Friday, 27 April 2018

Filmmakers Think No-one Reads Books Anymore

As an avid Harry Potter fan (perhaps, at times, bordering on obsessed), I learned at an early age that film adaptations would never truly reproduce the world I grew to love in the books I was reading. At the time, I was not okay with this. I grudgingly agreed that watching the five-hour film containing all the intricate details from the novel might not be the best way to view the film, but still couldn't see why they left out the potions riddle from the end of Philosopher's Stone.

In more recent years, I have of course snapped out of this delusion, and learned to appreciate the Potter movies as pieces of work in their own right. I distinctly remember walking out of the final film, aged 15, thinking that I don't care how different the films are to the books, because we still have the books, and always will.

The Potter franchise is pretty amazing in that respect. The eight films saw four different directors take the helm, yet the series feels like a single cohesive unit. The changes of tone don't feel anachronistic, quite the contrary. Though his films do not rank among my favourites, Christopher Columbus did an incredible job making Harry's wonder at this incredible magical word our own. The introduction of Alfonso Cuarón age the film a less filtered, grittier tone, just as the story takes that exact turn.

What I'm saying here is that, while they might not stick to the books 100% of the time, the Harry Potter films do an excellent job of capturing the spirit, the essence, of why we love the story so much.

Cut to late March, 2018. I've seen three films this week. The first was The Social Network, which is great and not the subject of this blog. I do have something to say about the other two.

I read Ready Player One when it was new, and it is just brilliant. Nerdy, clever and told from the heart, fans of all ages flocked to it for its wide range of pop-culture significance, but they stayed for the thrilling, human story at the centre.

I also really enjoyed the film. As a work in its own right, it's everything I want in a sci-fi adventure movie. Its thrilling action sequences are exquisitely choreographed (no one does a chase scene like Spielberg); the dialogue is (mostly) engaging and snappy; and the performances are excellent, especially Mark Rylance as the eccentric game designer James Halliday. It makes many deliberate decisions to move away from the novel, and I'm fine with that. I'd rather it went its own way than tried and failed to be a re-creation of the book.

My main problem with Ready Player One as an adaptation is that it doesn't quite capture the spirit of Ernest Cline's book. In the film, the main problem facing the world is overpopulation. The Earth of the book is much more dystopian. Abject poverty abounds, as does pollution, starvation and rampant capitalism. A good example is emergency responses: the police appear more than once in the film to sort out civil unrest. In the novel, there is no infrastructure. Had police turned up, they would most likely have been owned by the antagonistic tech conglomerate IOI.

This might seem like a small detail, but it changes the framing of the whole story. In the film, everyone is addicted to the virtual universe of the OASIS. It's the internet on steroids, a place where infinite content is instantly accessible, and anything is possible. IOI are threatening to end that freedom, so the main characters must complete the quest first to keep the OASIS how it should be. In the novel, the OASIS is humanity's only escape from a horrible, oppressive world. Here the protagonists are fighting not just to save the OASIS, but to save the world. That heart, that higher cause separating good from evil; that's what's missing from the film, what stops me from loving it as much as the novel.

A similar thing happened with Netflix's film adaptation of Dave Eggers' The Circle. I haven't read the novel, but I saw the film with my partner, who has, and it seems a similar case. While the book asks fundamental questions about the nature of privacy in today's world, the film's focus on the rise of social media (a force only questioned by the protagonist's elderly parents and Luddite ex-boyfriend), makes it feel behind the curve, trying to engage in debates that were raging five years ago.

Ready Player One is a better movie than The Circle. It's hard to find a good review of the latter, and it definitely has more problems than mentioned above. My main reason for mentioning The Circle is that it has one similarity to Ready Player One. For each movie, the author of its respective novel was on the writing staff. 

And here we finally come to the point of this post: however the decision was made - studio pressure, creative differences, cinema audiences VS novel audiences - the authors of these two books made fundamental changes to their stories. Not just to the characters, or plot points, but to the very core of the original stories they wrote. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with this, but I would like to know why; and my worry is that I already know the answer.

The magic in Harry Potter is cool, but we love that story for its heart, its generosity of spirit, its human relationships. Ready Player One has a very similar aim, and The Circle seeks to do what any dystopian novel does - comment on the present by writing about the future. More and more, the film industry exists to make money through entertainment, and I know so much research goes into what makes a movie successful. I just hope filmmakers haven't forgotten why stories like these become popular in the first place.