June 12, 2005

Adaptations: Whose story is this anyway?

I’ve just started reading Adaptations: From Short Story to Big Screen (see Amazon.com, Amazon.ca). It’s a big and fascinating collection of thirty-five short stories that have been adapted to screenplays, though it’s considerably more than that.

It covers older movies (like Bringing Up Baby) and more recent ones (like Minority Report). But the collection begins with an introduction by its editor, Stephanie Harrison, and the book is divided into eleven thematic sections, and each of these has an introduction.

The introductions are wonderful. While they “introduce” the section and its theme, they also have some intriguing background tidbits of information (such as the way Brian Aldiss and Arthur C. Clarke worked with Stanley Kubrick).

It’s fascinating to see the similarities and, even more interesting, the differences between the stories and the films made from them. For example, in the story on which Hitchcock’s Rear Window was based, there is no Grace Kelly character. (Good grief! No Grace Kelly?)

Also interesting, to me at least, is the story Supertoys Last All Summer Long, written by Brian Aldiss and the basis for A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. It’s a great short story but heavens, was it ever expanded upon for what became the final film (directed by Steven Spielberg).

Also directed by Spielberg is Minority Report, based on Philip K. Dick’s short story The Minority Report. Here, while the differences are interesting, what I find most caught my attention was the pacing. The movie is incredibly fast-paced – just as the story is. In fact, Dick’s tale is almost ludicrously fast-paced. It reads like a condensed hard-boiled detective novel.

And while the story stretches credibility in the quick way things happen, once you start reading it you can’t stop. It grabs you immediately and just goes. (If anything, Spielberg eased the pace a bit and added material to make it a more credible tale.)

Adaptations is over 600 pages long – there’s a lot of material here. I’ve barely started getting into it. But it’s a subject I find fascinating – the different takes artists have on the same story. In this case, the differences between a story in written form and the story on screen. Those differences are a combination between different forms and different artists.

It’s interesting that I began the book on the same day I watched Michael Radford’s movie The Merchant of Venice – a filmmaker’s take on a play (and one by Shakespeare, no less).

There is sometimes a kind of kneejerk, default response to adapted material, especially when its based on popular novels. The response says the movie is a poor version of the original. Yet I always think of Hitchcock’s Rebecca when this pops up – based on Daphne de Maurier’s novel of the same name. I loved the book and I loved the movie. It’s at least one example of a great story leading to a great movie.

As Adaptations shows through short stories, it’s not really a question of one form being "better" than another. Sometimes the written story is better, sometimes the film. It’s a question of how well conceived the initial idea is and how well it’s realized in the particular form being used. And stories are stories are stories. The forms inform one another and feed off one another.

In the meantime, I’ll keep reading these stories (I’ve barely begun). It’s a subject I find absorbing. If you share this fascination, you might want to pick up Adaptations. You’ll learn some interesting things about writers and movies while also getting a great collection of stories.

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