Heresy of the Week – Not everything needs to be filmed

dragonriders of pern

Heresy of the Week is a (mostly) weekly spot in which I entertain some of the unthinkable notions of geek-culture. The arguments I put forward are not always things I personally agree with, but often rhetorical devices designed to force myself (and maybe readers) out of the boxes which fan discussions can get caught in. But that aside, feel free to get yourselves worked up and your knickers in a twist if you really want to.

This week’s heresy:

There is, with high profile and successful book properties, always a rush or a drive for that property to be adapted for screen — whether for TV or cinema. Alongside the film industry’s ongoing originality drought, books are proving the go-to option for film companies. But not everything is filmable, and not everything should be filmed.

One of my presiding memories of the Harry Potter films — aside from the fact that only one of them was actually any good — was just how wrong they got great chunks of it. I’m not a Harry Potter obsessive, far from it. But I did read all of the books, and enjoyed them, and the characters who were on the screen were not those who I had read about in the books.

Look at Game of Thrones, too. Tyrion is not the stunted, hideous imp of A Song of Ice and Fire — indeed, I’m told Peter Dinklage is something of a looker. And Brienne of Tarth, who the books describe as “a huge, ugly, shambling thing who dressed in man’s mail”, is simply a bit tall.

The examples above are not necessarily deal-breaking changes — one cannot feasibly expect Peter Dinklage and Gwendoline Christie to disfigure themselves or wear layers and layer of heavy makeup for x number of series. But it does illustrate the compromises which have to be made to translate something from page to screen.

And why, exactly? Whether film or TV, it does seem to be the ultimate marker of success for any book. Commercially I can see why — more people watch film and TV than, sadly, read books. But in terms of creative merit? I am unconvinced.

There was a time when A Song of Ice and Fire would have been considered unfilmable. The same was true of J.R.R. Tolkein’s fantasy epic before Peter Jackson’s live action Lord of the Rings. The fact that these have been brought to the screen are the testament of much love and affection by the makers for the source material, but also the massive corporate budgets put behind them.

So it can be done, but those big budget projects are the exception rather than the rules. I present, as a cautionary tale, a story which I have related before.

Back in 2002-ish, Ronald D. Moore — the man behind Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and the reimagined Battlestar Galactica — wanted to adapt one of my favourite book series The Dragonriders of Pern by Anne McCaffrey. It almost happened, too. Except, in Moore’s own words:

I had tried … to keep the spirit of the books alive … and make it a classy, interesting show. And … what was evident in the draft they commissioned, they wanted a different show. It was more Buffy-esque and Xena-esque. It was something they felt more comfortable with on The WB. … There wasn’t a way to split the difference.

Yep, Moore canned the project rather than turn Pern into something less than what it was meant to be. Which is a brave decision, in my opinion (You can read more about the whole palaver here, if you want — I find it fascinating, but then I’m a massive fan).

I wonder, therefore, how many books have been almost adapted like this. Or even, how many were adapted, and tanked due to lack of creative and financial support? Why is an excellent book in and of itself not enough? And does that ambition of adaption provide a creative break on what books are written and published?

Books and film are two different arts, and I do have to wonder whether some books should be unfilmable.

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