What Makes a Good Film Adaptation?

I recently stumbled across this excellent video discussing Cary Fukunaga's all-too-brief involvement with the new It film that will be hitting theaters this Fall. 

I have been very vocal in my low expectations for this film, mainly due to how underwhelming Muschietti's other film, Mama, was, and because of Fukunaga's comments about the creative differences he had with producers which led to his rather unceremonious firing. 

I was trying to make an unconventional horror film. It didn’t fit into the algorithm of what they knew they could spend and make money back on based on not offending their standard genre audience. Our budget was perfectly fine. We were always hovering at the $32 million mark, which was their budget. It was the creative that we were really battling. It was two movies. They didn’t care about that. In the first movie, what I was trying to do was an elevated horror film with actual characters. They didn’t want any characters. They wanted archetypes and scares. I wrote the script. They wanted me to make a much more inoffensive, conventional script. But I don’t think you can do proper Stephen King and make it inoffensive.
— Cary Fukunaga

In this video there is some brief discussion about the elements of Fukunaga's script that would have elevated the horror, and attempted to create something fresh, and bold, from King's original novel. 

The comments were what really spurred this post, though. I invite you to check them out for yourself.

The essential thesis of the majority of these comments was that film adaptations should be as faithful to their source material as possible. The deviations that Fukunaga had proposed were met with vitriol, with some people saying he should have just made a different film if he had wanted to make the film that was described in this video.

So what makes a film adaptation good? Does an adaptation need to stick to its story word-for-word (or as close to that as possible), or is it okay for films to deviate from their source material while still using the essence of the narrative?

This is a difficult question, and it's one that I'm on the fence about. The easy answer seems to be "it depends on the film", but there should be some kind of rubric from which we can discern pros and cons of adapting existing works -- right?

Let's take a look at one of the most famous, and well-respected, film adaptations -- The Lord of the Rings

A still from The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)

A still from The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)

What made The Lord of the Rings so powerful was how it managed to adapt this epic fantasy tale while retaining an aura of its own. By this I mean to say that the film trilogy we all watched, and fell in love with, managed to tow the line between faithfully bringing Tolkien's vision to screen (Jackson describes, in one of the many behind-the-scenes documentaries, that Ian McKellen had a paperback copy "Fellowship" while they were on set, and would often consult it for answers; similarly, the late, great Christopher Lee was a Tolkien expert, having consistently read the trilogy every year until his passing), and asserting its own aesthetic, and vision.

Granted, Peter Jackson describes every moment of pre-production, filming, and post being dedicated to bringing Tolkien's vision to life. Therefore, for this trilogy, faithfulness to the source material was the essential element.

Let's take another film adaptation (one that is notorious, especially among King fans): Stanley Kubrick's 1980 masterpiece, The Shining.

A still from The Shining (1980)

A still from The Shining (1980)

The 1980 film is nothing like its source material, except in the most superficial of ways. Kubrick used King's novel more as a conduit for his own philosophical ideas than anything else. While King's novel was much more personal to the author, discussing issues of alcoholism, fatherhood, and marriage -- all under the backdrop of a ghost story --, Kubrick's film was more concerned with surrealism, tension, and imagery.

They both work in their own way, though. King's novel is widely regarded as one of his best, in terms of his entire canon, and Kubrick's film is widely regarded as one of the best horror films ever made. They both took the basic idea of the story, and drove it in different directions, both of which were wildly successful.

Is it a good adaptation, though?

That is a question that is left to subjective opinion. I personally am of the mind that a good film adaptation is one that uses the source material to its benefit, and in the process creates a good film. After all, literature and film are two different mediums with entirely different approaches (in terms of creation). It is impossible to perfectly adapt a novel, both because of runtime issues (if every adaptation was entirely faithful we would have excessively long films.

Additionally, what is the benefit of seeing a perfect representation of what we have already read? While certain moments take on a different meaning, or importance when we see them on screen (the battle of Helm's Deep, for instance, or the night-vision goggles scene in The Silence of the Lambs), films that use their source material as avenues for more provocative discussions, themes, or visual ideas are often just as powerful. 

In the video that started this blog post, many of the scenes that are brought up (which deviate from the source material) are still exploring ideas that King wrote about in his book. In Fukunaga's script, Pennywise wouldn't necessarily take on literal forms, like vampires and werewolves, but would instead use the children's inner fears -- like struggling with the concept of manhood -- against them. It is a deviation from the source material, as the scene described did not happen in the novel, but the underlying themes, and ideas, from the novel are still there.

My point here is that we shouldn't necessarily write off a film that deviates from its source material. Often times films that take their narrative in a different direction are still exploring similar themes, or ideas; more importantly, though, even when they're not, they can still be interesting, entertaining pieces of art on their own.

Take Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead, for example -- these are two hugely popular TV shows that follow their source material about 70% of the time. However, some characters who die in the show are alive in the books, or the comics, and vice versa. Some events don't play out quite like they do in the source material, and some moments in the source material are expanded, with great benefit, in these shows. The episode "Hardhome", for example, is the perfect example of this. In the series, A Song of Ice and Fire, the events at Hardhome are alluded to. In the show, we see what happens in grisly detail, and it is one of the most thrilling moments in the show.

I'm jumping around a bit here, but let's return to my main points here. Firstly, film adaptations (and TV adaptations for that matter) that follow their source material can often be amazing pieces of art that are augmented by their imagery. Conversely, films and shows that deviate from their source material (whether as drastically as Kubrick did, or in the smaller ways that Fukunaga wanted to) can be equally as good because of their ability to explore new stories within the parameters of the existing narrative.

Ultimately there is no way to say whether an adaptation is good or bad based only on the amount in which it deviates from its source material. We can only judge a piece of art on its own merits. And don't get me wrong -- there have been plenty of horrendous film adaptations that have missed the mark entirely (both by trying to deviate, and by trying to be faithful). But if we stop focusing on a film's connection to its source material, we may be better off.

James M. Cain -- author of novels like Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice -- was once asked about film adaptations. The story goes that a reporter visited his home to interview the author. At the time, one of Cain's novels had been adapted into a film, and said film was getting very poor reception. The reporter asked Cain if Hollywood had ruined his books. Cain's response is perfect.

They haven’t done anything to my books. They’re still right there on the shelf. They’re fine.
— James M. Cain

The point Cain is making, and I suppose the point I'm making as well, is that film adaptations do not erase their source material. Even if Kubrick's The Shining was one of the worst films every made, it would not erase King's novel, nor its social appeal. People would still read the book, and would tout it as "better than the movie" -- and that's perfectly okay.

As a filmmaker and a writer, I often find myself caught in the middle of this debate. Ultimately, my position on the matter is that filmmakers should go with their gut. If you're adapting a novel and you want it to remain as close to the source material as possible, nobody should stop you. The opposite is true as well.

At the end of the day, I still wish I could see what Fukunaga had in store for us. I may still be bracing myself for disappointment with Muschietti's vision, I do hope that it works, whether it's faithful or not.