6 Daring Movie Adaptations That Came From Challenging Source Material

The Great Gatsby2 6 Daring Movie Adaptations That Came From Challenging Source Material

Adaptation is a lofty task. In most cases, screenwriters are attempting to take the complexities of hundreds of pages of prose and turn them into a couple of hours of action and dialogue for us to witness people act out. Directors, in turn, often try to capture the tones and meanings behind the source material that has inspired the film. This is not only a big undertaking, the scale of adapting an especially beloved novel or comic or play must be daunting in itself, but it’s a delicate thing. People tend to be finicky when it comes to adaptations. Be too straightforward with it, and people will be bored, finding the movie version redundant if it does nothing to add to the book. But be too bold in your interpretation, straying from the source material or simply using it as a jumping off point for your own artistic intentions, and everyone loses their minds.

The Great Gatsby is the adapted movie facing this scrutiny at the moment. Many have voiced their displeasure with the liberties director Baz Luhrmann has taken, some going so far as to say he seemed to have viewed the actual source material as an inconvenience. Whether the movie succeeds on its artistic and entertainment merits of not is less interesting to me than the apparent fact that this project was going to be deemed a failure by a large contingent of the critical community no matter what it did. That is, it’s really hard to judge a movie on its merits when you object to the fact that it’s being made, who it’s being made by, and how it’s being made, in this case in 3D. It would take a miracle to change people’s foregone conclusions.

But often, adaptations that push the boundaries of what it even means to adapt a popular novel, comic, or play can be far more interesting, satisfying, and impressive in scope than those that prefer to play it safe. If nothing else, you have to admire their balls. Here are 6 of the ballsiest movie adaptations that range from the beloved to the despised.

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1) Adaptation

Adaptation1 6 Daring Movie Adaptations That Came From Challenging Source Material

Perhaps the best example of a writer taking a book and just doing whatever the hell he wants with it is the Charlie Kaufman-penned and Spike Jonze-directed 2002 film Adaptation. I would imagine fans of the book on which Adaptation is “based,” Susan Orlean’s non-fiction book The Orchid Thief, may not have been all that satisfied when they saw the finished film. Or maybe they were. At any rate, this is one example of the very process of adaptation being deconstructed to the point where its meaning is stretched to its limits.

Unpacking the plot of Adaptation just ends up sounding stupid because it requires terms like the Droste Effect or mise-en-abyme, and makes it sound more complicated than it actually is. It’s just Charlie Kaufman writing a movie about Charlie Kaufman writing a movie and on and on. But in the process we see how absurd it can be to take material deemed as the “source” and turn it into something almost unrecognizable to the original author. But this is also the point. Adaptation allows for this level of experimentation and self-expression. This was obviously something Charlie Kaufman had wanted to get off of his chest in the process of his earnest attempts to adapt The Orchid Thief in a more straightforward way. So the book ended up serving as a platform upon which he could base this crazy story. In this case, with the direction of Jonze, the movie turned out to be tremendously successful, but it’s important to recognize the riskiness of Kaufman’s screenplay.

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2) Watchmen

Watchmen 6 Daring Movie Adaptations That Came From Challenging Source Material

Almost as daunting as tackling one of the great American novels like Gatsby is the task Zack Snyder took on in adapting what is considered one of if not the greatest graphic novels of all time. There is widespread disagreement on whether it ultimately works or not. A lot of this is tinged by the dispute over the extent to which it “did justice” to the comic. Having seen the movie first, my judgment is also biased, but I thought Snyder did an excellent job for a couple of reasons.

I give a lot of the credit to Snyder even though the writing credits belong to David Hayter and Alex Tse, but it’s because of the aesthetic that Snyder achieves not only in this, but all his films. Firstly, just the visuals, from color to lighting to casting, pay perhaps the closest tribute to a comic that we’ve yet seen. Panels are used as storyboards to a far greater extent than any other movie I’m aware of. But the main thing for me was, as usual, the tone and rhythm of the thing, which felt far more like the feeling you get reading a graphic novel than any movie before or since, outside of perhaps Sin City. The pacing of the cuts mixed with the framing of the important shots and the timing of the dialogue had that quality in comics that is far from realistic but isn’t exactly melodramatic. Maybe those more familiar with the medium have a term to describe this quality. But in terms of being faithful to a source, factoring in both the strengths and limitations the screen provides, Watchmen has to be considered near the top of the heap. I think if Snyder’s Man of Steel becomes the success many are expecting it to be, his past films could be retrospectively rehabilitated in the public eye.

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3) Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas8 6 Daring Movie Adaptations That Came From Challenging Source Material

Even the critics who hated Cloud Atlas the most seemed to recognize that it was an ambitious project that the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer took on. For many, the mere fact of its ambition was praiseworthy. Attempting to create a visual incarnation of the 2004 David Mitchell novel surely was undertaken with a sense of inevitable impossibility, as it’s hard to imagine any other way of representing reincarnated souls that would not require lines upon lines of exposition or visual tricks even cheaper than using heavily made-up actors.

This movie brought up all sorts of questions for me about adaptation. In many ways, the entire pursuit is impossible, because for many people anything short of their perception of the book presented on screen will be disappointing. It’s hard to appreciate someone else’s vision of a novel becoming the dominant one when reading is such a personal endeavor. I get this way with books I love being made into movies, or often with remakes of past movies. But part of me thinks this is missing the point. All adapted works do is present another version of the same story, but that doesn’t really do any harm to the original story. I don’t know of any song covers that have made me no longer appreciate the original version of a song; in fact, bad covers tend to make me appreciate the song, and the songwriter, even more. So even if Cloud Atlas didn’t work for everyone like it did for me, I’m confused by the resentment it has generated. But it’s understandably an emotional issue. That’s not meant to be as dismissive as it sounds.

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4) The Shining

The Shining 6 Daring Movie Adaptations That Came From Challenging Source Material

Stanley Kubrick was pretty famous for his IDGAF attitude, from his all-out assault on film conventions in 2001: A Space Odyssey to his punk rock A Clockwork Orange, all the way up to his final effort on Eyes Wide Shut (Yeah it’s an orgy. DEAL WITH IT). The Shining is an immensely interesting work for countless reasons, but one of these is the fact that Stephen King famously hated it.

I mean, if I was Stephen King I’m sure I would hate Kubrick’s version too. The two apparently have little to do with each other. And that’s because Kubrick was clearly seeking to do something else entirely with his movie than King was attempting in the novel. Most people assume that Kubrick’s intentions were far more high-minded than the novel dared intend, leading to all sorts of elaborate theories about what the movie means and the detail with which it treats its subjects (for a good sample of some of the absurd lengths people go to defend their theories, watch the terrific documentary Room 237). It’s certainly an adaptation that favors the impressionistic over story and subjectivity over narrative clarity, which for a film to attempt is always somewhat audacious, especially when it comes to source material that has a different perception. But this is one example of a film generally thought of as masterful taking its adaptive work and making it entirely its own thing.

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5) Titus

Titus 6 Daring Movie Adaptations That Came From Challenging Source Material

The greatest success director Julie Taymor has achieved with adaptation is surely her work bringing stage musical version of The Lion King to Broadway. But in 1999 she took her talents to southern Europe in adapting Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus for the screen. Now, Shakespearean adaptation is incredibly hit and miss when it comes to movies. And there’s a wide variation of approaches people take, from adapting it into something that fits a modern setting, to taking just the loosest basis of its story and reframing its characters and setting altogether, to being completely faithful reproductions of the play, to some mixture of these.

Of all the Shakespeare adaptations, I’m not sure if there’s one with more visual nourishment than Titus. The image of Anthony Hopkins alone is enough to tease a feature-length story that keeps the eyes interested throughout. The ears are kept busy as well, with music and choreographed sequences that are pretty, well, grand. I can’t say I knew much of what was happening at all in the movie and had little familiarity with the original play, but this was one movie where my rational understanding didn’t matter all that much, and I was just floored by everything I was seeing. It made visceral sense.

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6) Romeo + Juliet

Romeo + Juliet 6 Daring Movie Adaptations That Came From Challenging Source Material

And to bring things full circle, I can’t help but come back to Baz Luhrmann and his 1996 adaptation of Romeo + Juliet, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes. This was one of those Shakespearean adaptations that set the story in modern day but maintained all the original dialogue. That in itself takes some courage, not to mention skill in keeping people engaged when they don’t know exactly what the characters are saying to each other. It’s an interesting piece of work though because it was received, understandably, as a teen romance and marketed as such, even though it’s a relatively worthy retelling of the play. If teen movies are considered the lowest market, and if Shakespeare’s plays performed well with the lower class folk as they are alleged to have done, then this seems entirely appropriate.

Luhrmann seems to be doing this again with Gatsby: envisioning a well-known story in a way that will have resonance for a contemporary audience and presenting in a way that frankly no one else is able to pull off. His style and interpretation of these stories is unorthodox to say the least. He may be using them as a mere platform to play with his own sensibilities, fetishes and ideas. But as far as I’m concerned, anyone who wants to use beloved material to hoist themselves up to achieving something as bold as The Great Gatsby deserves a degree of admiration. Artistic ambition is somewhat an end in itself, and completely reimagining something that everyone feels like they already know inside and out is a way of expanding vision and consciousness—something every bit as ambitious as inventing something purporting to be entirely original.

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