Monday, February 27, 2012

Frisby vs Brisby

It was a real struggle to get my daughter into reading. She's a very active kid, and, for a long time, making her sit down to read was virtually the same as the Chinese water torture. And not just for her. Over the last several months, though, she "got" it. Whatever it is that opens the eyes to books. That thing that so many people don't get.

So I've been suggesting books to her, and she's been reading them. The last one was Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh. I was a little older than her when I first read it, but I loved the book. It was one of my favorites when I was a kid. When Disney said they were making a movie of it, I was very excited. Just like I would later be excited that they were making an adaptation of The Black Cauldron. My hopes, in both cases, were smashed and stomped on.

Anyway, my daughter read Mrs. Frisby in a few days. A very quick read for her considering she's 8, and the book is nearly 250 pages. She loved it. Currently, it's her favorite book.

I don't remember how she found out, but she did find out that there is a movie adaptation: The Secret of Nimh. Maybe it was my fault. I can't remember if I mentioned it or if she found out some other way. At any rate, she demanded to see the movie as soon as she found out there was one and reminded me everyday for weeks that I was supposed to get it for her.

Now, I did warn her that I had been very disappointed with the movie when I was a kid and that it's not really much like the book. She didn't care. She wanted to see it.
Today was that day. ["Today" actually being a day last week.]

I understand that kids aren't supposed to care how close to a book a movie sticks. They're not supposed to care. But I cared. Evidently, my daughter also cares. Before the half hour mark of the movie, my daughter said to me, "This isn't much like the book at all." By the hour mark, she had asserted, "I don't like this very much." When it was over: "Dad, why did they change it?" I have no good answer for her as it's a question I have often asked myself about movie adaptations.

Why did they change it?

For instance, since I've been talking about it recently, why decide to adapt the book Oil! into a movie but, then, only use the first 1/3 of the book. What you're left with is not a story at all, as I've said about the movie There Will Be Blood (you can read the review here).

I suppose this is what I'm saying:
If you think a book is good enough to adapt into a movie, why screw around with it?

Don't get me wrong, I understand the need for some changes. For example, The Hunt for Red October. This is a great book and just screams to be made into a movie. Which they did. But the book, especially the climax, is quite complex. You can't get all of that into a two hour movie. This necessitates some changes. However, the core of the story was left intact. If you watch the movie and, then, go read the book, as I did, you get the same story, the same plot; the book just has more... depth? Richness? More complexities. However, when they went on to do Patriot Games, they changed the whole thrust of that book from being a story about the political statement of a terrorist group into a story about revenge. The action is somewhat consistent, but the motivations are completely changed, lessening the story.

The same thing holds true for movie re-makes. Here, I'll point to True Grit and The Day the Earth Stood Still. The re-make of True Grit is excellent and, probably, superior to the original. This is because they held to the story of the original movie. I mean, they held to the story almost shot for shot. They layered in levels of grittiness and language, though, that weren't common when the original film was made which gave the re-make a much more realistic feel. And Jeff bridges was much more convincing as a drunkard than John Wayne, but, again, that was more due to the sensibilities of the time period than anything else. With The Day the Earth Stood Still, though (a movie I love and own (the original, that is)), they kept little more than the title, the fact that the character is an alien, and a giant robot. There is nothing else that is similar between  the two movies. What, then, is the point? Oh, wait, the guy(s) that did the re-make wanted to use the title.

I'm not a legalist with adaptations, no matter what it sounds like. I like the movie version of Coraline better than the book. Some of that is because of the changes. But the story is the same. It's just that, in many ways, the movie is the richer version of the two of these. And Gaiman was involved in the changes and helped keep the story itself intact.

All of this still leaves me with the question:
If you want to adapt a book, why change the story, the plot, you are adapting?

I couldn't answer my daughter's question. I don't understand the issue. If it's a different story you want to tell, just write a new story. Don't stomp all over my daughter's dreams by ruining a story she loves. Not that it ruined the book for her, but she was really troubled by the fact that the movie she saw was not the same as the book she read.

This isn't a question I have any kind of answer for. I get that Hollywood is just trying to make money, and they'll do that by exploiting, well, by exploiting anything they can get their hands on. But it seems to me that when you look at adaptations, the most successful ones are the ones that held most closely to the source material. Lord of the Rings, anyone? Harry Potter? You'd think with these kinds of examples, Hollywood would do a better job of trying to stick to the story from the book.

Yes, I do realize that The Secret of Nimh is 30 years old, so, maybe, it is getting better. Oh, wait, then there's There Will Be Blood. So maybe not.

Going back to the question, though...
As a writer, it may just be that I'm more sensitive to story integrity than most people. Of course, most people (as we've talked about before) don't read, so they don't really know the difference anyway. Maybe that means none of this matters. Is it my job to be upset if some other writer sells his/her story to some studio to get butchered? But, then, I have my daughter saying to me, "Why did they change it?" and it does matter to me. And I can't make it not matter even though I tell myself it shouldn't.

And I'm rambling, now, so I'm just gonna stop. It's not an easy question to deal with, though, and I, as I said, I just don't get why you'd want to adapt a story and, then, make the story unrecognizable.
Maybe that's just me...


  1. Just wanting to use the title is my best guess. Ever read The Perfect Storm? Excellent book - movie is completely different though!

  2. I think you and I are of the same mind regarding this. Well, I at least understand the reasons in The Day the Earth Stood Still - even if I disagree with them, and how they were executed.

    What gets me, really gets me, are the changes that are made for no reason I can discern. It's like the studio says 'we need more toys. Can you throw in a robot or something?' and before you know it we have a mess.

    I think my favorite story about a change came from the old incredible Hulk tv show. The execs thought Bruce was too gay of a name so they changed it to David. Step all over the fans for something like that. It's just odd.

  3. We can't even mention "The Secret of NIMH" in my family because it freaks one of my sisters out, even though she's almost 32 years old.

    There are a lot of reasons they change books when making movies. Sometimes for time considerations, sometimes for rating considerations, sometimes because material is dated, sometimes because idiot directors/producers/studio honchos can't resist putting their stamp on things.

    John Irving (My favorite author) wrote a book called "My Movie Business" discussing the 15 year process to get "The Cider House Rules" from book to movie.

    Since I mentioned John Irving books, the movie "The Door in the Floor" is only the first 1/3 of his novel "A Widow for One Year". The reason the writer/director wanted to do that was because the whole novel was too long, covers too many years, and has too many subplots so focusing on the first third (which was in itself a self-contained story) worked better. And IMHO it was the best third of the book anyway.

  4. Movie adaptations are all about money. It's not about art. So there's something inherent in the bottom line that drives changes.

  5. Personally, aside from the obvious time constraints, I think it's also about appealing to a different demographic - the movie demographic. People that don't want to read and would rather have instant gratification than intricate plots.

    Hell, look at some of the ridiculous remakes of late that have turned literary classics into brainless action films (like The Three Musketeers).

    Also, I tried leaving a review for The Evil That Men Do, but it says 'you must have bought this to leave a review.' But... on the top of the page it says, 'you bought this on xx date!' So I'll try again later. But I promise I'm trying to review the damn thing.

  6. Alex: I did see the movie, but I haven't read the book. I didn't even remember that it was a book, in fact; although, I do now that you mention it.

    Rusty: Yeah, that kind of thing pisses me off. I love the LotR movies (overall), but I hate that Jackson through elves into the Battle of Helms Deep just because he wanted more elves (and he said that in an interview). It defeated the point.

    I remember that about the Hulk tv show, too. That never has made sense to me.

    Grumpy: Well, like I said, I understand the need for -some- changes, but changes to the plot make it a different story. If what you want is a different story, just write that story.

    Michael: Yeah, I know... I just don't like it :(

    ABftS: You know, the only thing satisfying about all of that was when I was in high school and someone would watch a movie based on a book we were supposed to read and screw up the test or report because of it. That was actually worth some giggles.

    Maybe it's because of that new verified Amazon purchase thing they have when you review. I think that just went live in the last few days sometime, so it could be interfering.

  7. I haven't read "The Princess Bride" but have been told the movie is better. I also enjoyed the movie of "Gone With The Wind" more than the book. However, more times than not they get it wrong, way wrong. Part of it is probably the medium that necessitates change but I have to wonder if some of it isn't that the screenwriter wants to make his or her mark on the piece, hoping that people will turn to one another and say,"That was so much better than the book." Why the director doesn't slap them into good sense I don't know. When one of my favorites. Dean Kootnz's Watchers, was made into a movie they changed the lead from a war hero to some kid. Huh? Never saw it but I'm guessing the plot line where he saves a young recluse and they fall in love had to be cut.

  8. You know, I used to love The Secret of NIMH, BUT I never read the book, so maybe that is why? When coming at it from a fresh perspective, I enjoyed it. Sounds like I wouldn't have liked it if I'd read the book first. I'll have to find that book for my kids.

    I think sometimes the changes are improvements and sometimes they aren't. I imagine we've all had those moments where we read something and think "I could have done that better." Maybe that's what these people are doing, but they're not just thinking it to themselves.

  9. Sometimes they're good and sometimes they're bad, but most of the time I don't remember one or the other. I'm usually a sucker and just accept it unless it's really way off and bad. Most of the time I don't think remakes work. In most cases I can't judge books to movies because I usually haven't read the book.

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  10. I don't know. I think sometimes staying "true" to the original in the adaptation of film to book/book to film is a good thing, as in True Grit, I suppose.

    But on the other hand film is such a different medium I think it can only but tell different stories, and so it is okay with me when a movie tells part of a book or the bones of the book - IF it calls itself something else. Like Oil to There Will Be Blood - then it should say "inspired by" - and that's fine.

    I think we read books and then hope to see our world realized on film, and most literary types are dissatisfied with that. Good topic!

  11. Kind of off-topic, my daughter just bought a copy of the original 'The Day the Earth Stood Still' for £2. We'll be watching it at the weekend.

  12. Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH was the first book I read that made me cry. I never really cared for the movie, for the same reasons you state.

    My son has the same question your daughter has. He said, "If they can't fit it in to a movie, they should be required to make a mini series".

    After reading Eragon then watching the movie, he said, "Do you think the author was mad about this?" After explaining how it works, he won't even watch the Guardians of Ga'Hoole movie because he said the trailer told him enough about how they butchered the story (I have no idea if they did or not, since we haven't seen the movie).

  13. I usually agree with the whole liking the book better than the movie thing with one exception. I love the movie Practical Magic. My daughter bought me the book for Christmas and I was disappointed to learn that I did not like the book even half as much. It drives my son crazy when he reads and loves a book and then the movie isn't exactly like it. Harry Potter being his biggest pet peeve. The first was very similar to the book but the rest of the movies.....not so much.

  14. Nancy: I don't know if it's just the screenwriters. I think the directors are just as much trying to make it theirs as anyone else. Maybe more so.
    I haven't read either of those books, but my wife, who loves the movie Gone With The Wind, loves the book even more.

    Shannon: That's one of the reasons I won't read a book, anymore, when I know the movie is coming out. It's much more likely for me that the book will ruin the movie, but I can often enjoy a movie and read the book after and say "well, that was even better."

    I get that sometimes you might think, "I would have done that this other way," but I think it's pretty arrogant to then go to the creator and, basically, tell them they've done it wrong. Like adding elves into the Battle of Helms Deep. Tolkien was making a point with that battle by -not- having elves, and Jackson just squashed the meaning of that whole section of the book.

    Arlee: Yeah, I often haven't read the books, either, especially when their adaptations of "literary" works. Usually, I'm not left wanting to read the book, either. I think if a director has done a good adaptation, I'll be left with the desire to read the book.

    Pish: I agree with that to some extent. They are different mediums. However, if what you want is not the story from the book, write the story you want and forget the book.

    I see the point with There Will Be Blood... except it was such a not good movie with no real story. I mean that in that it didn't contain all the parts of what you would call a plot. That makes it a failed adaptation in my mind. But, yeah, at least they didn't call it Oil!

    Sarah P: Awesome! Have you seen it before? Did you know that there are bits of that used in Star Wars? I won't say what, though.

    Sarah: I can't remember if Frisby made me cry or not. However, The Bridge to Terabithia did. I read those around the same time.

    I have often agreed with your son, which is why I'm so glad that Jackson spent the time to make LotR the way he did. Can you imagine that as a 2 hour movie?

    I didn't like the movie Eragon so I've never been interested in the book. My oldest has read them, though, and he didn't like the movie.
    I can't say much about Ga'Hoole. My kids liked the movie, but none of us have read the book.

    Jennifer: I think I saw Practical Magic, but I don't really remember anything about it.
    I thought they did less well with the Potter movies the farther along they got. The books got longer, but the movies didn't, so they had to cut more and more out.

  15. I didn't read The Bridge to Terabithia. We watched the movie when my son was five or six, and his reaction was heartbreaking. It was the first thing he ever saw that had that kind of ending.

    My brother-in-law referred to Eragon the movie as "the poorly written cliff notes version". The book is actually decent - I'd read it before they made the movie and enjoyed it.

    LoTR as a two-hour movie would have probably confused everyone who hadn't read the books. My brother-in-law has the extended versions of the movies, and we used that to introduce the series to my husband. He thought they were a bit too long, though.

  16. Sarah: You should read Bridge. WAY better than the movie. Way.

    I love the extended cuts of LotR, especially the gift giving scene that should never have been left out. I got to see those at Skywalker Ranch.
    Well, I also own them, but I got to see them at Skywalker!