Recently, I’ve been thinking about movies based on books. I love books (I’m a librarian), but I also love movies, and it has always bugged me when people say that â€œthe book is always better than the movie.â€ Obviously it is true that there are a lot of crummy movie adaptations out there, but it seems to me that when people say that the book is better, they are mostly disappointed that the movie wasn’t â€œfaithfulâ€ enough to the book-â€”that it didn’t live up to the image they had in their head when they read the book.
But for me, regardless of how â€œfaithfulâ€ it is to the book, it is always interesting to see how movies use the visual medium to reinterpret or change books. Once you look at movie adaptations this way, you see that not only are there a lot of really good ones, but a lot of times even the bad ones have interesting things about them. I wrote a more thorough article about this for Young Adult Library services, but today, I want to show you what I mean by looking at one movie: The Vampire’s Assistant, directed and co-written by Paul Weitz, and based on the Vampire Blood Trilogy (Cirque du Freak, The Vampire’s Assistant, and Tunnels of Blood) of Darren Shan’s 12-novel series, The Saga of Darren Shan, which is also known as the Cirque du Freak series. (Cirque du Freak was one of YALSA’s 2005 Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults.)
For those who haven’t read the books or seen the movie, here’s the basic plot: Darren and his best friend Steve go to a freak show, where they encounter Larten Crepsley, a good vampire (he doesn’t kill humans). Steve tries to convince Crepsley to make him a vampire, but for complicated reasons, Crepsley chooses to make Darren a half-vampire instead, against Darren’s will. The rest of the trilogy follows Darren and Crepsley as Darren adjusts to being a half-vampire; at the same time Crepsley tracks an evil â€œVampanezeâ€ (a vampire who kills) named Murlough.
As far as I can tell, the movie wasn’t very well liked (it didn’t make much money and got bad reviews), but I was intrigued by it, both on its own, and for how it transformed the books. For one thing, only the plot of the first book is kept intact for the movie. The director, Weitz, jettisons most of the plots of the second and third novels, keeping only Darren’s love interest, and the concept of a battle with a Vampaneze named Murlough. But more importantly, the whole tone of the movie is changed from the books’ bewildered coming-of-vampire-age tale to a much more surreal, destiny-laden drama. While fans of the book probably disapproved of the movie being so different from the books, the question that I think is interesting is why the movie makes these changes. And the answer, I think, is that since the movie was made after Shan had written the entire Saga, Weitz was able to use themes that emerge over the course of all twelve books and reinterpret the beginning of the saga in light of these themes.
Let’s look at one of the most obvious differences between the film and the first trilogy: the relative importance of Steve and Mr. Tiny. In the books, Mr. Tiny has a very small and mysterious role which just barely hints at his later importance (you’ll notice I didn’t even mention him in my summary above). Similarly, Steve has only a very brief scene in the second book, and is gone entirely from book 3. When Steve does reappear in book 8, though, he takes on huge significance. As the Lord of the Vampaneze, he is Darren’s primary adversary, and in the last book of the series, it is finally revealed that Steve and Darren are brothers, both fathered by Mr. Tiny. It is also revealed that Mr. Tiny has been orchestrating their conflict, and in fact the entire plot of the series. The events of the series then begin to fall into place as the pieces of a conflict between two brothers and their father.
Reading the Vampire Blood Trilogy, you’d never get a hint of any of this, but Weitz makes some ingenious changes in the film to foreground this theme of family conflict, without giving away the major plot surprises.
First, he completely changes the adults in Darren’s and Steve’s lives. In the novel, the boys have a teacher named Mr. Dalton, who is a clear father figure for Steve, his favorite teacher, and a figure of respect for all his students. Similarly, Darren’s parents are clearly loving, attentive parents. In the film, however, Mr. Dalton is turned into just another preachy adult, whose righteousness over freak shows is shown to be hypocrisy once he actually encounters a â€œfreak.â€ Darren’s parents, meanwhile, are shown to be ineffectual drudges, insisting that Darren must pursue â€œcollege, career, familyâ€ (a mantra repeated over and over as the film spirals into a fabulous montage of Darren’s life slipping away from him).
By effectively eliminating the adult humans as role models, the movie emphasizes the choice that the boys must make between their true father, Mr. Tiny, and their surrogate father, Crepsley. Steve, rejected for his bad blood by Crepsley, turns to Mr. Tiny, and becomes a Vampaneze. Darren, who is recruited by Mr. Tiny immediately after his blooding, rejects him in favor of Mr. Crepsley, who is given a number of chances (invented for the film) to express his concern for Darren and his loneliness without him.
All of these changes come together in the second half of the film, which is largely original to the screenwriters. Murlough–the major villain of book 3–is shown to be a stooge to Mr. Tiny, with Steve as the real villain, setting up a battle (unbeknownst to the reader) between brothers, over whether to follow their blood (Mr. Tiny) or their consciences (Mr. Crepsley). This battle is made explicit by Darren’s girlfriend’s words: â€œit’s not what you are, it’s who you are,â€ which Darren and viewers who have not read the rest of the series can interpret in terms of Darren’s reluctance to be a full vampire, but which in terms of the family drama clearly means that the boys can choose to follow their consciences (â€œwho they areâ€) rather than their blood (â€œwhat they areâ€).
I don’t know for sure, but it doesn’t seem from reading the books that Shan knew exactly where he was going when he wrote the first trilogy, so it is all the more interesting that Weitz was able to mine the details from those three books, reinterpret them, and bring out these latent meanings.
So that’s what I mean about the ways movie adaptations can interpret books: there is no need to be faithful to the exact plot and tone of the book to create an interesting movie based on the same material, and in this case, changing the plot and tone can even help the viewer to see aspects of the books that they might not have noticed before. I hope to write a few more posts on this topic on other movies, so let me know what you think.
— Mark Flowers, currently (re)reading Please Ignore Vera Dietz by AS King (a 2011 Michael L. Printz Award honor book)