This is What I Would Do: Books to Movies, IV

Uncas from Last of the Mohicans,
a movie that is thankfully
completely unlike its book.
The fourth of my five categories--the strict rendering, the faithful interpretation, the alternate viewpoint, make-a-place-for-myself (or something else) and just-the-title--is the most common approach.

Most movies based on stories utilize the make-a-place-for-myself-or-something-else approach simply because most texts don't translate into sell-able scripts. In this approach, movie-makers do not merely change viewpoint or add in extra scenes or zero in on a particular theme. Movie-makers use the motifs, characters, and plot points of the original to mold a new story. This "playing with creation" has its downsides, which I will address in the next post. It also has its upsides.

Last of the Mohicans (1992), for example, bears a strong resemblance to the text by James Fenimore Cooper: It . . . takes place in the same time period as the novel! Okay, that's not fair but really, don't read the book expecting the romance of the movie--or for that matter, the streamlined plot and non-clunky dialog. (My review of the streamlined, non-clunky, and beautiful 1992 movie can be found here.)

A scene not located in the original NIMH book: Justin v. Jenner.
And then there are all those movies that change the original story's ending--thankfully, in some cases. I enjoy The Secret of Nimh far more than its excellent book by Robert C. O'Brien, Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, mostly because Justin doesn't die in the movie (it's implied that he dies in the book although O'Brien's daughter keeps him alive in her sequel). The Bourne Legacy is really just Flowers for Algernon with a WAY better ending. Anyone who wants to argue that Capote's ending to Breakfast at Tiffany's is more realistic is probably right: I still prefer the film's ending.

Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka
Some movies, while sticking to the plot, characters, and even structure of the story/book, create a differing worldview and tone. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) is a far more tolerable version of the book than Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) even though the second creepy movie is far more similar to the creepy book than the nostalgia-inducing first movie. Likewise, Robert Redford intelligently left the sex scene from Judith Guest's book Ordinary People out of his movie. In the book, it is more or less a throw-away scene; in the movie, it would have been gratuitous and distracting (the movie is about the father and son, not the son and girlfriend).

In general, the movie-makers of these movies appear to have purchased the material more than the storyline (although Ordinary People is quite faithful in other regards). However, there are instances where the book's material is faithfully reproduced while utterly transformed.

Howl's Moving Castle, the film, retains the plot of the book for the first 1/2. The second 1/2 takes on a different rhythm and purpose. For one, Miyazaki removes the Wales scenes; in Diana Wynne Jones' delightful shaggy dog story, the scenes are not out-of-place. In Miyazaki's interpretation, they would have added a jarring Monty-Pythonesque tone. Miyazaki also enhances the war references of the book, making that conflict a driving force in the film.  

The most important change is Miyazaki's development of Sophie's bespelling. In the book and in the movie, Sophie is turned into an old woman by the Witch of the Waste. In the book and in the movie, it is implied that Sophia has clung to the spell for self-protection. In the movie only, Miyazaki uses Sophie's age--from old woman to young to old and back again--as a counterpoint to Howl's more self-destructive self-protection.

Sophia becomes young and beautiful when she forgets herself, when she fights for Howl, when she stops caring about the world's opinion of youth and beauty. She retreats into salty, good-humored old age when she needs to hide. The heartbreaking lovingness of Miyazaki's vision is something any woman, young or old, comprehends instantly. It has nothing to do with outward judgment. It has everything to do with state of mind. Only the Sophie who accepts herself, indifferent to others' opinions, can help Howl accept his heart.

Diana Wynne Jones' book is a good read. And the power of her story and ideas is preserved in Miyazaki's art. 

Miyazaki's film is a singular classic, utterly unique to its author.

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