Don’t Panic…It’s an Adaptation

Marvin the paranoid androidI recently managed to convince my mother to check out the film adaptation of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Whether she likes it remains to be seen, but I know I enjoyed it, even though it wasn’t particularly faithful to the previous incarnations of Douglas Adams’ work. Of course, since I’m a fan of pretty much all things Hitchhiker-related, I didn’t expect it to be true to the other sources anyway. Following its release, a lot of fans complained about how the film strays from the book, but relatively few folks seem to realize that the book isn’t the one true source anyway.

You see, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, despite being a more or less cult phenomena that many people still aren’t aware of, has been adapted many times over the decades. It didn’t begin as a book; it started as a radio play. Douglas Adams later wrote a novelization of the radio show, which included new scenes of its own and left out a great deal that was in the original. Following the novel, there has been a television series, a stage play, and a video game, each of which was quite different from the previous version. Douglas Adams had a hand in all of these, and also wrote the script for the movie before his untimely death. Adams seemed to have been blessed with something that very few people have: a realization that what works in one medium doesn’t always translate well into others.

I fell into the whole “It sucks because it’s not the way it’s supposed to be” trap a little bit when I first saw the trailer and noticed that Zaphod Beeblebrox didn’t have a second head mounted on his shoulder, among other things. Luckily, my wife Sarah pointed out to me how terrible the paper mache head in the television series looked. That was a pretty solid point. And really, the important thing about Zaphod is that he be treated properly as an idiot savant, minus the savant part. The film did that perfectly, and even included his second head, though not on his shoulder.

When I actually started watching the movie, more problems occurred at the beginning, largely because the film was trying to stay too true to the book. They wound up rushing through Arthur’s house being bulldozed, the destruction of the Earth, the Vogon torture/poetry session, and the eventual introduction of the Heart of Gold. The jokes went by too quickly for my liking, and it didn’t seem to have the British wit that made me love the TV series so much. Luckily, then the movie introduced Humma Kavula, Zaphod’s presidential opponent, and the whole thing completely diverged from the books. Only then did it become really fun for me, because it was doing its own thing while staying true to the ridiculous spirit and themes of improbability of the previous works.

My enjoyment of the new direction (especially the added importance of my favorite character, Marvin the android) made me think of something: why do so many people place importance on accuracy in film adaptations of text? Thinking along my own lines, some of my favorite movies redo much of the original work. My all-time favorite movie, Casablanca, basically threw out the stage play Everyone Comes to Rick’s during production. Fight Club completely redid the original novel’s ending. Hulk changed the mythos of the comic book character so that Bruce Banner grew up being name Bruce Krenzler, his father wasn’t dead or a wife-beater, the Absorbing Man was not a stupid ex-con, and the Hulk himself barely ever spoke. In fact, the more I think about movies that I have always hailed as being true to the original source, the more I notice the differences that needed to be made in order to properly translate them onto the screen. The Maltese Falcon introduced a Sam Spade who was more smarmy than sinister. The Silence of the Lambs completely ignored the novel’s subplot of Crawford’s dying wife in order to focus more exclusively on the relationship between Clarisse and Hannibal Lecter. Spider-Man, which many comic fans hail as the most true to its source of all comic book movies, gives us a Peter Parker with organic web-shooters, a Green Goblin in a Power Rangers-style costume, and a complete lack of Parker’s real first love, Gwen Stacy. And yet all of these movies have reached some degree of critical and financial success, largely because the creators knew when to depart from the story.

In the case of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, one of the more common complaints that I’ve heard about the film is that, unlike the previous incarnations (except the video game, which seems to be immune to such criticism), there are relatively few interjections from the Guide. Honestly, I don’t see how they could have incorporated the Guide any more into the film than they did. As it is, we get a few of the comically animated scenes a la the TV series and some very witty commentary by Stephen Frye as the voice of the book. Anything more than that, quite frankly, would have killed the pace of the film.

Think about it: in a radio play, all you’re doing is listening. So having long interjections from the Guide works just fine, because all the comedy is audio. Similarly, in the novel, you are reading the narrative, so once again interjections from the Guide don’t break up the pace at all. The Guide’s passages run the risk of dragging in the TV series, and as such they become a bit shorter; while the novel would have whole chapters designated to nothing but an entry from the Guide, the TV show had to use it more sparingly. However, even then the action is broken into half-hour chunks, so there’s less of a risk of becoming monotonous. In a film, they have to work their way through the novel’s entire plot in two hours or less. This is made even harder considering that the filmmakers need to somehow draw things to a conclusion, while the book basically just stopped in the middle of the action, leading directly into a sequel. (Rumor has it that Adams was so far over the deadline for the first book that his editor told him to finish the page he was on and send it in, thus the abrupt conclusion.) For the movie, the sequel seems likely due to a disappointing box office take and wasn’t really all that likely from the beginning due to Adams’ death. So on top of having to put an ending where there previously was none, the film has to keep the audience’s attention through something other than cheaply animated special effects and a constant but witty dialogue from the Guide. In essence, the film had to do something new and interesting while adhering as much as possible to the source material — not an easy task to accomplish.

This same type of thing happened when The Lord of the Rings came out. Shortly after the end of the trilogy, I took a class that discussed the works of Tolkein, and everyone and their mother brought their gripes about the films. I spent at least two weeks listening to people griping about how they butchered Faramir’s character or why they left out the Scouring of the Shire at the end of the book.

Well, let’s see. In J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Two Towers, Faramir spends two chapters sitting in front of Frodo and Sam and talking to them. Again, that works fine and dandy for the book, where a writer can keep readers interested in simple conversation as long as the language is pretty. In a movie, it means fifteen to twenty minutes or more of the characters doing nothing but sitting in one place and speaking. That complete lack of dramatic action kills a film. So instead the had Faramir head back to Osgiliath with the hobbits and the Ring. In the end, the ultimate purpose of the scene remains the same: Gollum is turned against Frodo and Sam, while Faramir shows his mettle by not giving in to the same temptation that his brother did. But just because things vary from the original text, fans lambasted it.

Why should a film adaptation need to follow the original material step by step? Do people not realize what the term “based on” or “adaptation from” means? Especially with the new wave of comic book films, I hear people talk about how much they love character X, how they’ve waited all their lives for a movie version, but how Hollywood screwed it up because the script says he hates lemonade when anyone who has read issue #130 from 1972 knows that his favorite drink is lemonade and how that totally ruins the character. Blah, blah, blah. If it needs to be done exactly the same, why adapt it at all?

Sometimes, adaptations do screw it up. Case in point: Batman and Robin. Besides the fact that it was an atrocious movie to begin with, I’m a big fan of the villain Bane. In the comics, Bane is the first character to really beat Batman. He broke Batman’s back and he broke his will, but only after he also outsmarted him and discerned his secret identity. He was both a physical and, more significantly, mental superior to Batman. Then when he showed up in the movie, he was some stupid thug who couldn’t even speak. That’s a good example of completely missing the point of the character. At the same time, most films that screw it up that badly suck for reasons beyond that.

It seems that, for fans of the original work, the best thing to do is throw out your notions of what you think should be done with an adaptation. When people can’t do that, they often don’t enjoy the film.

The other thing to consider is this: if a film changes something you like about the novel/comic/play/whatever, why did it do it? More often than not, it’s not some malevolent desire to piss on an author’s work but rather make a difficult transition a little easier. Then it’s a simple question of, does this movie stand on its own merits? A lot more folks would enjoy these adaptations if they didn’t spend all their time looking over their shoulders at what came first.

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