Friday, October 31, 2008

When Movie Adaptations 'Choke'

By Scott

I recently saw the movie adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s novel Choke and, while the novel is one of my favorite books and the book that got me into Palahniuk, the movie is completely unremarkable. Interestingly, this isn’t one of those cases of the movie being ‘nothing like the book.’ In fact, it is about 95% faithful to the plot of the book but, somehow, it manages to miss what, in my mind, is one of the main points of the novel.

In the film, we get the story of Victor, an unrepentant sex addict, who chokes in restaurants as part of a scheme to make money to pay for his ailing mother’s hospital bills. Throughout the course of the story, he must learn to connect with his mother to find out who his father is, come to terms with his addiction so he can be with a woman that he actually likes without it being ‘just about sex’. The movie gives us this and that is the basic plot of the book.

What the film lacks is the book’s emphasis on the fact that, throughout the story, Victor slowly loses or actively destroys everything he has ever believed about himself so that, in the end, he no longer has any pre-existing notions of who he is and is given a ‘blank slate’ so to speak. The idea of destroying yourself in order to start over is a key theme to much of Palahniuk’s work (this is how I tie the book into Fight Club which we watch as part of my class) and, that the movie fails to bring this point across, makes it a failure in my eyes. This is mostly due to the fact that they fudge the ending, the final scene of the book, which drives the point of Victor’s ‘clean slate’ home in the book, is cut from the movie. It’s not that the idea is not there at all, it just isn’t as clear as it is in the book.

So, can anyone think of other examples like this? Where works are faithful to their origins in plot structure but, somehow, miss out on key themes? I’ve always felt that Fight Club was an excellent adaptation of the book, but I can’t really be sure because I saw the movie first. When I was discussing this with a colleague today he said, “The movie told you how to read the book.” As Geoff pointed out when I proposed this idea to him, this is definitely worth discussing in anticipation of the Watchmen movie. Even if 100% of what we see in the movie comes from the comic, it’s pretty unlikely that the film will be able to communicate everything that the work encompasses.

Also, what are some good examples of adaptations that, while changes were made, managed to ‘get it right’ so to speak? My vote for best adaptation of a literary work is To Kill a Mockingbird; all of the changes that were made were for the sake of condensing the story into a two-hour film and were, mostly, extraneous sub-plots and the film got all of the books main ideas across.

[What made Frank Miller's 300 exciting was his experimenting with a new, looser style, which gave the whole thing a lot of energy. Snyder's 300 took Miller's work so seriously, tried to be so faithful, that he sucked all the energy out of it: Miller's artistic freedom is replaced by Snyder's worshipful, exact and claustrophobic recreation.

I think Soderbergh's Solaris was massive improvement on both the original novel and the earlier movie, for the same reason as you mention in the example of To Kill a Mockingbird -- a movie is not a novel and Soderbergh streamlines the whole thing. And most of the Phillip K Dick adaptations are improvements if only because Dick is a writer who has great ideas, but his writing is awful on the sentence level.]


scott91777 said...


Do you feel the same way about Rodriguez's Sin City? In many ways, it was even MORE faithful to the source material there.

finsof72 said...

Solaris is one of those movies that I can call 'good' but not necessarily 'entertaining.' Kind of like the short story 'Heart of Darkness''s good and full of meaning but difficult to comprehend and not exactly thrilling. One of the book-to-film adaptations I saw recently was 'I Am Legend' which seemed to suffer from a similar case of 'choke' whereas while it may have followed the book's plot fairly well despite a few minor details (like that he found the dog, he didn't have it from the get-go), the movie misses the point. In the original book, it turned out that the new vampire-esque society felt that the only monster was Robert Neville, being a man who seemed to ruthlessly slay them (hence why he is 'legend'). The movie, in an attempt to make everything all about action, completely changes this in favor of a more stupid Hollywoodish ending that so epitomizes American film these days. (note: if you happen to have the DVD of 'I Am Legend' the alternate ending is MUCH better and while still not exactly like the book's ending it adds a much thicker layer of depth)

ba said...

Check out the Avclub inventory that they did on this very topic a few years ago:

Jason said...

Even before you brought up Watchmen, I was already thinking "V for Vendetta" as a good example. The movie was more or less faithful in plot terms (and I'm told it got even more exact in the middle-act, which I walked out before seeing) -- but the whole "anarchy vs. fascism" idea was lost entirely. And some of the charming touches that made the graphic novel so entertaining to me were just streamlined into oblivion (like the various aspects of the fascist hierarchy being linked to one of the five senses).

So, the movie has this sort of middle-road on which it is faithful to the plot of V for Vendetta, yet it misses the mark both on the large themes and the little details.

Man, did I hate that one. (I should say, I *never* walk out of movies before the end. But that one is the exception; it was just killing me.)

Kenney said...

Dave Barry's Big Trouble had a movie adaption starring Tim Allen and...other people. While the movie followed the plot to the letter, it was completely lifeless. Just about as flat as pancakes.

The book on the other hand was one of the few that made me laugh out loud (and I mean this, because I don't do that often). I couldn't tell you what went wrong, I'm not that smart, but I was really let down.

finsof72 said...

Lest we forget 'The Da Vinci Code.' Half of the book was just historical exposition, which is fine on paper, but put to the screen it was a horrible, like watching a bad documentary centered around slices of action and bad hair.

Ultimate Matt said...

I just recently read "The Short Timers, the novel Full Metal Jacket was based on, and it's definetly superior to the movie. The movie's main theme (and I'm a huge Stanley Kurbick fan) was the loss of identity & humanity of a soldier, the interchangability (is that a word) of soldiers. The book has that theme, but expands on it by also commenting on the cyclical nature of war, giving Joker's stay on Nam an almost timeless, ethereal quality, and also goes farther into the psychological horror of war. It's a stronger work than an already great film.

cease ill said...

I am just starting CHOKE. I am also in the process of finishing a story today...I just saw "Roger McKee STORY written on a random poking out piece of paper on my stand...and here I am...