By Nathanael Griffis
A loose adaptation is simply when the source material, a novel normally, is used only as a conceptual basis for a story. Sometimes characters are kept, themes may remain, but the overall plot is basically rewritten. Loose adaptations are tricky. On the one hand you allow for a more creative take on a story. On the other you may offend the loyal fan base of a book. Deciding to adapt a novel loosely is always interesting and for the most part relies on the talent surrounding it, so when you have Alfonso Cuarón, Clive Owen, Michael Caine, Julianne Moore, and Chiwetel Ejiofer on a film one can produce one of the best films ever made. Talent isn’t everything though, because Tim Robbins, Steven Spielberg, Dakota Fanning, and Tom Cruise should spell success, but it didn’t. So here’s my look at why these two loose adaptations succeeded and failed respectively.
Children of Men: If at all possible, let’s forget the revolutionary cinematography, the haunting performances, and the sharp editing of the film, and focus on the story. Theo Faron is asked by his ex-wife Julian to acquire a pass to the coast for a young woman whom we later discover is pregnant in a world where there has not been a pregnancy in 18 years. This is the basic plot of the movie, but it is slightly different from P.D. James’ novel. Theo was never married to Julian, and is significantly older; Julian merely wants an audience with the Warden of England; oh, and Julian is the pregnant woman. So, besides keeping characters’ names and the overall concept of an infertile human race, the differences are significant.
The novel is quieter and more slowly paced, exploring the political side of power structures controlling a population. The government executes the elderly in a mass drowning off the coast of England. The powers that be then use these events to maintain a sense of order through indirect threats, while also satisfying a dying population’s desire for release from the torment of the end of humanity. They dictate what pleasurable activities are allowed and round up foreigners and miscreants (which is kept in the movie). The book is also concerned, as most books are, with being more subjective. We stay with Theo, and his inner struggle is more the story than anything else. Director Alfonso Cuarón keeps this concept in Children of Men, as the camera never really sees what Theo can’t, but we don’t spend time meandering around his brain reminiscing. The book is brilliant and has wonderful characters and descriptions. I have to say the film and the novel are even; neither outshines the other, which is rare.
The film takes the concept of infertility and runs with it, adding ideas of racism and social revolution, which are in the book but not major themes. The decision to connect Julian and Theo is brilliant–it adds another layer to the characters. Both versions have a bleak tone with hopeful endings amidst death and suffering. What is different is that Cuarón understands that his medium is a visual one. He needs the visuals to enhance his thematic ideas. The setting becomes as desolate as the situation. I think of the scene of Theo and the mid-wife, played by Pam Ferris, waiting in an abandoned school. It’s subtle because Cuarón doesn’t meditate on it, but unforgettable as we see the pregnant Kee (played by Clare-Hope Ashitey) stolen through rotting playground equipment. The book relies on description and dialogue to show us man’s reliance on order and power despite a decaying future. The long single takes throughout the film heighten the tension, increase the reality, and provide a more subjective sense for the audience. Cuts give film a sense of fabrication, which is not necessarily a negative thing, but a long single shot of a car being attacked or an entire neighborhood at war places the viewer inside the situation. P.D. James wants us involved in the discussion. Cuarón provides us with an experience. Children of Men is the ultimate example of how to successfully loosely adapt a novel.
War of the Worlds: There are several loose adaptations of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, but I am only going to mention two: the infamous Orson Welles radio adaptation that sent America into a panic, and the middling action flick that Spielberg offered us in 2005. H.G Wells’ novel is tough to adapt, as any classic is, but especially since it is a science fiction period piece. How does one do futuristic 1898? Well, you have to modernize it, which almost always means a loose adaptation of sorts. What Orson Welles did was brilliant. He took the concept of the alien invasion and its themes of science, warfare, and the ineffectiveness of Victorian mores, and used it to scare the bejeezus out of the country. That is how you loosely adapt something. I can’t speak to much to that performance as I’ve never heard it, but its impact alone is legendary, so we can assume it’s good.
Steven Spielberg, we should be able to assume is good too. After Minority Report, a good adaption of a Philip K. Dick short story, the pairing of Cruise and Spielberg should have been welcome, and it was, but the product was underwhelming. Wells’ novel is a cautionary tale at heart. It warns man of the dangers of science for the advancement of warfare. The aliens metaphorically are not some outside force, but a superpower gone wrong. They destroy without any warning, any forethought, out of nothing but a sense of greed and desire to conquer. The novel is frighteningly prophetic when one considers that two world wars followed it and were started, at the basest of levels, out of humanity’s desire to conquer others. These concepts could be taken and placed into a modern day context to warn a growing scientific community that is becoming heavily reliant on government defense contracts to take heed. Instead we are served up with what eventually becomes a run-of-the-mill sci-fi action flick.
Spielberg’s film keeps the concept of a cylinder burying itself in the ground. It keeps the death of the aliens by the common cold, which should signify that humanity/science will ultimately not be able to combat nature in a warfare setting, but here feels like a lame cop-out ending. They add an interesting reference to Harlan Ogilvy, one of the few named characters in the novel, in Tim Robbins. I can’t help but feel though that a lot of this is wasted potential. The beginning has some haunting Holocaust imagery. Tom Cruise as Ray Ferrier shaking the ashes of victims from his hair sets a frightening tone. The bodies floating down a river as Ray’s daughter Rachel (played by Dakota Fanning) watches leaves us startled. The blood-drenched trees and landscapes that Ray walks out into horrifies. All these images seem like wasted art, bad abstraction without a directed substance or meaning. They symbolize things and matter within the scene and build character, but they don’t hold weight in the overall story.
What both Orson and H.G. did in their stories by keeping the narrator anonymous, was provide the sense of subjectivity we got from Cuarón’s Children of Men. The protagonist becomes an everyman of sorts and we place ourselves in his role, asking what reaction we should have. In the case of Orson Welles, it was such an effective subjectivity as to transcend the line of fiction and lead the masses in the expected reaction of a panic.
There is nothing wrong with building characters in a film. In fact, a film adaptation would require it. Spielberg attempts this with Ferrier as a single father trying to connect with and raise his kids. Initially it works, but there are two problems: First, Tom Cruise is not an everyman. He’s a character actor who portrays an intensely specific persona. I’ve never seen a performance of his and felt I could relate to it; several times I’ve been impressed, but relate, no. He’s not Jimmy Stewart or, dare I say, Matt Damon.
The second problem is the lack of a consistent theme, along with egregious plot holes. Spielberg’s penchant for tying things up in a bow in his blockbuster films falls flat here and leaves the viewer confused. Why does the son survive and randomly show up with perfect timing? If all it takes is a few grenades, how are the aliens still fearsome? The action becomes the focus in the second half of the film, and the death of the aliens at the hands of the common cold doesn’t resonate. It feels like another unnecessary bow on a muddled package.
So if you’re going to adapt something loosely, make sure it has good themes, and make sure you utilize them. Having the title of the novel, a star actor and director, and good special effects is not enough. It takes innovation, a great script, and an overall sense of purpose to garner success. You don’t have to be unrepentantly loyal to a source material to make a successful story–but what would happen if you were? We’ll see next time when I discuss straight adaptations with The Road and The Da Vinci Code.