There are a billion and seven articles and posts on the InterWebs about the myriad ways that movies get the book wrong. And while I may be on record with my attestation that they never filmed a version of The Neverending Story, rather, they pissed all over the ending of the film and then turned, faced the screen, and said “This is Hollywood, kids,” I’m not going to add to the circle-jerk and back-slapping of readers complementing themselves on reading and laughing at the poor benighted losers who weren’t blessed with the story in its original form. Not right now, at least.* Plus, while there are readers who can defend their argument, many people haven’t been able to tell me why they liked the movie better, without just saying “Well, the director imagined something differently; I totally pictured John Smith in a blue coat and in the movie, he’s wearing green.” Or they have little knowledge of the requirements of drama, and refuse to acknowledge that movies sometimes have to change things in order to be an effective dramatization of the story.
Which brings us to my brand-new mostly-regular feature where I talk about those instances where the movie either was better than the book, or at least got a few things very right. I welcome suggestions, of course, and even arguments. I’m more of a reader and writer than I am a movie junkie, but I have studied film on my own ever since the days when I’d watch Sneak Previews with my Dad in the late 70s, and even more so once I had the ability to stream movies.
Case in point today: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone vs Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. (Yes, that’s the English title and not the American one; that’s what JK Rowling named the book, and that’s what I’m going to call it.) I’m a huge fan of the books, as entertainment and as literature, and I think I’m not alone in saying that the series really took off when the third book was released. (I also might be biased because that was when I started reading the series.) Really, though… the first two are fun romps in a magical world, but the third is when the dark themes that dominate the last few books first start to show up. So, when Alfonso Cuarón’s film of Azkaban came out, I was a little nervous, mostly because of what they’d done to the first one.
On the surface, the first movie is a perfect adaptation. Perhaps Hermione and Snape look a little different than how they’re described, but I’m a firm believer that a good actor can create any role, and both actors acted perfect for the parts they played. But otherwise, the movie felt a little off to me. It wasn’t until I watched it a second time that I realized what it was. They’d included nearly everything that was in the book (well, everything except one of the puzzles at the end and a few bits of dialogue here and there), and as a result, the film felt rushed and overloaded. The book had a good story but it was also a fun school-year exploring a strange and different world. The movie felt like an hour-long tour of a college campus, with some person giving you twenty minutes of information in less than five and then pushing you along to the next stop.
Azkaban, though, was actually adapted to film, rather than just translated, and as a result, it works so much better. There is a long list of the things they left out or changed for the movie, but none of them (with one minor exception) goes against the spirit of the story. So he’s restricted to The Leaky Cauldron, or the class lessons are a little different. Everything that is changed still works with the story, and acts as shorthand for a lot of things they had to leave out. And even the minor bit of Harry practicing magic at the Dursley’s House makes sense, as it shows him longing so badly to go back to his magical world that he’s willing to actually study, something he’s not known for doing back at Hogwarts. (True, that should have brought a warning from the Ministry of Magic, but, well, I don’t know. Maybe they were busy looking for Sirius Black or something.)
Next week, I’ll bring up some horror films that are more frightening on the screen than they were on the page, sometimes even for someone who had read the book.
* Though, if The Neverending Story ever comes up in conversation, I just might. Or The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. I can deal with movies changing things from the book for the sake of drama, and adapting to a different media. Neither of those movies were changed for those reasons.