If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Adapt It

Paper Towns alternate covers

A Paper Towns movie? Have I heard these digital whispers correctly? It seems I have. Of course, not every movie deal that gets hand-shook ends up seeing the light of day, and we have yet to see how The Fault in Our Stars, another adaptation of a John Green novel produced by the same people reportedly putting together Paper Towns, goes when it hits cinemas in June. Still, my air of dubiousness has been, regret to say, riled up again on the subject of book-to-movie adaptations. Here we go again, friends.

My number one gripe about this industry is making movies of books not because they would make good movies, but because the book is popular. The fans are calling wistfully for a moving picture adaptation to bring their beloved vision to life. The Hollywood moguls see a potential project to cash in on. Everyone wants to see a book they enjoyed come to life, but the wall that train of thought runs into is that the movie that it becomes will never be the one you saw in your head while reading it, simply because sometimes the magic of a novel comes from the medium it’s in. A good book does not always make a good movie.

At one end of the spectrum (let’s look to YA, because that’s the big market at the moment it seems) we have The Hunger Games, which made awesome movies that are almost complementary to if not more enjoyable at times than the novels. They worked because of the action-packed nature of the plot (though people in the “why do we have to watch her sitting in a goddamn tree” school of thought will disagree with me there) and the quick, snappy style it’s written in, helped by the fact the novels were structured like a screenplay with a three-act framework Suzanne Collins picked up from being a scriptwriter. A quieter, more introspective novel like Paper Towns that revolves around everyday teenagers is immediately not blockbuster fuel. It’s a good book, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to make a good movie, in fact, in making a movie of that you might lose a good chunk of what exactly makes it good in the first place.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Hands up who liked it better without being stuck with Katniss’ narration

Paper Towns is, a la John Green’s specialty, reflective and philosophical and relies on a completely unremarkable protagonist. His nickname only has one letter in it, damn it. It’s as if he’s trying to disappear into the pages, make the reader take his place and seep into the world of the story and see it through his eyes. Half the fun of Paper Towns was immersing yourself in the settings, all decked out in prose that tells you exactly how you’re supposed to be seeing it. The plastic eeriness of Seaworld at night, dry endless highways, dusty abandoned strip malls, looking down on the tacky, clammy Florida city at night and wrapping the reader up in that big, central allegory about paper towns full of paper people. It’s a very visual novel that way, but at the same time, a lot of the wonder of that would be lost if the image was just presented straight to us.

And then of course there’s the issue of its heroine, Alaska 2.0, I mean, Margo*, and the point she embodies, this super idealised girl that it turns out the hero doesn’t know a damn thing about despite his huge crush on her. It’s picking at, if not deconstructing, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope, the effervescent otherworldly and heart-bouncingly unique love interest to sweep your featureless hero off his feet and into a story. Basically the entire novel is spent tearing this sheen off Margo, trying to figure out who she really is behind it. It comes through in action, of course, but again, a good deal of the hard thinking on it is in the prose itself. Which is lost in a film medium.

If bungled, the filmmakers in question might just end up making Margo into exactly what the story is trying to prove she isn’t. With the film our only look at her and no window into her headspace, and things having to be slightly exaggerated depending on how subtle you think your audience can handle, we may just end up with a Manic Pixie Margo, presented to us briefly to establish character, then absent for the majority of the movie until the end where we find her as a shell of her former self. Would the transition make sense without all those brain noises from the protagonist? It would remain to be seen, but a lot of the impact would be lost, not to mention the golf club a movie adaptation could take to the pacing of the story.

The Fault in Our Stars movie still

The fault is not in us, but in our desire to turn every bestselling book into a feature film

But, hey, don’t let me rain on a possibly non-existent parade (Schrödinger’s adaptation?). Paper Towns could make a good movie if done well, but it would have to be, as they say, hipster as hell. It really seems like something a quirky Indie company could pull off, and naturally it would be supported by the swathes of loyal John Green fans waiting at the gates so it’s entirely possible it would work. The Fault in Our Stars isn’t out yet so I remain open-minded-yet-dubious of how well these novels translate into film, or indeed, any soft and subtle novel where the story is fairly generic but the big pull and wow factor is the writing itself. If you axe that, apart from the dialogue and maybe some wafty voiceovers, you’re left with the exoskeleton of the plot, which is not always remarkable enough to make a movie of on its own.

Paper Towns is an example of a book that does not cry to be made into a movie. It’s perfectly confident in itself as a novel, and that’s how it tells its story. This is not true to all things of course—some books work brilliantly as books and movies for completely different reasons (see the aforementioned Hunger Games), some evolve in the process of the medium shift and become a better work as a movie than as a book (Stardust by Neil Gaiman, in my experience anyway), and some are just filling-rattlingly awful and should have stayed as text (too many to count). Some books are written with the express purpose of becoming a movie or series one day, as are a lot of light novels. That’s different—the point remains, a book should be adapted into a movie or show because it has a story, world and tone that would look awesome presented to us in visual format, if a movie adaptation will bring something new to the piece and heighten the experience. If you’re just adapting a book because people like the book, you’ve lost a bit of street cred from this little black duck.

* Paper Towns and Looking For Alaska basically explore and play with the same theme, which ended up with them having recoloured versions of the same main characters. Fun reading.




Filed under Things We Need to Stop Doing

2 responses to “If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Adapt It

  1. I agree. It’s like the people who come up with the ‘let’s make x book a movie!’ idea don’t realize that they’re translating a work from one medium to another–and that not everything translates well.

  2. Pingback: Alright, Let’s Talk About Rebellion Story | The Afictionado

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