Whatever X, Day XXV

Since this actually came up as a subject of discussion at Viable Paradise, I thought I would air this particular entry again:

MARCH 7, 2006: Reader Request Week 2006: SF Novels and Films

All right, let’s take a second go at beginning the Reader Request Week here at the Whatever, as the first attempt yesterday went all explody on me. The question today (and yesterday, before the crash) was from Alex Holden, who asked:

Why are movie adaptations of SF novels generally so awful? Would you want to see movies from your novels? If yes, how would you prevent Hollywood from ruining them?

These questions — no offense Alex — start from what I think are erroneous premises, which are that movie adaptations of SF novels are generally awful, either considered as a class or relative to the performance of novels in other genres, and that novel authors not only can prevent Hollywood from ruining their works, but indeed are competent in the task of keeping Hollywood from ruining their novels. So let’s look at each of these.

First, are movie adaptations of SF novels (and other SF lit, including short stories) generally awful? Not necessarily. Here are some pretty good adaptations, in no particular order: Blade Runner, Planet of the Apes, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Contact, The Thing From Another World, Frankenstein, Solaris, War of the Worlds, Minority Report, The Boys from Brazil and (yes) Jurassic Park. And this is without lumping in fantasy (which has rather quite a lot of excellent adaptations from The Wizard of Oz to The Lord of the Rings) or comic book/graphic novel-derived movies (Men in Black, Superman, X-Men). To be sure, there are some spectacularly bad SF lit adaptations — Dune and Battlefield Earth spring immediately to mind — but taken as a class, SF lit turned into movies has a wide spectrum of success, from wildly successful to abysmal.

Relative to other lit genres, SF lit is no worse off either, as Hollywood’s record with other genres is equally scattershot. For every Battlefield Earth there’s a Bonfire of the Vanities; for every Blade Runner there’s a Godfather. If I had to pick a lit genre that has suffered the most in the hands of filmmakers, I would probably have to go with crime fiction, which is deeply abused by Hollywood and has been for decades. I mean, my God. Look what they did to Carl Hiaasen’s Striptease. SF is not doing so bad compared to that.

A better question here might be: Why can’t Hollywood consistently adapt novels into good movies? And there are a number of reasons for this.

1. Some novels suck. See: Battlefield Earth. If you’ve got garbage going in, you’re likely to get garbage going out.

2. Conversely (and perversely), some novels are too good. A couple of years ago I advanced the theory that great literature doesn’t make for great movies, because the written version is already the highest form of that particular story; there’s no film version of War and Peace that replaces the book, for example. Same with 1984 or The Great Gatsby. The best book-to-film adaptations are the ones where the book is, well, eh — and thus the movie is able to become the better and more definitive version: The Godfather is the quintessential version of this; Jaws is another excellent example.

Related to this:

3. Some literature suffers from “step-down,” which is what happens when a brilliant author is adapted for the screen by a less-than-brilliant screenwriter; if the screenwriter doesn’t actually get the book, naturally there are going to be problems. Now, the converse is also true: Some mediocre authors have their work improved by screenwriters who write better than they do. The screen version of The Bridges of Madison County is rather better than the book version because Richard LaGravenese, who wrote the script, is a substantially better writer than Robert James Waller, who wrote the book.

4. Some lit, regardless of quality, is unfilmable as written. Film is a primarily visual medium; novels are a primarily intellectual medium. People like to talk about seeing a novel unfold in their heads like a private movie, but a written work also allows access to thoughts, emotions, internal states and narrative omniscience (or narrative direction, at the very least) that film generally doesn’t. This is not to suggest film is the lesser medium, as film can do things literature generally doesn’t, too. It does mean that some literature is so much in thrall to its medium that it’s difficult to make the jump. But that doesn’t means some filmmakers aren’t willing to try. And thus you get a not-great version of a great book.

This is why, incidentally, wildly reinventing a lit work for film is not always a bad thing. Blade Runner is I suspect a far better picture than a straight adaptation of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? could ever be. Given how enthusiastic Philip K. Dick was about Blade Runner, one suspects he may have thought so, too.

5. Novel writing is essentially a one-input proposition: The writer writes, and then an editor suggests changes if needed. In movies, the producers, directors, stars and studios all have input… and the poor schmuck writer has to listen to and accommodate them all (check out William Goldman’s classic book Adventures in the Screen Trade for confirmation on this). Given this it’s often a miracle a movie based on a book has anything to do with the book at all. Filmmaking, at least on the major studio level, is all about “collaboration” — which is to say a lot of the time everyone has to whip out their dick and piss in the stew until it has a flavor they claim to like. The problem is, outside of Hollywood, not everyone likes piss-flavored stew.

6. Sometimes the filmmakers don’t actually care about the work on which their film is based. They may simply need a property that works for a particular star; they may need something easily adapted into a low-dialogue, high-action film that sells to international markets; they might have bought a property to keep someone else from buying it; they might buy it because the genre the novel is in is hot today and they want to get a hand in before it cools down; they might buy it because some country has created a tax shelter involving films, and the filmmakers need a property — any property — to jam into production in order to launder their investors’ money (this is, incidentally, how the horrible, horrible director Uwe Boll made so many virulently bad movies based on video games over the last few years). There are lots of reasons to make a movie that actually have nothing to do with its story.

Now, on to the other thing, which is authors keeping filmmakers from ruining their work. There is only one sure-fire way to do this: Don’t sell your work. If no film is ever made of your work, then they can’t screw it up. Now, they can’t make a great film out of it either (or even one that’s just, you know, okay), and that is indeed a bit of a downside. But if your goal is to avoid having a bad film made of your work, that’s how you have to do it.

Why? Because typically speaking, once you sell the film rights to the work, that’s the end of your involvement. Oh, the filmmakers might let you come to the set sometime, and then the studio might fly you and your spouse out for the premiere, and you’ll walk down the red carpet to the vast indifference of fans and paparazzi alike. But, really, once you cash that check, you’ve been handed your hat and shuffled off to the door. Thanks for your story, we love it, see you later.

Nor are filmmakers entirely wrong to do so. The number of novel authors who have any sort of experience or competence in filmmaking is, well, low. Filmmakers take to novelists dictating the terms of the treatment of their books pretty much like authors would take to the lumberjack who chopped down the tree used to make the paper that the rough draft will be printed on coming over and suggesting that what the book really needs is a scene where a lumberjack has sex with Jessica Alba. See, you’ve been paid. You’re done. And now the filmmakers are going off to make their movie. Fact: When people think of who made Jaws, 99 times out 100, they think Steven Spielberg, not Peter Benchley.

Yes, some authors get to dictate certain things before movies get made of their books. And when you sell as many books as JK Rowling or John Grisham or Michael Crichton, maybe they’ll let you do that, too. Until then, alas, they’re pretty much going to ignore you once your agent seals the deal. Because they can; it’s in the contract.

Now, one way around this is to get involved in the production in some way, generally as the screenwriter (or at the very least, the screenwriter who takes the first stab at the script). But this doesn’t mean that one then saves one’s writing from grevious harm. For one thing, writing scripts and writing novels are two different writing skills, a fact which is indeed underappreciated. Someone who writes novels is no more necessarily competent to write a screenplay than a guy who makes a really great steak on a grill is competent to bake a delightfully light puff pastry. Maybe he can, but the one skill does not automatically suggest the other. To be sure, lots of writers can do both novel and scripts — Larry McMurtry, who took home an Oscar on Sunday (for adapting someone else’s work, no less) is a fine example here, as is the previously mentioned William Goldman — but it shouldn’t be an automatic assumption.

Even when an author is involved it does not necessarily follow he or she is the best steward of the work in film. John Varley, a writer whose work I enjoy immensely, was actively involved with Millennium, based on one of his stories. The movie is pretty bad. HG Wells wrote the screenplay for Things to Come, and it’s indeed a significant film in the SF Canon, but it’s not a patch on other adaptations of his work. Moving outside the SF genre just a little bit, Stephen King’s work is a film genre unto itself, and while there are many highs (Shawshank Redemption, Stand By Me), one has to admit that one of the lows would be Maximum Overdrive, which King adapted for the screen and directed himself (I suspect that King — who seems a good judge of his own stuff — might agree to this assessment, although I further suspect he had a lot of fun doing it anyway).

On to me. Would I want Hollywood to make films of my books? Sure I would. That would be one less mortgage I would have to worry about. Would I expect that the books would make it to the screen as they are written? No. I say that with confidence because I know that if I were adapting my books as films, there are moderate-to-significant changes I would make, so I can’t imagine that actual filmmakers wouldn’t want some as well. Would I want to be actively involved in the production? I haven’t the slightest idea. If they actually want my ideas toward adapting the books I would be happy to give them (and to take an associate producer credit!), but if they just want to give me a big fat check and send me on my way, I suppose I wouldn’t complain all that much.

Which is not to say I’m interested in being indiscriminate about who I sell my movie rights to. Being a film critic for 15 years gives me some knowledge of who makes good films and who doesn’t (and having just written a book on SF film, even more so). Let’s just say that the only serious demand I would make to a producer who wants to buy the rights to my books would be to attach a rider on the contract that specifies that if Paul WS Anderson is picked to write and/or direct, I get an additional and instant $2 million payout; if it’s Uwe Boll, $10 million. Given what would inevitably happen to the story in their hands, I think that’s reasonable compensation.

18 thoughts on “Whatever X, Day XXV

  1. I have to say, I’d really like to see an OMW movie, though I just don’t think it would look the same as it does in my head. (that movie’s awesome in my head).

    Oh, and the action scene in the mall in TAD would be worth seeing, if it was done right.

  2. My experience of genre adaptations ranges from “I have significant problems with it” (The Lord of the Rings) to “everyone involved in this project should be hanged and burned like Savonarola” (I, Robot). There’s also a verb in my vocabulary now, ‘Hollywoodize’, which means “to remove the difficult, complex, or socially dangerous parts of.”

    Disney is the worst about this, of course. Want to know how The Hunchback of Notre Dame ends in the book? Everybody dies. The corrupt priest gets Esmerelda hanged for witchcraft, Quasimodo pushes him off Notre Dame to his death, and Q himself dies of starvation and thirst (or something) because he just cradles Esmerelda’s body until he dies. No talking critters. The gargoyles are stone decorations and they stay stone decorations.

    David Gerrold’s Martian Child isn’t SF, but of course the movie changed the gay writer who adopts a child (hello, his name is David, how obvious can you get) into a straight widower, because of course gay people are just too icky for the moviegoing public. (I love that movie, I’m just annoyed by the mindset of people who could do something like that.)

    So I dunno. I hope to write in some useful and possibly lucrative way someday. But having seen what happened to books I loved when brought to the screen, I think I might keep Hollywood’s filthy insensitive greedy hands off them. If offered enough money, of course, I might give in to temptation. There’s always that, unfortunately.

  3. Oh, and John, you left out one important factor. Novels are too long to make good movies. Novellas are about right. Novels need a miniseries.

    But Hollywood knows that people will go to a movie “based on” a book they liked, even if (like I, Robot) the only things it has in common with the book are the title and the names of the characters. So they make movies based on novels, which is impossible to do in a satisfying way, because novels are long and complex, and movies are short and simple.

    Blade Runner is a pretty good movie, but it has little resemblance to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. For example, the movie has one or two sympathetic characters, which the book utterly lacks. None of the characters talks or behaves like hir counterpart in the book. In this case it’s not so much the length (it’s a short book), but the fact that no one would want to spend two hours with the characters in Dick’s novel; I had to keep taking breaks from it because they were so uniformly repellent.

    I guess I’m saying the blade runs both ways!

  4. I think your #4 reason should be your #1 reason — because it’s very hard or flat impossible to film most stories anywhere close to the way they’re written, for scene after scene, through the entire story.

    The reason’s simple: because almost all of it that is of interest, can happen inside someone’s head. But if you try to film what someone’s thinking or feeling, you’re pretty much going to fail, with half the audience failing to understand what you’re doing, and the other half mostly guessing wrong. Video is just too different a medium.

    Try this yourself, take a book that you like, and attempt to adapt scenes from it to a screenplay. Block out the action, fill in the dialogue, and try to convey to your hypothetical audience, your understanding of what happened in the story. You’ll probably need to do this on paper to get the full impact of it.

    It only takes a little bit of this before you’re tearing your hair out — no way to put this part on film, and it’s a critical part, so you’d have to reframe the whole scene in a different way, just to try to get that point across. So often you’re tempted into the dramatic no-no of just plain lecturing the audience, or resorting to cheesy tricks like voiceovers. Audiences just won’t take very much of that.

    Changing this scene as radically as you’d have to means that you have to change the scene before it and the scene after it because the continuity is gone, or some big plot point wasn’t covered and will have to be covered some other way.

    Seriously, try this yourself. You’ll start to feel sympathy for those who can do it with any facility at all. Next time you see a movie that you find boring, talky and stilted, check that you aren’t watching someone else who tried and failed to adapt a story to video.

    If you’re following the “Shadow Unit” web site on another channel, you have several very talented authors collaborating to write what is basically fanfic for a nonexistent television series. (This is how *they* describe what they’re doing.) Whether the stories are good or bad, they are stories and not plays, and they are unfilmable. Here’s a ready-made example for you, because if you try to turn the stories back into episodes of the fictional tv series they derive from, you have to utterly rewrite them in order to have something you could hope to capture on a camera.

    If you didn’t try the first mental exercise, then go to Shadow Unit and try to turn their stories into screenplays. They can pop into Chaz’s head and listen to what he’s thinking about Diana, but you can’t film that. So how are you going to convey it to the audience?
    Not so easy now, eh?

    I was never too comfortable with the necessary assumption that everyone who ever tried to film a book, and everyone in Hollywood, is stupid or doesn’t care about the quality of what they’re doing. This seems not only harsh, but pretty ridiculous. EVERY one of them? Ever? Really? Why not just assume they’re all evil and be done with that, even though you don’t know anyone who thinks they’re evil in their own minds. (Well, apart from our host, i mean.)

    Has no Hollywood producer ever said, ‘So let’s get the guy who wrote the bestseller, to write us a screenplay”? Are they just too dumb, too self-centered, too Hollywood, to have ever thunk a that? Or does it turn out to be too uninviting for an author to rewrite what you’ve already written, for an unfamiliar medium, that you don’t know how to write for, tearing your story structure and your characters (that were hard enough to write the first time!!) apart and putting them all back together somehow for this visual medium, and do all that on a much tighter deadline that you’re used to?

    How about if most movies made from novels are bad because it’s a damned difficult thing to do? I’ve got a lot of respect for people who can do it at all.

  5. If anybody ever buys OMW for a movie, I hope it’s BoomChickaBoom Studios, who will rewrite the script to spend five minutes on introducing the main character and body-swapping him, seventy-five minutes of orgy-ing on a starship with everybody in green body paint, and one last shot of everybody walking off the ship straight onto a battlefield where they’re going to be killed.

    Why? Because, while they’re going to screw up every single thing in the book, they’d screw up all the non-orgy parts worse.

  6. I realize that if Old Man’s War is ever made into a movie, there will be a lot of changes. Portraying what is going on between John and his Brain Pal would be a major problem, for instance. But if they get lazy and make the soldiers normal skin color(s) rather than green, it’s all over. That would be a fatal flaw.

  7. you mentioned peter benchley’s jaws and i remembered a picture jeff vandermeer took of the cover of the romanian edition (see here: http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3169/2832374137_1e8a5bfb2a.jpg?v=0)
    and my mind wandered further and i had an idea about another topic you might write about: writers and the covers of their books :)
    you’re probably going to think i’m obsessed with covers (and you’re probably right). but it’s a fairly interesting topic for everybody, i think.

  8. I saw The Shining for the first time when it was shown months ago at the Dryden Theater (part of the George Eastman House). Their standard practice is to have a speaker (often one of the film students) deliver some brief comments about the film before it is shown. According to the speaker that night, Stanley Kubrick was to have said that it was impossible to make a good film out of a good book, but that it was possible to make a good film out of a bad book; an opinion which did not endear him to Steven King.

  9. On the matter of collaboration – yes, movie-making is a collaborative affair in a way that novel-writing isn’t, but there are a couple of kinds of collaboration.

    There’s the “everyone has to whip out their dick and piss in the stew” type you mention, which isn’t really so much collaboration as all sorts of people giving notes and making comments – a writer, re-writer, director, producer, co-producer, producer’s assistant and so on. Maybe even a rep from the money men.

    There’s a more creative collaboration too, where the director, writer, composer, production designer, cinematographer, editor and others all contribute ideas. Some of my favourite movies are made by director Michael Powell and writer Emeric Pressburger (whose joint credit was always “Written, Directed and Produced by…”), who are perhaps only very borderline sf/fantasy (A Matter of Life and Death, for instance). Their deal with the Rank studio gave them money and creative freedom to make the films they wanted without much piss-stew interference – like AMOLAD, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus – but their working method was to have a strong team all contributing their skills and strengths and not merely doing what the writer or director dictates.

    Michael Powell may have been unusual in his enthusiasm for writers. At one stage he read A Wizard of Earthsea and sequels: “I began to rough out a script on the Ursula Le Guin trilogy. Having done a few sequences, I summoned up courage and sent them to her. She was delighted with them. I said, ‘In that case, let’s do the script together.’ We have done it so by correspondence. We have only met twice, once in San Francisco and Portland, Oregon where she lives. It’s been a most happy collaboration and it’s still going on.”
    http://www.powell-pressburger.org/Reviews/MichaelPowell.html . I wonder what that would have been like… he was already in his mid-70s by then (1981) and died in 1990.

  10. Douglas Adams once said something to the effect of the first step in writing a story, once you have the idea, is determining the proper medium to present it. Is it a book, a short story, a movie, a video game, a comic book, a letter to the editor, bathroom stall graffiti, or what?
    Some ideas don’t do well on screen. They’re too abstract.
    Some movies would make for better TV.
    Some books are better as audio books while some audio books only do well when read.
    I think that OMW would become a movie better than the oft compared “Starship Troopers”. ST was too much about the inner thoughts of a particular trooper. OMW has better banter and can show the heart of the story on screen better.

    If you’ll permit me a filthy geek heathen moment: I agree that “2001″ and “Blade Runner” were good movies. But the only time I watch them is when I’m suffering from insomnia. Either one of them knocks me right out. “2001″ kept me away from reading anything by Clarke for at least a decade. I had to come at him from some short stories and realize that they were good before I dared read “2001″. “2001″ needs to be remade more than any other old sci-fi movie. It needs it if only to fix the end of the movie. How does a 10 minute acid trip translate to a guided tour of the ruins of an ancient alien interstellar civilization?
    You may flame me now.

  11. Rob @#14

    Unfortunately, Kubrick’s “The Shining” is not a good movie. I know lots of people who would disagree, but after reading the book and seeing the ABC miniseries some years back, I realized what a hackjob Kubrick’s film was and refuse to watch it again.

    I’m in the reverse situation of this article, however. I wrote a full-length screenplay in college and am trying to puzzle out how to make it into a book. As a movie, the structure works well; it’s very linear and cuts straight to the point with lots of nice action setpieces to advance the story. The outline for the book, however, comes across as moronically simple due to the almost-no deviation from the screenplay.

    But that’s not exactly bad, right? OMW is pretty narrow in scope, with just the one viewpoint, despite other characters advancing story, and look how well that did.

  12. As a minor quibble, the film of 2001: A Space Odyssey wasn’t based on the novel, or vice versa. According to Arthur Clarke in The Lost Worlds of 2001, the two works were co-created (by himself and Stanley Kubrick) in parallel, with each feeding back into the other as they proceeded.

    I concur with Xopher that novel -> film is a bad fit, necessitating that too much of value be left out, and that novella -> film makes more sense. (I’ve actually been arguing exactly this for about 30 years, but nowhere that anyone would have noticed, or at least remembered the next morning.) I thought John’s broadening of the issue to include “other SF lit, including short stories” blurred that significant aspect of Alex’s original question, though the rest of his analysis was informed and informative.

    A subjective factor affecting one’s assessment of novel-based movies is that one is, I suggest, often biased in favour of the first version of a story one encounters. It might be interesting to compare the opinions of a significant sample of readers/viewers, of whom half had read a particular book first and half had initially seen the screen adaptation. My own local (South Hants) SF Group book circle has recently adopted the practice of (sometimes) choosing a novel such that after the discussion session we can watch a video version (which some of us will have seen before reading the book). I felt this thesis was very mildly supported by our recent reactions to Howl’s Moving Castle, but we were too few for a robust conclusion, and besides Hayao Miyazaki’s version, though diverging significantly from Diana Wynn Jones’ original, is arguably an unusually fine work.

    For myself, I find that the visual experience of filmed versions, even if inferior, generally overwhelm and suppress the memory of previously read and hence self-visualized written ones. For this reason, I try to avoid film adaptations of much-loved books, such as Lord of the Rings, while not being bothered by seeing those of less accomplished works like the Harry Potter series [*ducks for cover* :-)]. Since I attend kinematographs only rarely (they’re still building one in my town) and have voluntarily eschewed television ownership for 25 years, this is easier than it might otherwise seem.

    I would like to pose the question of the converse case. Why are novelisations of films generally so much poorer than original novels/novellas?

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