Film, Books, and the Fate of Adaptation

It seems we have entered a new era of filmmaking, one that is both good and bad. I’m referring, of course, to the increasing frequency of splitting books into two (or more) films. It was a justifiable decision for Deathly Hallows (actually, for any of the Potter films from Goblet of Fire on).

Breaking Dawn was nothing but a money grab, desperately trying to imitate the success of the Potter series, shrewdly calculated by studios to screw fans out of twice the money for a story of about half the run time of the first film. It basically had no plot is what I’m saying, just so we’re clear.

Given the additional material that’s been added, The Hobbit‘s three film adaptation seems to be a legitimate decision made (almost) entirely for narrative reasons. Having seen the first part demonstrates this well. 

But now it has been announced that Mockingjay, the final story in the Hunger Games trilogy, will also be split into two films. The defense of artistic integrity is fast running out of room when the barely 300-page YA book (with big font) would almost make an ideal film-length of about two and a half hours. It doesn’t have any more story to it than the first Hunger Games, ably and masterfully crafted into a cohesive single narrative by Gary Ross.

Obviously studios have tremendous reason to stretch beloved and highly anticipated stories into multiple parts – it draws in the money. But recent developments in Hollywood point to a growing understanding that people will reward excellence. This first began in earnest with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, where it was proved that fantasy was a viable film genre if taken seriously enough. Prior to that point, genre films tended to be slapped together, often on small or strained budgets, with poor writing, flat direction, and little to offer anyone save die-hard fans desperate for anything more in their chosen genre or series. The prospect of adaption was constantly low, with adaptation and sequel expectation at a minimum, frequently proving a disappointment.

Starting with LOTR and continuing with the Potter series, Hollywood began to deliver, for the most part, on the promise of an experience worthy of the material they were working from. Today, sequels are some of the most highly anticipated films every year. More than worthy adaptations, once the barrier of acting and directing was broken, genre and comic book films began to attract better directors and actors, providing quality cinematography and performances.

While there will of course be some failures and misfires even into the future, the successes prove that something more than just cold capitalistic desire of movie corporations are at work. That’s there, to be sure, and we shouldn’t forget it. But these successes have proved that quality work can be produced in genres once thought relegated to the bespeckled losers of empty and mindless entertainment franchises, quality work that also makes  a pretty penny for their financial backers.

The bad side of this is that it can and has and will be a decision made for no reason other than to make an insane amount of money. But I think the other side of this development is the realization that a two-hour run-time just isn’t long enough to adapt films that aspire to the lofty and dizzying heights that they reach for.

The average film, written into book form, is about the length of a novella (typically well under two hundred published pages, under a hundred printed pages). In other words, adapting a novel into a film means reducing over half of it just to fit in the standard time allotment. In short, adaptations are already at a disadvantage from the starting gate. Not just description, but scenes must be reduced and combined; thematic development, character observation, and build must be streamlined and compressed just to get through the events of the story. Often this is what kills an adaptation, and it is what almost killed a number of the later Potter films – they sprint through the bare events of the story without being able to take a breath just to finish. The inevitable result of this process is the fall of humanness – you get a number of faceless extras sprinting through a computer-generated landscape doing God-knows-what, the camera spinning and rotating endlessly, swooping through something less of a film and more of a visual barrage of images arranged in a sequence (*ahem* Transformers *ahem*).

The real problem is time. You’re not going to cut out the big fight for the sake of the character scene; after all, fights and battles are visually interesting, and film is a visual medium. This corresponding lack of human-ness does result in a fast-paced adventure, but reduces our capacity to care. We go to be wowed, not to connect with people. We barely even expect it anymore, and so are pleasantly surprised to find we miss it when we encounter it in unexpected places. (The kids-get-superpowers film Chronicle was one such place.)

The solution to this problem, I suggest, is to take more time. This will mean multiple movies or longer movies. The salvation of adaptation could very well be in taking the time we need to tell the story well. Longer run-times will be one such result, a result we are already seeing. Two of the three Dark Knight films breach the two-and-a-half hour mark, LOTR set records for length, and most genre films run at over the 2 hours 30 minutes mark right now, some even marching toward three. Let’s push that to three as standard, and farther if we need to, or break it into parts if it looks to break four.

Stories, like everything else, need room to breathe.

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