Young Adult Books on the Big Screen

Note this blog entry contains spoilers about the final two Harry Potter books

It’s a truism that cinematic adaptations often pale besides their literary counterparts. An obvious counterexample is Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner but, off the top of my head, I can’t think of more. For those who’ve only seen the film, it’s well worth reading the Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? to see just how different it is, but to explain some elements of the screen version you’d have to gloss over otherwise.

Read the book to discover why the Blade Runner owl is artificial

A wonderful thing about a book is that everyone’s idea of it is unique. The reader converts the printed word from the page into a world of their own imagination. How I see the Imperial Palace on Melania in my head, is different from any readers of the Johnny Mackintosh books. Perhaps that’s why film adaptations so often disappoint, as the Director is competing with thousands of movies that have already run within a reader’s head.

There’s no film I can remember that’s disappointed me more that Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, directed by David Yates with a screenplay by Steve Kloves. As someone who loves the stories so deeply, it horrifies me that this pairing were also asked to make the double film of the final book. While I think the quality of film-making in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince isn’t terrible (though it is weak), what I can’t fathom were the drastic, totally unnecessary changes to the plot that were introduced, diverting from Rowling’s marvellous story architecture and characterization.

[spoiler alert]

Yates and Kloves think they know better than JK Rowling

With a long book, why introduce a mad scene where Bellatrix Lestrange destroys The Burrow? Where will they hold the wedding in the next film, or has that been scrapped too?

A more important example was the death of Dumbledore. In the book, Harry is powerless to act, hidden under the invisibility cloak with Dumbledore’s body-bind curse on him. He would do anything to fight to save his pseudo-grandfather figure, and knows all too well the Hogwarts Headmaster is dead when the curse lifts. If the film, Harry is hiding in the background, and chooses simply to watch and not act, perhaps due to some bizarre element of cowardice that Yates and Kloves wanted to introduce into Harry’s character. There are numerous other examples and a lot concerning Dumbledore’s relationship with Harry: in the books, our hero is kept in the dark and has o puzzle things out for himself; according to this film, Harry is Dumbledore’s confidant.

When I write the Johnny Mackintosh books, I confess I sometimes have a secret nod to possible future film adaptations. I know a fair amount about film theory and structure, and sometimes I’ll be particularly proud of a passage because I know how well it would translate onto the big screen. I see the same in Jo Rowling’s writing at times, where she’s gone a little out of her way to write a beautiful, cinematic scene for her directors, knowing how much it would enhance the film. Yates completely ignored this. There are two such scenes in the Half-Blood Prince: the great battle within Hogwarts, as the DA battle the Death Eaters within the castle, and then the set-piece of Dumbledore’s funeral. How could these be missing? It means the film doesn’t even have a proper climax. And it’s given a terrible plot problem for the final film when Voldy has to break into Dumbledore’s tomb.

If you haven’t gathered I feel very strongly about this, then you should. I do wonder why Rowling would have allowed it to happen when she famously controlled the earlier films so tightly. One of my friends did suggest that, by the time Kloves was writing the screenplay, he had all seven books at his disposal so, for the first time she could step back and trust the filmmakers. What a mistake that was.

However, the reason I thought I’d write this piece was having recently seen the movie of Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief. Now I know many people describe the Percy Jackson books as “Harry Potter lite” and I can understand that. This is the only Percy Jackson book I’ve read and I have to say I rather enjoyed it. The idea was better than the writing, but it was a fun story, lacking a little in dramatic tension (I never felt Percy wasn’t going to get out of his scrapes pretty easily) and Percy didn’t seem to have any qualms or regrets about killing anything. But I like it enough to reread it almost at once.

A rare scene in Percy Jackson, staying fairly true to the book

Then I saw the movie. It’s as if the Director (Christopher Columbus) had read a completely different book from me (and everybody else) and had no qualms whatsoever about changing almost the entire narrative. I was left really nonplussed by the whole experience and really felt for die-hard fans of the series, as they must have wondered what on earth they were watching.

The same thing happened with Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights/The Golden Compass, where the story was butchered, almost to the point of becoming unrecognizable, by the filmmakers, ruining everything that was good about the book.

Then, last night I saw the Alex Rider Stormbreaker film for the first time. Apologies to Anthony Horowitz, but I really loathed this book and couldn’t get on with the style of writing at all. Happily for Anthony, he’s done very well from it and certainly doesn’t need my endorsement. I don’t recall that much about the book, but watching the film I was pleasantly surprised and it’s interesting that Horowitz also wrote the screenplay. Here the director (Geoffrey Sax) seems to have gone for some sort of high-camp spoof (hence very comic) adaptation, which work well for what it was.

Peter Jackson's beautiful Minas Tirith

At the start of this blog entry, I commented that Blade Runner is a superb film and completely unlike the book. Is it fair, then, to criticize other movies that diverge from the books they’re based on, attempting to make films that standalone? Yes and no. I’ve not read The Lord of the Rings books since I was 14 or 15, but I devoured them up until that point and always considered them unfilmable. Then Peter Jackson directed one of the most beautiful cinema trilogies ever and fans of the book owe him an incredible debt. I always dreamy I’d see the beautiful city of Minas Tirith first hand and he made it possible.

What I think it comes down to is that, for a hugely popular book, the filmmakers have a responsibility to the fanbase to create something true to the original story. For something less well known, they’re free to take the essence of the story and use it as a basis to create some new work of art. It breaks my heart to say it, but I don’t think there’s any way I’ll watch the final two Harry Potter movies as they’ll just make me angry.

~ by keithmansfield on August 30, 2010.

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