From Page to Screen: YA Book-to-Movie Adaptations

blog39blog41With “Divergent” due for release on March 21 and “The Fault in Our Stars” coming up on June 6, it seems an apt moment to look at the successes and failures of other prominent YA book-to-film adaptations. I’m going to look at this hazardous transition and what we can expect from the upcoming releases.

THE BEST

It goes without saying that “The Hunger Games” falls in the ‘best’ category. Both a commercial and critical success, the first two films have respective lifetime grosses of  $408,010,692 and $423,969,843 and ratings on rottentomatoes.com of 84% and 89% fresh. The filmmakers had some difficult hurdles to overcome in adapting this trilogy. They had to make a film about kids killing each other and yet somehow get a certificate which meant kids (their target audience) could go to the cinema, fork out the money for a ticket and actually watch the film. They also had to take a book written in the first person present tense, in which we are able to know the protagonist’s every passing thought, and somehow see those thoughts translate on the screen.

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To counteract the first problem, the director of the first film, Gary Ross, employed a shaky hand-held camera technique when filming the vicious fight scenes. Gifting the scenes with a frenetic and tense energy, this astute maneuver also meant details of the violence were blurred and, most importantly in terms of certification, bloodless.  Casting Jennifer Lawrence, whose talent has since been recognised with a Best Actress Academy Award (for her role as Tiffany Maxwell in “Silver Linings Playbook” last year), was a masterstroke. Lawrence is able to convey so much with very little dialogue, making the need for a corny and intrusive overlaying narration (I’m looking at you, “Twilight”), obsolete. Ross has also discussed the potential benefit and greater artistic freedom in moving away from first person narration:

‘In the book, Katniss speculates about the game-makers manipulations… in the film, we can’t get inside Katniss’ head, but we do have the ability to cut away and actually show the machinations of the Capitol behind the scenes.’

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In some ways, “The Hunger Games” was always bound to make a seamless transition from page to screen. Suzanne Collins has an M.F.A. in dramatic writing and thus self-admittedly paced and structured her novels like a play. While she adapted the books herself, she also noted the necessity of creative subjectivity, leaving superfluous material on the cutting room floor and out of the subsequently sharper screenplay. These films serve as powerful companion pieces to their respective novels and highlight the trilogy’s pervasive themes. Similarities between the Capitols’ vicious voyeurism and their obsession with the cult of celebrity, and our own society’s fixation on reality TV are all the more perceptible when visible on screen, the visual parallels between the games with shows like “The X Factor” and “Big Brother” all the more evident. With Lawrence, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Donald Sutherland adding weight to the cast, a strong female protagonist and some really dark material explored,  these films show that youths aren’t just interested in watching films about sparkling vampires.

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The 2012 adaptation of the 1999 novel “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” received an 85% rating on rottentomatoes.com and has been embraced by a new generation of teens, despite its inability to please its original fans. I didn’t read “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” when I was a teenager and thus never had the strong emotional connection with the book that so many others my age experienced. Some of my friends refused to watch the film on the basis of supposed incorrect casting choices. Indeed, for a book about and embraced by outsiders, it’s difficult to reconcile the misfit literary characters you identified with as an awkward teen with the attractive actors and movie stars portraying them. Logan Lerman, however, I believe succeeds in his portrayal of the introverted and thoughtful eponymous wallflower. Emma Watson, despite a questionable American accent, manages not to be too annoying, which is all we can really ask fblog34or. Ezra Miller really shines as a charismatic dissident who doesn’t express his discontent by offing a load of classmates this time around (see “We Need To Talk About Kevin” – but probs not on Mother’s Day). “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” is an epistolary novel and retaining this important sense of communication between narrator and reader subsequently offered a challenge to the filmmakers. This is an occasion in which a voice over feels both necessary and well-utilized. Stephen Chbosky, like Collins, adapted his own novel and noted the importance of remaining unconstrained by the source material. He stated:

‘I think that the process of turning ‘Perks’ into a movie was the most gratifying and challenging work I’ve ever done professionally,’ he said. ‘I had to do a real adaptation — I couldn’t just film the book. It was a real balancing act to simultaneously be emotionally very inside the piece and at the same time always be outside of it to keep it on the train tracks.’

blog33I’m sure fundamentalist fans of the original book have found plenty to complain about. Yet as Chbosky, and Collins, recognise, films and novels are different species of fiction. Sometimes, fans of a book will embrace its film counterpart. In this case, fans of the film have instead been introduced to the book. It’s difficult to bring a book as unabashedly sincere and saccharine as this to life without making its viewers want to vomit and, for succeeding in that mission, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” deserves commendation.

Honourable mentions: “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” and “Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging” – coming-of-age films which manage to retain the warmth and wit of their source material.

THE WORST

I’m not one of those people who rubbishes a book or film without having read or seen it. I’ve read all four books in the “Twilight” series, and I’ve seen all five films. I can, therefore, say in all confidence that they are all truly atrocious. “The Twilight Saga” had an uphill struggle from the very beginning. How does one even begin to start adapting lines like: blog45

‘You are exactly my brand of heroin.’

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‘And so the lion fell in love with the lamb.’

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‘You are my life. You’re the only thing it would hurt me to lose.’

The only way Melissa Rosenberg (who wrote the screenplays) could have made this film series not laughably bad would have been to completely change the dialogue found in the books. Yet this would in all likelihood have upset the rabid “Twilight” fan base and, consequently, Rosenberg lifts verbal exchanges verbatim from Stephenie Meyer’s abysmal text. The plots in the books are terribly thin, a fact made painfully obvious by their film adaptations, which serve doggedly as an almost literal page-to-screen transcript. There are moments of the first film which are almost enjoyable –  such as the use of Pattinson’s original music during a surprisingly effective and atmospheric montage of Edward’s relationship with Bella near the film’s conclusion.

The acting is extremely wooden, but I don’t actually believe either Robert Pattinson or Kristen Stewart are terrible actors. Go watch Stewart in “Speak” or “Into the Wild”, and Pattinson in “Cosmopolis” if you don’t believe me. I don’t think anyone could have made those words work and, in the end, the actors just gave up. Pattinson himself has mocked “Twilight”, saying it ‘seemed like a book that wasn’t supposed to be published.’ He observed:

‘I was convinced that Stephanie was convinced she was Bella…It’s like, this woman is mad’ and added ‘the more I read the script, the more I hated this guy, so that’s how I played him, as a manic-depressive who hates himself.’ Check out Pattinson’s response to Jimmy Fallon’s comments about the series ending and fans getting sad:

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There’s even a whole tumblr page dedicated to Pattinson’s personal hatred and derision of the series. See http://rpattzhateshislife.tumblr.com if you fancy a LOL. In fact, for a LOL in general, watch “Breaking Dawn – Part 2” right now. If it had been marketed as a comedy or a satire I’m positive it would have been critically lauded as a pinnacle of the genre.

Of course, “The Twilight Series” was a huge hit financially and it has as many supporters as detractors. In theory I’m a fan of any book series that encourages teenagers to read. Yet “Twilight” is disturbing to me for its central validation of an essentially co-dependent couple, and for its casual inclusion of a female protagonist who utterly falls apart when her boyfriend leaves her and who has no interests or real discernible character traits outside of her romantic relationship. This isn’t romantic, and I find the series’ popularity troubling. “The Twilight Series” illustrates that a film adaptation is only as strong as its source. The studio is the one laughing though: no matter how bad these films were, they raked in the money.

Honourable mentions: “Beastly” – lack of chemistry between leads, “The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones” – lack of chemistry between leads, “The Princess Diaries” – completely removed the charm and individuality of the series, Disney-ified the book and changed almost everything, something Meg Cabot mocked in later books.

THE MIXED BAG

It pains me to say anything critical about my beloved “Harry Potter” series . Yet consisting of eight films, the series was directed by a total of four directors, each leaving their individual stamp and subsequently gifting the series with an inconsistent tone and uneven style. While “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” changed from director Gary Ross to Francis Lawrence, the transition was smooth and the directorial style remained remarkably similar, creating a sense of continuation from the world Ross had crafted in the first film. The first two “Harry Potter” films, directed by Christopher Columbus, constituted faithful adaptations of the books.

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There was much to admire about them: they were family-friendly, wholesome and managed to astonishingly capture the magic and originality of the books. I still remember the way I felt when I first saw Diagon Alley, Hedwig, the cupboard under the stairs, and a Quidditch match, or when I first heard John Williams’ score. These first two films are probably a little bloated and the child actors are no Anna Paquin in “The Piano”, but they are still incredibly watchable. The third film saw Alfonso Cuaron take the helm. Often cited as the best film across the whole series, Cuaron took a completely different approach. His approach was much more stylized, and he cut anything he deemed inessential to the plot. The result was a great film, yet missing a few of the smaller details meant some of the humour, charm and characterisation of the novel was lost. Mike Newell, who directed the fourth film, described his task as ‘compressing a huge book into the compass of a movie.’ This was achieved by ‘putting aside’ all those parts of the novel which did not directly relate to Harry and his journey. Unfortunately, Harry and his journey are not the most interesting parts of “Harry Potter”.

I think the “Harry Potter” books are so enduringly popular because the characters and the world they inhabit feel so real. The beauty of the books was in the small details – knowing each of the main characters’ letter-writing styles, or what they bought each other for Christmas, or what they ate for dinner. There is also a vast array of supporting and minor characters, and spells, and fantastic creatures. Yet such extraneous details are almost impossible to capture on film. Some of the most charming parts of the fourth book – the house-elf Winky, Hermione’s S.P.E.W, the Wizarding World Cup game, and Dudley eating the Weasley twins’ ton-tongue toffees, to name a few – had to be eliminated.blog51

The final four films were all directed by David Yates, which meant a greater coherence in style as the series trundled over the years to its conclusion. Filmed over a decade and with an almost completely undisturbed cast, the series is a phenomenon if only for the fact that we got to witness the child actors grow up over film, and the fact that we were able to see some of our favourite literary moments and imaginary locations brought to life. The series is far from perfect (the hideous epilogue being the main culprit), and it’s certainly a legitimate case of the old ‘the books were better’ argument. After all, the magic we imagine inside our own minds can never be matched, even by a stellar special effects team.

We’ll soon know where “Divergent” and “The Fault in Our Stars” will fall in terms of critical and commercial success. Both are based on bestselling novels with armies of stringent fans on their sides. Both books have also managed to attract adult readers in addition to young adults – a hugely important factor in gaining revenue. Both films coincidentally star Shailene Woodley, who was praised for her performance in “The Descendants”. The trailers were promising and they’ve already both garnered more significant buzz than “The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones” and “Beautiful Creatures”, recent YA adaptations which performed  disappointingly at the box office. Hopefully both of these adaptations will be able to discard the unnecessary and to recognise the difference between books and films, while retaining those characteristics and quirks which gave the novels their individual flair and made them popular in the first place. I hope this is the case, as there’s something so special about rediscovering your favourite book all over again in another form.

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Why The Best Original Screenplay Award Is The Best

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One of my favourite categories during The Oscars each year is the Best Original Screenplay Academy Award. In 2002, the name of this award was changed from ‘Writing (Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen)’ to ‘Writing (Original Screenplay)’. This seems a fitting alteration: the award often tends to recognise the kooky, zany films that are perhaps a little too unique and out-there to pick up the overall Best Picture award. Indeed, only three of the last ten original screenplay winners went on to win the coveted Best Film prize – “Crash”, “The Hurt Locker” and “The King’s Speech”.  Conversely “Lost in Translation”, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”, “Little Miss Sunshine”,  “Juno”, “Milk”, “Midnight in Paris”, “Django Unchained” and most recently, “Her”, won without picking up many other major awards (with the exception of a couple of acting awards for Christoph Waltz and Sean Penn).  For this reason, the Best Original Screenplay Academy Award is often considered a consolation prize, awarding films for ingenuity while relegating them to the sidelines in acting and directing categories. A predictor at awardscircuit.com wrote ahead of this year’s Best Original Screenplay award:

‘There is an opportunity to reward Steve McQueen, Alfonso Cuaron, and David O. Russell in major ways.  This is the category for Russell.  If they want “Hustle” to win at least one, this is their opportunity.  On the other hand, they may not want a film as special as “Her” to go home with nothing in tow.  Spike Jonze is a writer/director that many would love to see rewarded.’

This award is thus seen as a reward for films of a smaller scope unable to compete with the epics and juggernauts that go on to win. Woody Allen has been nominated 16 times for this award, yet only one of his films – “Annie Hall” in 1977 – won Best Picture. Quentin Tarantino, similarly, has won the Best Original Screenplay award twice – for “Pulp Fiction” in 1994 and “Django Unchained” in 2012 – but has failed to win a Best Director or Best Picture award.

Why is it that films deemed to have the strongest original script fall at the major hurdle? For a start, there is a trend in The Oscars towards a preference for films based on historical people and events. The innovative mish-mash of genres in “Django Unchained” was unable to compete with the weight and significance of “Lincoln”. Secondly, the Best Adapted Screenplay statuette has been awarded to six Best Picture winners in the past ten years, demonstrating a slight predilection towards scripts based upon existing texts rather than those springing from the imagination of their creator. Diablo Cody’s witty debut screenplay, “Juno” was pipped to the Best Picture post by “No Country for Old Men”, based on Cormac McCarthy’s novel. It seems perhaps puzzling that “Milk”, based on the life of LGBT rights activist Harvey Milk, was beaten. Yet it seems nothing could beat the runaway train of “Slumdog Millionaire” that year. Many of the Best Picture winners are films critically lauded, serious in tone and subject matter, and wide in scope and message. While these films are important, their virtual monopoly of accolades highlights a wider concern: the bias towards drama and away from comedy, animated movies and other blockbusters during awards season.

One might argue, however, that this means there is more room in the Best Original Screenplay section for, well, originality. These films are often more experimental in their form and topic, focusing less on wider social and historical issues and more on the lives of their oddball characters. Indeed, six of the last ten Best Original Screenplay-winning films centre on dysfunctional romantic and filial relationships. “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” uses a quasi-scientific basis for an exploration of the breakdown of romantic relationships and employs a dream-like and non-linear narrative to get to the root of its characters’ psyches. “Midnight in Paris” and “Her” also use fantasy and science fiction, straying too far from the path of straight drama to be serious contenders for Best Picture.  Spike Jonze’s “Her” uses the science fiction trope of artificial intelligence and the theory of technological singularity to explore the fundamental meaning behind human relationships and, even, what it means to be human.

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This award is my favourite because it recognises new and original talent. Even if it does now exist as a mere consolation prize, and even if its winners deserve a greater merit than they ultimately receive, the award does at least acknowledge and appreciate films for their written quality rather than their star power or their Weinstein connections. Best Original Screenplay winners are often humorous character studies, exploring the internal rather than the external. Though their characters are fictional and imagined creations, they are ironically the ones I can connect the most with and whom feel, to me, the most real.

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