12/7/2014 – The Critical Line
I watched noir classic The Maltese Falcon again last night, and again I was struck by how faithful the movie is to the book by Dashiell Hammett. Even much of the dialogue is the same. The film received rave reviews and continues to enthrall audiences. Would that this could be true for other books vandalized by the film industry.
Films are a different medium with different requirements. I understand that. Screenwriters are necessary to translate a book into a movie. The question becomes where to draw the line in changing plots and characters to fit a different medium. We’ve all seen the often unhappy results. Characters are warped or undergo wholesale change. Plots disintegrate or become unrecognizable. Complex or iconoclastic ideas are cleaned up and simplified for a mass audience with a short attention span. The selection of actors and their interpretation of the characters may also differ widely from our own interpretation that grew from actually reading the book. Add irrelevant car chases and special effects, and by golly, you’ve got a winner.
To those of us who know and love books that become movies, the often distorted shallowness of the film aggravates and disappoints. Yet we do pay money to see books we enjoy in a film version.
Where to draw the line? Terra Ziporyn in an earlier blog talked about the product placement, long an atrocity on TV sitcoms, that’s creeping into books. I agree that it’s an obnoxious development, yet commercial products surround us and using brand names, capitalized, of course, creates the detail that brings verisimilitude to the page. Even Seinfeld’s obvious product placements in his TV sitcom, done casually, added to the characterizations and the commonplace setting. However, the smoking of cigars by the otherwise fastidious Seinfeld was a blatant misuse of product placement that eroded and confused the character he played. The cigar industry obviously had paid big bucks for that, but mercifully, the ridiculous and unhealthy fad of cigar-smoking has passed.
Speaking of cigars, how about the despicable practice of having actors smoke to encourage impressionable young people to smoke? That line must be drawn.
Many of us readers—and film-goers—draw our own personal lines about what we will or will not tolerate in books and movies. Violence? Sex? Pornography? My personal line is drawn at animal or child suffering and death.
Where to draw the line? When egos, commercial interests, and personal tastes are involved, the answer is not easy or simple.