When I was looking for movies to use as examples in my post on unfaithful movie adaptations, I happened across two adaptations of books I love which had remarkably similar approaches to the same problem: what to do about the first person narrator. So, since at least one commenter asked for more, and I’m always willing to talk about movies, here’s another post on movie adaptations of YA novels.
The two books/movies this time out are:
1) Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson (a 2000 Printz Honor Book), which was adapted into a made-for-TV movie by director Jessica Sharzer in 2004, starring a pre-Twilight Kristen Stewart in a spectacular star-turn.
2) It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini (a 2007 YALSA Best Book for Young Adults). Funny Story was a more traditional Hollywood film, directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, and starring Keir Gilchrist and Zach Galifianakas.
The plots of the movies follow the books almost precisely. Speak is the story of Melinda’s first year in high school. She has lost all of her friends over the summer because she called the cops on a party, and she has reverted almost entirely inward, refusing to speak unless absolutely necessary. We eventually learn that she called the police because she was raped by a senior, but she hasn’t told anyone about the rape. It’s Kind of a Funny Story tells the story of depressed and suicidal Craig, who accidentally admits himself into a psychiatric ward; the movie follows him as he meets and interacts with the various patients*.
Both narrators are suffering from severe mental anguish, but their suffering is almost entirely internal. The reader, who can see their thoughts, knows how much pain they are in, but the characters around them don’t. Both Melinda and Craig also have wicked senses of humor which are more or less unaffected by their psychological problems, but which are expressed almost entirely in their thoughts as well. So two of the most important characteristics of the narrators are entirely invisible to the outside eye: for anyone making a film out of such a novel, this obviously leads to a very serious problem.
Now, Hollywood has a very standard way of adapting first-person narratives, which you can see going back to 1930s adaptations of Dickens and Bronte: the actor playing the main character has some limited voiceover to let the viewer know that the story is from their point of view, but largely the film maintains a strictly realistic, third-person account of the plots of the books.
What I want to emphasize is that even though this is standard and seemingly “neutral,” it is still an interpretative decision just like the ones I discussed in my last post. There’s no reason in theory why the makers of these movies couldn’t have tried to access the narrators’ inner thoughts. Movies have been experimenting in radical subjectivity for almost as long as cinema has existed–look at the films of Alain Resnais, Robert Bresson, David Cronenberg, or Roman Polanski for some examples. But the types of experiments those filmmakers engaged in are not generally part of the Hollywood way of making films, which usually calls for a kind of stylized realism above all.
So, back to our movies: both make a couple of token attempts to show their character’s distress visually–Speak is given to framing Kristen Stewart at the end of seemingly endless, empty hallways to convey her loneliness, and Funny Story takes a stab at recreating one of Craig’s “tentacles”–but mostly they stick to objective representation of plot. Even more than usual, this is an enormously important act of interpretation, since as we saw, a huge portion of each of these books takes place in the character’s heads. To compensate, they have to make another interpretative choice–essentially, how to make the plot meaningful with the main character’s narration stripped away.
Interestingly, both make the same choice, which is to invert the importance of events. In the books, the external events of the plot largely act as foils for their internal trauma, reflecting something that is going on within the narrator. In Speak, for example, the school’s mascot is constantly being changed by the school board, a piece of business which is quite funny, but which is also clearly intended to reflect Melinda’ own identity crisis throughout the year. In the films this is turned on its head: the main characters’ mental health problems become a metaphor for, or a reflection of the outside world. In the film of Speak, the changing mascot story is greatly reduced, and relegated to a small joke about the silliness of high school, with nothing particular to say about Melinda’s character. And Melinda’s identity crisis and generally anti-social behavior seem like characteristics of a standard high school initiation story. So, instead of the dysfunction of her high school reflecting Melinda’s torment, Melinda’s torment is shown to be a particularly acute version of what any high school freshman might expect.
The same inversion happens in Funny Story. In the absence of Craig’s hilarious narration, the film has to find humor by hiring a comic actor (Zach Galifianakas) to play a character who is barely funny at all in the novel. At the same time, the film attempts at various times to connect mental illness to 9/11 and various other ills of society at large, again positing that Craig is merely a symptom of a larger societal problem.
(Notice the images of famine and destruction, etc. after Craig says he has a lot on his mind?)
Obviously, I have no problem with movies changing the book–and I actually think that both movies succeed quite well on their own terms–but it is fascinating that in both cases, the filmmakers seem to have been almost forced to interpret the material in what is almost certainly the opposite of what the authors intended.
In the end, I think we should be glad as movie watchers that the narration of these novels was so extreme that it caused the movies to make some interesting, pro-active choices. In too many cases, it seems like filmmakers don’t even notice whether the book they are adapting is in first or third person, and make little to no attempt to account for this aspect. I think (though I’m not sure) that this is one of the reason many people are dissatisfied with so many movie adaptations–the things they loved about the book existed in the narration and the mind of the narrator, not in the plot points so slavishly reproduced. Movies like Speak and It’s Kind of a Funny Story show that even using a strictly neutral Hollywood style, there are still ways a film can reinterpret a first-person book, and add interesting ideas to it.
— Mark Flowers, currently reading The Thirteen Hallows by Michael Scott and Colette Freedman
*edited 11/9/11 (see comments)