January 1, 2010

Judging adaptations on their own merit

My boyfriend always says you gotta be able to separate the stuff from the stuff. This cryptic phase has a plethora of applications, but I'm finding it increasingly relevant in discussing how critics and audiences receive certain cinematic adaptations. I recently saw Nine and, despite going into it with low expectations from the critical beating it had received, thought it was pretty great. It's no instant classic, of course, but it's definitely nipping at the heels of Chicago, and that puppy won Best Picture! It's sexy, fun, well-acted, well-sung, well-designed, and an all-around fulfilling time at the movies. Quality-wise, it's like Zombieland, another well-executed popcorn movie that critics loved. So I can't help thinking that this critical trashing has something to do with the fact that Nine is not as good as its source material, a little movie you may have heard of called 8 1/2.

Consider this quote from respected critic Claudia Puig: "Nine should have been called 4 1/2 because it doesn't come close to the work of the master who inspired it." That's a completely unfair assessment. Just because a movie isn't as good as one of the greatest films of all time, it's crap? Here's another, from critic Rob Thomas: "You don't have to love Federico Fellini to hate Nine. But it helps." Roger Ebert: "Nine is just plain adrift in its own lack of necessity." Roger, nobody asked you to evaluate the necessity of this film, just the film itself.

All this has got to stop, because it's keeping people from enjoying a good film that never even tries to be as iconic or great as 8 1/2 (and that's not a bad thing!). Classic films have been musical-ified at least as far back as the 50s, maybe further. I think the only unnecessary kind of remake is one that takes a really great and beloved film and makes it again without changing much. Making it a musical, updating it with new technology, changing the circumstances, or reinventing a film that wasn't that good to begin with all create something that's different enough to give a fair shot.

Films adapted from sacred cows of literature have the same problem. The Road, while received much more favorably, drew a lot of grumbles that the "unfilmable" book was ever adapted. Youth in Revolt (which admittedly hasn't come out yet) has drawn preemptive grumbles lamenting that the 500 pages of brilliance captured in the novel can't all be conveyed on screen. That's true - but you have to accept that film and literature are different mediums that will most likely tell a story differently. Film will rarely be able to achieve, for example, the character depth of a source novel, but it also adds visual and auditory elements.

As far as I'm concerned, there's no such thing as an "unfilmable" anything - look how many successful films came from material stuck with that label. Things might be adapted poorly, but that's not the source material's fault and should never prompt declarations that the film's real problem is just its existence.

So if you ever find yourself using "it's not as good as the original" as a critique, stop yourself and think. What's really the problem? Is it the directing? The screenplay? The acting? If you can't answer that question, then you're not really giving the film a fair chance. After all, think how silly that critique sounds in certain contexts - like, nobody complains that The Ten Commandments isn't as good as the Bible (arguably the most beloved source material of all time!)

What do you think? Are you as sick of this trend as I am?


Craig said...

I guess I need to separate the argument into two parts. First, I've yet to see 8 1/2, but I thought Nine was wretched enough on its own. In general, though, I agree that "not as good as the original" is lazy criticism. I'm getting particularly sick of it with regard to Cormac McCarthy, whom you'd think was the Homer of our era (he sure seems to think he is) who'd never penned a poor sentence in his life. The Harry Potter crowd is too young to grasp that cinema and literature are different mediums, but you'd think older readers/moviegoers would know better.

Sometimes a movie even ends up being preferable to what's come before. John Huston's Maltese Falcon with Bogart was the third adaptation of the novel. The Godfather was pulpy trash transformed into film art. And last night I watched Short Cuts again and was amazed at how brilliantly Altman wove together Carver's stories into a sprawling ensemble piece.

Of course it takes a great artist to achieve this. And for every Huston, Coppola, or Altman, there seem to be ten Rob Marshalls to remind us that somebody did it better.

Siddhant Lahiri said...


I am a cinephile sitting in India who stumbled onto your blog, and I think it's brilliant! Not only are your thoughts incisive and insightful, but your writing style instantly draws the reader into your detailed posts! While your posts are long (by the average standards), they are never boring, and not one word seems unnecessary.

Anyway, i had my own take on adapted films, and thought I should share it: