Lost In Translation?

Right now I’m working on getting my hands on a loaner copy of The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest by Stieg Larsson and I got to thinking about the film adaptation of his trilogy, which prompted this week’s topic for Top Ten Tuesday (a meme hosted by The Broke And The Bookish). Please to enjoy…

The Top Ten Worst Book-To-Movie Adaptations

Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows1. Harry Potter & Deathly Hallows (dir. David Yates, scheduled for release Thanksgiving 2010) — Yes, I know, they plan to split the final book of the series into two films, but I’m launching a preemptive strike. Normally I tend to shun books that become popular phenomena, but luckily I got my hands on Harry Potter & The Sorcerer’s Stone before it became a big deal. Now J.K. Rowling isn’t my favorite author for her way with words, but you have to admire the way the woman constructs a fictional world. Chris Columbus’ direction of first two films was a solid adaptation, even going so far as to lift dialogue directly from the books. I liked the casting choices for the three leads. The important parts weren’t over-simplified. The later, “edgier” and “atmospheric” films exaggerate the Harry Potter universe to a point that lately borders on the absurd, caricatures instead of characters. And the merchandising? Barf. My point is that sub-plots and lesser characters and the tiniest mentioned-in-passing details weave together over the course of the book series to form a richness that the films couldn’t possibly do justice to. In order to make Harry Potter & The Sorcerer’s Stone into a two and a half hour movie (notably about an hour over the industry standard for so-called kid’s movies),  it’s necessary to cut the minutiae. I would love for the BBC to get the rights to turn each book into a full season, 22 episodes at an hour each, of television. That’s the only real way, I think, for the level of entanglement present in the Harry Potter universe to be faithfully adapted for the screen. Call me, Brits!

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo2. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (dir. Niels Arden, 2009) — First off, Noomi Rapace does a brilliant beyond brilliant job of pulling Lisbeth Salander off the page. I sincerely hope she is nominated for an Oscar stateside. It’s the adaptation that ruins Stieg Larsson’s book here. SEMI-KIND-OF-I’M-TRYING-NOT-TO-BUT-I-GOTTA SPOILER ALERT! The rapist /slash/ serial killer in the book, once he is found out and Lisbeth is chasing him down on the highway, chooses to commit suicide by car crash instead of facing the police. It’s entirely his own choice. In the movie, they show Lisbeth approaching the scumbag after the car has flipped and the gas tank is leaking and he’s about to become toastier than a marshmallow and she just stares at him, eyes full of wonder, like he’s an insect under glass. Then she walks away. She actively chooses not to save his life so he can face the criminal justice system. And while I agree with this move on a moral level, it takes Lisbeth’s character to a different place for me. Yes, Lisbeth dishes out karmic justice in very often violent ways. But we see her character shifting over the course of the novel, especially in her interactions with Mikael Blomkvist, to the point where I feel like Lisbeth is ready to trust the system again. What’s more, in this movie the scumbag’s deeds come off as becoming public knowledge, when the deal struck in the novel plays a pivotal role in the sequel. The movie as a pure vehicle of entertainment is highly enjoyable, but I’m eager to see how these changes manifest in the next film, The Girl Who Played With Fire (dir. Daniel Alfredson, 2009), which I have not yet seen.

The Wizard Of Oz3. The Wizard Of Oz (dirs. Victor Fleming, George Cukor, King Vidor, et al, 1939) — If you’ve read the L. Frank Baum book series first, seeing the film version is a major WHAT THE FUCK moment. Okay, so Judy Garland singing “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” is a truly magical moment. And the use of color here is largely seen as the tipping point in changing the Hollywood standard from black and white to color film. But you know what? All the subtlety that made (and makes) the books appealing to adults was lost in the glossy musical claptrap. Violence in the classical fairy tale sense is toned down and phased out in favor of a more cerebral sort. The original is satire! The Munchkins are African-American slaves; Dorothy’s house crash-landing on the Wicked Witch Of The East frees them from human bondage. The Winged Monkeys are a substitute for the plains Indians who must be conquered in their trek across the desert in order to get to the Wicked Witch Of The West. The Tin Woodsman is a rural worker struggling to adapt to the new mechanized city-centric assembly line production. Dorothy’s original shoes are silver, and as she walks all over the Yellow Brick Road (get it? gold!), she is endorsing the silver standard of backing U.S. currency, a hot-button political issue of the day. She leads her band of rural heroes into the green-goggled political machine of Oz; she is the physical embodiment of the populist movement. It goes on and on. Reading the book as an adult was a completely different experience than reading it as a child. I love both, but the book-to-movie adaptation doesn’t do justice to the underlying adult satire.

The Scarlet Letter4. The Scarlet Letter (dir. Roland Joffé, 1995) — Oh, Demi Moore. *sigh* She’s an incredibly sensual actress and Hester Prynne is an incredibly juicy part. Unfortunately, the movie version becomes all about the sin of adultery itself — with all the requisite nudity because, let’s face it, Demi Moore is totally hot — whereas the Nathaniel Hawthorne’s book was a meditation on the consequences of sin. (If you haven’t been forced to read the book in your high school English class, here’s the short version: After her husband is reported dead, Hester has an affair with Reverend Dimmesdale, and 9 months later a child is born. As she is unmarried and her husband is dead, Hester is forced to wear a red “A” on her clothes and is regarded as a social outcast. Turns out the hubs is not dead, and when he discovers Hester’s child, he disguises himself to seek revenge on the couple with accusations of witchcraft, because it’s Massachusetts in the 1660’s and that’s what people do.) Gary Oldman does not often disappoint, but his Reverend Dimmesdale was way too over-the-top theatrical. Robert Duvall takes the role of Hester’s husband to a place so dark and creepy that he becomes utterly unsympathetic. Somehow the end result of the film was something more fit for a Lifetime Movie Of The Week. That the poster looks like the cover of some erotic collection really doesn’t help matters. Wonderful cast collectively failing, plus a badly changed ending (don’t even get me started), equals an opportunity wasted.

Stuart Little5. Stuart Little (dir. Rob Minkoff, 1999) — If you can believe it, M. Night Shyamalan wrote the screenplay that botched E.B. White’s childhood classic. While the general plot line is obvious (ex. adoption outside the species, brothers fight, mouse/human identity and family integration, family cat tries to kill mouse, reconciliation, seeking out original parents, etc.) — the screenplay loses the soul of the book. Stuart’s character gets the old Disney whitewashing on an emotional and spiritual level. Michael J. Fox lacks the range within sorrow as a purely voice actor to truly capture Stuart’s spirit. The CGI mouse contrasted with the live action family is just visual ADD that distracts from the story. Geena Davis, Hugh Laurie, and Jonathan Lipnicki as the Little family are so sugary in these roles they make my teeth hurt. Just…no. The answer is no. It should never have been made into a movie in the first place.

Diontopia Mini-Series6. Dinotopia (miniseries 2002 – 2003) —This is another one that should never have been made into a movie. Or in this case, a miniseries. (Confession: I’m a huge James Gurney fangirl. I couldn’t make it to a recent event for his third book so I finagled a way to get my book signed anyway. He drew me a wee brontosaurus. *swoon*) Dinotopia: A Land Apart From Time was one of my favorite books as a child when I first started reading. Gurney pulls you into the island where shipwrecked humans and sentient dinosaurs live together in symbiosis. His writing is lyrical yet spare. He lets his own gorgeous original watercolors fill in the gaps. The level of detail for a children’s book is amazing, from his elaborate diagrams of a dinosaur hatchery to the dinosaur footprint translated into English for us. What made the book so magical and real in my mind is destroyed by watching the on-screen realization. It was campy, and not in a good way. I would only recommend watching it if you like the eyecandy: Erik Von Detten and Wentworth Miller.

The Da Vinci Code7. The Da Vinci Code (dir. Ron Howard, 2006) — So sue me, I like Dan Brown. I never would have read his books without being a hostage to Hurricane Katrina, so I have a bit of a sentimental attachment to this as well as the superior Angels & Demons. He puts thought into puzzles in a way that fascinates me. That said, if you take this movie in your mind and completely separate it from the book, it still…well…sucks. Tom Hanks’ weird long hair is distracting. He blusters through lines rather than acting them. The lovely, amazing, talented, gorgeous, so right for the role Audrey Tautou is wasted by crappy writing that diminishes the character of Sophie, a little smartypants in her own right, into a damsel in distress. The movie zaps all the intellectual energy from the book.

The Lovely Bones8. The Lovely Bones (dir. Peter Jackson, 2009) — Alice Sebold’s novel has quite a fluid version of the afterlife, but the movie version is like a never-ending acid trip. The movie depicts the little girl’s death at the hands of a pedophile like a good thing. It’s hard to get over. I wasn’t a huge fan of the book, but a genuine opportunity was wasted here to let a talented cast play with the, at times controversial, material.

Bicentennial Man9. Bicentennial Man (dir. Chris Columbus, 1999) — Robin Williams plays Andrew, the android robot purchased to be household help, who gradually gains a decidedly human awareness of his surroundings; deals with issues of one’s place within his family (and the world at large), sexuality, and the finite nature of time; then must fight against his creators to avoid being destroyed. The story takes place over two centuries, as the title suggests, in parallel with the Martin family. The movie is based on the short story by Isaac Asimov, which means unfortunately that Chris Columbus is playing in the big leagues now, kid. This adaptation takes all the loveliness of Asimov’s original and stretches it almost to the point of campy absurdity, aided by the special effects. If you need an emotionally satisfying (aka crying) movie, I recommend this one. I just wouldn’t recommend it based on its faithfulness to the original material.

The Shining10. The Shining (dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1980) — No question, this is a great film and deserves the reverence of the term “film” over simply “movie.” I’ve debated back and forth about putting this on the best list or the worst list, and what it comes down to is Jack Nicholson’s iconic performance. In terms of the spirit of the role, he fully inhabits Jack Torrance. But in terms of the subtlety of the role, Nicholson falls short of the mark. His descent into madness is just not as gradual and realistic as depicted in Stephen King’s original novel, and King himself expressed displeasure over this very same issue. He much preferred the miniseries interpretation over the film version…as do many King fans.

So… What do you think, dear reader?

FYI: Next week, I’m going to post the Top Ten Best Book-To-Movie Adaptations. I was going to have dueling lists this week, but this post got so tediously long that I decided to postpone. So…yay, guaranteed material for next week? Woo.

(Techie Q: I can’t get the WordPress text widgets to accept HTML code. I’m trying to put up my IndieBound and Amazon affiliate badges and it keeps deleting all the fun little symbols like > and < and / etc. Anyone else have this problem? I have no idea how I got my other little badges to work but I’m going with gypsy magic.)

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8 Responses to Lost In Translation?

  1. Hunter Felt says:

    Except “The Shining” miniseries is godawful.

    “The Shining” to me is a great example of a filmmaker taking the idea of a book and creating something new out of it that’s better than the source. Which Kubrick did with “Dr. Strangelove” and “Full Metal Jacket” and (sorry Mr. Burgess) “A Clockwork Orange”.

    Okay, he failed with “Lolita”, but that

    • Mollie Katie says:

      “The Shining” to me is a great example of a filmmaker taking the idea of a book and creating something new out of it that’s better than the source. —> YES! ABSOLUTELY.

      I’m relying on outside opinion for “The Shining” making the worst list. I haven’t seen the mini-series but the two friends who have said it was truer to the book than the big-screen version. Plus Stephen King himself saying so.

      What were you saying about “Lolita”? You got cut off there.

  2. Jamie says:

    Oooh! You are ahead of us. We have top ten book to movie adaptations on our huge list of future TTT but didn’t think of WORST books to movie! We might have to snag that and give you credit for it! Awesome list though. The only one I’ve seen in The Lovely Bones..I actually kind of liked it. However, I hadn’t read the book since it first came out so I didn’t remember much of it.

    • Mollie Katie says:

      “The Lovely Bones” is just a gorgeous film to watch, I have to say that. I think most of my worst list comes from enjoyable books not matching enjoyable movie adaptations. They’re unique but equally good, if that makes any sense.

      If you have a scheduled date in mind for the TTT of the best, let me know! I would love to match up with you. Your lists often have me stumped to get more than 2 or 3 answers, so it’d be nice to have a full 10 prepared.

  3. Ruth says:

    Yes to all of these. I haven’t even seen a couple because I could tell from the trailers that they were Hollywood-ized & wouldn’t even be worth it. My Dad read The Wizard of Oz to us as kids & while we didn’t get all the nuances, we got some of the satire and we totally got the emerald goggles thing. The film was a huge disappointment.

    Same with DaVinci code but on a shallower level. The book was fun as a formulaic thriller. Dan Brown “got” what makes thrillers grabbing & did a good job. Nothing more profound, but very fun, I read it all in one day. The movie took itself far too seriously and ruined the one thing it had going for it.

    • Mollie Katie says:

      Tip of the hat to your Dad. You’re the first person I’ve encountered who read the book before seeing the movie. Totally different but I love them both. I guess I have a weakness for musicals…? This morning I watched the “Rocky Horror” episode of “Glee” (I don’t normally watch the show) and I can’t get the music out of my head.

      And yes, the movie was so serious! And thrillers, you just need to have fun with them. They’re not Literature with a capitol L and when authors realize that, I think their books are infinitely more enjoyable.

  4. leahblizz says:

    MOLLIE! I totes forgot you were writing this! Thoughts:

    I was gonna mention The Lovely Bones yesterday, but…I kinda liked it. Mostly the guy who played the bad guy (can’t remember his name right now). But, like you say, it was a failure in actually adapting the book well. Heaven was definitely just an acid trip, and the only characters that were sympathetic to me were Susie and her dad. You could tell Peter Jackson was much more interested in the heaven special effects than the story.

    Also, I hadn’t thought about it, but an above commenter mentioned A Clockwork Orange, and that movie is freakin’ awesome and 203902393 times better than the book, which is a snoozefest.

    Anyway, good blog!

    • Mollie Katie says:

      On the Heaven thing…Exactly! I love watching beautiful movies, even if they suck. Like “Dick Tracy” or any of the old Batman movies from the 80s and 90s. But at the same time, you can make a movie that’s visually stunning *and* well-written/well-acted at the same time. I was watching “Far From Heaven” this week and it definitely achieves beauty on all levels. I’m resisting the urge to go out and buy it! You don’t even know. Maybe it’s my former life as an architecture student, but still. Gorgeous. You must see it.

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