Cinema has always been an excellent medium to bring a novel to life. When we read, we let our imaginations create the visuals for us. While this is one of the greatest pleasures of reading a book, sometimes it's nice to let someone else do the work and present to us their version of how a story can look!
We often feel more immersed in a story when we see the characters and sets on screen, and often our favourite story can be enjoyed in a whole new way. However, even though there are certainly good aspects to watching a film version of one's favourite novel, these films often come under heavy criticism from fans of the book. The enthusiasts are often disgruntled about a number of things, such as; the story has been changed, the characters have been changed, the execution is poor and/or the visuals don't live up to expectations. But is it fair for an audience to make these judgements, and how much consideration of the fans of a book should the producers and director take into account when making a movie?
The recent release of Disney's John Carter has sparked a lot of talk about this. Few realise that the film is based on a series of novels by Edgar Rice Boroughs, starting with 'A Princess of Mars' in 1912. What has people on social media sites in a tizz is that many are complaining that John Carter seems like a new film made from bits from other movies – as one comment on Youtube read: "Is it just me or does this look like Star Wars episode 2 + Avatar + 10,000 B.C?”. This view is not unique, with many others saying the same.
However, the fact is this film is based on a novel that came out before any other such films or novels did, and Burroughs' books are seen by many as the inspiration for the sci-fi stories many are complaining the John Carter movie is copying. As another comment from Youtube suggests: "The movie is based on a book written in 1911, so no it's not Star Wars. Hell, the Book was written before George Lucas was a twinkle in anyone's eyes.” In fact, many Science-fiction writers have credited John Carter as a major inspiration, such as Arthur C. Clarke and Ray Bradbury. James Cameron (Avatar) cited the series as an influence as did George Lucas and Michael Crichton.
At the recent London press conference for John Carter (which Movie Muser was lucky enough to attend), director Andrew Stanton (WALLe, Finding Nemo) discussed some of these issues with the press. As a longtime fan of the Barsoom (John Carter) series, Stanton was a great director for this project. The truth is, as with many other movies based on novels, there is often a lot of work needed in order to transform the book into a suitable screenplay. This is where the problems may begin.
In the press conference, Stanton talked about how they decided to extend the backstory of the characters in order to strengthen the roundness of the characters. They started with the characters from the novel and developed them from there. However, they did make an effort to stay away from clichés. Stanton went on to discuss that it is difficult staying away from clichés, especially when working with such a canonised story (in sci-fi circles at least), as Burroughs' books are where many of the clichés originated and so in this context they can still remain to true to the character.
It's a similar situation to how many feel when they first watch Casablanca now, as that movie can come across as a series of hackneyed lines, clichéd situations and stereotypical characters – but of course it feels like this because endless movies have been copying and referencing Casablanca for 70 years. So a film of John Carter has to deal with the fact sci-fi has been copying Burroughs for a century.
Something about John Carter that caused slight heat at the press conference was the talk about audience's expectations. Here Stanton categorically said that the producers, writers and himself should not take the audience into consideration when making films. He seemed to suggest that this is not a good way to go about producing a film, for two reasons. Firstly, with so many fans of the original series, it simply isn't possible to take all the different, strongly held opinions into consideration. Secondly, that as an artist himself he does not expect others to judge his work in comparison to the novel (as another artistic creation) but rather see it as its own, free standing piece, to be judged and enjoyed in isolation.
I think that although this is a very fair view, it is a very fine line for an artist directing a film to negotiate. On one hand, yes, it is not fair of an audience to judge a film such as John Carter compared to its original novel, but in this case, nor is it really fair to judge the film against others of the same genre (particularly as in this case, John Carter is a film based on the progenitor of its genre). Even though it does have striking similarities to other films in the world of science-fiction, we should look at John Carter as a film in its own right.
However the reality is that this does not always happen. Audiences are a fickle bunch and when they've paid to watch a film they'll rarely think, "Well, let's be fair to the director”. At the crux if this is the fact that the audience comes to a film such as John Carter with their own expectations. Sometimes these are given to us simply from the title or from the advertising we see. As Stanton said, they even deliberated on the title of the film, as they were worried that even having the word 'Mars' in the title would evoke an immediate, specific reaction from the public, who then naturally start making assumptions about the film.
In light of this I think we need to take two things away from this discussion. The first is that in some regard, directors need to take a little of the audience's expectations into the production. Even though Stanton said that he doesn't do this, I think that as a fan himself, he brought his own expectations about how this film should be created. Although this is what directors are supposed to do, as a long standing fan of the series, his own love for the subject brought in a fan's perspective anyway.
The last aspect that we should consider is that we as an audience need to give a little leeway to the makers behind a film based on our favourite novel. The limitations of the cinema far outweigh the limitations of our imaginations – not to mention the way everyone imagines something will be different – and we cannot expect a film to come out just the way we imagined it. As Andrew Stanton said in the press conference, all he is asking from the audience is for us to trust him with the story and let him try him best to make a great piece of art/entertainment for us to enjoy.
Although it is often very difficult for fans of a novel to enjoy a movie based on something they love, if a viewer goes in with the correct attitude – that this is not supposed to be a perfect rendering of the book, but rather an adaptation – then the whole experience will be more enjoyable. It is not possible to take a book and make it into a film directly. Apart from the fact that it will probably be 10 hours long, film and literature have different strengths and different ways in which they communicate the story. Audiences need to understand this, and if they go in with this perception, the whole film will be appreciated so much more.