“Don’t Judge a Book by its Movie”: Adaptations


The Magicians has been sitting on my shelf for a long time. I’ve had several people tell me to read it, and since it is often lauded as Harry Potter for grown-ups, I really should have read it before now. But of course, life and a ridiculous penchant for buying too many books, plus an outrageous TBR pile put the project on hold.

But then Syfy (God, I still hate that pretentious respelling. Why can’t we just be good old fashioned Scifi?) decided to do their mini-series and I thought it was about time I give it a try. This is not really a review of the book, but I will say that, only having read the first one, I did enjoy it. The characters are a little hard to like sometimes (Quentin in particular does not change as much as I would have expected), but I thought the magic system was really cool, and I enjoyed the meta Narnia parallels.

Upon finishing the book, I decided to give the mini-series a try. I’d heard good things already, but I am always suspicious about book adaptations. I think all readers are, and for good reason. We have been burned many, many times. Too often our precious stories fall into the hands of people who could care less and what we are left with is a puddle of half-assed cinema that doesn’t even come close to capturing what we felt when reading. They make changes, cut out important things and add in events that never even happened. Characters are miscast. It’s wholesale slaughter. My favorite example of this is the Ella Enchanted movie, which is so removed from the source material that I wonder how they even got away with using the name of the book.

So, I was not entirely surprised when upon watching the first episode, there were deviations from the book. A lot of deviations. But, surprisingly, I liked it. The changes created a story that stood apart from the book, but still retained the spirit of it. It is an homage to The Magicians more than an adaptation and it works. You have the feel of The Magicians, the atmosphere and general architecture. Despite the differences, it is still believable that this is the same story. This is not the first time I have been accepting of changes from book to film. Many people complained when Tom Bombadil was left out of the Lord of the Rings films. It never bothered me. As much as I love Tom, I found Peter Jackson’s explanation of why he wasn’t included in the cast satisfactory. Tom did not contribute directly to the narrative of the ring, which is the main story they were trying to tell in the film. The story still worked without him, despite his awesomeness.

I guess I find myself wondering what makes changes acceptable when it comes to adaptations. Reading is a deeply personal experience, so of course there are going to be people who are dissatisfied no matter what. But there are adaptations that are universally hated while some who had significant changes seem to work.

My personal theory is that as long as the story is generally intact, as long as the characters feel authentic to what the represented in the book, the adaptation will work. Harry Potter worked well, despite changes, because it still felt like Harry’s story. It still represented the world J.K. Rowling created. When adaptations are not authentic to this aspect of the book, they fail. See again, Ella Enchanted. The book deals more with the consequences of not being able to make your own choices. The movie did not really touch on this theme at all, adding song numbers and a weird villain that completely detracted from what was great about the book.

I could be way off base. I’m sure that people can come up with some great examples of adaptations that while essentially true to the book, failed. I would love to see some of these examples so I can further refine this theory. In the meantime, I’m going to finish The Magicians.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Haruki Murakami

A while back, I was reading Haruki Murakami’s The Elephant Vanishes, a collection of short stories. I have read a few other Murakami books (including his non-fiction Underground, about the sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway system in 1995, which I highly recommend. I think sometimes American’s forget that terrorism exists in other countries—what? Other countries?—and this book is a testament to global violence). I would consider myself a fan of his work. But about halfway through the book, I realized something: I didn’t understand about 60% of what I was reading. And that is probably being generous.

For those of you that don’t know, Haruki Murakami is probably the best known Japanese author outside of Japan. He studied at Waseda University, and I only mention that because I made a little pilgrimage, and their literature department has its own library. A library only devoted to works of fiction to be used by writers for reference purposes. I may have peed my pants a little. Got to hand it to the Japanese, they appreciate their art. Here, have some of my pictures, because everyone loves to look at other people’s travel photos.

Anyway, Murakami has won a million awards, including the Franz Kafka Prize, which Wikipedia tells me that to win, your work has to exhibit “humanistic character and contribution to cultural, national, language and religious tolerance, its existential, timeless character, its generally human validity and its ability to hand over a testimony about our times.” Haha, no problem! I bust crap like that out every day! I’m just filled with human validity. Now, excuse me while I partake of some ugly sobbing.

Murakami’s writing is filled with all of those themes, all beautifully crafted in a gloss of post-modern melancholy that I find both appealing and so damned frustrating, because sometimes YOU JUST WANT A HAPPY ENDING! STOP WHINING YOU OVER EDUCATED, OVERSEXED PROTAGONIST! His themes include violence, loss, and the subconscious. He is ridiculously well versed in Western culture, especially music, and interweaves this knowledge without you ever thinking he’s name dropping just cause he can. He plays around with reality and fantasy in ways that will blow your mind. So basically, Haruki Murakami wins. At life. And is better than you could ever hope to be.

Going back to my original point:

I could not make sense of a lot of what was going on in The Elephant Vanishes. But I still enjoyed reading it. I enjoyed what I did understand. I enjoyed the language. I enjoyed the different world view of reading a non-Western author. Murakami is a highly celebrated author, and my permanent “what?” face while reading should have made me feel like my AP English tests should be revoked. But I ended up not caring, and just reading.

What I am trying to say is I think that we are trained from an early age that everything must have some kind of deeper meaning. And if we don’t understand that meaning, we must be uncultured idiots. Even if you didn’t go to college, this idea was hammered in by high school. I still have my 12th grade English teacher’s horrible voice screeching in my brain when I approach a difficult book: “What’s the undergirding, overarching theme?” To which now, in the safe anonymity of the internet, I can finally reply you can take your undergirding and shove it up your overarching. And I say good day, Madame. I said good day!

So we get scared to explore challenging material, because of the fear that we won’t be able to identify and analyze the one sentence that that one character said on page 360, that other people have told us is important. And it probably is. But guess what? It’s not so important to be able to comprehend every microcosm of Heart of Darkness. What is important is whatever you end up getting out of it. Whatever speaks to you personally, as well as going out and finding stuff you may never have read because you thought it would go over your head.

Basically, go read. Read all the things. Try long books and poetry. Try philosophy and science. Hell, try a Murakami. Find what meaning you can and just enjoy the thrill of reading beyond your comprehension. I am someone who believes deeply in the power of books as a medium of learning and growing. So read. And grow. And learn. And don’t ever apologize for what you chose to take away from a book.