I’ve seen two films recently which were adapted from books I enjoyed (well, one I absolutely loved and the other I thought was amazing until it reached an incredibly shit conclusion), in both cases the films fell significantly short of good and I thought I’d discuss why.
But first off, some housekeeping:
- There will be SPOILERS (in every sense of the word) for The Time Traveller’s Wife and My Sister’s Keeper.
- I’m in no way blaming or attacking the script writers since we all know, at a certain level of film making, you do what you’re told or you get fired. And that’s before the actors improvise all over it, the director makes shit up on the day and the editor hacks out random bits.
- The following thoughts are just my opinions and not to be confused with facts. Just because I didn’t fully appreciate the films doesn’t mean they’re inherently bad and if you loved them I’m not attacking your opinions (even though you’re wrong).
- The following is by no means an public proclamation of ‘I could do better’ – I can’t. Pointing out flaws in a script is a thousand times easier than creating your own flawed script. It’s just a way of me talking through how I might approach an adaptation should I ever get the chance.
So, starting with The Time Traveller’s Wife:
I loved the book. Seriously, loved it. Five stars (out of five) and a frequent moon around the N section in Waterstones in case Audrey Niffenegger’s written anything else.
The bits I remember from the book (bearing in mind I read it about four years ago) were all about waiting, longing and people loving each other at different times. It’s a tragic romance which made me cry, or at least tear over in a manly fashion. To me, the most important and moving passages were:
- Henry escaping his troubled marriage as a thirty – forty year old and spending time with Claire when she was only six years old. They’re going through a really bad patch where she’s losing pregnancy after pregnancy and it’s tearing them apart. He escapes to a time before they had any of these problems, before sex was an issue, where he can remind himself of who she was before all the pain and misery. It’s especially difficult when she gets to fourteen, fifteen and wants to become sexually active – she loves him, but he has to wait for her to grow into the person he loves.
- After a gap of a few years where Claire doesn’t see future Henry at all, she bumps into him in the library and (from his point of view) they begin their romance. They’re both in their twenties now and the heartbreak here is – she doesn’t love him. He’s a bit of a prick (as most twenty-something guys are) but she knows he’s going to grow into the man she’s going to marry. For Claire it’s a waiting game – waiting for Henry to become the man she loves. For Henry it’s a weird and unsettling time – this strange woman knows more about his future than he does.
- The pain and the emotional trauma of losing numerous pregnancies and the stress that puts on their relationship. The knowledge they still love each other, but they don’t actually like each other any more. It’s a horrible, frustrating time when it might seem like the best thing to do for each party is just to walk away. Every day gets worse, but there’s always this sense that sooner or later it will all be over and they can go back to loving each other. All they have to do is ride the storm, once this wave has passed it might be over … but there’s always another wave and no end in sight. I think a lot of people have experienced relationships like this, when the present is horrible but the past promises a brighter future. The problem of course being the present is an indefinite period of time, the past is gone and the future may never arrive.
- Claire, waiting for Henry to come back, never knowing if he might actually return or not. What happens if he dies in the past? Will she even know? Maybe this time is the time he never returns? Every time he leaves might be the last time she sees him. It’s a horrible situation to live with, especially when you’re in the troubled times of your relationship and the last words you said were full of spite and said purely to cause the other person pain.
- Henry waiting to return to the present, stuck in the past or the future, fighting for his life and desperate to return home. He has no idea how long he’ll be away and no idea how long he’ll have been gone for when he gets back. It’s stressful and depressing but he knows he always has Claire to come back to.
- Claire waiting for Henry forever – after Henry dies, Claire spends the rest of her life waiting for a glimpse of him. It’s a very romantic and tragic notion, the love sick pining for the dead; but her faith is finally rewarded when she’s an old woman and it’s a beautiful moment.
That’s what the novel meant to me … and none of it’s in the film. A couple of bits are kind of alluded to or mentioned in passing, but really none of that is addressed by the film at all. So what are we left with?
Um, well, a romance where we’re deprived of the meeting and getting to know you part – you know, the falling in love bit (since they happen at different times and at different ages). Basically what we have is a romance-less romance. It’s all strangely flat and the general theme seems to be the avoidance of emotional impact.
We see Claire lose a few pregnancies but we don’t see much in the way of reaction from either of them – she’s pregnant, she’s not, she’s pregnant, she’s not – tra la la, life goes on. We’re told they argue a lot in this period but we don’t really see it, there’s no real sense of a relationship on the edge. In fact, there’s very little sense of a relationship at all. Even when Claire cheats on Henry with a younger version of himself – there’s no real emotional consequences. Henry looks a bit miffed and then they forget about it and carry on.
There’s one scene where Claire has to wait for Henry to return and that’s the only time we get the impression Henry is ever away for anything more than a few seconds. The whole time travel thing looks mildly inconvenient rather than a massive strain on their relationship.
Even Henry potentially losing a leg is glossed over since we don’t really appreciate the necessity of him being able to run. At the point he gets frostbite, Claire tells the doctor he has to be able to run or he can’t survive and in retrospect there does seem to have been a bit of running – but since it wasn’t really flagged up as important running at the time, Claire insistence that running is vital to his survival seems a bit weird because it hasn’t been set up properly.
Even Claire waiting for Henry’s return is glossed over. First of all it happens a year or so after his death, so she doesn’t have to wait that long and we get the impression their life is going to just continue as normal; and secondly it seems more geared towards the meeting between Henry and Alba with Claire being almost incidental. In fact, the only emotional parts of the film for me were between Henry and his daughter.
Overall, the film didn’t seem bad, just flat and un-involving. It’s as if they made the same list of all the things which moved me about the book and then chose deliberately not to include them. After you boil away all the emotion, what’s left? A slightly confusing story about a man bouncing around in time – Quantum Leap without the story of the week. A romance-less romance. Not bad, but a bit dull.
MY SISTER’S KEEPER on the other hand – a book I was riveted to because the dilemma is so powerful and I just couldn’t see a way out. It turns out, neither could Jody Picoult, so she slapped on an arbitrary Deus ex Machina and removed the need for any of the characters to make a decision. It’s a crappy ending to an otherwise magnificent book and ensured I haven’t read anything else by her for fear of having my time wasted again.
So in the film, when they changed the ending I was all for it. The film’s ending is much more powerful and much more moving. Giving the mother the choice, making her choose between her two daughters and come to terms with letting go – genius. A fantastic ending.
Unfortunately, they fucked up the rest of the film. I mean, all of it. The ending makes it Cameron Diaz’s story. She has to let go at the end, therefore it should be her tale from the beginning. Instead, for some bizarre reason, they chose to make it no one’s story. There are some people who are all affected by this horrible situation, but let’s not really examine any of it too deeply. Let’s just bounce around on the surface, flit from person to person and make sure the film is, once again, emotionally un-engaging.
In the book, it’s the younger sister’s story and the majority of it seemed to focus on her relationship with her lawyer as a substitute family since her’s is so fucked up. There’s a lot of examination of how it’s affecting the relationships between father, mother, sisters and brother – everyone of them has major issues and needs to resolve the family situation in order to heal their personal situations.
Obviously, there’s too much in the book for a film and it needs to be simplified – first and most obvious choice: lose the brother’s plot. It’s great in the book, but if it’s not there it makes no odds. Having said that, if you lose the subplot (which they did) then why leave in the bit at the end when the dad works with disadvantaged youths? In context of the film that makes no sense. Why’s it still there?
The next cut seems really strange to me – they practically cut out the youngest daughter. The girl who starts the story and is the prime focus of the book … gone. I mean, almost gone. She’s there, she does some stuff, but she disappears for long stretches of the film and has almost zero relationship with her lawyer. Yet he still comes to her at the end of the film and they part ways as if they’re best of friends.
In the book, the little girl is the protagonist and the mother is the antagonist, with the family as casualties on the battle ground. This makes a great story but leaves no room for an ending. Hence the casual resolution of the book – oh yeah, she just gets run over. Problem solved.
Given the film has the better ending, it seems to me the real story here is one with the mother as the protagonist – desperate to save the life of her eldest daughter and the little girl as the antagonist. The protagonist’s arc is being forced to come to terms with the fact she’s destroying her family by trying to save one of them. When she realises her mistake and lets her eldest daughter die, she saves her family and puts them on the road to recovery. It should have been a powerful and moving tale but instead it’s a mish-mash of scenes which flits from point of view to point of view without really letting you latch on to anyone. I spent the film waiting to cry and spent the majority of it bored rigid. The only really emotional bit for me (bar isolated bits and bobs) was the ending – and the only reason that was upsetting was because I mentally grafted it onto the book and the characters I actually cared for.
So all in all, I felt both adaptations failed t capture the spirit of the books – after all, that’s what adapting a film is all about – the spirit. You can’t keep all the scenes and all the characters, but the essence of the story should remain untouched.
At least I think that’s what adaptations are about, but as I’ve mentioned many times before – my opinions are suspect at best and to be treated with derision.
I’m going to stop now, Alice is shouting at me.