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Thursday, May 10, 2007

The Perils of Adaptation...

...but not the Darwinian kind. No, those will get you killed. No, I'm referring to the perils of adapting works of literary fiction to the cinema. These perils are mostly suffered by the author. The only times the screenwriter and director are imperiled by their roles at taking a beloved novel and adapting it to the medium of film are at public appearances where people who read are gathered.

All of this came to mind when I remembered that J.K. Rowling's final Harry Potter book is due to be released in a few short months, and that the utter frenzy surrounding it is only going to be magnified by the fact that, merely a week prior, the fifth Potter film is scheduled for international release. Imagine if locusts were human and wore fake plastic spectacles with round frames, and you'll get the picture rather quickly.

For those of you who have both read the books and seen the films, you may have noticed some key differences. For example, characters and scenes missing from the films, scenes added that not only weren't in the books, but that make little sense to the plot apart from the chance to wedge a really expensive special effect into the film. Also, occasionally, characters will say and do things that in the films that they did not in the books. This explains Harry stabbing Draco with a shiv in the film of book 4 ("GoF" as the fans call it).

All right, he didn't do that, but you know he wanted too. I reckon he wanted to beat Ron about the head with his broom as well, at least early on.

I've often wondered just how much control J.K. Rowling, the wealthiest woman in Britain and perhaps the world, exerts over the screenplays. I suspect her motto is "live and let live" although after the third and fourth films I've wondered if it's evolved into "just put the royalty money to good use, Jo."

I mean, let's face facts. I'm a huge cinema buff (this does not mean I watch the cinema "in the buff," at least not usually) but I realize that most mainstream Hollywood adaptations are crap from the precise moment they are optioned by a studio. It's like those science-fiction films where the innocent young woman is barely touched by the alien organism and is instantly and completely infected, corrupted, and doomed to eat human flesh and have skin problems beyond the ken of even the most talented dermatologist.

We all know that Hollywood types like to "put their stamp" on projects, and I don't just mean the actresses in the cheap sci-fi films described above. After all, don't filmmakers, from the brilliant to the gormless, fancy themselves "ar-tEE-sts." (They even pronounce it that way, and not just the French ones). They simply must express themselves creatively to get professional satisfaction from a project, right?

Well, frankly that excuse is complete rubbish. What they really want is the cheap ego massaging and the prestige and perks of control. Directors and screenwriters change things around not to make the story come to life for the cinema audience, but so they can mutter to attractive, thinly-dressed birds at exclusive cocktail parties, "No, that bit... that bit was all mine, baby," followed by the inevitable pitch for a private "audition." The result is a hyperkinetic mosh of vapid ideas, with the original story strewn about in places, like biscuit crumbs in an obsessive-compulsive's kitchen.

Anyway, all this led me to wonder just what the initial conference call on the first Potter sceenplay was like. Surely, the aforementioned perils of adaptation would be clearly on display. So, with a wave of my rhetorical wand (no jokes, please), let's just us find out...


(J.K. Rowling is in her new home she's purchased with the advance from Warner Bros. option of her first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. The phone rings and she picks up. A Hollywood Screenwriter is on the other end.)

J.K.: Hallo?

Screenwriter: Jo? It's Steve, the screenwriter for the film.

J.K.: Steve, nice to speak with you again. How are you?

Screenwriter: I'm doing good. You?

J.K.: Very well, thank you. Well, David said you'd call about the first draft.

Screenwriter: Right. I've got some questions that I'd like to ask you about the book.

J.K.: (Laughs) Well, I'll do my best, but I would like to keep some secrets, as I've six more books to go.

Screenwriter: (Laughs) Oh, I don't care about the secrets. I wanted to ask about making some changes.

J.K.: Sorry, did you say changes?

Screenwriter: Yeah... I mean, don't get me wrong, I love this story. It's a great page-turner and is really imaginative, or at least that's what my kids have told me. However... there are a few things I think we need to adapt a bit for a movie audience.

J.K.: Really? Such as?

Screenwriter: Well, for example, on page 98, where Ron and his brothers introduce themselves. Do we really have to use the name "Weasley?"

J.K.: Well, what's wrong with "Weasley?"

Screenwriter: It just sounds an awful lot like "Weasel." Do we really want the hero's best friend to be named "Weasel."

J.K.: Weasley.

Screenwriter: Right, right, but it sounds like Weasel. With the Brit accents, a lot of Americans are gonna think this kid and his whole family are weasels.

J.K.: I should hardly think so.

Screenwriter: Jo, you gotta trust me on this one. I know the average American movie-goer. These are people who watch Hamlet for the swordfights. Anyway, I've got an idea for an alternate name.

J.K.: (Sighs) All right, let's hear it.

Screenwriter: (dramatic pause) "Granite."

J.K.: Let me get this correct. You are proposing that I call my hero's best friend, "Ron Granite."

Screenwriter: Exactly!

J.K.: Steven, this is a story about a young boy's encounter with a magical world, not the big screen adaptation of The Flintstones!

Screenwriter: Jo, that's harsh. "Granite" says strength and resilience. It says "muscle."

J.K.: Why not just name him "Ron Muscle?"

Screenwriter: The MPAA says that will get us an "R" because of the way it could be interpreted. C'mon, Jo... "Ron Granite." It's magic!

J.K.: It's absolutely out of the question.

Screenwriter: OK, OK, let me give you some time to think about it. Let's move on to the next one.

J.K.: Sure, anything...

Screenwriter: Does Hagrid have to be so tall? Isn't 11 feet a bit much.

J.K.: So tall? (Patiently) Steven, he's part giant. He's got to be somewhat tall, yes?

Screenwriter: Well, if he were only six-foot-four, he'd be easier to get in all the shots. Plus, we might be able to get Ted Danson for the part.

J.K.: I don't want Ted Danson for the part.

Screenwriter: Oh, but Jo, he'd be hilarious. Did you see him in that movie with Whoopi Goldberg? What a hoot!

J.K.: No, I'm afraid that didn't get a very wide release in the U.K. Nonetheless, Hagrid is half-giant. Plus, we need someone British in the part to get the West Country accent right. Let's move on.

Screenwriter: OK, OK... still... Danson!

J.K.: (Tersely) What's next?

Screenwriter: Well, the studio is concerned about the hair colors of the lead characters.

J.K.: What's wrong with the bloody hair colours?

Screenwriter: Quite frankly, they're worried about getting the red hair to come out right on camera.

J.K.: What on earth does that mean? People with ginger hair appear in films all the time. Surely you've heard of Maureen O'Hara or Red Buttons?

Screenwriter: I can only pass along what the director tells me to. If it wasn't red hair, they think they could get Tobey Maguire for the role.

J.K.: (Impatiently) I'd hazard a guess that he was too short and too old for the role.

Screenwriter: You'd think that, but remember that Ralph Macchio was The Karate Kid when he was in his mid-40's. Also, while I'm on the subject, they think Hermione should be a platinum blonde, and can we make her front teeth smaller?

J.K.: A platinum blonde?? She's only 11 bleeding years old!! Plus, she's a ruddy bookworm...she wouldn't dye her hair!!!

Screenwriter: We'd say it was natural because of the "magic." The studio really feels like the actress will grow up in the role and they feel that platinum blonde is what teenaged boys want to see in a heroine.

J.K.: What do the raging harmones of spotty, teenaged gits have to do with my effing story?!?

Screenwriter: Jo, we want the visuals of this story to match the intensity of your words!

J.K.: (Pause) (Muttered curses in the background) You can have the teeth, but the hair is light brown at best.

Screenwriter: Can we cut off the frizzyness?

J.K.: Only if you cut your own head off as well.

Screenwriter: I'd consider it if the money were right.

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