Movie Adaptations That Work for Me: Part 5 of 5

The ‘Illiad’. The most classical of classics. An epic in every sense of the word. And best of all, no copyright. Nobody owns rights to this thing! Let’s make a movie!

Troy: (some guy named) Homer, David Benioff

I got into Greek myths at an early age. I don’t know how many kids go running right to Bulfinch’s but I guess most were like me. I grabbed up those ‘Greek Heroes for Youngsters!’ type books and sort of worked my way up.

That means you usually get the basic story of the Illiad and some of the big players in prose before you try the poem. If you’re like me you might have also been a little disappointed and puzzled when you finally did get to the poem.

It’s kinda boring. Yeah, it’s a ten year war but mostly everybody sits around alot. Achilles, mightiest of heroes, dipped in the river styx, godlike warrior…sits in his tent and whines like a little bitch. Because they wouldn’t let him keep the woman he stole. Plus, it’s one thing to read in prose that a god helped out a mortal but in the poem the gods are everywhere. I mean everywhere! Trip and stub your toe? Yeah, that was Zeus. Can’t find your greaves? Aphrodite hid them so you’d be late for the battle (which never happens anyway cause they just yell insults at each other before everybody goes home). So when I saw a short trailer with a bunch of Brits, Scots, and Aussies, and one Brad Pitt I just wondered, “What are they gonna do with it?”

Phase one: Get rid of the gods. All of them. They have to go. Deus ex machina has come to mean the same thing as cheating. At least for a modern movie goer there’s just not any tension if you know an all powerful deity can help or hinder whoever your rooting for or against. Now the characters are human. Achilles is not invincible- he’s just a badass. Paris isn’t snatched out of combat- he runs away. Hector has to defend his city knowing Apollo will do absolutely nothing to help him. Now there’s tension and human actions with human motivations and no magic powers.

Phase two: That war takes too long, let’s have a shorter one. Let’s say you take a couple months off from work. You rent a small cabin in the hills, go for canoe rides on the lake and spend your evenings reading by the fire. Perhaps a nice cigar and a fine tawny port. That’s a good time to read the Illiad. But most movies are two hours or less. We don’t really have time for a decades long war so let’s just make it a couple of days. Now we’re moving, baby! Storm the beach! Kill some Trojans! Attack the Greeks! Drive ’em back to the ships! Whatever you do, make sure it merits an exclamation point!

Phase three: Pare down that dramatis personae. I am not ashamed to say that my mind is boggled by all the people in the Illiad. There’s like three Ajaxes! I can’t keep everybody straight. With thousands of lines Homer can talk about whoever he wants (which is apparently everbody). In a movie that’s been moved into the action genre, we need to focus on a smaller cast. Really the movie is about Achilles and Hector.

Achilles: Brad Pitt is a big factor in whether or not you like this movie. Some people consider it a huge miscast. Maybe not John Wayne as Genghis Khan huge but… I think it was a good choice. Not because of his looks but because of his fame. The movie Achilles isn’t invincible or immortal so he’s obsessed with the classical Greek way to immortality: fame. And he goes after it in the classical Greek manner: killing lots of people with a spear. Pitt is also unafraid to play Achilles as an unlikable character. Yeah, his armor and moves are cool, but Achilles is empty outside of combat. Pitt plays him as sort of a spoiled rock star. The writer does give him an arc though. He realizes there’s more to life than combat and manages to thank the person who gave him that chance before he dies.

Hector: Hector has the same gift as Achilles- he’s an extremely gifted warrior. But Hector hates war. He sees no glory in it and seems to think the people around him who do love war are a little mad. Hector is more likable and more identifiable than Achilles. He’s a family man fighting to defend his home against invaders. Most of the best lines about war go to Hector and Eric Bana’s performance really holds up the movie. Without him it’s just a bunch of psycopaths hacking each other to steak tartar. He sort of becomes the movies conscience which makes his death a savage blow even though we know it’s coming.

If you want the Illiad, don’t go see this movie. The Illiad is an epic but Troy is not an epic movie. Most of the criticism I hear from friends involves everything they changed. In other words everything I thought made it a good adaptation. Now, it’s not a perfect film. There might be a little scenery chewed on here and there. But I think it was underrated as a war movie and an action movie. If you watch it for that instead of an epic I think you’ll enjoy the ride.

Movie Adaptations That Work for Me: Part 4 of 5

When I organized these movies in my head I thought I was going from the least changed to the most changed in regards to the source material. Now I realize I’m also going in reverse cronological order. The X-Men originated in the sixties, The Lord of the Rings was published in the fifties, and Conan goes back to the thirties. Let’s take a slightly bigger step back to roughly the eighth century.

Beowulf: Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary

Ah, Beowulf. Let’s all say the catechism together, “The oldest extant poem in the English language.” There’s not much gray area with this poem. Either you love it and think it’s a rich, evocative epic; or you hate it and think it’s a boring, dusty relic. I have theories about why that is but I’ll save those for some other time. I will say that I love it but for now let’s stick to Beowulf the poem and what it takes to make Beowulf the movie.

Beowulf the movie is very similar to Excalibur the movie. It’s got all the same characters and the same story elements, but they’re reworked into a true retelling of the story. Some people think that’s sacreligious but I think it shows an understanding of the stringht of these myths and legends. After all, the poem is pretty clearly a retelling of an even older story.

And it is a signifigant reworking. The long passages concerning kings and kingship are almost completely gone. Replaced by more movie friendly action sequences- Grendel’s attack, Beowulf’s race against Brecca, his fight with Grendel and later the dragon. Instead of people talking about Beowulf being a great warrior we see it. Always a good thing in a movie. It’s almost as if the movie looks more at what the poem hints at. The writer’s ask questions about the poem and make a movie out of the answers.

The poem doesn’t describe Grendel in any detail. So what does he look like? The movie gives us an emaciated, tortured being driven to violence by the pain of his own existence. He takes it out on Hrothgar by slaughtering the Danes. Why is he like that and why attack Hrothgar’s people? We find out that Hrothgar is Grendel’s father. How could he sleep with a sea-hag? Well the ‘hag’ is a naked Angelina Jolie who will give you wealth, fame, and power if you sleep with her. That answers that question. Beowulf goes to kill her but falls prey to the same seduction as Hrothgar. Why would our hero do that? Well because he didn’t kill Grendel to help the Danes, he’s driven by a need for fame.

Beowulf kills Grendel’s mother out of hand in the poem without much thought. By changing that to seduction the writers give us a through line that ties three acts. It tells us where Grendel came from, it ties Beowulf’s kingship to his brave deeds and his secret weakness. It gives us a transition to the dragon’s depradations and we see Beowulf tested in the same way Hrothgar was, giving a sense of continuity even though Beowulf has grown old. By not being afraid to really rework story elements they give us a fast paced three act screenplay with lots of sworswinging action. It’s also a dark and brooding study of the epic hero and what price he pays for epic mistakes.

Next movie: Troy

Movie Adaptations That Work for Me: Part 3 of 5

Tolkien gave us a fully realized world of fantasy. A history-that-might-have been with its own long history, languages, and races. He gave us maps with mountains, seas, and countries so we knew just where our heroes were when we read they rode up to Minas Tirith or rowed across the Long Lake. This immersive world essentially spawned its own genre but Professor Tolkien wasn’t the first.

A young (and by all accounts day-old crazy) Texan named Robert E. Howard created a pre- pre-history. A fully realized world of different countries and cultures, complete with its own history and a map. Howard’s style was a little different than Tolkien’s though. The Lord of the Rings rolls along with a stately English pace. Conan rips through the Hyborian world, bloody sword in hand, with all the lurid abandon of the Pulp tradition.

Conan the Barbarian: John Milius, Oliver Stone

Yes that Conan the Barbarian. Yes it’s dated. Yes it’s over the top. Yes three fourths of the main characters are not played by movie actors. It’s still a damn fine fantasy movie, a near perfect example of the revenge plot, and a good study in adaptation.

Most of Howard’s Conan work was shorter fiction that appeared in the Pulps in the thirties. The stories and character were his most popular and certainly the most enduring. If read in the order they were published, there is no real continuity. A story of an older Conan in his fifties, king of a powerful nation, might be followed by a story of a Conan barely out of his teens, a penniless thief in the worst slum known to man. Howard wanted them this way so they read like the yarns of an old adventurer recalled ‘in no particular order’, as he put it himself. That makes good reading but a pretty poor movie plot.

So what to change? Damn near everything. Oliver Stone wrote the original script which apparently involved huge armies of mutants. John Milius, who also directed, cuts it down to bare bones. A barbarian boy is stripped of everything– mother, father, people, freedom. The rest of his life is dedicated to pain, combat, and revenge. That’s pretty much it, those two sentences are an accurate plot synopsis.

Howard fans complain to this day that the movie has nothing to do with the literary Conan. That not only misses the point, but it’s inaccurate. The Conan in Howard’s stories tends to be a wandering wild man. He has no clear motivation from adventure to adventure. He is leader of men one minute, fugitive outlaw the next, sometimes both at the same time. He’ll fight for gold or women or for no reason at all. That’s not going to get a character through three acts of a movie. Milius instead gives us a new story of loss and revenge and puts Conan in it. He has clear goals and clear motivation. He still fights, drinks, and whores around but he’s always got that revenge to get to.

Simple as the movie is, there are some layers there if you want to look. The movie is heavily visual in its storytelling and the story is a great ‘hero’s journey’ brimming with mythic imagery. The opening credits run over a sequence of a sword being forged. This becomes symbolic of the forging of Conan’s character–heated, hammered, shaped, and tempered. He meets threshold guardians, mentors, and monsters. He goes through physical ordeals, enters caves, and climbs towers. The whole film seethes with archetypes from Jung and Campbell. It’s florid and larger than life but it works.

Despite a jaundiced eye from die-hard fans of Howard, Milius actually manages to pull quite a bit of the stories into the movie. “Queen of the Black Coast” is a big influence for the love through-line. Valeria’s ghostly return and some of her dialog are from that story. The scene of the thieves stealing the great jewel from the temple of Set parallels “The Tower of the Elephant”. The most obvious one is “The Thing in the Crypt”. The entire scene of Conan finding the sword in the cave is from that one. Take into account the sheer variety in tone and story content of all the Conan stories and it’s a miracle anyone could get a three act movie out of it. You could do alot worse for models of adaptation.

Next movie: Beowulf

Movie Adaptations That Work for Me: Part 2 of 5

Last time we talked about the difficulty of adapting the long, intricate storylines of a comic series into a movie. X-Men went on to be a trilogy although if you’re looking for good writing, there’s only two movies.

What if you already had a trilogy though? Wouldn’t that be tailor-made to a movie trilogy? What if that trilogy was the one work that stands as the genesis of modern fantasy? Wouldn’t that be tailor made to a fantasy movie? Well…

The Lord of the Rings: Fran Walsh, Phillipa Boyens, Peter Jackson

The live action movies from Peter Jackson aren’t the first attempt to bring Tolkien to the big screen. They aren’t the first to make changes in adapting the story either but they are the only success. So how did Jackson and his team pull it off?

It’s a trilogy: The story is that Jackson concieved of a movie trilogy but couldn’t sell it. Everyone wanted one movie, which is flat out impossible. Apparently they sliced it down to a two movie draft and finally somebody at New Line said “Shouldn’t this be three movies?” to which PJ and team undoubtedly said “That’s a great idea! It’s a wonder we didn’t think of that.”

Making it a trilogy is an important adaptation because the books aren’t a trilogy. They’re six books that were published in three volumes to make it look like a trilogy. Whole books are devoted to one set of characters, and what they do, while we have no hint what everyone else is doing. Then Tolkien just goes back to where we left the others and takes a book to tell us what they did. That’s not going to work in a movie.

Each film should be an act in the trilogy but also has to have enough story to be viewed on its own. The biggest change to that end is cutting back and forth between Frodo and Sam’s adventures and the rest of the Ring Fellowship’s. In the books, the attack in Shelob’s lair happens at the end of The Two Towers. It’s a low point for Sam but just before the end we find out Frodo’s alive. I’m sure it made a helluva cliffhanger when the books came out but the pacing is wrong for the movies. A viewer has just gone through the grim battle at Helm’s Deep where, against all hope and reason, the good guys win. What’s next? A grim battle against the mutha of all spiders where, against all hope and reason, the good guys win. So, PJ just moves it into the third movie and it becomes an action packed opener and conveniently bulks up the third act which is pretty anemic in the books.

That takes us to pace. Forget about language, little people, funny clothes, and a WMD that looks like a wedding band. The real problem of adapting Tolkien is pace. In the book, after Bilbo’s party, Gandalf tells Frodo not to use the ring. Then Frodo sits around and gets fat for about twenty years. Twenty years! Finally Gandalf tells him this ring is some seriously bad mojo and he needs to get his ass out of the Shire. Frodo must have taken that to heart because it only takes him spring, summer, and most of autumn to leave. Somehow the Enemy picks up his track. Not exactly edge-of-your-seat stuff. Contrast that with the movie:

Gandalf: Don’t use the ring

Frodo: Okay (goes and gets drunk at the pub. Comes home to find Gandalf hiding in his house)

Gandalf: That ring is evil! Run away!

Frodo: Yeah but I just–

Gandalf: I said run, man! You’ll be fine as long as you don’t see any dudes in black on big black horses.

Frodo: Okay (Runs away with Sam. Turns around and sees a dude all in black on a big black horse.) Holy crap! Run faster!

More tension. Faster pace. Stuff happens. Most people would not rank these movies as particularly fast paced (watch the director’s cuts back to back and you’re going to need most of a Saturday). But the writers had to make brutal cuts to get a movie pace. Tom Bombadil and the Barrow Downs is gone. Aragorn’s back story is hinted at and doled out slowly in the books, it’s a quick scene in the movie. The Scouring of the Shire is gone, the time in Lothlorien is cut down. Treebeard and the Ents get condensed.

In fact condensed is the best term. The leisurely pace and melancholy vein of the books are condensed by shortening and streamlining timelines By shortening speeches and sometimes ‘modernizing’ dialog. By giving dialog from charcters that didn’t make the cut to characters that did. By being in love with the source material enough to want to make it a good movie. That meant making some changes to what is a sacred text to a lot of people.

Next movie: Conan the Barbarian

Movie Adaptations That Work For Me: Part 1 of 5


The book is better than the movie. It’s a common complaint from people who read a lot. It’s often true but you know what? Movies aren’t books. They’re movies. It seems obvious but I think many people just don’t really grasp how different writing a screenplay is from a novel. In fact I think most people, even avid moviegoers, have very little idea what goes into writing a screenplay. It’s hard.

And when it’s an adaptation the writer gets a nice albatross around his neck in the form of the source material. The better known the source material the bigger and smellier that albatross gets. It takes some nerve to adapt other writers’ work but if you’re writing a movie you have to fit it into the screenplay format. I picked these movies not because they’re good (though I liked all of them), but because the source material for each was well known. In many circles it’s even considered sacred.

X-Men: Tom Desanto, Bryan Singer, David Hayter

It’s hard to fathom it now, but there was a time when it was pretty hard to get a comic book title onto the big screen. The X-Men presented even more challenges than normal. Not only was it a team-based title but over its decades long run it amassed dozens upon dozens of characters with their own origins and storylines. Even the most rabid fanboy would have a tough time naming them all.

So how do you take a work with a gazillion characters in years long storylines and write a movie from it? Well, you lose the gazillion characters and years long storylines. The writers focus on a few key characters, mostly Wolverine and Rogue. Wolverine is, of course, wildly popular and a great tough guy. Just what the hell he really is and how he got that way is perrenial story material in the comics. It’s still in the movie but it’s not central. Wolvrine learning that he doesn’t have to be alone and that he can care for others is. The other mutants are there but they’re carefully kept in the supporting cast of the movie. Even heavy hitters like Professor X and Magneto. Wolverine performs most of the action and he does it to protect Rogue.

The first thing this does is give us some characters we can identify with for the whole movie. The second is we don’t get overwhelmed with a tsunami of mutants we can’t keep straight, let alone grow to care for. There are plenty of mutants involved in the conflict and more in the background at Xavier’s school. Good stuff for the fanboys but someone who has never read one of the comics can keep the main players straight.

There are a few smirking references to nicknames and yellow spandex in the script. These acknowledge the comic book world but also acknowledge that the movie world is different. The world they wrote is much closer to our own and less disbelief has to be suspended. The intricate supertechnology that looks so good in comics is toned down to more melievable devices. Something you might see on FutureWeapons. Instead of an alternate comic book universe we feel like this is a glimpse of our near future.

The end result? The movie feels like a movie not a comic book. Since the viewer can focus on a manageable cast of characters they get out of the ‘soap opera’ feel of monthly stories and into the more immediate feel of a three act movie. Tight, swift moving action with easily identifiable characters who travel through believable arcs. That’s good adapting, people.

Next movie: The Lord of the Rings.

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