Some time ago I heard that Max Brooks' World War Z was being adapted as a movie. For those who haven't read the book its an account of a 'Zombie Apocalypse' told in the form of interviews with survivors after the war. It goes all around the world, and above it in an interview with the former Commander of the ISS who was marooned on the station during the fighting. I enjoyed it a lot and my reaction when I heard about the film was a mixture of anticipation and no little bit of dread. Having seen the trailers my dread has distinctly increased. It isn't a certainty yet but it does look awfully like this is going to be one of those cases where the finished movie shares nothing but a title in common with the original book.
World War Z is hardly the only work to fall victim to such a page one rewrite; so why does it keep happening? Here's my take on it.
To start with I'm not one of those people who get outraged when every full stop and comma from the book doesn't make it to the screen; there are things that work on the printed page that simply won't work on screen and of course things may have to condensed to squeeze a book into 2-3 hours of film. That however is quiet different from the way some films completely discard their alleged source material.
Now everyone has probably read a book and thought it would be so much better if A, B, etc. were changed; its the beginning point for all the fan-fiction ever written. It's a little different if the 'reader' in question is a Hollywood studio that wants to make their 'improved' version onto the big screen. They have to worry about little things like multi-million dollar lawsuits. They could just cut out the remainder of the original source material but that's not always practical and besides keeping the title and some of the character names may help sell the film. The solution is to buy the rights to the book and cover themselves against everything except the irate author walking away in disgust when they find out just what the studio intends to do to their book.
So when you see the announcement that Hollywood is planning to make a movie based on your favourite book its probably wise to assume that based on = butchering. It's not always going to happen; sometimes a book is big enough that the studio doesn't dare mess with it too much but those instances are fairly rare and if a book isn't that big it creates another problem besides the greater willingness to 'improve' it.
When a book is a truly massive hit, like Harry Potter or Twilight, casting tends to be about finding actors who fit the characters as described in the book(s), and more than likely unknowns who are going to be grateful and not expect the world to revolve around them; yet. When the book in question has a narrower fan base the situation often flips round; studios become eager to attach a big name actor to a project; when they succeed in landing an honest to goodness A-lister that's usually the kiss of death for the book.
Going back to Word War Z the main character in the book is the interviewer; we learn little or nothing about him and all he really does is introduce the interviewees and inject a few questions to prompt them in telling their stories. For the movie they got Brad Pitt to play the lead. Can you imagine a studio paying Brad Pitt (or any other marquee star) many millions of dollars to appear in a lead role that involves being on screen for maybe fifteen minutes and doing little more than taking notes? Its not going to happen. Once that big name is attached to a project that project is going to start revolving around them.
In WWZ it means that the story now becomes the story of the 'interviewer'; and that character has to have all sort of close calls and heroic moments so that the audience will sympathize with them and root for them. It's happened time and again and its not the actors fault. it all too often seems to stem from a lack of confidence in the source material, or a simple lack of understanding of it. Sadly with the sums of money riding on a movie these days it's not likely to get any better and we are doomed to find ourselves fuming time and again at the outrageous liberties taken with our favourite stories.
None of the above means of course that if the day ever comes where some studio was willing to write a large cheque for rights to my work that I'm not going to take it. :)