The Folly of Source Loyalty


It must be hell to adapt a comic book superhero franchise into a movie.  It’s not enough that they are attempting to create a fresh and original take on a story that has basically been told dozens of times in other films.  In the case of longstanding canon, a writer also has to navigate through decades of stories and try to fuse it as best as possible to a two-hour film.  Oh, they obviously have to condense quite a bit in order to fuse it to that kind of medium, but heaven help you if you invoke the dreaded artistic license or have a genuinely different take on the material, for internet fanboys know no mercy.  We thought fans of famed novels were hard to please…

All kidding aside, there is an unfortunate trend I’ve been seeing in film discussions among people my age as well as other critics over the last few years…and it’s reaching disturbing levels.  It is the valuing of our pet memories and loyalties to novels, TV shows, older films, video games and comic books so much that we judge film adaptations in service to those rather than on their own terms.  This attitude has probably always existed in some degree, but not to this point, where it now appears to be at the center of mainstream film discussion.

Today, when I talk about a movie based on something else to nearly anyone, the discussion invariably turns to how it is or isn’t “accurate enough” to the book/show/comic/video game/classic movie: “Who cares about the scope and vision of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring?  Tom Bombadil was cut out!”  “How dare Steve Kloves make changes to the script for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, even if it resulted in a tighter, more interesting film than the first two installments!”  “Robert Pattinson is a TERRIBLE Edward Cullen, because he’s not the most beautiful man in the world and that’s how he’s described in the book!”  These are all conversations I’ve had with people (with less sarcasm, of course), and the value of those conversations has always amounted to zero.  Don’t think I’m being hyperbolic and just screeching about a few minor chat rooms or my film ignorant friends.  Major entertainment websites like IGN and Ain’t It Cool News have adopted this exact mindset in their movie reviews for years.

The sin of this type of criticism is that it ignores the essential and unique elements to cinema – story, acting, craft – for the sake of nitpicking minutiae.  When it dominates the cinematic dialogue, then filmmakers and studios will naturally adjust their priorities to fit what they think audiences want.  Why would filmmakers care about cinematography, or an interesting story, or how well their work is put together if their adapted films are only going to be judged by its intended audience on how their interpretation matches all the details of the original version?

Of course it’s not really the “original” version, but the “right” version that exists in the head of every individual fan.  Even if the most die-hard worshipper of Bob Kane was given the power to film the most obedient take on classic Batman, guess what?  He would still do his own version – even if he didn’t intend to – because our minds have different ways of absorbing art.  That’s why prequels always fail; no origin tale could possibly live up the story we built up in our heads for Darth Vader, Wolverine, Michael Myers, etc.  Changing the nature of film criticism from analyzing one’s artistic vision to demanding wish-fulfillment is futile, dishonest and masturbatory.  And why would we even want that?  Shouldn’t we, as film fans, demand that our medium distinguish itself from other forms of art?  Why even bother watching movies if they don’t at least offer a distinctive presentation of existing stories?
Look, some stories just can’t be adapted to the screen as is.  Just three weeks ago the long-delayed adaptation of Atlas Shrugged finally hit theaters and was promptly savaged by critics and shrugged off by most audiences, which resulted in its producer having “deep second thoughts” about completing his proposed trilogy.  I read Ayn Rand’s book in high school and loved it until I, you know, grew up, but not before being aware of the dedicated following that her novel had.  It was even represented by an institution devoted to spreading her message in the most literal and tight-assed way possible, including a refusal to “endorse” any adaptation that is not slavishly loyal to her “vision.”  This of course presented a problem to producers as the book itself is about twice as long as it should have been and contains uninteresting, unlikable protagonists.  So producer John Aglialoro and director Paul Johansson split the film into three parts, and kept every single painfully didactic scene for the sake of fidelity.  The result was an unbearably boring, dramatically inert piece of garbage.

Taking another example of an author with opposite political beliefs but similar flaws as a writer, Upton Sinclair’s books were filled with boring soapbox monologues about the evils of capitalism and corporations.  When Paul Thomas Anderson decided to adapt Sinclair’s Oil! into his latest film, he decided to keep the first, maybe, hundred pages before telling a major variation of the story that he not only had a greater passion for, but one that suited the medium better.  Would you have preferred to trade There Will Be Blood’s haunting visuals and explosive performances for stilted, preachy speeches about the struggles of the proletariat?

Sure, there are times when loyal adaptations yield great films.  But for every one example of a No Country for Old Men you can find at least one other example of a Black Dahlia.  Don’t even get me started on all the proposed adaptations in development hell because their stories are “unadaptable,” which are only in that state because producers are unwilling to consider non-fanboy pandering options in order to make them “adaptable.”  The lesson for filmmakers is to make the best movie possible out of the source, which will require varying degrees of changes, from none at all to a considerable amount.  So if your source material is set in a dystopian future where railroads are the dominant form of transportation, ADJUST!

Even more odious a development – and the reason why I decided to write this piece at this time – is that now it’s spilling over into offensiveness.  This weekend is the premiere of Thor, a Marvel superhero epic in the style of Norse mythology, of which some of its fans have prematurely blasted over the gall to cast a black actor who was white in the comics.  You want to talk about minutiae?  Idris Elba, an obviously talented actor to anyone who remembers “The Wire,” is facing backlash from fans (not specifically White Supremacists, I might add) not over an aspect of his performance or interpretation of the character of Heimdall, but simply over the skin color of a supporting character introduced to the comics before the Civil Rights Act.  Because we all know black actors get way too many parts in major Hollywood movies these days, right?  You know we’ve gone too far when defending the “original vision” of adapted works turns its adherents into racists.