I recently saw both ‘The Incredible Hulk’ and ‘Batman Begins’ for the first time. This will not be a review of either, though I will say this: ‘Batman Begins’ is a masterpiece, while ‘Hulk’ is a decent film.
What I want to talk about instead, is screen-versions, the act of turning a book/comic/play/whatever into a film. (I do not consider ‘based on a true story’ to really be in this category.)
I am of the opinion that very few screen-versions live up to the original they are based on; the only film I’ve ever seen that was than the book is Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’. I hear it’s a similar case with the Godfather films, but I’ve never read Mario Puzo’s books. I once read an article claiming that trivial literature is easier adapted to, and perfected on, the screen — this seems rather logical; it’s easier to improve something that’s not good, than something already terrific. Or maybe, to be fair to trivial literature, to improve something that doesn’t take the full advantage of the media, as such can’t be said to do.
Yet films such as Peter Jackson’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ are considered wonderful, despite being based on one of the most popular book series ever.
I think the films are great, but nowhere near Tolkien’s books, and as such, not great screen-versions. (And don’t even get me started on the Hary Potter ones; I’ve seen the first two, and they were so abysmal it made me genuinely angry.)
And this leads me up to the point I’m trying to make: you can only really judge a screen-version on two things.
First of all, you can of course judge it on its filmic qualities: lighting, music, acting, and all that malarkey, as you can with any film.
But then you can only really judge it as it compares to the original, whereas with original films, you judge the quality of the story.
If the story sucks, it is only fair to direct criticism at it, insofar as it deviates from the original on which it was based. I haven’t read either the Batman nor Hulk stories from which these two films originate. This makes it difficult to comment on the story; I could say that I think the beginning of Batman is quite cliché, with him being trained by ninjas, but I wouldn’t know if Christopher Nolan was just being true to the story — in which case it is perfectly legit, of course.
I think Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ is better than Bloch’s, because I think it is more scary — an obvious desirable quality of horror. I could say that the beginning of ‘Psycho’, with Marion Crane’s theft, is irrelevant to the core story, and should have been cut out. (Purely for argument’s sake; I do not think this is the case.) This, however, wouldn’t be fair to aim at Hitchcock, given that he’s basing the story on another story.
Of course, as I said, you can criticise all deviations; this is usually my main concern with screen-versions: all the good stuff they left out. But this still only lets you compare.
This can obviously be both a curse and a blessing for the director. A blessing because if the story is weak, one can always point to the original and blame it on that; a curse because you can’t get praised for your magnificent story — I personally think Hitchcock perfected Bloch’s story, but it was Bloch who came up with the idea of a man who takes over his mother’s personality.
What this all leads to is of course that I think most screen-versions, and the concept as such, suck.
For while the blessing may be such one, all it really does is remove the director’s responsibility for creating a good film, leaving him or her ways to escape.
The conclusion obviously is, you can never be really original with a screen-version — comparison is the only way to win. But if one’s focus really is on the filmic side, then it might just be the way to do it. I personally think the story is the most important aspect, however.