Sunday, December 23, 2007

Perils of Adaption

I caught "Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy" last night on TV. I grew up with the books and the BBC TV series (yeah, I know it started on radio, but what am I, stone age man or something?) and they are in my psyche. I never expected much of the film, I guess, but it was the utter pointlessness that got me. The first half hour is okay, but its then flitting from planet to planet like a bad episode of Space 1999, and though its clearly far bigger budget than anything the BBC could ever do, you get the feeling that Douglas Adams inspiration was partly the inventive naffness of BBC space sets, whilst putting things into space that were never quite meant to be there. Its prescience - Wikipedia as the guide anyone? the Babel Fish? - is strong, but never as important as how down-to-earth it is. Phrases like "Don't Panic", "The answer is 42" and "Life, don't talk to me about life", have a kind of universal usage. The Vogons of the film were even bigger bureaucrats than the books - and for a vaguely anarchic child - part of Hitchhikers appeal had been that it really laughed at the nonsense of British life (and it is a very British film), whilst celebrating a certain adventurous eccentricity. In contrast, the American version has Zaphod, with a rubik's cube of heads rather than the extra one that the BBC gave him (more realistically I thought), Trillion's entirely unconvincing as a brunette rather than a blonde, Marvin looks less like a real robot than some advert for toilet cleaner, and the overriding aesthetic seems to have been taken from the later (i.e. not v. good) Monty Python/Terry Gilliam movies. The story arc of the books was bulked out alot with the extracts from the Guide itself, and these get less space in the film; the TV series covered the first 2 books after all. Perhaps they were hoping for a series of sequels? One can only wonder at the utter wastefulness of it all. No wonder Douglas Adams died.

In contrast, I'd seen "Children of Men" recently. I read the P.D. James novel years ago, and despite a great premise, always felt the book left a lot to be desired - certainly no classic of dystopian literature. In truth, she's not a writer I've ever found particularly readable. The film isn't quite as good as some of the reviews would have it, but it comes close - getting quite deeply into the psychological jolt of what a world without children would be like. In some ways, though, you can almost imagine we're already there - in that I know so many forty somethings who either haven't got, or don't want or can't have children. One does wonder if the anarchy and loss of hope that the film portrays as the result of no more children being born, could exist for particular groups of society even as the rest of the world keeps procreating away happily.

With the BBC triumphant again with "Cranford", and the Coen brothers apparently having a return to form with a literary adaption, its always fascinating to see how different works have different after lives. I've read definitely sniffy reviews of "The Golden Compass" and "The Kite Runner" for instance; yet "Atonement" is tipped for an Oscar, despite it proving as curatorially eggy as past McEwan adaptions.


Jim Murdoch said...

It's tempting to become a bit possessive and protective of things like The Hitchhiker's Guide. The thing is, adaptation is a tricky business, especially where you're dealing with an icon. A good example is Jack Nicholson's interpretation of The Joker, nothing like The Joker I knew from the comics and nothing like poor ol' Cesar Romero's camp version in the sixties, and yet there will be many who will have a problem with Heath Ledger's interpretation I'm sure. The thing is, the comics themselves continually reinvent their characters and there have been many takes on The Joker.

I'll be honest I hated the big screen adaptation of The Hitchhiker's Guide on so many levels. I didn't have any preconceived notions and I didn't, as I did with the first of Tim Burton's Batman films, build myself up to such a state that nothing could have made me happy. The film lost what the new Doctor Who has lost and don't get me wrong, I'm a great fan, but it is different.

Having never read the book I can't comment on Children of Men as an adaptation but I found the world presented on-screen wholly convincing. As for Cranford, well it was BBC-ised to death. That said, I watched it and I enjoyed it for what it was.

If you’ve not read it, I did a blog about adaptations myself a few days ago: If a film had a daemon would it be a bookworm? which you might find interesting.

Adrian Slatcher said...

Read your post, Jim. Interesting. I'm interested why some adaptions work and some don't. Sometimes its because the source material is less well known (Children of Men) or a short story (The Company of Wolves.) Yet theres plenty of bad films made from unknown books, and A.I. was a bad film of a (very) short story. Weirdly enough, I wasn't at all possessive about Hitchhikers, just astonished at how bad the film was on every level! Batman, of course, is not a book first and foremost, there's no primary text, just a series of reinventions - some good (Batman Begins for instance), some bad, and some both. As you said in your post, having the author on board can help, and not having them in agreement (The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) can be a disaster. Yet, "Atonement" suffers from the same faults as the book - so whether McEwan's involvement there is a plus or not, who knows?

Paul M. Cray said...

>>> the TV series covered the first 2 books after all.

The first novel essentially covers the material of the first four episodes of the first series of the radio programme. This was to avoid Adams having to use any of the material that John Lloyd wrote for the fifth and sixth episodes - originally they were going to write the novel together. Adams then replaced the Lloyd material with material of his own, so that, for instance, the Haggunenons are replaced by Disaster Area in the books (which diverge rapidly with material from the first series, Christmas special and the second series being freely reworked in the second novel) and in the TV series (which otherwise pretty much follows the plot of the six episodes of the first radio series in its six episodes). "Hitchhiker" was very much of its time and place. Trying to update it and (partly) Americanise it was asking for trouble it might have worked as a low budget British film.