Break Out the Pitchforks and Torches by Alan Decker

Break Out the Pitchforks and Torches

If the last decade or so of movies has taught us anything, it’s that on the whole studio executives are a cowardly lot.

Perhaps that’s not fair.  Instead let’s say that they are risk adverse.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing in many areas of life.  I’m quite risk adverse.  You won’t see me quitting my job to make a go of it as a stand-up comic anytime soon.  I suck, and, more importantly, I have a responsibility to my children.

Studio executives have a responsibility to, in most cases, corporate executives, who, in turn, are responsible to shareholders.  Shareholders want profits and generally don’t care if your latest film was an artistic and critical triumph if it lost 30 million dollars.

Because of this, studios want to go with a sure thing…or as close to a sure thing as they can get.  Which means that we, the movie-going public, are given loads of sequels of earlier films (Sometimes MUCH earlier.  “Ghostbusters 2” came out almost 25 years ago.  Are people really clamoring for another one?) and adaptations of properties from other media.  Eight of the top ten grossing films of 2012 were sequels or adaptations, ten out of ten were in 2011, and eight out of ten in 2010 (I’m counting “Tangled” as an adaptation, since it’s a retelling of Rapunzel).  We’re running at eight out of ten for this year as well. 

The benefits of this approach are obvious.  You get proven commodities, and you don’t have to spend a lot of your time and advertising dollars getting the story and concept across to audiences.  The trailers for “Fast & Furious 6” don’t have to sell you on characters and their story.  Instead it’s more, “Look at the cool car stunts we’re doing this time!”  Sure, if you don’t deliver on what you promise, it’s going to bite you in the end, but starting out with a known property can get the audiences to give you a chance in the first place.

There is a downside, though, particularly with adaptations.  While a studio gets the benefit of built-in name recognition, they must also deal with fan expectations.  And the die-hard fans of a particular property can be very difficult to please.  Here’s just a few examples:

  • Zack Snyder’s film adaptation of the “Watchmen” graphic novel was criticized both for sticking too close to the source material and for making too many changes.
  • The Harry Potter films, faced with novels that got longer and longer as the series progressed, made the decision to focus only on Harry’s story.  This resulted in cuts to a number of subplots, such as Hermione and S.P.E.W. from “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” and a lot of angry fans of the books who were incensed that their favorite moments didn’t make it to the screen.  So many pieces and moments had been cut that I thought that the first part of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part One” was going to have to be one massive attempt to cover all of the important plot points that they didn’t include in the previous movies.
  • More recently, the casting of Charlie Hunnam as Christian Grey in the “50 Shades of Grey” movie has fans screaming that he’s not right for the part.  (Update: as of the moment of posting the news is that Hunnam has dropped out.  Maybe the fans will calm down now... at least until the next casting announcement.)

Fan devotion is a wonderful thing, but it can be something of a headache to filmmakers who are trying to adapt these properties to the screen.  And adaptation is the key word here.  A novel is different than a film.  Writers can go on for page after page about the life story of the bellhop the protagonist meets when she checks into her hotel in Nice, but in the movie that bellhop, if he appears at all, will be a glorified extra.  

Sure there are Lord of the Rings fans who are probably still annoyed that Peter Jackson cut Tom Bombadil from his films, just as there are Harry Potter fans who would be more than happy to see a film that covered the seven years in real time. In the end, though, what really matters is whether or not the adaptation works as a movie and stays true to the spirit of the source material.

Sam Raimi gave his Spider-Man organic web shooters, but did that change destroy the film?  I don’t think so.  Even “Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs,” which went far afield of the very short book in order to pad out a decent running time, stuck to the basic idea of the book and included many of the book’s visuals while adding a lot of fun characters and moments.  I write that realizing that the film sequel has dispensed with the book sequel, “Pickles to Pittsburgh” entirely.

The film version of Neil Gaiman’s novel “Stardust” includes several changes and additions in order to make the story more cinematic.  In the movie, we reach the three-quarters point of the novel after only about 55 minutes of a 127 minute running time.  The last hour plus has a lot more adventure than the novel, but the story still feels like “Stardust.” 

Contrast that to one of the odder film adaptations that I can think of, “Exit to Eden.”  The novel is a serious romance set primarily at an S&M resort island.  The film directed by Garry Marshall, meanwhile, is a comedic crime caper about two cops going undercover at said S&M resort island to track down a pair of diamond thieves.  The main characters and plot of the film do not exist in the novel, and the novel’s actual main characters and story are reduced to a subplot.  This isn’t making changes while maintaining the spirit of the source material.  This is using the name of and some elements from the source material to tell a completely different story.

I don’t know that there’s a perfect way to go about adapting a book or comic or theme park ride into a movie, but there’s one rule that should be followed at all times: respect the source material.  If you liked it enough to want to make a movie of it, show it the respect it deserves.  Yes, changes may (and most likely are) needed to transform the story into film.  Sometimes the changes just make the film flow more smoothly.  Transforming Jarvis from Tony Stark’s butler to his computer in “Iron Man” didn’t run the movie, and it served the purpose of giving Stark someone to talk to during his sequences in the suit.  This is a smart change.  Having Rosie O’Donnell chase down Iman at an S&M resort?  That’s just…odd.

To the fans, I would say give the filmmakers a chance.  Michael Keaton seemed like a ridiculous choice to play Batman at first, but that turned out okay.  As long as the filmmakers are approaching the project with respect for the material, you will probably be pleasantly surprised by the results…

…even if a few of the changes drive you nuts.    

- Alan Decker