02 December 2010

Originality; or, The Segregation of Art

Someone recently posted in an online forum I frequent that he'd begun reading Charles Portis's True Grit, the novel upon which the classic Western movie was based--and, of course, the forthcoming Coen Brothers movie, as well.  One poster remarked, "It's a shame it takes a movie to get people reading one of the best American novels ever."  That was immediately followed by someone else declaring, "Its [sic] always the case here, I roll my eyes all the time in these threads.  Although in fairness, True Grit is a far cry from "one of the best American novels ever."

Mind you, this was on a movie-centric forum so no one should be surprised that posters would be likelier to read books that are the source material for movies.  Even if it weren't, this is exactly the kind of pretentiousness that I despise and I think it plays a role in discouraging the average person from reading more.  How many conversations have you had where you mention having read something and all of a sudden the other person has, in one sentence, berated your pedestrian taste while recommending something "far better" that you simply must read (especially if you wish to be taken seriously in such a conversation ever again)?

Elsewhere, in a discussion comparing The Fifth Element with Men in Black, a movie fan asserted in reference to the latter, "Men in Black's story isn't UNIQUE if it's based off a comic book.  People have read it before; it's nothing new and it's nothing original.  In my book, original films beat adaptations of anything."  Now, I appreciate originality as much as the next guy (remember, I was voted "Most Individual (Male)" of my graduating class).  But it seems to me there are two immediate flaws to this assertion.

Firstly, Men in Black the film bore little real resemblance in tone or plot to the source material.  The screen version took elements created by Lowell Cunningham and spun an entirely new story.  By that logic, every Batman movie is "unoriginal" because Batman originated in comic books--despite the fact that each movie has been an entirely new story crafted expressly for the purpose of being a movie.

More importantly--and this is where the two disparate conversations begin to converge--if we're to toss out every movie that was based upon another medium then we need to be prepared to diminish the legacy of most of the classics.  The Wizard of Oz, The Godfather, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Doctor Zhivago, Gone with the Wind, The Lord of the Rings, Jaws, Schindler's List, Dracula, Frankenstein, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and most of the Disney canon were all adapted from literature.  Lawrence of Arabia drew from T.E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom in telling of his real life exploits.  Recent movies we have to discredit by this logic include Sideways, Thank You for Smoking, Up in the Air, Big Fish, Slumdog Millionaire, Sin City and American Psycho.  I don't know about you, but I'm not prepared to place some kind of asterisk beside those movies and consider them inferior to other movies simply because the screenplays weren't the product of one person's imagination.

What is up with this kind of snobbery?  Is it really satisfying to read a book entirely on the basis that the masses don't know of it because it hasn't been adapted as a movie?  Is it really dissatisfying to see a movie based on a book?  Maybe I'm too pedestrian or not discerning enough, but I find both extremes intellectually offensive.  Each version is its own work of art to be criticized and appreciated for what it is.  Often, I've found that reading a novel and seeing its adaptation combine to give me a fuller sense of the story being told.  For instance, John le Carre's The Tailor of Panama featured quite a lot more insight into the character Louisa (played in the film by Jamie Lee Curtis), but that the film brought to life the Panamanian culture in a way the print form couldn't (the film actually shot on location in Panama).  There was a complementary relationship between the two that made each rewarding to me.

Often, I'm fascinated by the choices made regarding what to keep, what to condense and what to outright discard in an adaptation.  One recent incidence where this was especially interesting was Thank You for Smoking.  Jason Reitman wisely decided to restructure his film around the relationship between Nick Naylor and his son; it gave Nick as a character a sort of center to his moral compass absent in Christopher Buckley's novel.  In the process of doing that, whole subplots were affected including the character of Jeanette.  In the novel, she's a principle character whereas you have to look in the end credits to learn that she appears at all in the film.  Stealing her screen time is Nick's son, who is peripheral at best in the novel.

These narrative choices suit each telling of the story.  All too often readers decry things that the film version got wrong, and I think that's simply lazy.  Worse, it's boring.  There's no real thought that goes into exploring the nature of the choices that had to be made.  Art exists to provoke thought and/or evoke an emotion.  I simply cannot fathom how anyone could claim to be a critical thinker while maintaining that a story ought to only exist in one medium.  Each medium affords us an opportunity to discover new things about not just the story being told, but ourselves.  Shirk off these medium prejudices, I say, and delve into the art.

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