Thanks to Charlie Kaufman, we all know what the process of adapting a book is like for the screenwriter—it starts with a depressive funk and ends with your imaginary twin brother getting eaten by an alligator—but what’s the experience for the writer whose work is being adapted? What does it feel like to see characters conceived and grown inside your head and born into the world as lumps of prose turned into flesh and blood?
I recently saw an adaptation of book I really liked, The City & the City, by New Weird fantasist China Miéville. It was turned into a play—a low-budget, minimalist interpretation by a small Chicago theater—and the author himself was in the audience (no pressure, guys). After the show, he said the experience of watching his book come to life was incredibly moving. More than that, he welcomed the changes that had been made to the plot and characterization.
I congratulate Miéville on his ability to keep an open mind. A lot of creative types aren’t half as charitable. For example:
Comic book legend Alan Moore famously insisted his name never be mentioned in connection with Zack Snyder’s attempt to turn Watchmen into a film, and trashed the V for Vendetta adaptation with Natalie Portman without seeing a frame.
P.L. Travers, creator of Mary Poppins, is said to have spent the world premiere of the Julie Andrews movie crying her eyes out.
Stephen King thought Stanley Kubrick got The Shining so wrong he filmed his own version 15 years later as a TV miniseries (proving the point that a more faithful adaptation doesn’t mean a not-absolutely-terrible movie).
It makes sense that authors would be protective of their art. But it’s not only authors who cling to the original text. We’ve all been the overly protective fan incensed at the idiot director who just doesn’t get it. Yes, it is a big deal to give Breakfast at Tiffany’s a happy ending, or to derail The Lord of the Rings with a love story, or to make Edward’s sparkly vampire makeup not sparkly enough. Because when we read books—when we love books—they cease to be just words on a page. We take them in and they become part of us, something we cherish and protect, something we want to preserve and to share with others, so they might see what we see. No one wants her favorite book judged on the merits of a bad movie.
I like to think I can keep an open mind when watching an adaptation (I even like the Harry Potter movies!), but I know I’ve been guilty of loving too much, and perfectly decent movies like The Time-Traveler’s Wife get crushed under the boot heel of my expectations. Or, sometimes, stabbed repeatedly and left for dead.
The next up in my personal cannon? The big-budget movie version of Orson Scott Card’s sci-fi classic Ender’s Game. I’m keeping my knives sharp, but I’ll try to leave them at home.
What’s your favorite book-to-movie adaptation? Which one got it totally wrong? Tell us in the comments.