Hello everybody, welcome back to Common Culture! Today I want to talk to you guys about a topic that is endlessly misunderstood and constantly frustrating—book-to-film adaptations. This blog was inspired by the newly released trailer for the movie The Giver, which can be seen here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iJNNugNe0Wo. If you haven’t heard of The Giver, I’m not sure that you actually went to elementary school. It is a dystopian fiction novel by Lois Lowry that chronicles the experience of 12-year-old Jonas, a boy who lives in a society called “the Community” that has effectively removed pain and diversity from their world. When he is chosen to be the “Receiver of Memories,” he begins to learn from an old man called The Giver details of how the world used to be, and of things like color, music and emotion. In the end, Jonas must decide whether to stay in his world—one that is safe and painless—or to leave the society and bear the weight of the real world on his shoulders.
The Giver is one of my absolute favorite books and it is now being given the fancy Hollywood spin in a movie adaptation (one that is far overdue, might I add). It has been added to the long list of my favorite books that have been turned into films, and like all of those before it, it is already facing criticism from fans of the novel: Will cast members like Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep, Katie Holmes and Alexander Skarsgard do the film justice? Why is it in color when all the characters see in black and white, and Jonas himself doesn’t even see in color for a while into the book? Why is Jonas a 24-year-old man? And why is Taylor Swift in it?
I want to break down how film adaptations are treated for you guys. The process usually goes as such: A person reads a book and thinks, “I can imagine this as a film. I want to see this as a film!” And the moment a trailer, a cast list, even a notice that the film is being made comes out, the person loses their mind: “This is going to suck! They won’t do it right! They’ll destroy my baby!”
In my eyes, there are two ways people address book-to-film adaptations:
- The movie is meant to be a film version of the book. The movie is meant to be a literal, exact translation, a visual representation of the book.
- The movie is meant to be an interpretation of the book. The movie is meant to capture the essence of the book; the text should be used as a starting point to create a film.
The thing about films and books is that they are not at all the same medium. So to expect a filmmaker to forfeit their form for purposes of being more like the book is to ask them to stop being a filmmaker and be a visual-bookmaker (this sounds weird because it is not real). A filmmaker makes a movie because they know how to make films, and an author writes books because they know how to write books. The artist uses a medium they are most well-equipped to use, and see the story working best with. When a story transitions over various mediums, it must be understood that it will translate differently.
Therefore, #2 is how book-to-film adaptations work. #1 is how many readers want them to work and how they think it does. This is where the trouble comes in.
“Why is Jonas going to be so old?!?!” Well here are a few possible reasons: Brenton Thwaites, who is playing Jonas, is a hottie and that will sell in the box office; pre-teens onscreen financially do not do as well; it is much harder to find skilled young actors than older actors.
Do I think this is the best choice for the film? I don’t know. I do think that Jonas’ age is important because he is so young—he is naïve and trying to find his place in the world. Watching a 12-year-old discover his life is a fabricated lie is probably more heartbreaking than watching a 24-year-old discover this. However, we haven’t seen the film. We don’t know what Thwaites brought to the project or the character of Jonas. We don’t know why the filmmaker made this decision, but we’ve got to trust that they know their art.
When fans pitch hissy fits over small details in a book, it frustrates me, because they’ve got to understand: there are reasons. Things do not always come across as well onscreen as they do in a book. It may be in the end, some wrong decisions may be made, and that can be determined and definitely discussed after the film is released. Filmmakers aren’t always perfect and they do make mistakes, but they it is their right to construct the film the way they see fit. It doesn’t give them license to destroy a story, and if they do, that is something they absolutely have to own up to (see: Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief movie adaptation. Oh man. So bad). But sometimes changes to the story aren’t the end of the world. Nobody complains that Emma Watson played Hermione, even though she is a goddess on earth and Hermione is described as plain and frumpy, because nobody minds watching Emma Watson onscreen. Nobody.
So next time you want to complain about an actor having baby-blue eyes when they are supposed to be sky-blue, ask yourself these 3 questions:
- Will he still be able to portray the role properly?
- Will the exact shade of his eyes really affect the film?
- Will he still look great on a poster on my ceiling?
In the end, that’s all that really matters.