Book adaptations: doing it right, doing it wrong

Interesting weekend. I got to see two movies that were made out of books I really love: Watchmen and Coraline, and got to watch them with a BFF who also loved the source material. And they were pretty much a study in contrasts, not just in style and content and whether or not you should bring your kids to them (yes, I saw many kids that looked 10 and under at Watchmen!) but in the goodness/badness of them as an adaptation.

I should explain that I like the stories in books for a reason. Those are the stories the author intended to tell us. I have no problems with the stories that movies and TV intend to tell us, but I do not understand the point of buying the rights to a story you don’t intend to tell. I mean seriously, save your money. I’ve watched so many adaptation movies where I’ve been pretty sure they could have called it something else and not gotten sued by the author, since it bore so little resemblance to the book. I know things have to change in order to go from book to movie, especially things with a lot of dense prose, things need to be cut out, and the places they were cut need to be papered over in some way so the movie story isn’t full of gaping holes. It’s things added for no real reason that tick me off.

Cutting Tom Bombadil: okay. Adding that weird crap scene where Faramir falls to the temptation of the ring and drags Frodo into Gondor, where a Ringwraith sees him and the ring… and then miraculously vanishes with Sauron STILL not knowing where the ring is, just to build tension? NOT ok.

Watchmen did it right. Coraline did it wrong.

Which is surprising to me, because I’ve read all sorts of reviews about how fabulous Coraline was. I think having read the book made Watchmen more enjoyable, and Coraline a lot LOT less.

Watchmen was pretty much what I would consider a perfect adaptation. There were changes, yes, and at least one of them was fairly major. However, I think it was necessary in order to make something so plot-dense into something resembling a coherent movie, and frankly? I never liked the ending of Watchmen.

The "dropping the giant tentacle-vagina onto New York to scare humanity into cooperation" just never worked. It was too convoluted, how Veidt did it was confusing and not all that compelling, and the result made no sense. So an alien arrived dead in New York. How exactly does that make the USSR want to be our friend? The world still wasn’t given a concrete enemy; there’s no indication of where the monster came from, why it attacked, when it might do so again… heck, it could have been a squid-monster commuter who made a teleportation error on the way to the office! It wasn’t a Starship Troopers sort of situation, where we knew where the enemy was and had to pull together to combat it – even though we really didn’t. Moore clearly wanted to make that leap, but it wasn’t belieable for me.

Making Dr. Manhattan the monster at the end, blowing up multiple cities worldwide… that worked. Not only to cut out a ton of convolution that would have made even less sense to a viewer than a reader, but because Dr. Manhattan is concrete. They knew who he was, they knew where he came from, they were already terrified of him. The only problem I saw with it was that frankly, Dr. Manhattan was TOO scary a monster. There was no way to defeat him. He’s more of a doomsday device than all the nukes they were threatening each other with: humanity didn’t get out from under the thumb of assured destruction by having him be the enemy. In fact, this time the nuke had its own brain and was obviously malicious. I can see how the world would pull together to fight him, but I can’t think there would be any kind of surge of hope.

Most of the story was lifted bubble-for-bubble and panel-for-panel from the graphic novel, which made Kirstin and I squee in many places. The actors were perfect in looks and in their portayals. The credit sequence of diorama-like flashes was an amazing and economical way to put the backstory all in one place at the beginning without belaboring it. As a fan of the graphic novel, I found the movie an extremely satisfying adaptation.

It did bug me that at no time is a PoC on the screen who isn’t blown up in some way. But I can’t blame it on the movie; that’s the source material. Didn’t make me less uncomfortable though.

The rape scene bothered me, not just for the obvious reason, but it was extended. The Comedian gave her more of a beat-down than the comic – really, after her slap, it seemed like he was a lot more interested in hurting her than fucking her (which, I admit, is quite in character) but I really didn’t need to watch it. And they cut out Hooded Justice’s line, which to me was the most brutal, telling part in the original scene. He stops the Comedian from raping her – but he does it because he’s a superhero, and that’s what they do. Then he turns to Sally and says "Get up. And for God’s sake, cover yourself." It really brings it home: they have no respect for her. She’s not a collegue. She’s a publicity tart in a short skirt. The Comedian wasn’t the only one who didn’t respect her strength; none of them did. I felt cheated by having that taken away from the movie, because it just felt like Hooded Justice swoops in an rescues Sally from the one misogynistic bastard in the group – which makes both her nostalgia for "I was a hero!" and her decision to sleep with Eddie later less understandable.

And the line they added at the end when Laurie points out she knows who her father is? "I forgave him, because he gave me you." I gagged. I did.

The other problem I had was the death of Rorschach. At the end where they took off his mask, he was weeping, but not in the way I associate with that scene. He was sad and shaking. They redeemed it when he screamed "DO IT!" but that earlier bit really bothered me, because it really seemed to undermine how much Rorschach chose that ending becuase of his refusal to compromise. And having Dan be there to add a Big No that wasn’t in the source? OUCH. That sucked.

Still, I think it was one of the most successful adaptations I’ve ever seen, and yes, I’ll be buying a copy with the extra half-hour or so of footage they had to cut. Hopefully they’ve got the news-stand guys in it, maybe a little more background on the New Frontiersmen (both of them appear on the end without any context) and I’ve heard it’s got the scene where Dan and Laurie serve coffee to the people they pulled out of the burning building. Yay!

The best thing about Coraline was the 3-D effects. They were fun and awesome and well done. The shame of it was that Kirstin and I sat there through the movie, knowing this was the kind of movie we usually enjoy and should be enjoying… but completely not enjoying it. The resemblence it bore to the source material was so tenuous that I really think they could have renamed the characters and not spent the money buying the rights to the marvelous story they all but discarded. I guess I’m glad Gaiman got paid, so he got something out of the bargain.

The most notable change for us was that the characters were extremely unpleasant. Coraline isn’t just bored, she’s a nasty, angry little kid. Her parents aren’t just busy and sort of benignly neglectful, they’re actively telling her to go away. Her mother’s a real bitch. The neighbors, instead of being just sort of eccentric and strange, are actively creepifying and a little scary. The rats got changed to jumping mice (boo!) and the "twin" doll got added.

The addition of Wybi pissed us both off. For one thing, it made us both angry that apparently the movie people thought we’d never believe a little girl could have all those adventures on her own. She clearly needed a boy companion in order to make it believable. Or you know, maybe they added a boy in to make little boys want to watch it, so they’d have someone to relate to… because god knows, us girls never get stuck watching movies with only male protagonists and no one to relate to, right?

They also decided to make Wybi some sort of half-assed deformed Magical Negro – he’s Black (but not TOO Black, he’s a nice, mild brown :P) and apparently has scoliosis or a hunchback or something (which doesn’t prevent him from acting in perfectly able-bodied ways like riding his motorbike to Coraline’s rescue) has no other friends except a black cat and no life except popping up occasionally to guide, clue, or nudge Coraline in the right direction.

I don’t even know what the point of the utterly cruel name the character is given – Wybi is short for "Why Were You Born" which is just… ugh. A name the now-mean little Coraline feels the need to taunt him with, despite her own annoyance that no one bothers to say her own name correctly. The fact is that Coraline is so cruel and nasty to this kid that in the Other World, her Other Mother creates a version to be friends with Coraline who cannot speak and has no voice. And Coraline LOVES that. When the real Wybi shows up to talk to her, her reaction is to roll her eyes and say "Oh great, the Wybi who can talk." Gee, cupcake, so sorry that you really adore the emasculated, de-voiced single-and-only CoC in the movie… who got inserted in to make up for your gender-deficiency in the first place.


Aside from that, the movie was interestingly made and had some interesting moments… but it really missed the point of the story it was only barely telling. If you want to see a much better adaptation of the story behind Coraline, I feel like Mirrormask is a better bet (in fact, I saw Mirrormask before I read Coraline, and was awfully confused by the fact they weren’t related except that Gaiman wrote them both) because it just really captures the wonder and the terror of the idea so much better.

I feel like the movie actually a lot more than the book illustrated why Coraline might want to stay in the Other world, since it’s a LOT nicer there than her real world… but they did it artificially, by adding a bunch of lovely things (like the garden scene) to the Other world and making everyone in the Real world actively awful. And really, Coraline herself was such a brat I couldn’t really root for her.

I do want to say though that the casting of Watchmen adds active fury to my upset about the Avatar debacle. They managed to cast actors who look amazingly right for the parts. These are people that, both naturally and I’m sure with some manipulation through makeup and maybe some digital work (not sure how much, except for Manhattan) look pretty much exactly as Dave Gibbons drew them. And they’re all good actors who really nail the parts.

So… it’s impossible to cast the "best" actors who actually look like the CoC in Avatar? Oh, Hollywood, blow me. Seriously.


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