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August, 2006 : Essay:

Down the Tube

How Bad Films of Good Books Hurt Genre Writers

Allow me to rant for a moment about bad film adaptations of novels. I'm often stunned by the idiotic decisions made by TV and movie studios, and dismayed that mega-bestsellers shrug off the results, as though a clumsy adaptation won't discourage potential readers.

I just watched Crouch End, part of the Nightmares and Dreamscapes miniseries based on Stephen King's short stories. I remembered this particular story as a good read, so I was eager to see if the TV version handled it well. Before one of you screams, "Oh, you're a purist who believes the book is always better," I will tell you this isn't so. I thought The Shawshank Redemption was an excellent adaptation. So was The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Memento, Interview with the Vampire, and Jurassic Park.

And before you say, "Well, you're one of those sticklers who thinks the screen version should follow the book as closely as possible," I'll mention that Kubrick's adaptation of The Shining is much better than the TV version, although Kubrick deviated from the original novel. Awful film adaptations are not awful because of the book, even when they translate the book word-for-word. Seriously.

When a well-loved book becomes a forgettable film, blame it on the studio. They hired actors who weren't suited for the roles, they allowed for moronic camera work and abysmal editing. Those decisions can ruin a good story.

Anyway, the TV presentation of Crouch End wasn't awful, it just wasn't good. At least the actors worked. While watching it, I began to wonder if the original story was as cheesy as it was rendered onscreen, so I reread it during commercial breaks. It holds up. It's subtle and creepy, not cheesy. I took a screenwriting course or two, so I can imagine the decisions made by the production crew. Someone must have said "exaggerate everything!" To be fair, screenplays rely on exaggerated action and dialogue, because you can't film inner monologues, or the elements of a writer's style (outside of dialog, that is).

The problem with Crouch End is that they exaggerated indiscriminately. They took what is described in the book as a "battle-scarred" tomcat and turned it into a cat wearing demonic prosthetics. They took a couple of creepy children and turned them into freaky witch-kids. They took a sense of subtle "wrongness" and turned it into out-and-out lunacy. The original story removes you from reality one small step at a time, whereas the screen version never bothers to do this; it rips you forcefully out of reality without bothering to build up suspense or develop any sense of internal logic. Like the Harry Potter films, the studio seems concerned only with capturing the words on the page, rather than exploring the salient themes in the story.

Why does this bother me? Bad adaptations do an enormous disservice to writers. I get tired of movie fans who associate Stephen King with crappy TV miniseries. Those people might enjoy reading Stephen King, but they won't because they think he writes campy horror. This effect is also a problem for J. K. Rowling and other authors (like Philip K. Dick). Okay, you may argue that J. K. Rowling and Stephen King don't need any more fans, but there are lots of less well-known writers who do. Screen adaptations have a measurable effect on a writer's reputation. How many of you went out and picked up a copy of David Brin's The Postman after watching Kevin Costner try to top Waterworld?

If more studios would put care and effort into making adaptations that did justice to the books and short stories on which they are based, the result would be more readers. Considering the shape that publishing (particularly publishing in our genre) is in, this would be a great move.

Copyright © 2006, Abby Goldsmith. All Rights Reserved.

About Abby Goldsmith

Abby Goldsmith works in the game industry by day, and feverishly writes science fiction by night. Her writing credits include dialogue on Tak and SpongeBob games, two short films that have been screened to large audiences, and several articles and short stories published online. Abby is an alumni of the Odyssey Writing Workshop and aspires to become a full-time novelist.


Aug 9, 17:49 by IROSF
A thread to discuss television.

Abby Goldsmith's essay can be found here.
Aug 10, 17:57 by Paul Abbamondi
Great essay, Abby. I, too, was disappointed with Crouch End (and the remaining episodes). And I always get that snap of excitement when I see a book/story I love being turned into visual media. Sadly, I'm let down often, mostly for the reasons you've stated here. Bad actors, editing, and scripting...
Aug 11, 08:48 by Ricardo Loureiro
Well, I can't obviously speak for all the others but I tend to look out for the novel much readily *when* the adaptation is crappy than the other way around. I get curious about the original and want to check if indeed it's as bad as the movie/tv series. Call me a masochist ;-)
Aug 12, 17:30 by Julie Randolph
On the one hand, I do agree with respect to Science Fiction and Fantasy. Television and film have a tendency to destroy novels when trying to adapt them to the screen.

I do disagree about Harry Potter which I thought was an excellent adaptation, given how long those books are.

Why is it that drama films like "The Prince of Tides" and "The Shawshank Redemption" are generally excellent, but writers have a horrible time translating fantasy and sci-fi to the screen?

Perhaps our imaginations are just too vibrant for these kinds of stories?

...or, perhaps it's time people stop adapting books and come up with some ideas of their own.

Aug 21, 23:51 by Abby Goldsmith
I've always had the impression that a 120-page feature length screenplay can only fit a narrow spectrum of stories from the book world. The Shawshank Redemption was a novella, and those seem to do better in movie form. I've never read The Prince of Tides, but I get the impression that it's low on action; it may have only had a novella's worth of material to translate.

You're right about each Harry Potter book being packed with more action than a single movie can handle. My complaint about the films is that they didn't cut major scenes; instead, they elected to cut out character development and anything that would make the story flow better. I think it's better to lose a few major scenes in order to make a movie that even non-Potter fans will want to watch multiple times.

...or, perhaps it's time people stop adapting books and come up with some ideas of their own.

I often hear that movie studios consider new ideas to be financially risky. Why fund an original project when you're sitting on 100 licenses, each with a supposedly built-in audience?

Thanks for the responses to my article!

Aug 29, 23:08 by Joe Prisco
Why is it that drama films like "The Prince of Tides" and "The Shawshank Redemption" are generally excellent, but writers have a horrible time translating fantasy and sci-fi to the screen?

I suspect that the answer to this might have something to do with perceptions. Let us not forget that fantasy & sci-fi are settings, where drama is a style; there is certainly nothing preventing good scif-fi (for example) being good drama as well.

"The Prince of Tides" and "The Shawshank Redemption" pose less of a challenge, obviously; historic and geographic details can be researched, and audience acceptance readily expected.

"2001: A Space Odyssey" and "Solaris" pose greater challenges: the audience may not even understandd what they're supposed to be getting ("2001" in particular may owe its general success more to the burgeoning use of psychedelics at the time). The very themes of science-fiction and fantasy pose challenges to a business aimed at nothing less than blockbuster success; the sets and costumes seen as more important than the characters -- possibly correctly, if the receipts are an indication.

The fact is, though, that some story treatments lend themselves much better to print than visual images, nad any prospective movie project must essentially re-imagine the story -- with just as much creativity as the original (arguably achieved in TOTAL RECALL more than BLADE RUNNER, for one example). Meanwhile, like any business, the making of a movie suffers from collisions of personalities, unrealized ideals, and sometimes just plain bad planning.

I agree that novellas more readily lend themselves to feature-film development; true novels have often been made into six- or eight-hour movies that were then edited down to audience tolerance ("Greed", the 1984 "Dune"); greater success has been seen in the making of novels into mini-series (the Sci-Fi Channels "Children of Dune"). This is especially beneficial in the case of novelists who are not so riveting in print as Stephen King is (Frank Herbert is himself sometimes an example).

As for King's stories being adapted for either small or silver screen: I have to admit, Mr King writes so well that we sometimes excuse him for some fairly poor plotting ("Langoliers" is a stellar example: "Hey everybody, come over here!" -- and they leave their hostage unattended). While his fine prose takes us past the rough spots in print, any visual adaptation is stuck with the flaws. At that point, the adapters must decide who their audience will be: the elite, the masses, or just those who have already read the story? You can't please 'em all, and its easiest to please groups #2 and #3 :-)
Sep 9, 08:24 by Jason Bolte
Thank you very much for this discussion. TV and film, in my opinion, the places where science fiction and fantasy can expand, particularly in television.

As for Stephen King movies, comparing book to movie or TV show is usually unnecessarily slanted. If it's a bad movie, the studio is to blame, as Ms. Goldsmith pointed out. But I especially like JPrisco's point: Stephen King is a writer for the masses and thus his movies are for the masses. You might not enjoy the movies, but there's an audience there for it.

As for Harry Potter, I think the movies are fine in their own regard, especially the latest two. I understand that a lot was taken out from their 500+ pages, but I'm fine with that. I go to those movies expecting a good movie and I got one. It worked, just like the book works by itself. But that is based upon good decisions by the filmmakers, as opposed to anything innate in translation.

If anything, I think the book suffers because of its length. Granted, it's still a good read, but J.K. Rowling is indicative of the genre's tendency to overwrite. Similarly, we'll probably never see a miniseries based on the Wheel of Time because it would be overlong, boring, or cut into something unrecognizable. (On a related note, I think that's why Philip K. Dick books work so well, not only because of their relative brevity, but because of their attraction to quality filmmakers).

There is one alternative very rarely seen in adaptation, but which works fairly well: partial adaptation. "The Door in the Floor" was a fine drama based upon only a third of John Irving's "Widow for One Year." Instead of going through the entire story, it reflected only the beginning of the book and concentrated on that aspect. I think that is a successful model that can employed, particularly by television, for especially long stories. Harry Potter might not work, based upon its popularity, but it could work for others.

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