23 December 2010

Essay: Why is Every Novel-to-Movie Adaptation Terrible?

Never Let Me Go is a really bad movie: not just for its lazy dependence on cliches—gray uniforms + English countryside = unsettling—but because of its blind fealty to its source material. And, this comes from someone who hasn't even read the Kazuo Ishiguro novel on which the film is based! Yet even I can sense that the filmmakers are like storytelling dogs, obedient to their source-novel master.

From what I've heard, there are differences between the two, particularly in the way director Mark Romanek is upfront about the tragic scifi story, in which clones-in-love are harvested for organs, in spots where Ishiguro is more withholding. But those differences are surely slight. At the movie's two-thirds point, Kiera Knightley apologizes to her friends, played by Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield, for keeping those two lovebirds apart for so long. I was surprised to learn they were even in love. I mean, I got that Mulligan had some sort of crush. But the film's impact hinges upon the epicness of this love, and yet doesn't even take the time to establish it, really. Screenwriter Alex Garland, usually Danny Boyle's collaborator, conspicuously follows Ishiguro's plotting to a fault, to the point that the filmmakers are dutifully moving through a narrative, diagrammatically hitting plot-point touchstones without stopping to consider if anything needs to be developed deeper—if, perhaps, the superficialities don't suffice. As if, there's no time! Ishiguro told a certain story, and its bare shell must be retained at all costs!

Last year, Peter Jackson's adaptation of The Lovely Bones had a similar feel, as did Robert Schwentke's The Time Traveler's Wife. (Both had copious other problems, as well.) Submission to source material has become endemic in our film culture; almost every novel-to-screen adaptation these days suffers from it.

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