There's an interesting piece over at the Guardian's film blog on how critics should tackle their reviews of film adaptations. It's one of those topics of conversation that I've seen turn perfectly reasonable cinephiles into frothing-at-the-mouth adversaries -- do you critique a film based entirely on its own stand-alone merit, or do you discuss how well the director brought the original material to the screen, as well?

Both sides of the argument have validity. Here at Cinematical, Jeffrey M. Anderson's review of The Time Traveler's Wife didn't compare it to the source novel at all, and he still managed to illuminate the movie's many flaws. Me, I wrote a review of the same film for another venue, and I came at it from the perspective of someone who had read, and loved, the book. I considered omitting that information from my review entirely, and just focusing on the specifics of the film, but conversations I had with colleagues after the screening kept bumping around in my head.

A couple of the folks with whom I saw the movie were confused by some elements of the plot -- elements that I, as a reader of the novel, could fill in while I was watching. Once I explained to them what they were missing, they nodded and said that, oh yeah, now they got it. But shouldn't the movie have been able to stand on its own without a crib sheet? And shouldn't my being able to compare the book with the movie inform my review? I say yes to both. But people that I admire and respect have told me in past, very heated discussions that with an adaptation, the book and the movie are entirely separate beasts, and should be considered independently of each other. I can almost -- almost -- see their point. But how do you do that? If a film is promoted as a specific story by a certain author, now presented on film, isn't the critic who's read the source material obligated as part of the critique to note, where possible, how successfully it was adapted?

In the case of The Time Traveler's Wife, it's odd that it was adapted at all. The book is a love story about a man who involuntarily time-travels, and his relationship with a woman who does not. The tale jumps back in forth through time, with the characters' ages different from chapter to chapter -- in one, she's 10 and he's 43, in the next, she's 22 and he's 35, and so on. Sometimes he travels back and visits himself at a younger age! The simple mechanics of making two actors believable from teens to mid-40s would be a challenge, much less crafting a screenplay that managed all the back-and-forth without becoming confusing. The solution that the filmmakers hit on was to simplify the story so much that, while the barest skeleton of the original story is there, most of what made the book so rich, so enthralling and special, was drained away.

In the Guardian piece, director Maggie Greenwald is quoted regarding her frustration with a review of her film The Kill Off, which she felt focused too much on the source book: "It's been several hundred years since an art critic has determined the merits of a painting of a horse by comparing it to a live horse ... Are we reading film reviews to help decide whether we will see a film or read a book?" But anyone who's been frustrated by seeing a beloved novel turned into a movie that changes the ending, or cuts important storylines, or has a jarringly different tone than the book, knows that it can be almost impossible to separate the two.

What do you think? Should reviews of film adaptations ignore the source material? Or is it only appropriate to compare a movie to the book on which it's based? What are some adaptations that you think got it right -- or really, really wrong?
categories Cinematical