Thursday, January 08, 2009

The Kite Runner and Books on Film

The Kite Runner is a classic example of the difficulty of making a book into a movie. For all intents and purposes the adaptation was done very very well. The movie is technically about as true to the book as a person could expect. The story is virtually the same. All the main elements are there. And it is an amazing story.

But where I would give the novel a 9/10 I feel like I'm being generous in giving the movie a 7/10. And it is hard for me to tell if I'd have liked it more if I didn't already love the story or if I'd have liked it less.

When I give a movie a rating of 6 or higher I'm saying I liked it. I think the director and some of the actors did some really great things here. For one thing, we get to see the childhood dialogue in Farsi with subtitles rather than English. In this way the movie is actually an improvement on the book. And some of the actors did a really good job, too.

So what is the problem?

Somehow I was just not as captivated as I expected to be. Maybe this is just the problem of a reader expecting a repeat experience. But I'm not sure that is entirely it. I realize a film is going to be different than a book. You give leeway for that.

In fact, I think this is exactly where the movie failed. It wasn't different enough. It just told the story. Plot and some key lines were the main focus. Descriptions of setting were used to give us the setting, but where in the book the description of the setting also gives the reader the mood, in the movie they just treat it as background.

The movie needed to sit still a little more and let us soak in the setting. We needed a close up or two on some key character's faces (and especially with the child actors we needed to see those faces betray some feeling a bit more). We needed the lighting to look less sitcom-ish from start to finish. It was all just too-well lit. There are some dark moments in this story, but it felt like an after-school special at times.

The strength of The Kite Runner is this incredible window the reader gets into Afghani culture and history, into these particular characters, and into this unfolding drama of friendship, family, betrayal, and redemption. The movie opens that window, but despite the use of Farsi language and the seemingly-authentic setting, the view through that window just is not as vivid or deep as I'd hoped.

When you adapt a book into the film it is not just enough, in my view, to be true to the story. To use another example, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe was very true to the original story (with the exception of that horrendous river scene) and yet totally failed to capture the wonder of the story (at least once they left the beaver's hut).

Sure, characters were given about as much background or set-up as in the book, but somehow in the book CS Lewis had brought us to the place where we felt we knew them already once we met them. Centaurs, fawns, dogs, deer, mice, etc. were all on our side fighting against evil. But in the movie, though they enter the story the same way as in the book, we don't care about them. We don't know them. They almost seem like background illustrations.

The film-makers in both of these cases have not gone out of their way to translate mood and character and feeling from the printed page to the screen. You have to communicate these things differently on screen or else you might as well just leave it on the page.

I do recommend The Kite Runner. In fact, I'd like to hear from some who have seen the movie but not read the book. Did it work? Probably to a large degree it did. I mean, I'm still giving it a pretty good rating here. It is a remarkable story, and in many ways it is well told. But you would be better off reading the book. You will feel and be affected by the story far far more.

But in my opinion that is not just because it is a book, but because the novel did a better job of being a book than the movie did of being a film.


Matthew A. Wilkinson said...

I haven't read the book or seen the film, but this was a really interesting read.

You said,
"the novel did a better job of being a book than the movie did of being a film."

It's refreshing to hear that kind of sophistication in a discussion about film adaptations.

You said you almost wished the director of Kite Runner had been a little less faithful to the book. I think you've got something there. So often in adaptations of novels the movie fails because it tries to cram an entire novel (which it probably took the reader anywhere from five to fifty hours to read) into two hours on-screen. The result is rushed and emotionally unsatisfying, or a mediocre translation of a much richer reading experience. The best adaptations are often the least faithful to the details of the novel's plot, but most faithful to the SPIRIT of the work.

Like '2001: A Space Odyssey.' How did Kubrick translate all those words and ideas from the novel into image and sound? He did it by getting intimate with the source material, and then liberating himself from the oppressive need to be faithful to it. In doing so he made one of the great films. It's easy to forget that it's an adaptation, because it's so cinematic.

Fascinating, as usual, Jon.

Matthew A. Wilkinson said...

You gave Crash 8!?

WHY OH WHY!!!???

Worst, most self-important movie ever!

Colin Toffelmire said...

I haven't seen the movie, though I think I understand what you mean. I didn't enjoy the book as much as you did. It was at best a 7.5 for me. What I did find particularly powerful and moving, however, were precisely those components that you refer to. The use of setting was brilliant and added a much more personal dimension to what could otherwise have been a mere abstraction about suffering and evil. I felt that I was there with the characters not merely geographically, but emotionally as well. It's unfortunate to hear the movie didn't capture what I would describe as the main strength of the book. Seems to me that what makes a movie adaptation good is not the level of accuracy v. the book, but the degree to which it captures the key characteristics of the book. I'd say that No Country for Old Men is one of the very best examples of this that I've seen.

jon said...

ha ha, yeah i take heat regularly from some certain other film-efficianados in my life over my enjoyment of Crash. so i'll say this:

i've seen it twice now. i have to say that it totally got me and got to me the first time. it succeeded. i liked the interweaving plots and the different storylines and much of the acting. it worked for me. i might even have given it more than an 8, I don't recall.

this time, some of the flaws shone through a little more for me, but i can't deny its original power for me either. hence i'm keeping my rating pretty high.

flaws: yes, this film is highly self-important. that's a good way to put it. and you watch the special features for 2 minutes and you realize these people are way too preachy. the film is preachy. over the top. stupid, actually. the racism in it is meant to be satirical, as if it supposedly uncovers the things people are thinking but not saying.

i'm sorry, but i don't think so. maybe some people are still that racist but MUCH of the dialogue was absolutely ridiculous. this had a shock-value that worked for me the first time but this time was embarrassing.

The Acting: the first time i saw it i didn't notice this as much, probably because my attention was diverted by what i still feel are some interesting storylines. but this time i noticed and remember why Sandra Bullock and Brendan Fraser are not two of my favourites. That whole storyline was a good one, but they ruined it by their horrible acting.

But, Matt Dillon was really good, I thought. And the storyline with the black couple worked and was pretty complex.

So I have to stand by my rating because this movie did work for me the first time and I can't deny it. But I am perfectly okay with being chided for that. You have good reason.

This story and this idea could have been done MUCH MUCH BETTER. In fact I imagine it has been done better in less popular films.

As for 2001 and No Country, I've never read either book but I can see what you are saying is totally true.

Colin Toffelmire said...

The differences between the novel and film for No Country are actually almost non-existent. A little more action in the film with the one shooting/chase scene, and the ending is just slightly different, but for the first 2/3 of the book I could actually see the exact corresponding scenes playing out in my head.

The thing is, that could have made the film a disaster. Had the Cohen's just been only faithful the film would have failed. They were, however, more than faithful. Particularly in the old sheriff character they captured the sense, the feel the theme, and the power of the novel. They may actually have surpassed the novel which is really saying something (I generally see the novel as the ultimate art form, my own particular prejudice).

As for Crash, it was indeed mediocre generally but with some very powerful bits. I think when you critique its "preachy-ness" you're hitting the nail on the head.

The selection that surprised me, and you guys are going to string me up for this, was Babel. I found Babel almost entirely uninspiring. The story of the young Japanese girl was very powerful, but apart from that the whole thing just seemed long-winded and a little pretentious. That might have been a case of overblown expectations I guess, but I was very underwhelmed. I would hardly give it a 7. The highlight of that evening was the excellent pasta and wine my sis and bro-in-law served me :).

Matthew A. Wilkinson said...

I haven't seen Babel.

Praise where it's due: Matt Dillon really was good in Crash. Absolutely. His character was paper thin in the script, but he brought it to life on-screen.

Jon, I hear what you're saying about Crash. I just can't seem to let a positive comment on the film pass without venting my frustration with it. Ha. I've never met anyone who came anywhere near resembling the stereotypes portrayed in that film, or who was anywhere near as outrageously inconsistent (in convenient narrative moments) as every character in that film. Gah!

jon said...

fair enough Matt! Let me have it. i will probably hate Crash in time.

I'm surprised Babel was underwhelming for you Colin, but I don't imagine everyone is going to like it the same. Some people probably shouldn't even see it. But I find it striking from start to finish. Beautifully told. Well acted. Profound yet subtle. Brilliant.

No Country is incredible. I'm ready to read the book.

How often does it go the other way though. How often do you read the book after watching the movie?

Colin Toffelmire said...

I almost universally read the book before the movie, and had I been able to wrangle a copy of No Country from the library at the time, I would have done the same there.

I'm trying to wrangle a copy of The Watchmen right now before the movie comes out, but as with No Country, I'll happily see the film before I read the graphic novel because it just looks so fantastic.

Almost always, though, the book vastly surpasses the film. Another rare instance where I watched the movie first was Name of the Rose. It's not a bad period film, though as always Christian Slater's performance is stilted and irritating, but the book is a modern masterpiece. The more Eco I read the more firmly I believe that Name of the Rose is his magnum opus, not only in the realm of fiction but also in his theoretical and hermeneutical work. It's the book that convinces me of reader-centred hermeneutics with textual controls.

Not sure where the Eco rant came from. A byproduct of all the hermeneutics reading I'm doing right now I suppose :).

Colin Toffelmire said...

Oh, and I certainly understand people who loved Babel. The acting was great, the themes were subtle and understated as you say, but for all of that I guess I feel like it just didn't coalesce into something great. The parts surpassed the whole. Perhaps that was intentional on the part of the film-makers. It certainly dovetails with the main themes of the film. But that lack of flow between the disparate narratives still bugged me.

Matthew A. Wilkinson said...

I'll leave the Crash-bashing for another day. I think you know everything I'd end up saying. It sounds like we mostly agree on the particulars, but disagree on the conclusions we draw from them.

Colin said,
"Almost always, though, the book vastly surpasses the film."

I hear that sentiment a lot. For many people it's almost axiomatic.

I'm sure that statement is justified, because there have been a lot of terrible and mediocre adaptations (for all kinds of reasons). However, I don't like what I think I hear lurking behind that statement: that movies aren't as good as books. And I can't support that sentiment.

I think you'll find that people who genuinely appreciate a great novel more than they appreciate a great film will tend to conclude that there are hardly any good adaptations.

For a person like me, however, who genuinely gets more from a great film than from a great book, I tend to like a lot of adaptations.

That's why I like what Jon said about The Kite Runner novel being better at being a book than the movie was at being a movie. I think that's the heart of the matter.

I'm not sure where I'm going with this.

Here are some adaptations that kicked the butts of the novels they adapted (not that I've read all of these books; but there's just no way the books could have been half as good as these films. Ha!):

-the Big Sleep (1946 version)
-2001, and every other film in the Kubrick catalogue
-Being There
-The Graduate
-Raging Bull
...the list goes on. and on. and on.

jon said...

yeah i'm not sure. the film might be the finest art form. and i think the fact that we'll more often go from book to film than watch the film and then go the book shows where the pursuit reaches its peak.

crazily enough my word verification is "actored"

Dave M said...

Not to mention the Brendan Fraser version of Journey to the center of the earth.