The perils of cinematic adaptation, or Why I dislike the Harry Potter movies

9 11 2007

Recently I was reading an Andrew Collins DVD review in the Radio Times of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.  Collins writes “Though I’m an avowed non-reader of the books, I admit to thoroughly enjoying Harry Potter on screen”.

“Wait a minute!”  I (almost) cried aloud.  “If you enjoy the films, why are you avowed about not reading the books, which are in every way superior?”

Perhaps I need to provide an explanation at this point.  I do enjoy the Harry Potter books, and I would go as far as describing them as outstanding examples of modern children’s literature.  I have never particularly liked the films because, as a fan, I find myself constantly irritated by the changes made in the adaptation (that and the general problems of underuse of great acting talents and over-simplified, confusing plots).

Thinking about this got me thinking more broadly about the amount of changes made in big screen adaptations of works, the reasons why they are made, and the reactions they provoke among fans.  The way I see it, there are two main types of changes that are made:

1.  Changes made for the purpose of adapting the work for film.

These are unavoidable to an extent, since films and books are vastly different media.  They usually take the form of omissions, since there’s a lot more that you can cram into a book which may take people hours, days or even weeks to read than you can into a film.  Case in point – the Lord of the Rings film trilogy, which cut substantial amounts of the story and was still absurdly long – anyone who can sit through all three of them in one viewing must have a significantly more durable patience than me, significantly better bladder control, the ability to go without food and sleep for extended period of time, and virtually no life.  Yet there were still fans who objected to scenes being skipped, most notably the house of Tom Bombadil, the fog on the Barrow-Downs and the scouring of the Shire.  In some rarer cases, such as video game adaptations, events may be added because the work doesn’t have enough of a plot to make a film (these efforts are usually tedious and disliked by game fans and film critics alike).  Changes are also sometimes made for pace, or to heighten the spectacle or drama.

 The problem with omitting elements of a story is that it can reduce the quality of the work considerably.  For example, the book Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix explored themes such as mental illness, slavery, censorship, discrimination, loss, thought, disillusionment with parents, time, love, death, association, war and oppression, to varying extents.  The film Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix excludes some of these themes and marginalises others.  The film also removes several substantial plot elements such as <SPOILER!!!> Kreacher’s betrayal of Sirius </SPOILER!!!>, meaning that aspects of it don’t really make sense (according to the Andrew Collins review, Kreacher wouldn’t have been in the film at all if Rowling hadn’t insisted).

 2.  Changes made for no apparent reason.

These irritate me.  For some reason, the director takes objection to an element of the original story, or maybe the script writer didn’t read the source material, or the actors were completely the wrong ones for the job.  Whatever the reason, changes get made that seem to serve little or no purpose, and may even lessen the understanding of the story, reduce the amount of visual spectacle, or otherwise worsen the film from a cinematic outlook.

This really irked me in the case of Harry Potter.  For example, several characters in the fifth movie were changed completely.  Grawp went from being a dangerous and initially rather frightening (although not actually evil) giant in the book to a cute, harmless creature in the film.  His scene was completely changed!  And if I wasn’t a firm believer in forgiveness, I’d say their treatment of Cho Chang was unforgivable.  If she <SPOILER!!!> betrayed the DA (which is totally out of character for her), but was under the influence of veritaserum at the time, wouldn’t Harry forgive her?  After all, he’d be just as helpless under the influence of that potion. </SPOILER!!!>  She also had her personality removed, as did several other characters, like Ginny Weasley.

The worst offenders, in my opinion, are recurring characters whose personalities are changed.  The Hermione Granger in the films bears very little resemblance to the one in the original novels.  To compare some moments from the Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets book and films:

From the book:

“‘A month?’ said Ron.  ‘Malfoy could have attacked half the Muggle-borns in the school by then!’  But Hermione’s eyes narrowed dangerously again, and he added swiftly, ‘But it’s the best plan we’ve got, so full steam ahead, I say.'”

From the film:

Ron:  Malfoy could have attacked half the Muggle-borns in the school by then!
Hermione: (apologetically)  I know, but it’s the best plan we’ve got.

From the book:

“‘Malfoy called her “Mudblood”, Hagrid -‘
Ron dived out of sight as a fresh wave of slugs made their appearance.  Hagrid looked outraged.
‘He didn’!’ he growled at Hermione.
‘He did,’ she said.  ‘But I don’t know what it means.  I could tell it was really rude, of course…'”

From the film:

Hermione: (crying) He called me a Mudblood.
Hagrid: (shocked) He did not.
Harry: What’s a Mudblood?
Hermione: (sounding angry and very miserable) It means “dirty blood”. Mudblood’s a really foul name for someone who is Muggle-born, someone with non magic parents… someone like me. It’s not a term one usually hears in civilized conversation.

And, of course, some of the personality distortion is down to her appropriating other people’s lines.  Just one of many examples:

From Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (the book):

“[Dumbledore said] ‘Call him Voldemort, Harry.  Always use the proper name for things.  Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.'”

From Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (the film):

Hermione: Fear of a name only increases fear of the thing itself.

From Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (the book):

“‘Voldemort!‘ said Harry furiously, and both Ron and Hermione winced.”

Later, when Hermione does say “‘V-Voldemort”‘, we are told “It was the first time she had ever said Voldemort’s name”.

Well, I seem to have got side tracked into a rant – whoops.  They’re so much fun, you know? 🙂

But anyway, that’s an example of how fans can react negatively to having their favourite stories mangled by adaptations.  This isn’t limited to films, by the way – it happens to television too.  I have a friend who refuses to term the animated series of Naruto “canon” because it contradicts the manga in places.  He won’t even consider it canon as a separate series in its own right, although since he’s an animé nut, he still watches it.

The long and short of it is, when a story is adapted from one medium to another, fans are left with three options.  They can either (1) ignore the adaptation because it’s “wrong”, (2) treat the adaptation as a separate work, albeit one that is clearly derived from the original, or (3) invent a bizarre theory involving parallel universes.  I tend to plump for option 2.  Which doesn’t mean I think the Harry Potter films are especially brilliant.  They’re a laugh, and they’re quality children’s entertainment, but the acting isn’t always that great, and there’s not much substance to them.

That and the fact that they keep underusing great acting talents and having confusing plots.

 Edit:  For more examples of this, check out tvtropes.org – they’ve got a page on what they term “Adaptation Decay“, as well as a more positive one on “Adaptation Distillation“.


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6 responses

10 11 2007
nylusmilk

i never realise the differences between the movie and the book as you’ve pointed out. it made hermione like a total wimpy, simpering fool! i don’t see why they had to do that, what was wrong with the way she was portrayed in the book by rowling?

grrr, now i feel your rant too!🙂

10 11 2007
B0bbyG

Yeah, I’ve never understood the changes they made to Hermione. She also comes across as more vain and less geeky in the films.

Heh, JK Rowling fans, unite! We must defend Hermione against this base libel!🙂

11 11 2007
timethief

I agree wholeheartedly with this:
“And if I wasn’t a firm believer in forgiveness, I’d say their treatment of Cho Chang was unforgivable. If she betrayed the DA (which is totally out of character for her), but was under the influence of veritaserum at the time, wouldn’t Harry forgive her? After all, he’d be just as helpless under the influence of that potion. She also had her personality removed, as did several other characters, like Ginny Weasley. …
The worst offenders, in my opinion, are recurring characters whose personalities are changed. The Hermione Granger in the films bears very little resemblance to the one in the original novels.”

My partner and I discussed the way Hermoine went from a strong, young woman to a wimp and how much we didn’t like it.

11 11 2007
B0bbyG

Glad to hear I’m not the only one who thinks this (I did wonder if I was just a little obsessed). Now that I think about it, the girls in particular are badly portrayed in the films. Cho, Ginny, Hermione… could there be some sexism at work?

11 11 2007
nylusmilk

sexism – clearly! what i don’t understand is the need for this angle because movie audiences have accepted strong woman characters for years, decades already! while it isn’t the focus of the movie, the scriptwriters shouldn’t have dumbed the female characters down nonetheless.

i hope they won’t continue this trend in the rest of the movies!

12 11 2007
B0bbyG

Well, 5 films in and they show no signs of relenting. I wonder how much is down to the scriptwriters, how much is down to the directors, and how much is down to the actresses’ interpretations (I know that Katie Leung and Bonnie Wright are blameless in this regard since they weren’t given anything to interpret, but you can’t say the same about Emma Watson).

Maybe they thought kids wouldn’t sympathise with a strong Hermione? Or that Cho and Ginny were superfluous characters? I don’t know, and I can’t understand it. All I know is that it’s very annoying.




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