In my last posting about The Hobbit, I may have given the impression that I am a purist regarding films being made of books, particularly works of literature. This is not the case in that I understand that film is a different medium and some changes are often necessary. A good example in Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Bilbo wears a cloak while he rides the pony beside the dwarfs. In the book, there is no cloak, but this is a good change. Film is a visual medium. Bilbo wearing the cloak allows the viewer to easily tell the dwarfs and the hobbit apart. In Jackson's adaptation of the Lord of the Rings, he excluded entire chapters of the book and yet it worked. The heart of the book was not lost in its transition to film like it was in The Hobbit.
I just watched David Fincher's 2011 adaptation of the first book in Steig Larsson's Millenium Trilogy: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. My initial thought when hearing about this film was "why the heck are they remaking this film? The Swedish version, directed by Niels Arden Oplev, came out two years earlier and was quite good. The Fincher film is more stylized than the Oplev film with some excellent acting and mood altering music and even closer to the novel in regards to plot. But the Oplev film is a better film. Fincher's film is slower and even boring for the first half hour or so. Film adaptation seems to have a sweet spot ... the film mustn't suffer to make it accurate to the book, but the book shouldn't be trampled in the process. In this respect both these films are successful and worth seeing, but the Swedish film is definitely better. Another example of a film adaption that was too accurate was Michael Radford's 1984 film of George Orwell's 1984. This film was so dreary and difficult to watch. The dreariness worked in the book, not so much in the film.
Some directors have acknowledged that they have completely changed a book when setting it to film. This is why many directors change the names of the films. Two of the best examples that come to mind are Bladerunner and Apocalypse Now, two of my favorite films. If not for these films, I may not have read the books which they were based on Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Joseph Conrad's The Heart of Darkness, respectively. When Ridley Scott put the Dick book to film, he knew he was altering it enough to make it into something very different. It is basically a sci-fi action film while the novella has little action. The themes remain the same and Dick approved of the mood of the film saying he recognized in it his "interior world." We'll never know what Conrad would think of the film masterpiece Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now, but I am guessing that he'd approve for it does seem to capture the heart of the book (perhaps, the "horror" of the book is more appropriate). The film is obviously very different since it is not set in colonial Belgian Congo but during the Vietnam War, and not about a boat on the Congo but a boat on the fictitious Nung River in Cambodia. The themes in the book match and plots are similar enough to be given the "based on" reference. The names of the works were changed to preserve separate identities. These films are gems and are the exception.
Some film adaptions have been made of books that surprised me about how accurately they capture the mood of the source material. George Roy Hill's adadaption of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five comes to mind as a book I never thought a good film could ever capture. It does a decent job. Also, Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Again, these are the exceptions. Most adaptions of books that I love, like The Hobbit, just leave me grumbling. More often than not, filmmakers butcher their source material. A couple of other decent film versions of books: David Fincher's adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club and Barbra Streisand's adaptation of Pat Conroy's The Prince of Tides.
Sometimes the very bad film version of a great book can be somewhat justified (or forgiven) when it is done for children. The best example I can think of Disney's version of Huckleberry Finn which is truly awful. If you remove all the biting political stuff and the wit from the book, you get an action adventure for kids. This is only forgivable if some of these kids get interested enough in it to read the book. When they turn a literary masterpiece into a dumbed-down and homogenized version for stealth learning purposes ... I guess can deal with it. I just can't look, it is too painful. But what I cannot deal with is these overly long versions of children's books like some of the Dr. Seuss books (films) or The Polar Express. What Hollywood hack Robert Zemeckis did to The Polar Express should be considered a crime. This is a beautiful children's book whose calm and relaxing Christmas story is completely rewritten and turned into an action adventure film. It is almost as if Peter Jackson made the film.
My biggest problem with Peter Jackson's The Hobbit (as stated earlier) is his take on the character Thorin Oakenshield. He changed the character into an action hero much like the protagonists in the over-bloated Hollywood blockbusters Gladiator or Braveheart ... avenging the death of a loved one wrapped in a bloody flag of glory. The Thorin in the book spends more time running away than he does fighting and his main concern is gold, not revenge. The revenge is a subtext that is very much blown out of proportion in the film. If this were some grubby pulp novel (like a Tom Clancy or Stephen King novel), I would not be too upset, but this is canonized literature that deserve some respect. Jackson has a responsibility to the text.
Going forward, I have some suggestions for Peter Jackson's next projects:
Peter Jackson's The Hunchback of Notre Dame: In this version, Quasimodo is handsome, has a mild bump on his shoulder and lives in the Notre Dame condo complex. Instead of killing Claude, he saves him and wins the heart of Esmeralda. Mel Gibson plays Quasimodo.
Peter Jackson's Wuthering Heights: Heathcliff battles Edgar and the ghost of Wuthering Heights for the heart of Catherine. Russel Crowe plays Heathcliff.
Peter Jackson's Pride and Prejudice: The Bennet girls fight crime while being wooed by the boys of Meryton. They are like 19th century Charlie's Angels played by the same actresses of that film. Actually, this could be the sequel to it.
Peter's Jackson's The Great Gatsby: Jay Gatsby will fight anyone to get Daisy including the narrator Nick Carraway. The car accident is changed to a car chase and the murder by the pool, a shoot out.
Peter Jackson's To Kill a Mockingbird: Instead winning the war of ideas in a court of law, Atticus Finch saves Tom Robinson and Scout from the clutches of the white supremacists using only his fists. Bruce Willis as Atticus Finch.
Peter Jackson's Catch 22: Instead of this being a black humor satire about the mundanity of war. Jackson's version concentrates on Jossarian and Snowden's fighter missions. It is a buddy film.
After Peter Jackson's adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, he seemed infallible. Reading that trilogy as a kid and later as an adult, I never dreamed that I'd be seeing it set to film such a spectacular way. It came to life for me. I will always have this joy and I have Peter Jackson to thank for this. I am just disappointed that he didn't perform a miracle again.