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The Lens: Movie or book - different, worse or better

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 12, 2009 - It's one of the most common things you hear when people talk about movies: "It wasn't like the book." It's a pedantic way of dismissing a film without really having to give much thought about why the filmmakers may have changed or reinterpreted their source material. And it's been a sore point for many people - audiences, filmmakers and more than a few disgruntled novelists - at least since 1927, when the producers of the film "Love" thought that maybe it would be a good idea if Anna Karenina missed that last train out of St. Petersburg.

It seems to me that there are as many ways to turn a book (or play or short story, etc.) into a movie as there are people willing to try to do it: There are adaptations that add little to their source material but stand up as a valid dramatization/illustration of it (The 1974 version of "The Great Gatsby" comes to mind.) There are some that capture the spirit of a book but also inspire the filmmakers to find their own personal interpretation of it ("The Godfather," "Contempt,""The Last Temptation of Christ" and "The Player," to name a few). There are films like "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" that preserve barely more than the concept of the literary work, and even films like "Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story" which look at their source from every direction before deciding that there's really no way to get it on film.

The degree to which an adaptation follows its original text doesn't guarantee that the trip from one medium to another will be a smooth one. Stanley Kubrick made eight films based on novels, making changes out of necessity in one case ("Lolita"), moving one story from turn-of-the-(19th) century Vienna to contemporary New York in another ("Eyes Wide Shut") and turning a solemn Cold War cautionary tale into a wild, dark comedy ("Dr. Strangelove"). Anthony Burgess once said that Kubrick's version of "A Clockwork Orange" had been as faithful to his novel as any writer could wish; Stephen King probably wouldn't say the same thing about "The Shining."

My own feeling is that it's useful to be familiar with a work before seeing a film version, not to use the text to bludgeon the director and screenwriter for any alterations, but for insight into what the filmmakers saw in it. If the Coen brothers, for example, who are perfectly capable of coming up with original film material on their own, decide to devote their creative energies to a story by Cormac McCarthy, isn't it worth trying to figure out what got their attention?

In recent years, however, literary fidelity has been taken to an almost ridiculous degree as films like the Harry Potter series and Peter Jackson's never-ending "Lord of the Rings" trilogy offered an almost complete page-by-page adaptations of their respective sources rather than taking a chance on alienating the fanbase. Faced with bestsellers like "The DaVinci Code," the Potter books and "Twilight," producers have taken to looking at books more as brand names and franchises than as sources of inspiration, and the filmed versions of many have become little more than a kind of feature length commercial for the brand name.

The job of the director - even given the wads of cash and limitless running time of the Rowlings and Tolkien films - has been reduced to coming up with images that correspond to the reader's imagination, and that of the screenwriter to a form of editing, determining how much of the text can safely be stripped away without diminishing the storyline.

This current state of somewhat dry and lifeless adaptations occurred to me after watching a recent film based on Stieg Larsson's international bestseller "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo." Larsson's novel, the first of a posthumously published trilogy, is a complicated tale, part mystery, part Eurothriller, combining the world of contemporary business and the fact-chasing of investigative journalism with a family saga going back 60 years.

The hero is a discredited journalist hired to investigate the disappearance of a young girl about 40 years earlier, and uncovering the tracks of a serial killer in the process, while also trying to rescue his economically troubled magazine, getting revenge against a multinational corporation and picking up a few tricks in computer hacking from an anti-social but brilliant young woman. Despite a few false moments in the Grisham/Brown vein it's an engrossing, complex crime thriller which threatens to spin away from logic but wraps itself up neatly, bringing all of the various plot concerns together in a common theme as alluded by the original Swedish title, "Men Who Hurt Women."

While it's uncertain if it will ever be released in the U.S., the film version of "Men Who Hurt Women" is a fairly typical example of a bestseller-driven movie. It holds your interest, and the performers are generally very good. It retells the basic plot, at least as far as the central figures of the journalist and the punk hacker are concerned, makes no serious changes to the novel and gets to the climactic point, the uncovering of the serial killer, in as straightforward way as possible.

Readers of Larsson's book will be relatively satisfied that the heroes and villains have not changed. Viewers who haven't read the book probably won't miss the lack of distinctive characters among the family under investigation by the hero, or the economic maneuverings in the background as he tries to preserve the reputation of his struggling magazine. More importantly, they may be tempted to pick up a copy of the novel or its two sequels. It is, in short, a film that will neither disappoint nor inspire those who read the book, without confusing those who haven't.

So, am I just doing the same thing I criticized a few paragraphs ago, knocking the films because "it's not like the book"? Not really. The film version of the Larsson novel does just enough to convey the plot of the original, but that's all. No one involved in the film seems particular inspired to embellish any of the themes raised by the book, and the film drops several important elements from the book simply because no one knew how to film them or wanted to run the risk of stepping outside of the barest outline of the plot. As an adaptation of a popular novel, it succeeds by taking few chances. As a film, it fails for the same reason.

The Lens is the blog of Cinema St. Louis, hosted by the Beacon.