Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The adaptation game

with 2 comments

Nicole Kidman in Eyes Wide Shut

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “Have you ever had a movie (or other media) experience enhanced by a lack of familiarity with the source material?

There was a time in my life when I took it as an article of faith that if I wanted to see a movie based on a novel, I had to read the book first. When I was working as a film critic in college, this policy made sense—I wanted my reviews to seem reasonably informed—so I devoured the likes of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Bridget Jones’s Diary mere days before seeing their adaptations in theaters. Later, I tackled the original material out of a vague sense of guilt or obligation, as I did with Watchmen, a comparison that did Zack Snyder’s movie version no favors. In almost every instance, though, it meant that I watched the resulting film through a kind of double exposure, constantly comparing the events on screen with their equivalents, or lack thereof, on the page. It’s how I imagine fans of Twilight or The Hunger Games regard the adaptations of their own favorite properties, the quality of which is often judged by how faithfully they follow their sources. And it wasn’t until recently that I gave up on the idea of trying to read every book before seeing the movie, in part because I have less free time, but also because my attitudes toward the issue have changed, hopefully for the better.

In fact, I’d like to propose a general rule: the priority of one version of a story over another is a fact, not a value judgment. This apples to remakes and homages as much as to more straightforward adaptations. After enough time has passed, the various approaches that different artists take to the same underlying narrative cease to feel like points on a timeline, and more like elements of a shared constellation of ideas. I saw The Silence of the Lambs long before reading Thomas Harris’s original novels, later added Manhunter to the mix, and have been having a hell of a good time going back to the books with the cast of Hannibal in mind. I don’t know how I’d feel about these characters and stories if I’d read each book as it came out and watched the adaptations later, but I’d like to think that I’d have ended up in more or less the same place, with each element sustaining and enriching every other. The same is true of a movie like L.A. Confidential, which is less a faithful translation of the book into film than a rearrangement of the pieces that James Ellroy provided, an “alternate life,” as the author himself puts it, for the men and women he had imagined. Would I feel the same way if I’d read the book first? Maybe—but only if enough time had passed to allow me to regard the movie in its own right.

Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster in The Silence of the Lambs

Ultimately, I’ve come to think that out of all the ways of experiencing works of art with a common origin, the best option is to absorb them all, but to leave sufficient space between each encounter. I watched Infernal Affairs long before The Departed, but the earlier movie had faded almost entirely when I saw the remake, and now I find that I can switch back and forth between the two films in full appreciation of each one’s strengths. (The Departed is less a remake than an expansion of the tightly focused original: its bones are startlingly similar, but fleshed out with an hour’s worth of digressions and elaborations, all of which I love.) Occasionally, of course, the memory of one version is so strong that its alternate incarnations can’t compete, and this doesn’t always work to the benefit of the original. A few years ago, I tried to read Mario Puzo’s The Godfather for the first time, and I found that I just couldn’t finish it: Coppola’s movie is remarkably faithful, while elevating the material in almost every way, to the point where the novel itself seems oddly superfluous. This isn’t the case with The Silence of the Lambs, which I’m reading again now for maybe the tenth time with undiminished delight, but it’s a reminder of how unpredictable the relationship between the source and its adaptation can be.

And in retrospect, I’m grateful that I experienced certain works of art without any knowledge of the originals. I’ve enjoyed movies as different as The Name of the Rose and Lolita largely because I didn’t have a point of reference: the former because I didn’t know how much I was missing, the latter because I realized only later how much it owed to the book. And if you have the patience, it can be rewarding to delay the moment of comparison for as long as possible. I’ve loved Eyes Wide Shut ever since its initial release, fifteen years ago, when I saw it twice in a single day. A few months ago, I finally got around to reading Arthur Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle, and I was struck by the extent to which Kubrick’s movie is nearly a point-for-point adaptation. (The only real interpolation is the character of Ziegler, played by Sydney Pollack, who looms in the memory like a significant figure, even though he only appears in a couple of scenes.) Kubrick was famously secretive about his movie’s plot, and having read the novel, I can see why: faithful or not, he wanted it to be seen free of expectations—although I have a hunch that the film might have been received a little more warmly if viewers had been given a chance to acclimate themselves to its origins. But that doesn’t make him wrong. Stories have to rise or fall on their own terms, and when it comes to evaluating how well a movie works, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

2 Responses

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  1. to have prior knowledge takes the sweetness away. Better watch it newly each time

    chariotsaron

    February 7, 2015 at 6:30 am

  2. Or, if you happen to have prior knowledge, to suspend it for as long as necessary—which can be the hardest thing of all.

    nevalalee

    February 9, 2015 at 9:41 pm


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