In the wake of Angela Cybulski’s post “Why Saving Mr. Banks is Worth Seeing” and the guest post from Kathryn from Through a Glass Brightly about “Poor A.A. Milne,” film adaptations of literary works are getting something of a bad rap here on the Dappled Things blog. I find myself smiling more than I should, writing a defense of Hollywood movies, because I high-tailed my way out of Los Angeles a year after I graduated with an MFA in screenwriting from a prestigious film school. Let’s just say that Hollywood and I are not exactly kindred spirits when it comes to creativity.
Literary adaptations are one of the things filmmakers have been getting right (at least, sometimes) since the earliest days of film. Anybody ever see Gone With the Wind? Margaret Mitchell’s novel is one of my all-time favorites, but the movie also stands as one of the greatest ever made. Yes, you will say. That’s because the adaptation respected the integrity of the story, even if it did deviate in the details to avoid being twelve hours long. All right. Let’s stick with movies released in color in 1939 and take a look instead at The Wizard of Oz.
It’s been many years since I read Frank L. Baum’s original, and I was probably too young to fully comprehend it at the time. However, I was even younger when I first watched Judy Garland traipse her way down the yellow brick road with Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion. Of the book, I remember little except a general sense of boredom, of wandering through vaguely-connected episodes without much purpose. Of the movie… if pressed, I could probably recite it. Even as a child, I knew the lyrics to every song. There were good guys, bad guys, defined goals, obstacles to struggle through, and plenty of magic (visual and musical, alongside the actual “magic” kind) to stoke the imagination. I still watch it happily any time I’m flipping channels and find it on TV. If filmmakers had maintained the integrity of Frank L. Baum’s thinly-veiled treatise about the gold standard, just think how impoverished our culture would be.
OK, once. Once Hollywood managed to take a mediocre book and turn it into a spectacular film by, well, ignoring the author’s original intention. But that was in 1939, right? It’s all been downhill since then.
Wrong. Try Forrest Gump. If you have not read Winston Groom’s novel, please do not change that fact on my account. Just believe me when I tell you that it bears no resemblance to the film except its title. Subtract any sense of coming-of-age nostalgia, of growing alongside history, of the sweet, simple boy from Alabama who waited so patiently for the girl he loved to finally love him, too; then add in a trip to outer space alongside a monkey, a chess-playing cannibal, and a lot of raunchy sex. How screenwriter Eric Roth ever arrived at the brilliant icon of his craft that became the movie Forrest Gump, I have no idea, but he deserved better than just a “Best Adapted Screenplay” Oscar for that work.
The important point to note is that, of my three examples of adaptations done well, Gone With the Wind remained the closest to the novel because it was the best novel. Maintaining literary integrity is only a good idea when the book has integrity to maintain. When the original is flawed, the screenwriter has a duty to his audience to compensate in any way necessary, be it by trimming and clarifying The Wizard of Oz or by completely re-imagining Forrest Gump. Of course there are more bad adaptations than good ones-bad scripts are easier to write, adapted or otherwise. Still, great things can happen when great screenwriters free themselves from the shackles of an author’s intention and, instead, do their own work well.
With respect to the specific points my colleagues Angela and Kathryn raised in their posts, I really don’t have much to quibble about. Winnie-the-Pooh did suffer undue injustice at the hands of Walt Disney, and it really is a shame that people often judge a book by the film (whatever the quality of the adaptation) instead of investing time in the prose. Even in the case of a movie as classic as Gone With the Wind, you’re still missing out if you leave Margaret Mitchell’s words unread. However, if filmmakers can find a better story lurking inside a novel than the one the author himself penned, then… I want to watch it. Don’t you?