The Fault (and Success) in Our Hollywood Adaptations

TFIOS movie poster image from International Business Times

This isn’t going to be a normal movie review. Normally, I would simply give you a reaction to whatever movie I have just seen, with some background info on the film and a detailed breakdown of what parts of the movie I think worked and what parts didn’t. Usually, I try to make sure that the movies I review are relevant and timely – either they have just been released in theaters or have just been released on DVD and Netflix. This time, though, I watched The Fault In Our Stars, a movie based on the bestselling novel by John Green. I’m guessing that by the time this goes up, this movie will already have been pulled from theaters (it was pulled in my hometown yesterday) but won’t be available on Netflix or DVD yet.

Instead, I have decided to take this as an opportunity to give my thoughts on how Hollywood makes movies based on existing media – books, comic books, video games, earlier movies – and talk about what separates a good adaptation from a bad one. Considering the massive increase in adaptations Hollywood has been pumping out these past few years, it is getting ever more important to make good adaptations and avoid making bad ones.

If you are curious, though, The Fault in Our Stars was definitely a good movie. I didn’t care for the soundtrack, but it had great acting and a compelling story with believable characters, and it addresses some of the ugly, unpleasant sides of cancer and dying without being too dark, humorless, or preachy. I give it a 9 out of 10, and strongly recommend it. I also strongly recommend that you have some tissues handy.

With that out of the way, let’s look at what it takes to make a good Hollywood adaptation, with The Fault In Our Stars as an illustration.

It helps to have people who care about the original on the team

Fanboys image from The Examiner

When Francis Ford Coppola was asked to direct Paramount’s adaptation of the bestseller The Godfather, Coppola initially turned it down because he hadn’t finished the book yet! Now that is dedication. After Coppola finished reading the original, he changed his mind. Then, as they were preparing to go into production, the studio told him to make a number of changes to the story, such as setting it in modern-day Kansas City. Coppola fought back, insisting on staying true to the book. In the end, of course, Coppola’s The Godfather was a huge success and today it is remembered as one of the best movies ever made.

Almost everybody loves Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Jackson had been a fan of Lord of the Rings for years, and had started thinking about turning it into a film trilogy as early as 1995. It took him years of wrangling with different studios before he was able to start making this vision a reality. Many of the people he brought on board to work on the trilogy were also fans of J.R.R. Tolkein’s books. This passion shows in the final films, all of which are clearly a sincere attempt to recreate Tolkein’s fantasy world on film.

Then, of course, there are the Marvel movies that I absolutely love. These movies are actually made by Marvel Entertainment, the company that produced the original comics they are based off of. Marvel created its own film wing that is able to make movies based on many of their most famous characters and comics (but not all of them, thanks to some old and complicated contracts).

Contrast all of this with the Transformers movies, all of which have become something of a punching bag by film critics who like to use them to highlight “everything wrong with Hollywood today”. I don’t like these movies, and I am far from alone.

Well, it turns out the director of these films, Michael Bay, has publicly stated that didn’t know anything about Transformers until he was hired to make the movies. In an interview for CraveOnline in 2007, he said, “I think I was two years older when the toys came out, so I just discovered girls then instead of Optimus Prime.” He then went on to explain that when he was hired, he had to go to a “Transformers school” where he was told about all the lore and characters of the series.

When an artist is passionate about his or her art, it shows. When the artist is just going through the motions and doesn’t really care, it shows. For movies, the last thing you want is to put people in charge who don’t care about the film in question and just want another paycheck. You get sloppy directing, actors who look tired and are clearly just going through the motions, and lazy writing that doesn’t make sense. In other words, you get Olympus Has Fallen.

Luckily, The Fault In Our Stars was made by a team that cared so deeply about getting the movie “right”, they had the novel’s author, John Green, on the set as a quasi-consultant watching everything. While he didn’t actually have any creative control over the movie, his presence and moral support almost certainly kept everyone on their toes. This is probably the first time I’d heard of such a thing – the makers of a movie adaptation of a novel asking the author to sit in on their filming. I don’t necessarily think filmmakers need to go quite that far, but the fact is that I could tell when watching the finished movie that these were people that “got it”, they understood what made the novel great and were trying (and mostly succeeding) to put that on the big screen.

That brings me to my next point…

Find the source material’s “emotional core” and get that right… not the details

Incoming!

Incoming!

Yes, I know. Every single adaptation of a movie, book, comic book, TV show, video game, and earlier movie will attract criticism from fans of the original that it got this or that detail wrong. People just love picking apart the details, angry that the filmmakers didn’t slavishly put every last thing in the movie exactly the way it was in the original, making this or that change that they don’t approve of.

Well, guess what? Somebody tried that. In 1998, Gus Van Sant did an exact, shot-for-shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s horror classic Psycho. It barely broke even at the box office, and was panned by critics.

Meanwhile, the much-beloved Lord of the Rings movies took plenty of creative liberties with the source material, removing huge chunks of the books, rearranging events to make the film flow better, and adding new elements that were not in the original. Somebody even took the time to identify all of the differences between the movies and the books, if you are interested.

Likewise, one of my favorite adaptations of all time, the 1959 epic Ben-Hur, played fast and loose with the source material and made some pretty major changes. I read the book and I watched the movie, and I have to say that I am perfectly fine with the changes the filmmakers made.

What’s important is not getting the details right. What’s important is getting the emotional core right. There is something in the original material that appeals to its fans and draws them in. Your job in making an adaptation is to find what that “something” is and capture that in your film.

Fans loved the Lord of the Rings because it captured the fantastical world of Middle-Earth and sparked the viewers’ imaginations. This is what Tolkein’s novels had done for generations, and the movies were able to do the same for modern audiences. Audiences hated the RoboCop remake because took a film that was fun and satirical and made it dark and depressing.

The Fault In Our Stars is a great illustration, because for most of the movie it does this well, but near the end it starts to slip up in my estimation.

The original novel is about Hazel Grace, a 17-year-old cancer patient who is forced by her parents to go to a cancer support group because she is depressed. At first, she finds the whole thing to be worthless, but one day she meets Augustus Waters, a cool kid who takes a liking to her. Eventually, they fall in love and enjoy a whirlwind romance, only to have tragedy strike them as they are at the peak of their euphoria. Yes, it is a sappy love story, but it is also so much more. The book deals with the harsh, brutal reality of being terminally ill and having to spend half one’s life in hospitals. It also harshly criticizes our society for being unable to face this harsh reality, as we try to avert our eyes and paper over it with lies we tell ourselves.

Many of the early scenes in the novel were cut for time, but it made up for them by inserting new, much shorter scenes that captured the feel, tone, and message of the novel. For example, in one early scene that the movie came up with, Hazel and her mother are talking to her doctor. The doctor refers to Hazel’s struggles with cancer as her “journey”. Hazel gets offended by such a cutesy metaphor being used to describe such a horrible existence. The scene is very quick, but very effective.

Much of the first third of the film is like that, and it isn’t until the relationship between Hazel and Augustus really gets going that the film starts being more faithful to the source material, capturing more scenes in better detail. I’m fine with that, because the movie still delivers on that “emotional core” that made the book so powerful to me.

Then, the film gets to the ending. This is where I disagree with the direction the movie took. It isn’t a bad ending by any means, but it rearranges the order in which the key moments take place. The novel seemed to have a very methodical arrangement to the events in the ending, leaving me pondering the nature of how we understand ourselves and our place in the world. By showing those sames scenes but putting them out-of-order, I felt it took away from that sensation and weakened the story’s final message.

What this demonstrates is that it is okay to make changes, as long as those changes don’t detract from the source material’s emotional core. It’s when changes undermine that emotional core that they become a problem.

More than anything else, make a good movie

Filmmaking image from UC Berkeley

At the end of the day, how a movie will be remembered will be based on its overall quality, not on any one detail. The Fault In Our Stars is a good movie overall; the fact it is a good adaptation is just icing on the cake.

Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and The Dark Knight are among the least faithful movies to their source material that I have ever seen. Yet we forgive them because they are great movies in their own right, Batman or no Batman. You could have replaced all the characters from the comics with new characters that Nolan and his scriptwriters made up, and they would still work as great movies.

Meanwhile, movies like Watchmen polarize audiences into “love-it-or-hate-it” camps. Watchmen tried its darnedest to stay as close to the source material as they could given the resources they had, but in doing so they trapped themselves because the original Watchmen comics were incredibly dark and depressing. If you aren’t into dark and depressing movies, Watchmen won’t appeal to you. It’s that simple.

It is good for the filmmakers to be passionate about the movie they are making. It is good for the filmmakers to identify the emotional core of their source material and use that as a guide when they inevitably have to make changes as they write their script. At the end of the day, though, none of this will matter if the movie isn’t any good. Talented directors, actors, writers, film crews, and post-production editors working together with a common vision will always be the recipe for a good movie, no matter what kind of movie it is. We could argue over whether there are too many or too few of any one genre of movie, or whether or not we are currently on adaptation overload. What matters in the end is how good a movie is, not what kind of movie it is.

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