Just because we can. And let’s give him the role played by his sister, Mary, in the book. Because when you insert an entirely non-existent character into a story you don’t want them to be bored after all – you need to give them stuff to do. Maybe they can even feature in an emotional reunion scene at the end. But better make sure this is all a bit soft-focus and vague. Just in case the main character starts saying ‘Hang on a second, who the bloody hell are you and what have you done with James and Mary?’
8 There you go. We’ve made things much better. Books are rubbish.
I think these steps, or something very like them, are followed for the majority of film adaptations. Take Prince Caspian from The Chronicles of Narnia. It was clearly a bit dull, so two of the main characters had a bit of a snog. And then there was The Time-Traveller’s Wife where the most poignant bit of the book, the fact that Henry’s widow has to wait until she is an old lady to see him again, was clearly too poignant. So they let her see him again about five minutes after he died. And what about the biggest re-write in recent film history? In My Sister’s Keeper, the main character, the healthy sister, dies and her sick sister survives. In the film adaptation, the sick sister who is expected to die, does in fact die. Thus destroying the entire plot twist in one fell swoop.
Why do they do it? Is there some kind of long-running Hollywood behind-the-scenes competition as to who can make the adaptation that bears the least resemblance to the original story? Or is it just a massive, irresistible urge to meddle?Oh well, there are other channels to choose from. Look - GI Joe and the Rise of Cobra. Lucky me!