Not all books make good movies and vice versa. The two media are very different and the way one tells a story is restricted accordingly. Because of this, authors are often dubious about sending their precious babies to the slaughter houses known as movie studios.
As an aspiring writer, I sympathize with these authors and am more than willing to acknowledge the anger and frustration when sweeping changes are made to the story.
But as a reader of books and watcher of movies, I also have to admit that sometimes the changes had to be made. There is, after all, only so much you can fit into one and a half to two hours of screen time. The best the author can hope for is that some of the less essential bits get left out or glossed over.
Remember now, I said the best the *author* can hope for. How good the movie is sometimes has very little to do with how faithful it is to the original. There seems to be a general consensus, for instance, that Disney's The Little Mermaid is several magnitudes better than the original Anderson story, which the movie only resembled vaguely.
My impression is that there are just a few outcomes for the book-to-movie journey.
The movie makers could take great pains to make a movie as close to the original as possible, as if to prove that this story should never have seen the light of day to begin with. (I can't think of an example at the moment, but I'm sure there is one out there somewhere.)
The movie makers could take equally great pains to make the movie faithful to the original, with the realization that the information contained in those long tracks of exposition are going to either have to be ignored or presented in a rather more visual manner. The quality of this method depends a great deal on the quality of the original work. (Though people will probably argue on for decades as to whether the right choices were made in the Lord of the Rings movies.)
The movie makers could say, 'hey, cool concept,' and work a mostly new story around those cool ideas. Here the quality depends on the skill of the movie makers, the quality of the original (the lower latter and higher the former the better), and just how rabid the fanbase of the original is. Because, let's face it, some aspects of quality are subjective.
And, lastly, the movie makers could completely ignore the source material and make something up out of whole cloth. (I, Robot
, I'm looking at you.) Here the quality of the original is irrelevant unless it was so bad that no one cares what anyone did with the movie, in which case why was a movie even made? What will make a difference is the size of the angry mob armed with torches and pitchforks marching up to the studio gates.
All this brings me to the actual reason I wanted to write this post.
I recently saw Studio Ghibli's new movie, Tales From Earthsea (properly Gedo Senki, which seems to translate as Ged Battle Strategies or something like that). I rather liked it, though I was rather concerned during the slow parts as to how they'd wrap things up before the end of the movie. Probably didn't help at all that I was watching it online and so could see just how much time was left. Takes away from enjoying the moment.
Well, I noted in the credits that it was based on a series of books, so I did some research. And found a rather curious article writen by Ursula LeGuin herself.
I say curious because of the combination of understanding and displeasure evident in the work. I nearly said 'ignorance' instead of 'displeasure,' but that would have been unfair. Not all of the problems she seemed to have were the result of ignorance.
The article certainly made me curious as to what the original source material was like, so I just today borrowed a copy of the first book, A Wizard of Earthsea, from the library. Honestly, I didn't expect much, given my experience with Howl's Moving Castle. (The movie was a great deal better than the book, for reasons that could be an entire post in it's own right.)
What I've read of the book, so far, comes later. Right now, to the article.
"It was explained to us that Mr Hayao wished to retire from film making, and that the family and the studio wanted Mr Hayao's son Goro, who had never made a film at all, to make this one. ... I am told that Mr Hayao has not retired after all, but is now making another movie. This has increased my disappointment."
This is why I nearly used the word 'ignorance' above. Miyazaki-san has tried a number of times to retire. It almost seems like every movie he makes is 'going to be his last one.' He probably means it every time, too. It just doesn't last very long. Frankly, I don't think he's capable of retiring by any means short of death. An event that I hope is a long time in coming.
"We were given the impression, indeed assured, that the project would be always subject to Mr Hayao's approval....We realised soon that Mr Hayao was taking no part in making the film at all."
I do wish she'd explained exactly how they (she and her son) realized that. It would help convince me of the validity of that last statement. Oh, I'm quite certain that Miyazaki-san gave his son as much freedom as was asked for, it just seems strange that a promise like that would go unheeded.
"Mr Goro Miyazaki asked me just as I was leaving, 'Did you like the movie?' It was not an easy question to answer, under the circumstances. I said: 'Yes. It is not my book. It is your movie. It is a good movie.'
"I did not realise that I was speaking to anyone but him and the few people around us. I would have preferred that a private reply to a private question not be made public. I mention it here only because Mr Goro has mentioned it in his blog."
No idea why she would think such a question would be private, at least for any great length of time. Surely she realized that the instant the movie was released she'd have to give a public response to that question? In any case, it was a very diplomatically put answer.
"The excitement was maintained by violence, to a degree that I find deeply untrue to the spirit of the books."
Was she watching the same movie I was? Because there hardly seemed to be much violence, certainly in comparison to some of Studio Ghibli's earlier works. Heck, the kid couldn't even draw his sword for 99% of the movie!
"Both the American and the Japanese film-makers treated these books as mines for names and a few concepts, taking bits and pieces out of context, and replacing the story/ies with an entirely different plot, lacking in coherence and consistency. I wonder at the disrespect shown not only to the books but to their readers."
Now this got me very interested. It reminded me a lot of some of the things I'd heard about Howl's Moving Castle, which I've already mentioned was better than the original book, in my eyes. In any case, I wouldn't have called the movie 'incoherent,' exactly. There were a lot of unanswered questions up until the end, but that's part of the reason one keeps watching. To find the answers to those questions.
"I think the film's "messages" seem a bit heavyhanded because, although often quoted quite closely from the books, the statements about life and death, the balance, etc., don't follow from character and action as they do in the books."
This is where I go into my reading of the first book. Now, granted, I haven't gotten very far. Page six, to be exact. But those first six pages where almost entirely exposition with some mention of the balance thing. If much more of the book is like that I can see why the movie, while quoting from the book, would sound a tad "preachy" as she says later on.
"The moral sense of the books becomes confused in the film. For example: Arren's murder of his father in the film is unmotivated, arbitrary:"
She goes into detail at this point, which would be a major spoiler so I won't quote it here. Suffice to say that she would rather the motive have been presented at the beginning as she did with Ged in A Wizard of Earthsea
instead of held in suspense until the last third.
This leaves me rather dreading further reading of that book, since it seems having such a clear answer from the start would defeat the purpose of turning the next page.
"But in the film, evil has been comfortably externalized in a villain, the wizard Kumo/Cob, who can simply be killed, thus solving all problems."
Well, yes. Here we get back to the whole book medium vs movie medium again. Movies are very visual. If there isn't anything happening on screen people won't pay attention. You can have an internal struggle, but there better be an external one, too, so that people have something to watch other than the character angsting. Ghibli's Tales From Earthsea have both, and while LeGuin might not like physical struggles with external evil it sure does make for a compelling story.
One more question, did she even notice that the good guys tried to talk Cob out of doing something stupidly evil? Perhaps not.
There's also the issue she had with the skin tone of the characters. Apparently the people of Earthsea are mostly dark skinned. I wouldn't have known that from the first six pages of exposition, but apparently that was her intent.
Now that I have gone through what an author had to say about the movie based on her books, I want to make one last note on what I thought of the movie. Not Studio Ghibli's best work, but a very good watch. Now I shall see if the other 191 pages of this book measure up.