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March 5, 2009

How important is "accuracy" in a movie?

No time to post anything terribly in-depth right now, but a question has been nagging at me, so I thought I'd throw it out there.

There has been a lot of talk lately -- a lot -- about Zack Snyder's adaptation of the graphic novel Watchmen and the degree to which his movie is an "accurate" or "faithful" rendition of Alan Moore's writing and Dave Gibbons' artwork. Indeed, there has been so much emphasis on the movie's "accuracy" that it struck me as redundant when Warner Brothers released a "motion comic" on DVD that takes the panels of the graphic novel and makes them move. Isn't that more or less what Snyder is doing, except he uses actors etc.?

I have not yet seen the film for myself, but I have read a few reviews, and a line at Roger Ebert's blog (he likes the movie, by the way) puts a fun, witty spin on my concerns: "Faithfulness in adaptation is not necessarily a virtue; this is a movie and not a marriage."

If the discussion has reminded me of anything, it is of the way Christians tend to approach movies based on biblical stories. To quote a line from one of my reviews of The Passion of the Christ: "It is quite telling that the only way many Christians know how to defend a work of art is to assert that it is an 'accurate' adaptation of scripture, as if to minimize its artistry or creativity. It is even more telling that many Christians make this assertion even when the work of art in question contains several elements that are quite definitely not accurate."

I am also reminded of one of the debates swirling around the Harry Potter franchise. Like many other people, I thought the first two films suffered because they tried too hard to follow the books; they squeezed in so much of the plot that they lost sight of the characters. When I first saw Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, I found Chris Columbus's reverence for the text so dull and unexciting that I began to tell my friends that I hoped Peter Jackson would take some liberties with The Fellowship of the Ring, which was still a month away at that time, and make a real movie out of it. (Thankfully, he did.) It wasn't until Alfonso Cuarón's Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, which veered from the text in significant ways, that I really got interested in the Harry Potter movies as movies. But I also know people who think that that is one of the worst films in the series, partly because it strayed as much as it did.

Oh, and in the annals of movies that were too reverent towards their source material, we cannot forget Ron Howard's adaptation of The Da Vinci Code. One of the things that made the book so entertaining, heretical though it may have been, was the way Dan Brown threw together every possible cultural reference point that he could think of -- from Renaissance art to Disney cartoons -- to try to convince the reader that the world is full, full, full of secret meanings just waiting to be decoded. But Howard kept his movie focused on the high-brow stuff, in what seemed like a bid for respectability. And, once again, the movie was really dull.

Anyway. What do you think? How important is "accuracy" or "faithfulness" to a text when making a movie? What movies have been true to the spirit of their source material while veering from the letter of their source material? Has a movie ever been true to the letter but not to the spirit?

Related Tags: da vinci code, harry potter, passion of the christ, watchmen


Here's my take on fidelity in adaptation:

Strictly speaking, fidelity by itself is neither here nor there with regard to the artistic merit of a film based on preexisting source material. Whether a film is good or bad, and whether or to what extent it takes liberties from source material, are two separate questions permitting all kinds of possible combinations.

However, in general I think that a good adaptation should be one for which, the better you know the source material, the more you appreciate the film. Ebert wrote in his review of MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA that the less you know about Japan, the more you will like the film. I don't like movies like that -- that work best to the extent that the viewer is ignorant of (or unconcerned about) relevant context, be it history, culture or source material.

To the extent that the source material is any good, the adaptation should honor the spirit of the source. To the extent that the source is flawed, the adaptation may subvert, critique or improve upon it. Either way, the better one knows the source material, with its good and bad points, the better one should appreciate the filmmakers's achievement in adaptation.

A good adaptation thus presupposes real understanding of the source material on the part of the filmmakers. Departures great and small can be legitimate, but they should be THOUGHTFUL departures. They can honor or subvert the original, but they must interact with it, not just ignore it. If not, they are not worth doing as adaptations. You might as well change the names and call it something else.

The one thing I have little patience for is the sort of adaptation that shows little or no understanding of or interest in the material upon which it is supposedly based. Case in point: KING ARTHUR, which interacts in no very significant way either with Arthurian romance or Arthurian history. It's just a remake of Fuqua's TEARS OF THE SUN, dressed up in 5th-century British gear. Why did they think that was more interesting than a thousand years and more of Arthurian legend and scholarship?

Here are a few quotes I use when I teach Adaptation: From the Page to the Stage or Screen:

Regarding Francis Ford Coppola:
“In adapting The Great Gatsby, he wrote a screenplay that is absolutely faithful to the novel. The result is a visually magnificent failure.” -Syd Field, Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting

“Being literal to something in another form can be deadly.” -John Irving

“Yet adapting implies change. It implies a process that demands rethinking, reconceptualizing and understanding how the nature of drama is intrinsically different from the nature of all other literature.” -Linda Seger

“When you are altering, you must also remain faithful to two things: the author’s intention and the emotional core of the original work as it affected you.” -William Goldman, Adventures in the Screen Trade

“Being literal to something in another form can be deadly.” -John Irving

Can be, yes, but must be? I don't think so. I think a literal adaptation can be brilliant and uncompromising. Just not necessarily.

“When you are altering, you must also remain faithful to two things: the author’s intention and the emotional core of the original work as it affected you.” -William Goldman, Adventures in the Screen Trade

I don't know that I agree with this. I don't think you have to be faithful to the author's intention, although in general I think it's a worthy goal. Sometimes subverting the author's intentions can be a reasonable choice, although in so doing you may alienate some of the author's fans. It depends on what the author's intentions were.

FWIW, I've blogged a bit on this myself now here and here.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy by Peter Jackson is a great example of where adaption can work and where it can veer into boredom and signifigant change. Having Arwen ride Frodo to Rivendell instead of Glorfindel, fine. Having Faramir decide to drag Frodo, Ring & Co. all the way to Osgiliath, or having Sam decide to head back to the Shire because of Frodo's anger?

Oddly, the final movie becomes tedious by its instance on having all the wrap-ups from the novel even though it didn't have the time to give them any context.

I think that The Fellowship of the Ring is one of the best adaptations of a book to a film, and The Return of the King one of the worst.

I sometimes help with workshops for creating content for Domed Theatres(ie. Planetariums), and one of the first questions we tell people to ask themselves is why are they making a movie for that medium. What about it makes it worth doing in that medium?

A similar question could be asked about any movie adapations: why make the adaptation at all? What does the adaptation bring that the original couldn't do? IMO, Snyder make a fantastic adapation of Frank Miller's 300, putting in a moving flow of action that brings an energy to the material that the original couldn't match. Snyder's warriors are perhaps even more exaggerated than Miller's, reaching a point of over-the-top machisimo that, love it or hate it, goes places the graphic novel doesn't or couldn't. Consider Robert Rodriguiez's Sin City as the oppisite, a slavish adaptation that adds almost nothing to the original. Many people I know were impressed by it, but it seemed to me little more than an exercise in matching film to drawings. After reading the original books I was bored to tears by the adaptation. Somehow the moving images had less energy than the static drawings.