As much as I watched movies growing up, I spent more time reading in my youth than watching film. As a result, I was very much the typical “Read the book before the movie” kind of person and often staunchly the “book was better than the movie” person as well. This included things from Dracula, the Harry Potter book series, the cases of Sherlock Holmes, the works of Agatha Christie, the James Bond books, and even the somewhat frivolous choice of Jane Austen (I had a thing for English writers, I guess). However, as I grew to be a better writer, as I grew to love film more passionately, and as I grew to be a better film watcher I slowly drifted from that state of mind to one of “treat the two as almost separate entities”. I’ve become the kind of person who will pipe up defending a film’s interpretation of a book, even if drastic changes are made and even if I didn’t like the film. A film should be able to stand on its own and be as broadly accessible as possible, right? That may be so, but I noticed very recently that, despite my mild evolution in thought, I still relapse into the same state of mind when watching certain television adaptations of works. From HBO’s Todd Haynes directed adaptation of James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce to the British television series that adapted Poirot and Miss Marple to the incredible I, Claudius, I’ve inadvertently made a strange exception. And I don’t quite understand why, but I will try to discuss it further here.
One of my most vivid memories as a child is one that takes me back to second grade. I was lying on the bed in the upstairs bedroom of my grandmother’s house listening to the audio book of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, narrated by the great Jim Dale. (Full disclosure: A lot of my “reading” was actually done by audio book. I have no shame.) Sure, the Harry Potter books make not be the literary masterpieces a lot of people my age would purport them to be, but I really do enjoy them and, at that age, I found them to be quite magical. There was so much depth and detail, the characters seemed so fully realized, and I wanted to be a part of that world. I assumed, as do probably most people at that age when reading a book, that the film adaptation would take me to that world exactly as I had imagined. But it didn’t.
Much to my dismay, I was unable to really make much out of the first three movies, which to me, were a fiasco (they still aren’t great, really). But I was so in tune to my own interpretation of the book that it never occurred to me a) the director has his own ideas b) the author has their own intentions and c) the adaptations should be able to stand on their own, in order to make the world more open. Also, there was an issue with running time, so there was that as well. (I still find it kind of strange that director David Yates decided to make the longest book into the shortest film. Clever, but strange.) My own ego was at work here, and fully manifested itself in a very angry letter written to the film’s producers (this is again, in second grade) begging them to adapt as completely as possible Book Five to the screen. All the tiny, minute details, all of the characters, story arcs, dialogue, etc. I was 9, and I thought I was entitled to a complete version of the film. A transliteration. (The letter remained unsent, for the record.)
I had the same issues with several other films, but I think the majesty of something I saw as so fantastical and enjoyable really struck me. Seeing those changes in the film versions of my favorite books literally offended me. I scoffed at the screen. I probably deemed whatever film it was poor due to the numerous changes. The 1931 Todd Browning version of Dracula always annoyed me because they omitted several characters, “destroying” an intriguing plot. For, at that age, I could not be satiated unless it was as accurate as possible.
However, as I grew older and I began to understood film more and more as medium, as an entertainment device, etc. I realized that these departures should be fine, so long as they cohere with the rest of the film. It’s the reason I had such an issue with the screen version of Les Miserables: you approach a film almost blindly usually, with very little context. That’s supposed to be made up in exposition, extra scenes, etc. Les Miz didn’t have that, but neither did the musical. The reason being is that the approach is different. The point being, with no context, you should be able to go into a film adaptation of a book and get a majority of it. Sure, there will be some nuances missed or not understood, some in jokes to please the readers, etc., but generally speaking, it should be a simple, fun, engaging ride.
Now that I’ve understood that literature and cinema, despite their connections and roots, should be able to operate alone, there are a few exceptions I’ve noticed, in terms of how I treat and come back from a film. One of the first is The Perks of Being a Wallflower. I count this as a notable exception because the film was directed by its original author, Stephen Chbosky, who also wrote the film’s screenplay. Rarely, as far as I know, does the original author direct and write the screenplay of the film version (the focus being “and”). In that film, you’re supposed to get the full vision, the full realization of the characters that the author created. And, all said and done, it’s pretty good. There are some notable differences in how the subject matter is treated, and with that ambiguity comes a couple problems: Chbosky spent so much time tiptoeing around certain aspects of his original novel that he mentions a couple things and then drops them without resolution. A couple characters jump the gun and don’t make a “complete circle” in terms of evolution. But, all things considered, these are pretty minor issues. The most important stuff is in there. And yet it’s not a transliteration. It still remains a film that can be treated separately from its source material.
I talked about transliterations a while back in my review for Mildred Pierce and I would like to bring it up again. I haven’t read the entirety of the original novel, but, rewatching the series, I’m struck not only how faithful the series is, but how good it is. Part of the issue of transliterations conceptually is that it doesn’t bring much originality to the table. It suffocates the work (see: Zack Snyder’s Watchmen). But even though Mildred Pierce was exhaustively adapted, using a majority of the dialogue and nearly every scene from the book, it still breathes life into the novel. It is not merely because it’s a film of the novel, but because it still remains an interpretation, primarily that of director Todd Haynes. In interviews, Haynes stated that although there book was essentially the text, he wanted to have every screen from Mildred’s perspective, giving the film a slightly subjective lens. That alone frees it from being exhaustingly dull and commonplace. What may be as important as the source material in an adaptation is the passion the maker brings to it, which includes their interpretation.
That said, had this not occurred, had the film not so lovingly been adapted from the book, with the words practically lifted off the page, I don’t think I would have given the film a pass. It’s a curious thing I’ve noticed over the last few days, actually. For some reason, I’m less inclined to give television adaptations any kind of leniency than I am film.
With film, you’re allotted a narrow amount of time, usually, which means that a lot has to be cut out and a lot has to change in order to meet those constraints (though, I still don’t understand why the dialogue can’t be retained). With television, you’re given an incredible amount of freedom, especially in terms of time, if not necessarily with budget. So, I believe the preconception I approach television adatations with (and others do the same, I think) is: “They have all that time, which means they should be able to get in a majority of the details in there.”
I’ve been rewatching some of the more recent ITV adaptations of Agatha Christie’s books, particularly those starring the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot and the spinster Miss Marple. I’m a bit rusty on the novels, but I still remember a fairly good deal about them, at least the main arcs and characterizations. But I noticed some rather drastic deviations. The Nicolas Winding Refn directed episode of Marple called “Nemesis” retains one conceit from the novel and throws the rest away, even changing the murder, the victim, the perpetrator, and the motive. SparkNotes, in comparison, would be far more accurate. I resented this change. Why bother changing all of that? Why bother adapting that book in the first place? For the episode “By the Pricking of My Thumbs”, one of the protagonists is characterized as a resentful alcoholic. Um, why? Was it an attempt to add depth to that character? Was it an attempt to fix a plot hole? (The novel was originally intended for Christie’s Nick and Nora-esque detectives, Tommy and Tuppence, who are relegated to supporting roles in the TV adaptation.) 2010 brought a new adaptation of Christie’s most famous novel Murder on the Orient Express, but even then, I found the changes to be extraordinarily inessential. The darker tone, the focus on Poirot being a Catholic, the change of characters, the drop of an important piece of evidence, etc. No, that episode did not “pass my test”. The book had earlier been adapted by Sidney Lumet in 1974 (garnering Ingrid Bergman with her third Academy Award), and that one was rather accurate, but also contained seemingly bizarre, “unnoticeable” changes. Many of the changes in both television series’ earlier incarnations would probably only be noticeable to avid readers, so why bother changing them at all if they’re so minute?
The approach is the same: more time, more reason to add or retain details. I, Claudius (based on the books I, Claudius and Claudius the God by Robert Graves) gets it right (including chunks of dialogue too), so why can’t everyone else? It may not have to be a transliteration, but the faithfulness was lacking in the Christie series.
To completely generalize, I believe that we hold film adaptations of books under such scrutiny because it is usually a book that we care deeply about. As much as I adore and love cinema, books are something very special and unique. They can be just as, if not more, transportive than film. But, I believe it’s good to let go, to allow the two to be, for the sake of an analogy, cousins, if not brothers and sisters. And I believe that I hold television accountable, not only because of the spacious room they seem to be given in how they’re able to tell their story, but because I want to be enveloped in what I fell in love with for a longer period of time than a movie adaptation can do. It’s not right, but it’s my flaw.
That said, I love film and books both completely and passionately.
It’s flu season! I mean Oscar season! But, is there really a stretch between the two? The Academy Award nominations are like that film you see where you’re fairly satisfied walking out, but the more you think about it, the more you begin to dislike it (sort of like Les Miserables, but not as bad). Anyways, here’s my quick lowdown on what I thought of this year’s nominees. (Here is a complete list.)
- Picture: Rather pleased with the Best Picture roster. Not surprised that Les Mis got in, but it doesn’t mean I like it anymore. Very, very happy that Amour slipped in. A little surprised that Django Unchained is in there at all.
- Best Actor: Can I just say how overwrought Hugh Jackman was in Les Miserables? Okay, thanks. Other than that, all looks fine and predictable. Nice to see Phoenix in there for The Master.
- Supporting Actor: Alan Arkin again. Please. Go away. Your one good line in Argo does not/should not equate with a nod. Honestly surprised that Waltz got a nod in Django Unchained over DiCaprio. No Javier Bardem for Skyfall bums me out hard.
- Director: Woo, #TeamHanake! Did you know my birthday falls on Oscar night? Yep. It was my secret (okay, not secret) birthday wish that Tom Hooper would not get nominated for Best Director. And it came true!
- Actress: Woo Riva, #TeamHanake! Cute to see Wallis in there for Beasts of the Southern Wild. But now I have to learn how to spell her name. A little surprised for Watts in The Impossible over Rachel Weisz in The Deep Blue Sea.
- Supporting Actress: It’s just lovely to see Amy Adams because I love Amy Adams. The inclusion of The Master at all this year, in acting categories especially, is nice, even if it didn’t get Directing or Best Pic nods. Jacki Weaver represents the usual “out of left field supporting acting nod”.
- Adapted Screenplay: surprised no The Perks of Being a Wallflower.
- Original Screenplay: Yay Amour, #TeamHaneke!
- Cinematography: WOO Deakins!
- Documentary Feature: Woo Kirby Dick!
- Foreign Film/The Movies with Subtitles: yay Amour again! #TeamHanake. You know what also would have been awesome, besides Holy Motors, of course? Oslo, August 31st.
- The rest of the lot: I’m super bummed that The Cabin in the Woods and Looper didn’t get in for Original Screenplay. That would have been nice. Sad that Andy Serkis didn’t slip in for Supporting Actor, but I don’t think that will ever happen, regardless of how brilliant he is as Gollum. No Holy Motors at all is crazy. No The Dark Knight Rises or Cloud Atlas, even in tech categories, is very surprising. Especially the former. It would have been lovely had Keira Knightley been in there for Anna Karenina. That Ted nomination is BS. And that “Suddenly” nod for Les Miserables just proves what everyone had been saying: a shameless way to get the film eligible for Best Original Song. No Bigelow, Affleck, and Tarantino are a surprise.
- Can I just say “Who Were We?” from Holy Motors should have been in there? Seriously.
- What can we learn from this year’s nominees: we had an average year for films. But you can’t please everyone.
- What you can learn from a variety of top ten lists from the year: we had a freaking great year in film. But you can’t please everyone.
But, the race ain’t over till Nate Silver puts in his two cents.
Despite practically growing up on musicals, a) I never got to see Les Misérables live and b) the televised/filmed productions of the seminal musical have never really struck me as deeply as, say, The Phantom of the Opera, Sweeney Todd, Company, Chicago, Cabaret, etc. Les Misérables is great, I am certainly not denying that, but it never cracked my list of “favorites”. That said, I am truly a sucker for some of the music, “On My Own” probably being my favorite. The 10th Anniversary “Dream Cast” Concert is quite lovely to behold, and thus, hearing of an actual film adaptation of the musical intrigued me. The original story, based on the novel by Victor Hugo, had been adapted to the screen a handful of times (including one with Liam Neeson), but Tom Hooper’s period spectacle would mark the first time the musical would make it to the big screen. And, because I love musicals, I was excited. Instead of getting in line for the tickets, I should have gotten in line for the guillotines.
Les Misérables tells the sad, sad tale of a bunch of people prior and during the French Student Rebellion (June 1832), and not the French Revolution (1789-1799). Included in this group of the afflicted is Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a man who spent over a decade in prison for stealing bread to feed his family; Javert (Russell Crowe), the dutiful officer; and Fantine (Anne Hathaway), the poor single mother who goes to certain extremes in order to allocate money to send to the couple taking care of her daughter, Cosette (later played by Amanda Seyfried). As Jean Valjean moves up in the world under a pseudonym, the presiding officer holds a grudge and the animosity between the two ends up involving pretty much everyone else somehow or another.
The implications of a theatrical adaptation of a stage show, whether it is an actual play (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Rabbit Hole, etc.) or a musical (Cabaret, Chicago, Sweeney Todd) is to not merely paste the songs in a film like setting, but to fill in some of the holes by utilizing everything that film as a medium has to offer. Expand on character relationships, elaborate on character goals and motivations; effectively explain plot holes or context. With a musical (and its source material) that is so often incorrectly assumed to be about the French Revolution, you would think that the film adaptation would give the perfect opportunity to give more context to the time and setting of the darn thing. Alas, no. Tom Hooper, who can do period detail very well (see: Elizabeth I and John Adams from HBO), instead seems to concentrate on just seemingly cutting and pasting the singing of the stage show to a well-dressed back lot. Without that context or background, the stakes are not nearly as high and the audience, including myself, has less of a reason to care about a) the characters involved and b) the situations they are stuck in. There is no primer as to the Student Rebellion and the most we are offered are a couple lyrics sung by a dirty, if cherubic blond kid in a thick Manchester accent. He sings about the lack of change and the remaining bourgeoisie reign, but so what? That alone isn’t enough to make me care. Give me higher stakes and give me more reason. A couple lines from “ABC Café” are hardly reason enough to make us care about a Student Rebellion (who, by the way, seem too well dressed to really seem like they care about the upper class).
Part of the problem is the streamlining of the material. On stage, you have more time because you have an intermission, and those going to a musical have, generally, educated themselves enough to get the gist of things. If not, then the book or the lyrics do some of the heavy work for you. There is not as much an issue in terms of time and linearity because of the sparseness of sets and locations, but in a film, you must deal with time as a concept. Which means that as Valjean contemplates his existential identity crisis in “Who Am I?/The Trial”, in the space of three cuts, he goes from his little house to riding on horseback to the courthouse. Those three cuts take less than three seconds altogether. There is no actual travel, unless you count the split second, blink and you miss it ride on horseback. This is not limited to that one scene, but several scenes. The love story in the second half of the film looks entirely moronic because there isn’t enough time to develop Cosette and Marius’ attraction to one another. Star crossed love is romantic when the characters are allowed to revel in what they have just experienced, however brief it may be; but when it is reduced to literally ten seconds and no less than ten reverse, point of view shots, the rest of the stakes for love are dwarfed and just look stupid. In an attempt to quicken things up and make an already deathly long and poorly paced film seem shorter, some plot points are either dropped or obscured by and buried under the “let’s get through all the songs first”.
This, I suppose, is in itself a mixed bag. You have seen the ad more time than Sascha Baren Cohen’s ratty Thenardier has stolen gold pieces, and it has been something the Les Misérables have been pushing really hard: the live singing. Marketed as “the first time it’s ever been done before” is not actually true. The 1995 television adaptation of Gypsy (starring Bette Midler) featured live singing; Susan Stroman’s ill-fated screen adaptation of the Mel Brooks’ musical The Producers had live singing; and Julie Taymor’s experimental Beatles musical Across the Universe had “live singing 80% of the time” (this according to the director’s commentary on the DVD). Les Misérables only stands apart from the first two in that the live singing isn’t so much singing (not in the performing way that most musicals employ) as it is giving life to the songs. When it’s done well in the film, it can be truly visceral and moving (Anne Hathaway and Samantha Barks, for instance, nail you in the soul). When it does not work, it just seems sort of sad. While it is no surprise that Hathaway stuns with her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream”, the songs that seemed to work best were those that featured most of the company. “At the End of the Day”, “Lovely Ladies”, “One More Day”, and “Red and Black” all had verve and life to them, which several of the other solo/character focused songs did not.
Which brings me to this – Newsflash, I don’t like Hugh Jackman’s voice. I never have. He is a lovely actor, and his voice is technically fine. But, that’s what I don’t like about it. Jackman, as much soul as he tries to put into “Valjean’s Soliloquy” and “Who Am I?” seems to be so focused on technique and placed in a situation where he has to move and where the vocals will come out imperfect, he loses the essence of the tune. It sounds professional, sure, but the wealth of vibrato works against him in a way. Russell Crowe, for all of his unpolished singing abilities, in a way, surpasses Jackman vocally because you can hear the tune. The gravelly, maybe somewhat nasally quality gives more life to the character than Crowe actually provides when he is acting. (Much like Gerard Butler in Phantom, but worse.) It probably was not the best idea to hire Crowe, due to the complexity of the music and the range it requires.
With that laborious focus on singing and period detail by Hooper (whom I still, probably unfairly, resent for winning Best Director of The King’s Speech), the story, as I said, gets left behind. Which makes it feel like the intentions were to just see the famous people performing the songs one after the other. There are maybe 10 lines of dialogue total in the film, which, for most mainstream audiences, is not anywhere near enough. Again, with the medium of film, you have the opportunity to a) make a musical more accessible to other audiences and b) expound on story, characters, etc. There was zero attempt to do this; just song after song after song. It’s not this cycle that is inherently the problem; it’s the missed opportunity to make the story more enjoyable.
Aside from singing and famous people, some very strange focus (hah) was put on the film’s cinematography. Mostly, my time was spent scoffing in the theater, writing furiously on my notepad. If you’ve heard anyone complain about the camerawork, listen to them: it is pretty much the most abhorrent work I’ve seen this year. (As random as Killing Them Softly was, at least it was nice to look at and properly framed.) There should be a meme that says “FRAME A DAMN SCENE RIGHT, HOOPER!” I’m pretty sure his logic went as follows: “Okay, you go over there and act and I’m going to have my camera right up in your face. And then I’m going to turn it on a 135-degree angle.” While I’m sure the logic behind this was to provide an intimacy in the performance that the stage inherently cannot give, it does not explain why so many of his frames were off balance. That just looks like some of the half-assed pictures some of the slackers in my photography class take, except more expensive. Also, one can certainly utilize more than one camera angle to achieve intimacy. A musical, shot in all close-ups! There’s a reason why Fred Astaire was never shot in close up: so you could still get the essence of his performance.
When Hooper is not placing cameras six inches away from his actors’ faces, he is editing like he stepped into the editing room while on cocaine. I seriously wondered while I was sitting in the film if the people from Glee were editing the film. What few nice moments and nice frames there are on screen are snatched from us with a splice. This, again, affects linearity, but the constant CUT, CUT, CUT is so uninspired and useless. It works as an antithesis to the artistic desire to achieve more intimacy in the performances. The camera work itself does not work. Shakier than some of my own camera work on my short films, there seems to be no evidence of any SteadiCam used. Just tripods and someone seemingly drunk walking around with a camera. This is not supposed to be a poor man’s Dogme 95 inspired musical! You are no Anthony Dod Mantle! The action scenes don’t work either. If there isn’t a random Dutch angle (which, as far as I can tell, has absolutely no reason to be in there), there’s a fly, swoop, and a lot of cutting involved. I guess Michael Bay would be proud.
The film’s two saving graces are Anne Hathaway and Samantha Barks. I would like to think that Hathaway ignored Hooper’s direction altogether and that her transcendent portrayal of Fantine, however short it is (not a spoiler because of the source material), was pure instinct. She gives power, emotion, and passion to a film where there is none. Her heart shattering performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” is the film’s highlight. It’s close enough to get every look of Fantine’s but far away enough so that there is distance. It’s not the camera that should destroy the distance between audience member and character; it’s the character themselves and their power. And Hathaway succeeds in spades (a little reminiscent, it has been said, of Renee Falconetti in Carl Theodore Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc). Samantha Barks, a newbie to the film world, has portrayed the gloomy, heartbroken Eponine before on stage and in the 25th Anniversary Concert of Les Misérables. Despite that, she still brings something entirely new and fresh to the film, her performance of “On My Own” absolutely splendid. I suppose, if you’re going to spend your money on the film, do it for these two girls, one of whom I wouldn’t be too mad should she win the Academy Award. Eddie Redmayne, whom I didn’t know could sing, is actually quite good as well, but the film’s inability to really dig deeper into his character and his motivations leave a lot to be desired and mar the experience.
Les Misérables is a trifle; a film that could have easily avoided its problems by reeling back its eagerness and giving the story a chance. The singing might be cool, but what’s a song without a story behind it? Les Misérables is also probably the first film whose cinematography made me actively angry in the theater. Anne Hathaway and Samantha Barks are the film’s saviors. So, while you sit in the theater for what was, for me, a nearly unbearable two and a half hours, I’m going to sing these words:
“I had a dream this film would be,
So different from this Hell I’m watching,
So different now from what it seemed.
Now Hooper’s killed the dream I dreamed.”