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High Fidelity: Why Fans Demanding Faithfulness To Their Favorite Source Material Is Damaging Movies

High Fidelity: Why Fans Demanding Faithfulness To Their Favorite Source Material Is Damaging Movies

Let’s face it, we see more adaptations than original material in movie theaters. And that’s not something new: adapting from plays or novels (and now, other movies and TV shows and video games and board games and action figures) is as old as cinema itself. But what has changed, or at least become more organized and noticeable in the age of the Internet, is the way these adaptations are approached even before they hit theaters. Something which quite often, leads to what HitFix’s Drew McWeeney terms “fantrums.”

Making films of properties with pre-existing fanbases is a double-edged sword: you’re essentially guaranteed an opening weekend from people eager to see how their favorite book/comic/game turned out in another medium, but you’re also competing with the picture that they’ve had in their heads for years. And with pre-production and shooting on movies such leaky ships, details of what’s planned for an adaptation can come out even before a final script is approved. And if the fans don’t like what they hear about a film departing from the source material, they’ll let everyone know about it, tweeting and Facebook-ing and petitioning and blogging about it in what seems like huge numbers. And fandom is not know for their nuanced, moderate reactions, which is why McWeeney terms them “fantrums”; kneejerk, reactionary responses to rumors, whispers and half-truths.

It’s not much fun for anyone, but it’s also at the point now where the studios seem to be running scared, and adverse fan reactions — or even the possibility of an adverse fan reaction — could be seen as hurting the eventual film. The studios have been running scared from the geek crowd ever since the box office failure of “Batman & Robin” was credited to a negative review from Harry Knowles (rather than it being, you know, a terrible movie), and courting them with talk of being faithful and respectful to a source material is now common practice when a filmmaker signs on to adapt a popular property. But could most adaptations stand to be less faithful?

The Hunger Games” being the most recent translation of an adored property stands as the best example. Putting aside the tiny minority of racists who didn’t read the book closely enough, the fans seem to be happy, and it’s clearly crossed over to a far wider audience than those who’ve read the novels. Author Suzanne Collins, director Gary Ross and co-writer Billy Ray did a solid job with their screenplay, it would seem, but like many such adaptations, it has a tendency to feel a little pedestrian — faithfully hitting plot points without necessarily giving room between them to flesh out the world or the moments of drama. And in places, there’s a fear of tinkering with aspects that might not work on screen.

For instance, one of the issues we raised in our dissection of the film on Monday is that the forest setting for the Hunger Games themselves looked dull and repetitive. One of our commenters, MIGHTYMAD, took exception with the point, writing “I know the average movie viewer probably didn’t take the time to read the books, and therefore doesn’t know that the Hunger Games have taken places in various environments over the years […] but these games were set where they were suppose to be set for that particular year. What, where the filmmakers suppose to change the whole story of the book just to make the whole thing more ‘cinematic?’ “

Well, ideally, yes. A book is a book, and a movie is a movie, and what works in one medium doesn’t necessarily work in another (a piece at the AV Club today expands on this better than we ever could). Ross & co. could have quite easily thrown in more variety to the environment of the final act of the film, or even changed the location entirely, without harming the basic essence of the story — Katniss, and her fight for survival. What fans love about the material is not that the ending takes place in some woods in Canada. But the most of vocal of fans will object to any kind of change, no matter how minor, and Lionsgate erred on the side of safety, so as not to risk alienating fans.

A not dissimilar story is playing out with the latest fantrum — over “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” Producer Michael Bay let slip in an interview that for his Jonathan Liebesman-directed live-action reboot of the popular characters, now entitled simply “Ninja Turtles,” Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael and Michelangelo would be aliens, rather than turtles mutated by radioactive ooze. And the internet exploded, with multiple (and rather ridiculous) petitions circulating, and vows to boycott the finished product. And if you’re one of those that are upset about the idea (which has, obviously not been described in full yet, and may be more palatable in the script itself), we’d ask you to think about this one thing: do you honestly love the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles because they’re mutants? Does them being aliens prevent them from being the characters that you fell for in the first place?

We’d argue not. Of course, with Bay and Liebesman in charge, the characters being aliens is the least of fans’ troubles, and it’s more than likely that the film will turn out to be terrible. But even so, we’re sure there’s a reasoning behind the alien thing, something that the writers (who were behind the very well-regarded “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol,” let’s not forget) feel will give a new spin to the characters. And the plus point is that Bay, who is at least strong in his convictions, is unlikely to be swayed, just as Bryan Singer didn’t change courses when fans erupted at the casting of a six-foot-plus Australian actor as Wolverine, just as Christopher Nolan ignored objections to Heath Ledger as The Joker, and just as the producers of the Bond franchise failed to recast Daniel Craig because he was too blonde. In all cases, they know more about making movies than fans do, and we’ll happily take the actor who embodies the spirit of a part over one who bears cosmetic similarities. But whether because of studio pressure or filmmakers fearful of pissing off the fans, some do cave, with entire projects scrapped, or in the case of “The Hunger Games,” neutered. And it’s this “customer is always right” mentality that is making the fan communities increasingly damaging to the process of developing movies.

It doesn’t always come from fans, it should be said. J.K. Rowling vetoed Steven Spielberg as the director of “Harry Potter,” and Chris Columbus‘ first two installments are easily the weakest of the series, principally because they’re pedestrian traipses through the source material, hitting all the right notes without much of the inspiration. It was only when a director with the kudos to mess around with Rowling’s originals took over, in the shape of Alfonso Cuaron, that the films started to work in and of themselves. This doesn’t mean that the material should be disregarded (breaking entirely from what makes the material work in the first place is a recipe for disaster). But there’s a middle ground to be found. Think of Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” films, which capture the spirit of Tolkien‘s work while expanding some characters, and cutting other non-essential sections entirely. Fans may have been irked by the excision of Tom Bombadil, but it’s detrimental to the series.

Ultimately, whether it’s a comic book or a Pulitzer Prize-winning literary classic, the question of whether or not it’s faithful should come second to whether or not it’s a good movie. Some of the greatest films of all time were ones that departed heavily from their subject matter — “The Shining,” “The Godfather” — and you can bet that Stephen King fans would have been tweeting their anger at Stanley Kubrick‘s changes, had the technology existed at the time. Ultimately fandom should be less concerned with the details, and pay more attention to whether the filmmakers will deliver a piece of work that’s worthy of the source material without simply recreating it.

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