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.]