In my previous posts on movie adaptations, I’ve defended movies for changing plot points, acting as critical analyses of their sources, and changing the story’s focus from the main character to the world at large. What I haven’t talked about, and what I want to discuss today, are adaptations that completely change the theme or point of their source. You hear about this in the common complaint that the movie “didn’t get” the book or author. To help me discuss this without getting too theoretical, I’m going to use a pair of adaptations of novels by Robert Cormier (the third winner of the Margaret A. Edwards Award): 1983’s I Am the Cheese (directed by Robert Jiras) and 1988’s The Chocolate War (directed by Keith Gordon).
For anyone familiar with Cormier, I probably don’t have to explain why a Hollywood adaptation would be unlikely to represent his themes accurately, but for those of you who haven’t read the books, the most important elements for our purposes are the endings (major 40-year-old spoilers below):
- In the final pages of I Am the Cheese, we learn in rapid succession that 1) one of the two main plots, in which Adam (the protagonist) has been biking across New England to bring a package to his father, has been going on almost entirely inside Adam’s head and 2) Adam has been institutionalized by Witness Protection for three years and has been reliving the events of the book every year as an interrogator tries to find more information about who killed Adam’s parents.
- The Chocolate War revolves around Jerry’s anti-authoritarian stance against both his elite prep school and the school’s illustrious (and notorious) secret society, the Vigils. It culminates in a boxing match in which Jerry is brutally beaten by a school bully, and realizes in the novel’s closing pages that he cannot possibly win against either the Vigils or the school authorities who tacitly approve of them.
It is easy to see why Hollywood was drawn to Cormier. His plots are tight and cinematic, his characters vivid and psychologically complex, and he shares Hollywood’s love of the twist ending. On the other hand, these books are brutally pessimistic, to put it mildly, and pessimism has rarely been a prized quality in Hollywood. So what’s a director to do?
Well, what both films do is to keep almost the entirety of the plot intact, but make very small tweaks to the endings of each. In I Am the Cheese, the filmmakers 1) simply omit the information that Adam has been incarcerated and reliving his past for three years, and 2) allow Adam to escape his incarceration in the final seconds of the film. These easy changes turn the formerly pessimistic story into a straightforward journey of self-discovery–Adam works (a single time) through his interrogations and his imagination to piece together his past–leading towards freedom. In The Chocolate War, the filmmakers make an even simpler change. Using a plot mechanism Cormier had already created (for those who have read the book: the box of white and black marbles) they substitute the leader of the Vigils for the school bully in the boxing match, and then simply allow Jerry to win the match. Although they make a token effort to label it a Pyrrhic victory, from the viewer’s perspective it allows Jerry to defeat both the Vigils and the school in one blow. Thus the two stories are transformed from bleak accounts of teens being beaten by the system into stories of triumph against the odds.
So what are we to make of these changes? The films are almost identical to the books, and yet small changes to the endings allow for utterly different themes to emerge. Are they “faithful” because they keep most of the plot and characters intact, or “unfaithful” becasue of the changed themes? And why does it matter so much to us whether movies adaptations are faithful to their sources? This last question brings me to the real issue that I have been grappling with throughout these movie posts: what is the purpose of creating a movie adaptation of a book or story? For Hollywood producers, the answer is usually simple: the point is to use the built-in good will towards a known product (a well-loved book) to sell a movie. For viewers, the answers are more varied, but based on how frequently I hear complaints about the “faithfulness” of adaptations, it seems that many or most are looking for a cinematic re-creation of the experience of the book, either to allow them to re-experience it, or to share that experience with non-readers, or for some other reason. (If you have a different theory I would love to hear about it in the comments).
What I’ve been trying to argue in these posts is that there is a third view, that of the actual creators of the film. For most filmmakers, the point of making a movie is to create a piece of art, and adapting a book is no different. Books and stories are useful tools because they do the preliminary work of creating a scenario, characters, and ideas. But from the perspective of an artist, they are just that: tools to use in creating something new. We see this over and over in Western culture: Shakespeare, to take an obvious example, took plots from Plutarch, Chaucer, or Italian folklore–sometimes even huge blocks of barely edited text from Holinshed’s Chronicles–and molded them into new stories with brand new themes and ideas that the sources never thought of. More recently, we have seen a huge spate of novels which use fairy tale plots to take on contemporary themes of feminism or anti-colonialism. So why, then, shouldn’t a movie adaptation do the same thing? Take the raw materials of a book or story and use them in the service of the director or screenwriter’s personal artistic visions.
Getting back to our Cormier adaptations: the question for me is not how closely they adhere to Cormier, but how successfully they create a new work or a new interpretation. In the case of The Chocolate War, the answer is resoundingly positive: the motive may have been cynical (Hollywood loves a happy ending), but the result is spectacular. The decision to pit Archie (the head of the Vigils) against Jerry in the boxing match is inspired, and as I pointed out above, gives the match a whole new significance, allowing the two main characters a face-to-face confrontation. And though Cormier clearly never intended to allow for Jerry’s triumph over authority, the film’s ending follows as easily from the plot as Cormier’s and is actually more subversive than Cormier’s, since it allows Jerry to get away with his blatantly anti-authoritarian actions.
The film of I Am the Cheese, unfortunately, is not nearly so successful. Not the least of its problems is that (apart from one bravura shot which wordlessly explains the twist of the biking plot) it is simply a bad movie: poorly acted, filmed, and edited. More important for our purposes, the changed ending does severe damage to the film’s structure. In the novel, Cormier carefully separates the two plot lines–narrating the bike plot in first person and the interrogation plot in third–and distinguishes which parts of his past Adam discovers in each. This is important for Cormier’s purposes because the bike plot is Adam’s attempt to escape from the reality of his incarceration and reflects Adam’s past ambitions to be a writer. Crucially, it includes information that he keeps from his interrogators. In the film, in which his interrogator (played by Robert Wagner) is relatively benign, and in which both plots point to the same state of self-awareness, the entire existence of the bike plot makes little to no sense. It exists merely to allow for the twist ending. Then there is Adam’s escape, which is so comically easy that the viewer has to ask how the government has managed to succeed in keeping anyone in custody for any length of time. In other words, the changes made by the filmmakers, while superficially more pleasing to the viewer, call into question the premises of both main plots, making the film little more than an exercise in intricate plotting.
Just to be clear, I am probably just as likely as anyone else to chafe against a movie adaptation for “not getting” the book–when I watch a movie based on a book I’ve read, I expect certain things out of it and I’m disappointed when I do”t get them. What I’m trying to work through in these posts is why I should feel that way, and to try to come to a new understanding of the purposes and uses of adaptations. Examining these two Cormier adaptations has helped me to see that, for me at least, it is much more important for a movie to make sense on its own terms, than for it to be perfectly faithful to its source material.
— Mark Flowers, currently reading An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793 by Jim Murphy