The upcoming release of the science fiction film EDGE OF TOMORROW and the new documentary about Alejandro Jodorowsky's failed film version of the classic SF novel DUNE made me remember an online dust-up I had with someone in regards to 2012's JOHN CARTER, which was based on Edgar Rice Burrough's novel A PRINCESS OF MARS. That story is about a Civil War veteran who is transported to Mars and embarks on a series of adventures, discovering the various races that populate the Red Planet, including the "Red" men of Mars, and their beautiful princess, Dejah Thoris. The whole thing boiled down to the nature of movie adaptations of books, and just how faithful to the source material the films need to be.
The person I argued with hated JOHN CARTER, and pretty much spewed out enough invectives about the film's director, Andrew Stanton (WALL-E) that I will not bother repeat here. The person also accused anyone who enjoyed the film of being a moron because, in his words, the film was not 100% like the book. He then went on to praise the films 2001 and BLADE RUNNER. And this is where I caught him.
2001 and BR are excellent films, but they are in no way, shape or form 100% faithful to their source material. In fact, the hard, harsh truth is that no film based on a book is ever completely faithful to the source material. If you've seen JAWS and read the book, you know that there are significant differences between the two.
JOHN CARTER, if it were to follow A PRINCESS OF MARS to the letter, would have been an NC-17 film. First off, in the book the characters are naked most of the time. Also, in the book Carter talks about communicating with the Martians via telepathy. There is also no real villain--the character of Saab Than is basically spoken of for a couple of pages before he's dispatched when his kingdom is raided by Carter and his allies.
These are things that would not work in a film. And that is the key--what works in print will not often work on the screen. When a book is made into a film, it has to stand as a film--and that means that things come into play such as budget, running time, casting. A novel has pages and time to flesh out characters and events, but a movie's running time is critical. If the book were adapted into a television miniseries or series--say, the 1980s miniseries based on James Michner's novel SPACE, or the HBO series GAME OF THRONES, based on the novels by George R.R. Martin--then there is a chance that more of the book will be included. The same can also be said of the anime adaptations of popular light novels in Japan.
There are many films that have been based on books that have become classics or are highly regarded--JAWS, THE EXORCIST, DIE HARD, THE MALTESE FALCON, DRACULA, FRANKENSTEIN, TOTAL RECALL, ORDINARY PEOPLE, THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, THE THING, THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS--the list goes on. And yet all of these films differ from their source material in numerous ways. DIE HARD was based on the Roderick Thorpe novel "No One Lives Forever", and while the basic plot is the same, the main characters in the film are not the same as in the book. But DIE HARD still works as a film.
The late SF writer Isaac Asimov once wrote, "...if a good book is translated into a good move....this is not because there was a literal conversion of one into the another, scene by scene. There would have to be differences, even radical ones, if both are to be good." He also added, "This is especially true if the book is written by one person and the adaptation written by another....Notice that "equally" does not mean "identically". If the adapter follows slavishly the model with which he is presented....he is denying himself."
Asimov wrote those words in the introduction to the book I, ROBOT: THE ILLUSTRATED SCREENPLAY, which was written by Harlan Ellison. Ellison's screenplay of the novel I, ROBOT (written by Asimov) has been called "the greatest science fiction movie never made", and honestly, it would have been one hell of a great movie. But what is important about Ellison's script is that it is not 100% faithful to the original work. Not by a long shot. However, it is still captures the mood and many elements of Asimov's novel while working as a solid film. It's not about what Ellison left out, but what he left in (it also doesn't hurt that Ellison is a master at writing screenplays).
At the end of the day, though, if you go into EDGE OF TOMORROW expecting it to be exactly like the source novel (Hiroshi Sakurazaka's "All You Need Is Kill") then you will be disappointed. Always expect changes in the transition from film to screen, and try not to get hung up on what was left out. Remember, what you are also seeing is someone else's vision of the book--not yours. Screenwriters and filmmakers are not mind-readers. Internet loudmouths who forget this are bound to be in a state of constant frustration.
I wonder, though, if the Web were around in, say, the 1950s, would there have been calls for Robert Wise and Edmund H. North's heads after how they adapted Harry Bates' short story "Farewell to the Master". After all, the film they made took only a couple of elements from that story--a human, a tall robot, and a ship--and spun a film that was very, very different.
That film was THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL.
Then there are those who wail that Hollywood should stop making movies based on books and come up with "original" films....but that's another rant for another time. Suffice it to say that those folks seem not to be aware of the fact that film adaptations have been part of Hollywood since the start of motion pictures.
But again, that's another rant for another time.
"I sell my soul, but at the highest rates."