Friday, June 03, 2005

Don't Be Messing With My Book

Last night I went to see Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. As you might recall, I absolutely loved the books. So I was thrilled when I discovered that they were making the first volume into a movie, especially since by the time I read the book and learned about the movie, I only had to wait around two months rather than a couple of years.

My opinion of the movie - surprisingly good. The script stayed fairly close to the original book, with the exception of the Lena storyline. A few characters were missing (Lena's sister, Bridget's brother - neither of these a big deal - Tibby's guinea pig, which I did miss), and I can't say I loved all of the casting choices. I thought America Ferrara as Carmen and Amber Tamblyn as Tibby were wonderfully casted. I didn't as much like Blake Lively as Bridget - I didn't think she was pretty enough. Alexis Bledel as Lena left me kind of meh. Again, she wasn't as pretty as I'd imagined her when I was reading the book. I did like Michael Rady as Kostas (very dark and Mediterranean) but absolutely hated Mike Vogel as Eric. Not that Mike Vogel was a bad actor - just nothing like I pictured Eric from his description in the book.

Like I said, overall the movie did a good job sticking to its inspiration. I cried on several occasions, big weepy tears. I thought the Bridget story lacked a bit of intensity, and I still don't understand why the writers/producers/directors felt the need to completely change Lena's story into something more "conventional". I'm not sure what was un-conventional about the original, except if I recall correctly, in the book, Lena gave Kostas the cold shoulder pretty much until the very end (which I didn't get while reading the book, come to think of it). In the movie she defies her grandparents' insistence that she not see the grandson of a man with whom they've had a long-standing feud. The screenwriters turned her story into kind of a Romeo and Juliet scenario.

Seeing this movie last night got me to thinking about books being translated into movies. There are so many romance novels that I've read that I think would make amazing movies. And I'm not talking about b-grade, on-the-cheap soft-focus made-for-the-WE-or-Oxygen-channel movies. I'm talking big time, blockbuster stuff. A lot of the romantic suspense I've read (Brockmann's Over the Edge or Out of Control, Stuart's Black Ice, Howard's Mr. Perfect) would translate just as well to the big screen as things like The Bourne Identity. Jennifer Crusie's Bet Me would make an amazing romantic comedy. And lord knows what could happen if Gabaldon's Outlander were ever tackled.

If I had all the money in the entire universe, I'd start my own production company and make it my mission to turn the greatest romance novels into first-class movies. None of them would star Fabio. In fact, that would be my one law - I had to approve all casting choices. For me, this is a big factor in whether or not a movie makes it as a good adaptation of a great book.

I don't know if any of you remember the uproar when Tom Cruise was cast as the vampire LeStat in Anne Rice's Interview With the Vampire? I personally thought he did an excellent job, but then again, I hadn't read the book. Same thing with Renee Zellweger as Bridget Jones. I hadn't read Bridget Jones's Diary so had no expectations and thus thought she did a fantastic job.

Nothing is so cool as to see the characters on a page come to life in 3D form on the screen. And it's 10,000 times better when they actually look and/or sound like you thought they would. The entire cast of the Harry Potter movies is absolutely brilliant, IMO. Despite the fact that they are way older than the actual book characters, I thought the cast of Sense and Sensibility was spot on.

But good casting isn't all there is to a good adaptation. A big part of it, for me anyway, is in what the screenwriters decided to include from the book and what they determined was expendable. The worst ever - EVER - movie adaptation of a book was Francis Ford Coppola's version of S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders. Every time I think of that movie, I want to weep because the book was so amazingly brilliant and the movie sucked like a Hoover. It was badly acted, the story was butchered, and pretty much not a single scene ran like I'd imagined it when reading the book. The only good thing about the movie - and this is being generous - was the casting of pretty-boy Rob Lowe as pretty-boy brother Sodapop and Patrick Swayze as the oldest, too-young-to-be-so-burdened brother, Darry. I did like Matt Dillon as Dallas, but all of the guys' acting was so over the top as to be cartoon-like. Really, I remember rushing out to see this movie, so excited that my favorite book of all time had been adapted to film, and walking out of the theater wanting to tell every single person who hadn't read the book that the movie was nothing like the story.

That's the worst thing about an adaptation gone oh-so-wrong - how it will scare people off the original book. I usually prefer to read the book first, then watch the movie because I'd say that 95% of the time the original book is better than the movie version. For example, I won't let my kids watch the Harry Potter movies until they are old enough to read the books first. I think the reading and development of your own imagination is far more important than being a passive viewer, not to mention the fact that having read the book first gives you an insight into the movie that usually makes a huge difference.

Granted, this is because the book can offer us a few things movies cannot. First major thing is time and space for character development and story.

I remember reading that Alfonso Cuaron was being made to keep Rowling's Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban down to a running time of less than two and a half hours and wondering how he could ever manage it. He did, and very well I might add. But how much better the Lord of the Rings Trilogy (one of my all time favorite book-to-screen adaptations) turned out because it had the luxury of three movies worth of time - some 10 plus hours - to really enter the world of the book.

Granted, an expansive work like LotR needed that amount of time. But look at how beloved the BBC/A&E adaptation of Pride and Prejudice (another fav of mine) is because it was afforded six hours to tell the whole story. With hardly any character absences and even a few bonus scenes, the movie, IMO, is just as good or perhaps even better than the book (gasp - sacrilege!).

I think that might be the greatest compliment that I can pay a movie. If I love it as much as or perhaps even better than the book. And I can tell you that it took the movie version of both The Lord of the Rings trilogy and Pride and Prejudice to get me to actually read those books. I loved the movies so much I turned to the books looking for more - more character insight and more description and just more. For books-to-movies that I've already read, a sign of success is if I have a burning desire to rush home and reread the book. I want to relive the magic that the movie reminded me about.

The second big thing books have over movies is the ability to really get inside the characters' heads. I mentioned earlier twhen discussing the Sisterhood movie, I found Bridget's story in the movie to be lacking in intensity. For those of you unfamiliar with the book - Bridget goes off to soccer camp after suffering the pain of her mother's suicide. While at camp, she meets a camp counselor - Eric - to whom she is attracted, and she sets out to seduce the boy. Not only is Eric off limits because he's a counselor and she a camper, but he's older than she is. She finds herself in way over her head and I won't ruin it by saying more. In the movie, we didn't get to "see" Bridget's inner turmoil. Also, I'm guessing because of pacing and time constraints, Eric's reluctance and struggle is never properly demonstrated so the entire scenario loses a lot of tension. The whole thing feels short-changed.

And again, going back to P&P, that was one thing the movie offered that the book actually lacked; a chance to see more deeply into one of the character's mind and feelings. In the book, we are never given any scenes that are 100% Mr. Darcy-centric. The story is told from Elizabeth Bennet's POV. But in the movie, we do get to see Colin Firth (*swoon*) brooding and struggling with his unwanted attraction for Elizabeth. I felt a lot more sympathy for the character by watching the movie and seeing these scenes than I would have had I read the book first. And I'm not just saying that because we got that wonderful Colin Firth in his wet shirt scene. That was simply a bonus bonus. And too, there is the famous Look that completely summed up Mr. Darcy's feelings for Elizabeth - a look that I never could have pictured reading the book because such a look is never mentioned.

So, I guess I'm saying that a book-to-movie done well can be a wonderful thing. But when it's done badly, I'd just as soon it not be done at all.

With last night's viewing of The Sisterhood, I can't say that I was overwhelmed by the urge to rush home and pull the copy off my bookshelf. But I did leave the theater hoping that this movie is successful enough to allow the next book in the series to be made. I enjoyed watching the girls spring off the page, my emotions were touched (read: I cried almost as much during the movie as I did when reading the book), and I want to see how they handle the further adventures of the pants.

In the meantime, I'll be accepting donations toward the start-up fees for my All Romance All The Time production company and interviewing gorgeous hardbodies to assemble my roster of potential heroes for casting purposes.

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