"I am at a loss to conceive how a man should permit himself to write anything that would be truly disgraceful to a woman, or why a woman should be censured for writing anything that would be proper and becoming for a man."

11 June 2012

If It's Been Done Well, Leave It Alone

*deep breaths before diving into a hot button issue with me*

Articles and speculation about adapting classic literature (and literature in general) always draw my attention and, sometimes, my ire. I am not one of those Every Book Is A Holy Canon Which Should Not Be Altered For Screen people. I'm a writer, and I have flaws. I've written for the screen, and have flaws. No writer is perfect and no medium of expression is perfect in conveying what one medium already covered. My issues with adaptations are not rooted in that base problem, they are rooted in this: when one creator crafts a story and characters, it is the responsibility of someone later coming along to adapt that work to at least stay true to the overall tone and message of the source, as well as its characterization -- or change the g-d name! You change plot points? As long as we get to the same eventual conclusion, fine. You combine or omit characters? As long as it makes a stronger narrative and doesn't mess up essential moments in the story, fine. You alter a major character motivation, changing who they are on a fundamental level? NOW I have an issue, and my outrage will be rantalicious unless you give damn good support for your change or, you know, CHANGE THE G-D NAME. (Noticing a trend?)

My only other gripe with adaptation (and why I pretty much never take issue with Shakespeare films because he's the one writer out there whose work we never quite get right), is that once a well done, faithful adaptation is accomplished it's time to close the book, so to speak, and remove it from the realm of stories up for grabs. In my hasty youth, I didn't even extend this to previous film works. I thought, hey, if you can update a classic film well, then go for it! I've wizened and grown curmudgeonly in recent yeas, however, and now see the error of my ways. And if ever I need a reminder, I think of High Society (yeah, Hollywood was pulling that even during its Golden Age, so we can't heap all the blame on ourselves for the current state of stagnant original ideas). It's fine to have a vision of someone else's story in your head. If you're lucky enough to be allowed the chance to craft that story in another medium, then kudos to you -- you're already achieving one of my biggest dreams. Just... don't eff it up. And if you do and then someone else comes along later and hits the marks where you missed them, then at least you had that chance. However, if someone beats you to your dream (and I swear I will probably resort to every known tactic of undermining human success if this happens to me -- yeah, I can get competitive when I need to be), accept their success and find a new dream for yourself. The idea that once a good, faithful adaptation has been crafted someone else can come along with a new interpretation that will make the successful one shudder in shame is ridiculous. Improving a work from one medium to another is one huge accomplishment. Don't tempt fate by trying to improve the adaptation -- find something different or original to make, or CHANGE.THE.G-D.NAME.

What spurred my current eruption of emotion about adaptations? Well, it's been sort of a slow burn recently between varying reports of remaking IT, a clustermess of issues in season two of Game of Thrones (many of which end up as just sloppy storytelling -- and making strong characters into idiots), and culminating in the top news of this article about directors who were born for certain adaptations. The article itself is intriguing and has some interesting (and some, really, very safe) choices in the roster. What made my head do a Linda Blair was the news which sparked this article: that Guy Ritchie is doing an adaptation of Treasure Island.
Now, I don't necessarily doubt that the movie will be a fun romp with cool action sequences, quippy dialogue, and a sassy Long John Silver. There's just two issues with this equation. First, that concept is not going to end up being Treasure Island. Second, there already exists a near perfect adaptation of the book -- we don't need another.
Addressing issue the first: Guy Ritchie's already proven this is his MO with the Sherlock Holmes movies. Those guys bashing around the world solving mysteries are not Holmes and Watson. What Ritchie crafted is a set of cool Victorian buddy movies, with two men who happen to share names with and few characteristics of two of the most compelling characters in literature. You want to really see Holmes and Watson on screen? Watch the BBC series Sherlock. It's a modern setting, yes, but it IS Sherlock Holmes. I enjoy the movies, but I told myself about fifteen minutes into the first one that this was a Victorian buddy movie, not a Sherlock Holmes movie. In my head, I CHANGED THE G-D NAME, and then it was fine.
Now on to issue the second: already a near perfect adaptation of Treasure Island? Yep. I've never seen that... you think. No, you probably haven't. Yet it exists. It's a very good film, and it is one of the best examples in existence of how to adapt literature for screen. It's faithful to the tone, style, feel and majority of the plot. The characterization is spot on with a stellar cast. It's not a perfect movie, but Treasure Island is not a perfect book. It is however proof that when you maintain the core of a novel as your guiding star you can make not only a good film but a truly faithful adaptation of a work which deserves that treatment. Yet, people are still making Treasure Island... except no other adaptation I've seen really is remotely close to actually being Treasure Island, thus the crux of this whole entry: if you're going to keep remaking something and yet deviate drastically from the source -- CHANGE.THE.G-D.NAME.

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