Thursday, August 10, 2017

Books and Their Movies

THE DARK TOWER movie has arrived, based on Stephen King's multi-volume epic (eight novels plus numerous more or less closely tied-in stories). Bev Vincent, a leading authority on King's work, highly praised the film. Most fans and critics on the Rotten Tomatoes site reviewed it as mediocre at best. It has been charged with trying to cram too much into its running time (not surprisingly) and with being muddled because of the many hands that stirred the story soup along the way. Oddly, the few five-star ratings I saw came from viewers who hadn't read the books. Maybe high expectations led to deeper disappointment. I still plan to watch it in the theater, and it sounds like something I'll enjoy, keeping in mind that it's billed as a "reboot" rather than a direct adaptation. I also hope for better results from the TV series that's in the works.

King's fiction has notoriously produced mixed results when adapted on film. The Hulu production of 11-22-63, his time-travel book about Kennedy's assassination, was successful (in my opinion) because it had plenty of time to render the entire story. The few changes seemed justified and didn't hurt the narrative. I'm dubious about the upcoming IT theatrical feature, considering that the miniseries of IT, even with the scope allowed by the TV format, had to leave out a lot, especially the deep backstory so vital to the novel. I've heard, however, that two movies are planned, so there may be hope. THE MIST, currently running on TV, strikes me as less satisfying than the earlier TV adaptation. In that case, since the original story is a novella, a standard-length movie was just about right, and I thought it did an excellent job of transferring the text to the screen (except for the gratuitously cruel twist at the end). This new series opens up the action into several locations rather than confining it to one (in the original, a supermarket), apparently changes the origin of the malign mist, and adds a bunch of characters, most of whom I find unlikable and/or uninteresting.

In general, a feature film works best for adapting a novella. For a full-length novel—except for short, compact ones such as ROSEMARY'S BABY, whose adaptation stays almost entirely faithful to the book and is very effective as a horror movie—the proper film format is the miniseries. When I watch a movie based on a book, I hope to see the novel brought to life, with no more changes than absolutely necessary in the change from one medium to the other. In my view, if the producer/director doesn't love the original work enough to reflect it faithfully, why bother filming it in the first place? (I know, I know, money, but humor me.) My favorite novel of all time, DRACULA, has never been done completely "right," although the BBC version starring Louis Jourdain comes very close. Another example of a book I thought was filmed well is Neil Gaiman's CORALINE. The main alteration in the animated feature is the presence of a boy whom Coraline becomes friends with. He was probably added to give her someone to talk to, since the many scenes in the novel where she's alone with her thoughts might not play so well on screen, so that change doesn't mar the story. Sometimes, in order to enjoy a movie or series based on print fiction, I have to relax and accept it as an alternate-universe narrative, such as the TV version of TRUE BLOOD, based on the Sookie Stackhouse novels.

A question on Quora asks whether it's better to read a book before or after watching the movie. In my opinion, someone coming to a movie "cold," unacquainted with the book, should view the film first. If a reader likes a novel, the movie is almost bound to be a letdown, because some elements will inevitably be left out. On the other hand, a viewer who likes the movie will find in the book everything he or she enjoyed in the theater, plus "bonus" material to enrich the experience. Unfortunately, the hazard exists that it will be a terrible adaptation, which will discourage the audience from reading the book at all. So which format to consume first doesn't allow a definitive answer that covers all contingencies.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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