Sunday, May 17, 2009

From Books to Films – A Liberating and Democratic Experience

Being the Seventh Art Cinema usually borrows elements from the previous six arts and blends them together creating a new kind of experience. Art number six, poetry and literature, often serves as an inspiration and provides a narrative to be visually interpreted and represented on screen. Since the dawn of Cinema, books have been recreated on film.

Some prefer to stick to the paper, seeing someone else’s vision of his favourite story and beloved characters on screen can bring disappointment. Many movies based on works of literature are bombed by the readers for “not staying true to the book” or “deviating from the author’s vision”.

And some find this new way of presenting the books as a breath of fresh air, something new and interesting, a liberating and democratic experience.

I support the last point of view.

But before I support my choice and illustrate it with some examples, let’s define what liberty is and what democracy is.

Liberty - the condition in which an individual has the ability to act according to his or her own will.

Democracy is a form of government in which state-power is held by the majority of citizens within a country or a state.

So whether liberty and democracy are identical or confronting ideas depends entirely on the individual. Are you part of the majority? Do you agree with their decisions or you are obligated to obey the authority against your will?

The word “democracy” itself is derived from the Greek δημοκρατία (dēmokratía), which means "popular government". So if we apply this term to books and films, then everything pop-culture is democratic. The bestsellers and the blockbusters are what readers and audience “voted for”.

But on the other hand you don’t have to agree with the general audience, you don’t have to read what the critics say about this or that title. You are free to decide what to read and what to watch; you follow your own taste and choose the titles for yourself. So it’s not only democratic, but liberating as well.

Is it the same with the mix of cinema and literature? I think yes. A new treatment of a story, a new point of view, re-imagine and recreate somebody’s work in a new format – if this is not liberating I don’t know what is.

Let’s look at Tim Burton’s interpretation of Roald Dahl’s celebrated novel “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”. Burton is the perfect choice to bring to life the words from the pages and turn them into moving pictures. Not only did he stay true to the story and captured all of its bizarre and dark atmosphere, but he also added a whole new layer to it. Willy Wonka’s back-story was never written by Dahl, but Tim Burton's 2005 version added a history of the character: Willy Wonka (played by Johnny Depp) is the son of dentist Dr. Wilbur Wonka (played by Christopher Lee). Wonka had a traumatic childhood: his father forbade him to eat candy and forced his son to wear large and unsightly orthodontic headgear. Eventually, he tastes chocolate and starts getting ideas for other candies. When he becomes an adult, Wonka opens his own candy store, with Grandpa Joe being one of Wonka's first employees. It’s a brilliant addition and it gives a dramatic depth to the one-dimensional character that Dahl created.

Another good example is Frank Darabont’s movie “The Mist” based on Stephen King’s novella of the same name. After the amazing “The Shawshank Redemption” and “The Green Mile” Darabont is a real expert on filming Stephen King’s stories. In the novella King left his characters driving through the mist. Darabont conceived of a new ending in translating the novella for the big screen. The ending surely is a shocker, and after he saw the movie Stephen King himself praised it: “Frank wrote a new ending that I loved. It is the most shocking ending ever and there should be a law passed stating that anybody who reveals the last 5 minutes of this film should be hung from their neck until dead.” (Actually I was about to retell the ending, but it would be cruel of me if you haven’t seen the movie yet… and by the way I’m afraid that Stephen King might hunt me down and hang me!)

Also one of my personal favorites is Disney’s “Treasure Planet” - a science fiction adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's adventure novel “Treasure Island”. Writer Rob Edwards stated that "it was extremely challenging" to take a classic novel and set it in outer space, and that they did away with some of the science fiction elements ("things like the metal space ships and the coldness") early on. Co-director John Musker explains “We wanted people to breathe in space rather than have helmets and space suits, which would take all the romance out of it. We wanted to keep the lyrical quality of the original”. For the characterization and design for Jim Hawkins, John Ripa cited James Dean as an important reference because "there was a whole attitude, a posture" wherein "you felt the pain and the youthful innocence". I find it truly incredible, what a crew of talented and creative people can do with a given story and how they contribute to the original vision of the author.

However, recreating somebody else’s creation is a risky endeavor and it takes a lot of responsibility. Quite often turning books into films can be a real disaster. And in case you watch the movie first your experience with the book can be greatly spoiled – as the saying goes, “Read it before Hollywood does!” Whether parts of the book are left out for the sake of timing and pace, actors bring a different approach on a favourite character or moviemakers just fail to translate the literary source on screen – the film experience can be dissatisfying… or even painful. (you just try and watch “Screamers 2” or “Starship Troopers 3”, I dare ya!)

But the good thing is that even if the film adaptation is plain awful you can just ignore its existence. Try to wash away the bad taste and forget you ever saw it.

Like it or not, the border between books and movies will continue to get crossed. It’s a liberating and democratic process it which filmmakers become co-authors along with the book writers and bring the original story to a new realm of storytelling.

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