Pop 20: Lost in translation? Manage your expectations with book to movie adaptations

[31 July 2009]

By Aaron Sagers

There’s a climactic scene in “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” when Harry and Hermione, after discovering Ron has been using magical steroids in Quidditch, are cornered by Draco Malfoy and his Death Eater gang in the Room of Acquisition. Things look grim, so Harry and Hermy share a kiss and confess their love for one another when, out of the vanishing cabinet, pops Sirius Black on a Harley-Davidson broom with a 12-gauge pump action shotgun. He unloads on the Death Eaters, growls “Let’s ride,” and the three head out to save Dumbledore from the clutches of his half-brother, Voldemort.

Or not. This never comes close to happening in the three-week old Potter movie, but it would be easy to think such a mutation occurred in the transition from book to film because of a misinformation campaign that persists among largely unsatisfied die-hard Potterheads.

Sure, mistakes were made within the film franchise, but despite being a fairly solid movie made by people who legitimately enjoy the books, the book fans I have spoken with came out of the theater thinking they just viewed “Harry Potter and the Half-baked Movie Adaptation.” Certainly Potterheads aren’t the first to complain “the book was better,” but they have the least room to gripe within pop-culture fandom.

“Half-Blood Prince” is a satisfying build-up to the final two films. It’s not a painstakingly accurate recreation of the book, but there’s the rub: It’s not a book, it’s a two-hour-plus movie adaptation of a 652-page novel. The media is the message, and to avoid a six-hour film or a 125-page book (the length of an average movie script), the media is massaged in the translation from page-to-screen.

Potterheads should thank the cinema gods. Yes, adored house elf Dobby was sacrificed (although a colleague astutely observes he’s always been the Jar Jar Binks of the franchise anyhow), but Potter scribe J.K. Rowling has been so involved in the adaptations the films are approved extensions of the Potterverse.

The films have hewn close to the source material, and have brought the world to life. The actors so remarkably fill their character’s skins they have superimposed themselves on my imagination’s original take (Alan Rickman does a way better Snape than my mind’s version).

Meanwhile, as a Stephen King fan, I’m used to unrecognizable movie versions where the title is the only familiar aspect. Sometimes it works, as with Kubrick’s “The Shining,” but most of the time not — although maybe King’s works just needed the right media to be adapted to since the Marvel Comics’ versions of his novels are awesome.

Speaking of comics, fanboys at best hope film adaptations “capture the spirit” of characters. Often times, what they get is a “re-imagining.” Decades of continuity and development are traded in for patchwork plots, and instead of adapting existing storylines, entirely new ones are created for the cineplexes. When we’re lucky, we get “Spider-Man 2” and “The Dark Knight,” but there have been too many “Superman Returns” and “Spawn” experiences to recount.

There’s a painting of “The Thinker” by Edvard Munch in the Paris Rodin museum. It’s a slightly distorted, wavy take on Auguste Rodin’s sculpture; not all the details are there, but the important ones are. This artistic adaptation of another artist’s work inspires you to look out the museum’s window at the real deal and appreciate both differently.

Munch’s painting reminds me of the expression that a movie version “is its own thing.” It must be looked at separately from the source material. This is true, yet any fan who loves a book wants to see it done justice by the film industry; to see the page come to life, to compare the images on the screen with those in the mind, to spread the word about the printed words.

You have this, Potterheads. Despite omissions and additions, the Potter song pretty much remains the same, and your beloved franchise has a double-dose of magic on its side.


Entertainment columnist Aaron Sagers writes weekly about all things pop-culture. He can be reached at sagers.aaron AT gmail.com.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/109178-pop-20-lost-in-translation-manage-your-expectations-with-book-to-mov/