Lost in Translation? Adapting Existing Stories for Film April 25, 2011Posted by leskanturek in Animation, Film, Student Blog posts, Student Post, Visual Narrative.
Tags: Animation Adaptations, Arielle Jovellanos, Coraline, Film Adaptations, The Last Airbender
add a comment
Post by Arielle Jovellanos
Adapt – n. – make fit for, or change to suit a new purpose. (wordnet.princeton.edu)
Caption: (above left and clockwise) How to Train Your Dragon 2010, Alice in Wonderland 2010, X-Men 2000, Scooby Doo 2002, Dragonball Evolution 2009, & The Phantom of the Opera 2004.
Adaptations. In a world full of penny-pinching consumers in a bad economy, adaptations are all the rage in Hollywood where many executives would rather invest their energy, time, and money on adapting proven successes rather than risking it on a new, untested idea. Hence, we get things like Alice in Wonderland, Twilight, Sex and the City, Harry Potter, and Iron Man all up in our movie theaters. (And then there are the sequels, but that’s a whole other discussion…)
Now, just because there are a lot of something-to-film adaptations out there, doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re all good. Adaptations can be tricky. It is much easier said than done to turn a book into a movie or a cartoon into a live-action film. It’s not simply a case of, say, buying a whole bunch of copies of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, handing them out to your cast, and saving money on printing an actual script. There is a lot of work that goes into adapting an existing to work into a film because it is essentially about translating a story into a completely different medium and still keeping its heart intact. What works in one medium may not automatically translate successfully to fit the big screen.
Let’s take a look at these two movies that were adapted from successful source material and try to analyze what makes them work or makes them fail as full-length feature films…
Caption: (above left) Director Henry Selick’s Coraline 2009 (above right) Director M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender 2010
Coraline, a 2009 stop-motion animation film directed by Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach’s Henry Selick was adapted from Neil Gaiman’s critically acclaimed children’s novella of the same name. In this case, save for a few wonderfully disturbing illustrations by Dave McKean interspersed throughout the pages of the book, the film crew had only the story as reference to create the world and define the art direction.
Caption: (above) Dave McKean’s book cover and illustrations for Neil Gaiman’s Coraline 2002
As someone who read the book ages before seeing this film, I admit I was a bit surprised by the changes made to the storyline—most notably, the addition of the new character “Wybie,” a boy who lives in Coraline’s new neighborhood.
Ultimately, while it does stray from the source material, the decision to add Wybie into the movie was a smart one. In the book, though Coraline is alone her thought process is written through the narration and the reader gets a grasp of her personality through their understanding of the text. In the movie, Coraline needed somebody to talk to so the audience could visually understand her personality and motives without the filmmakers having to default to in-head voice-over.
Caption: (above) Screencaps from Selick’s Coraline 2009 film
There are a few other changes made, in regards to setting, pacing, dialogue, and the like, but in the end I feel everything added up to a high-quality film adaptation. What I personally find most successful about Coraline’s adaptation is that the filmmakers did not get themselves caught up in word-for-word accuracy to the book. Instead, they managed to distill the progressively building feelings of disturbing dread the reader experiences while reading, and manifested that same feeling on screen.
For example, art direction-wise, the film literally does become darker as the plot progresses, contrasting sharply to the bright colors Coraline first encounters when entering the Other World. This direction alone tells the story of the book visually in a way that needs no written or narrated explanation for the audience.
Caption: (above) Screencaps from Michael Dante DiMartino & Bryan Konietzko’s animated Nickelodeon series Avatar: The Last Airbender 2005-08.
Moving on to another film adaptation, director M. Night Shyamalan’s live-action movie The Last Airbender (2010) to many critics and fans of Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005-08), the original animated TV show, was a disappointing, boring, and over-expository mess which failed to do justice to Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko’s popular and award winning source material.
Caption: (above) Screencaps from Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender
In my opinion, there are tons of reasons as to why this movie failed, but the biggest problems for me were:
1. The movie told what was going on rather than showed what was going on. The movie attempted to squish in the arch of an entire 20-episode season into 103 minutes. To fill in the blanks, Shyamalan decided to employ the use of a narrator to explain away what happened rather than letting the visuals speak for themselves.
For example, to explain the budding romantic relationship between two characters, the narrator blandly says to the audience, “They became very close” instead of actually showing the two characters becoming closer. In this case, voice-over wasn’t used for any artistic purpose; it was used because the visuals of the film weren’t strong enough to carry the storyline without a narrator.
Caption: (above) Map of the Asian-inspired world of TV series Avatar: The Last Airbender
2. The movie’s direction failed to focus on the bigger picture, instead choosing to focus on unnecessary details and losing the actual message of the series in the process.
One of the first things people should ask themselves when considering making an animation is, “Why is it animated?” This is why it is so difficult to transform animation into live action. Through its entire conception, Avatar: The Last Airbender was inherently designed to be an animated series. The realm of animation opened several opportunities to DiMartino and Konietzko in the original show. For example, the fact that it was animated allowed the audience to suspend disbelief immediately concerning the manipulation and “bending” of the elements and the animal hybrids, which populate the Asian-inspired fantasy world.
The filmmakers of The Last Airbender got way too caught up in the little details such as having the animal hybrids show up for ten seconds even though within the script, they ultimately held little importance on the plot, making them seem like random anomalies on screen. There’s a difference between being meticulous with creating a fantasy world, and forcing something into the film just because it worked on TV. Because they were focusing on things like this, they lost focus on the actual story.
Caption: (above left) Original show concept art for character “Katara” by Bryan Konietzko, inspired by Asian & Inuit culture. (center) “Katara” as she appears in the show. (right) “Katara” as she appears in the film, played by Caucasian actress Nicola Peltz.
Yet at the same time, the filmmakers decided to forgo the heavily researched and accurate Asian-inspired art direction, which defined and set the show apart for its respectful and unique homage to Asian cultures in an American-made cartoon. The overarching theme of the series concerned the traditionally Asian concept of finding and maintaining balance and the Asian-inspired world only aided in emphasizing that theme.
In Shyamalan’s adaptation, he completely lost the spirit of the cartoon when he decided to turn the film into a generic good-versus-evil story and subsequently threw in some European-based, Lord of the Rings-esque elements along with vaguely Asian-ish inspirations into the art direction; this made for a very confusing fantasy world that seemed like it didn’t quite know what it was trying to be and therefore prevented the audience from really understanding what this world was about.
It is bizarre that—of all things—the largest and most dramatic changes they made from TV-to-film were in the Asian-inspired, art direction, which already came from real world influences and could have easily been adapted to live-action. In giving up this aspect of the world, they lost the entire heart of the story and changed it into something else entirely. Unlike Coraline, The Last Airbender failed to capture the feeling of the source material or concentrate on the most important elements of the story, resulting in an incredibly poor film adaptation.