Memo to Hollywood: How to do (and not do) an adaptation

December 31st, 2008

I have just watched The Seeker: The Dark is Rising, a year after it came out (DVR is your friend, except maybe in this case) and I’m gasping in horror at how bad it was, and for no good reason.  You’ve got all the elements that would seem to make a great movie:  Beloved children’s classic as source material?  Check.  Lavish sets?  Check.  Gorgeous costuming?  Check.  Actors ranging from competent to excellent?  Check.  Impressive and appropriate special effects?  Check.  Script by a competent screenwriter?  Um, well, I understand they got the guy who did the adaptation for Trainspotting, which I understand was a decent movie, but….

First off, let me make one thing clear: Departure from the source material is fine.   The Wizard of Oz dumped the scene in the Dainty China Country from the movie adaptation because it was boring, extraneous, and painfully lame.  Glomming the Good Witch of the North and Glinda the Sorceress of the South together makes sense from a dramatic perspective, though making her a bubbly airhead was a bit much (although the MGM version does have her fans).  Having the Wicked Witch of the West be responsible for the poppies is fine for purposes of drama, and having them be foiled by snow as opposed to field mice is likewise fine for purposes of staging.  Mary Norton’s The Magic Bedknob and Bonfires and Broomsticks do not contain Nazis, musical numbers, a young Miss Price, or magical football matches with talking animals–though all of these things are very fun in Bedknobs and Broomsticks, a movie I adored as a child and had to thank for introducing me to the equally good (if significantly different) book.  And Alfonso Cuaron’s version of A Little Princess took numerous liberties with the original novel, including but not limited to moving the setting from London to New York, making Becky black instead of Cockney, and most significantly, having Sarah’s dad not be dead of bad investments in India but instead poisoned by mustard gas and MIA in WWI.

The difference here is that The Wizard of Oz, Bedknobs and Broomsticks and Cuaron’s A Little Princess are all great movies.   The reason The Seeker isn’t is not because elements were changed, but because elements were changed for the wrong reasons and the wrong way.

The biggest, and wrongest, change was making Will Stanton, and his entire immediate family, American.  This was inane.  The filmmakers had some waffle about how this was done to emphasize Will as being an outsider and yadayadayada and various nonsense to cover up the fact that some executive thinks American theatre-going children only want to see films about American kids.

This is rubbish.  It’s not that it can’t be done–the boy in Roald Dahl’s The Witches is made American rather than British, and Mr. Darling is made an American computer game designer rather than a British economist for the live-action 101 Dalmations–but in this case it doesn’t work for the simple fact that, unlike the two counterexamples, it cuts the heart of the character.  Will Stanton is not an American child discovering the magical and mystical Britain (or at least the ability to blow up cars with his mind) but a British child with a stable and supportive family discovering magic and danger waiting for him right there in his home village.

Making Will fourteen rather than eleven?  Another problem, and a significant one.  Apart from all “Who buys popcorn?” charts nonsense, and concerns with dealing with child actors, eleven is an age for exploration and independence without having to really bother with hormones or even the societal pressure that one needs to deal with hormones.  The “love interest” plot pasted into The Seeker?  Completely extraneous and stupid.  Making Miss Price younger and prettier in Bedknobs and Broomsticks is fine because the heart of the character is the same: She’s an independent woman living on her own and studying witchcraft who suddenly has her secret discovered by a trio of children.  Whether she’s late thirties or late fifties is immaterial, and her romance with Mr. Brown–either version–is a matter of slowly growing affection, not something she’s actively looking for.

This goes double for all the manufactured family drama that wasn’t present in Susan Cooper’s original book.  Your protagonist has enough trouble dealing with the Dark without also having to deal with his eldest brother angsting about dropping out of college.

Changing the time period of the story from the late 60s to the current day is not an issue except in the way that it’s dealt with.  There is a problem with a movie when one of the more interesting and magical scenes takes place in a mall.  But whatever you do, don’t make a big fuss over giving your character a digital watch.  Digital watches weren’t even cool in the eighties, let alone the present day.  And for god’s sake don’t have him travel back in time and trade it to a Viking.

And changing “The Sign of Fire” into “The Power of the Human Soul”?  One supposes the script writer was not familiar with “What sort of lame power is Heart anyway?”

The sad thing is, there would be any number of ways to kick up the action of the book to make it more dramatic onscreen without having your protagonist blow up cars (even more troubling given that the Sign of Fire was edited out, despite the fact that giving actual powers to the Signs wouldn’t have damaged the original storyline and would have indeed made it more dramatic).

Of course there are any number of sad things about The Seeker, the main one being that it will now be a number of years before anyone can get together enough money to do a proper adaptation.

13 Responses to “Memo to Hollywood: How to do (and not do) an adaptation”

  1. Kate Elliotton 31 Dec 2008 at 2:29 am

    Excellent analysis. Although I admit I did not see The Seeker due to reading reviews that gave me to understand that the filmmakers did massive damage to a marvelous and classic story. And, indeed, I agree with you about the other three movies you describe. Bedknobs and Broomsticks was my sons’ favorite movie growing up. We must have seen it, oh, a hundred times.

  2. Brendan Podgeron 31 Dec 2008 at 3:55 am

    I could have dealt with Will being a Yank if the story had been transplanted to America. Susan Cooper stresses that the circle of Old Ones stretches around the world, so having some action in the US would be okay.

    Not only should there not have been family drama, the very loving family bonds the Stantons possess drive some of the most dramatic moments in the book. Without those bonds, when Will’s duty as an Old One comes into direct conflict with the safety of his family, where is the tension?

    I am with Kate in having avoided the film. The trailers were bad enough.

  3. Marie Brennanon 31 Dec 2008 at 4:13 am

    I was speechless with delight when I heard there would be a movie, and who they had cast in it.

    Then I saw the trailer and wanted to give myself a lobotomy so the pain would stop.

    Needless to say, I didn’t go see the film, and I think I will stick with that decision. Like you, I don’t mind things being changed; I recognize that film is a different medium, and stories that work on the page won’t necessarily work on the screen. But they made retarded revisionary decisions driven solely by the Received Wisdom that American filmgoers won’t do X, for various values of X — nevermind that after LotR, Narnia, and Harry Potter, most American filmgoers probably expect that all fantasy comes with British accents.

    I guess the only good thing I can say for the film is that it sank without a trace, which means the people responsible for it probably won’t ever get their hands on The Grey King. I would have to hurt somebody.

  4. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 31 Dec 2008 at 4:19 am

    Well, while The Dark is Rising itself could have been done as an American story, it would have had to be a very old town in New England to have even a vestige of the same flavor. But it would also make tying in with the Arthurian mythology even more of a stretch (not that the Arthurian mythology wasn’t left on the cutting room floor to begin with).

  5. Brendan Podgeron 31 Dec 2008 at 4:51 am

    I think you will find if you think back that there is very little of the Arthurian myth in TDIR. While it is very strong through the whole series, from memory there is only a couple of mentions of it in this book and they are pretty oblique.

    The Light’s Doors can span Time and Space so if a locale had to be in a particular place it could be(travelling the whole world to find the signs?!), but it could start and culminate in the US. Surely there is some equivalent of the Wild Hunt in Amerindian mythology that could harry the Dark to the ends of the world.

  6. green_knighton 31 Dec 2008 at 5:20 am

    I’m more glad than ever that I didn’t go to see this; I loved that book, it was the book that fuelled my love for fantasy, and I would hate to see it spoilt.

  7. Erin Underwoodon 31 Dec 2008 at 8:46 am

    The Seeker was a real let down for me, too. There is something absurd about the way Hollywood adapts certain movies. It’s ok to take story elements and twist them to intensify a theme or to update a story for a new audience or to reinterpret a work. However, to take a story and simply change elements for the sake of selling an audience tells me that the studio doesn’t trust its audience to “get it.”

    I actually just finished a research paper on this very topic. I can’t tell you how many originals and adaptations I’ve read. My mind was spinning by the time I was done. The one thing that REALLY sticks out from all of the research that I did is the fact that writers (or studios) who don’t trust the audience to “get” the story as it needs to be written usually produce a piece that isn’t well received.

  8. cedunkleyon 31 Dec 2008 at 9:40 am

    I ended up watching parts of this movie because I stumbled across it on cable a while back. I was highly disappointed. The filmmakers had pretty much destroyed the wonder and magic of the book.

    And changing the name to Legend of the Seeker…what was that all about? Were they trying to trick people into thinking it had something to do with Goodkind’s books?

    Just the name change alone was an early warning sign not to expect the book.

    *By the way, I had to create a new user account as it kept telling me I had an invalid username when I tried to log in. I’ve posted on here for years as Charles, but have changed my name to be consistent with my name on LJ. I was wondering if I should do that anyway and this just forced the issue.*

  9. cedunkleyon 31 Dec 2008 at 9:44 am

    Make that “The Seeker” as the name of the movie in the US.

    Legend of the Seeker is the name they gave to Wizard’s First Rule on the TV show.

  10. Asakiyumeon 31 Dec 2008 at 11:24 am

    I was horrified when I saw the trailers for the movie and consequently didn’t see it. I could tell at a glance that there was going to be all the ridiculous family crap that you mention, which only cheapens the story. And the mention of a love interest just adds to my disgust–not because I’m against love interests, but because that’s not the story that Susan Cooper created or the story readers loved.

    What I don’t understand is why they didn’t go the same route, in terms of thinking of box office sales, as The Golden Compass. Not that that was a brilliant movie either, but at least it didn’t totally veer off from its source material and attempt to wed it to something completely extraneous.

    The American film industry can’t utter the word “family,” apparently, without prefacing it with the word “dysfunctional.” Tedious and unnecessary.

  11. Jenaon 31 Dec 2008 at 12:00 pm

    I did see the movie — I was stuck on a plane, couldn’t sleep, and had already read my book and exhausted the list of good movies that were offered — and it was a huge disappointment. The producers turned a great book into a big gob of American TV-style pap, devoid of wonder and magic. Oh sure, there were special effects, but magic? Pfft. Not in the good sense.

  12. Leonon 03 Jan 2009 at 12:20 pm

    What’s with the hatred of Seeker? It would have been a fun little fantasy movie if they’d just removed the last few tenuous ties to Susan Cooper’s work and marketed it as something new.

    I’m a bit sad that no good adaptation of TDIR will likely be produced for at least a few more decades now. And when they do try again, they’ll probably just find a new way to fail. The series lacks big action sequences to hang a bunch of expensive special effects on as it was written, which most producers interpret as lacking audience appeal. So sad.

  13. Laurelon 14 Mar 2009 at 1:56 pm

    I am an American Fantasy lover. Although I did see the film version of The Seeker, I had not read the book. Thank you for letting me know there is a good fantasy out there I’ve missed. When I saw the film I though what kind of lame brained TV show is this supposed to be? Why did they bother to make this piece of crap? Can’t Hollywood do ANYTHING right? Who paid for this nonsense anyway?

    I told my husband the other day that if I never saw another new American made movie in my lifetime that I would not mind one bit, just give me a decent book, please. American film makers seem to be taking the titles, declining to actually read the book and using it as an excuse for dysfunction, violence and special effects. Oh and right, a book about an 11 year old British boy and magic won’t sell? Harry Potter did really well until the American movie industry got their hands on it and destroyed those books as well.

    I’m glad I came across this blog and not just for the chance it gave me for my favorite rant but because there are like minded people out there and clues as which book I should try next. Like Susan Cooper’s. So thanks.

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