The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Thursday, March 05, 2009


I really like a note that Erich sent me, and wanted to share it. It regards a comment I made about "Religulous."

He quotes me:


I recently watched Bill Maher's "Religulous" and he is certainly
attempting to slay sacred cows.


And he says:

I can't help thinking that Bill Maher would find it a lot harder to
take on something that was considered a genuinely sacred cow *by his
social peers*.

Want a real-world example of somebody successful in Hollywood
risking his social status by outraging his social peers? Then it's
not Bill Maher criticizing orthodox organized religion! Maher's
peer group isn't in rural Texas; they're in Hollywood! Do you
really think that making "Religulous" cost Maher anything that he
really wanted? A single dinner invitation? A single job interview?

But I can think of two celebrities who do qualify:

Mel Gibson, making _The Passion_.

Michael Crichton, writing _State of Fear_.

Remember the reactions *those* got?

Thinking of them, I'm put in mind of three quotes on the difference
between easy, safe "sacrilege" and hard, risky sacrilege:

1. "Make people think they're thinking, and they'll love you; make
them *really* think, and they'll kill you." --Harlan Ellison

2. "In every period of history, there seem to have been labels that
got applied to statements to shoot them down before anyone had a
chance to ask if they were true or not ... We have such labels
today, of course, quite a lot of them, from the all-purpose
'inappropriate' to the dreaded 'divisive.' In any period, it should
be easy to figure out what such labels are, simply by looking at
what people call ideas they disagree with besides untrue. When a
politician says his opponent is mistaken, that's a straightforward
criticism, but when he attacks a statement as 'divisive' or
'racially insensitive' instead of arguing that it's false, we should
start paying attention." --Paul Graham

3. "True dissent doesn't feel like going to school wearing black; it
feels like going to school wearing a clown suit." --Eliezer Yudkowsky


I disagree about Gibson and 'The Passion." He was mostly criticized for using his own money (you NEVER do that!) but Hollywood isn't any more Godless than any other major city I've been to. It certainly has that reputation, but I think that's because its primary industry is a fantasy machine, and some of those fantasies cross some people's lines. But the town is chock-a-block with churches and Temples that are notorious for being the regular worship place for executives and stars all over. Yes, they're more tolerant of atheism than most, but also Buddhism and Scientology. You might say that the search for God is an obsession in Hollywood, even if they end up turning over some odd rocks in the process.

Crichton? Maybe, but I don't know. I'm not really sure what his social circle was. I did think that "State of Fear" was a bit disingenuous...he very clearly was against the idea of global warming, and thought that the environmental movement was full of whackos (and took great pleasure in killing them painfully). But then in the afterward, he claimed he hadn't made his mind up. That kind of soured the book for me. That just wasn't honest. But... I don't think it cost him dinner invitations. I would bet that he got LOTS of dinner invitations from people who wanted to debate him. That said, I agree with you that "The Passion" was WAY more courageous than Maher's work: Gibson put it on the line for what he believed.


My neighbor is a Kenyan civil engineer, who has an interesting measurement of the current recession: the number of metric tons, or cubic meters, of trash going into the landfills. Apparently, it's decreased by about 25%. Also, the water has a higher percentage of various toxins, but fewer gallons of water are passing through the system. This suggests that people are taking shorter showers, washing their clothes on the water-saving cycle, etc. And the landfill situation implies that people aren't buying as much, or aren't using as much disposable tableware and paper towels and so forth. Makes sense.


Well, the "unfilmable" Watchmen opens tomorrow. Currently 65% on Rotten Tomatoes, that number masks the fact that most of the major critics have given it a Thumbs Down. Ouch. Well, I'll see for myself on Saturday. My guess is that Zack Snyder walked an incredibly fine line, wanting to translate this fantastic graphic novel to the screen as faithfully as possible, but trying to avoid being trapped. There is, to my knowledge, no such thing as an utterly faithful adaptation of a literary work to the screen--even when the author himself writes the screenplay. Books and movies are different things, and what works on the page doesn't necessarily work on the screen. Even more, the author himself is a different person when he writes the screenplay, and I would suspect that he will see new and better ways of expressing a thought. Can anyone out there remember a completely, utterly faithful adaptation of a book?


Charles said...

What about Robert Altman's The Player?

Hugh said...

I don't know if it's possible to be completely faithful, but I have seen a very wide range of adaptations. From best to worst:

Pride and Predjudice (BBC Miniseries)

(Very good)
Lord of the Rings
Harry Potter

(Literary Homicide)
Starship Troopers

(Homicide followed by desecration of the grave)

Lynn Gazis-Sax said...

There are some changes that express the spirit of the book while making it more vivid for the screen. For instance, in the movie Eleni, there's a scene where Nick Gage confronts the judge who had his mother executed (guy acting as judge during a civil war, not normal justice system), pulls out a gun, and decides not to use it when the man's child comes into the room. Not surprisingly, that isn't what Nick Gage actually wrote that he did. What his book says is that he had a gun in his possession, that he thought about using it on the guy, and that he then remembered the guy's children. The movie makes that visual. (It also makes other changes, mainly trimming out other story lines to focus on just the one.) And so it shows a scene that never happened in real life, but that displays the thoughts and feelings that did happen in real life. Similar stuff when the thing being changed is fiction - it may be different events on the screen, but conveying something similar.

But then there are other cases where what changes between book and movie is something that seems to change the whole meaning of the story. Often its a change in the ending - the new ending may be better or worse, but if you were attached to the meaning of the original story ending, you may not like it.

Professor Timonin said...

@ Hugh
My wife and I had serious issues with Lord of the Rings, we liked the Dune miniseries, although she tried to get a refund on the rental of the 1984 Dune.

Andrea said...

I actually liked State of Fear. For years I have been driven nuts by the lockstep devotion to the THEORY of global warming. What I liked was that Crichton provided ample references for people who wanted to look it up for themselves. What I took from the book is, we really don't know what is going to happen to the climate. We have trouble figuring out what the weather is going to be for the next week, much less the next decade or century!

Hugh said...


I can understand issues with LotR, but I liked more than I disliked. I thought the handling of Gimli, for instance, was pretty bad. That's actually something I wouldn't mind hearing our host ruminate on.

When I wrote my list, I couldn't think of any novel/movie adaptations that were in the middle of the spectrum. Since then I have - the recent Narnia movies and Wyrd Sisters, the animated adaption of the Pratchett novel.

As Lynn implied, I judge quality in part by how faithfully the emotional spirit of the book is represented in the movie.

Anonymous said...

Dune 1984...

That takes me back a bit. It was butchered to be sure, but damn if it didn't feel like it should have. From an artistic standpoint I will always have a place for it in my heart, because it felt like what my mind stirred up in many ways. That being said, it was horrendously fractured, missing pieces all over the place, and filled in with abysmal replacements in others (weirding modules anyone?) LOTR was a different matter. I loved that there was such a grandious adaptation after the less than ideal anime style movies released previously, but felt like the artistic devotion died slowly in the second movie, and nearly all together by the third. But that is to be expected to some degree once it was proven to be such a money maker. More money for the sequels meant greater responsibility to those that put the money into it, and thus it moved towards a more pulp fantasy than what made the first movie so special. This is trying desparately to put aside the plot chanes that weren't so much for time/drama as where the story needed to go for that particular vision. My friends can attest that more than once during ROTK I audibly complained about what I saw as bastardization of my second favorite literary work of all time; Dune being the first.

suzanne said...

We have trouble figuring out what the weather is going to be for the next week, much less the next decade or century!

weather and climate are two different things
predicions are mre difficult on the day to dayy basis
(past about 5 days)
whereas climate is "long term weather"
and statistical trends are easier to calculate and follow
for climate

Bennett said...

Totally faithful adaptation? Well, I'd have to say that The Maltese Falcon comes very close. They pretty well used the novel as the script (literally, as I hear it) and the translation was quite effective.

Anonymous said...


I'm really glad you liked my note!

For anybody who's interested, here are some Web links to the relevant essays by Ellison, Graham, and Yudkowsky.

The Ellison essay you have to buy and read (worth doing, but not instantly doable). But the Graham and Yudkowsky essays you can read in an hour and a half, right now, for free.

If you read them, I think you'll see why I don't think Maher's exactly pushing the dissent envelope -- and just how much hot water one can get into for really doing it, rather than play-acting at it.

--Erich Schwarz

Anonymous said...

A good example of being too true to a book is the "Shining" by Steven King. The original movie done by stanley kubric was chilling, moody, and Jack nicholson had the charisma to sell what was going on. The mini-series made much later had much more input from steven king. he felt it was a truer adaptation of his work. comparatively it stank. It was too long, Steven Weber is no jack nicholson and Kubric's mastery is gone as well. langdon

Marty S said...

Suzanne: As soon as you try to predict or explain climate using "statistical trends" you lose credibility with me. There are two problems with climate trends. One is that the in statistical trend analysis the individual observations are suppose vary around the trend line independently. With climate this isn't so. The annual deviations from the trend line tend to be in statistical terms auto-correlated. Secondly, the variations from the trend are assumed to be random and have a particular statistical distribution and climate variations don't really fit this model because some of the variation are due to non-random effects not sufficiently understood to include in the model and random effects that don't match the assumptions of the statistical model.

Nancy Lebovitz said...

The issue with the Passion wasn't that it was religious, it was that it was seen by more than a few people as anti-Semitic. I haven't seen the movie, so I don't have an opinion about whether it actually was.

Also, just considered as a gamble rather than high-stakes dissent-- I can't think of any other straightforwardly religious movies made in recent years.

Exact adaptation: The movie of King's The Dead Zone was very close.

So was the movie of Gone with the Wind.

When you say "exact adaptation", do you mean tone as well as plot?

In any case, I suspect that the rationalist tone of the print Watchmen isn't going to be there in the movie, no matter how close the plot is.

What does anyone think of the theory that novels simply have too much stuff in them to be made accurately into movies, and the natural thing to adapt is the novella?

Steve Perry said...

Getting an exact translation from a book to a movie is well nigh impossible.

On anything longer than a short story, you simply don't have the room.

If you have a three hundred and fifty page novel, you have more material than you can stuff into a hundred and five page script.

LOTR works out to what? Ten or twelve hundred pages? No way for a single movie. A trilogy hits the high points, but something has to be left out. A week-long mini-series, eight or ten episodes? Maybe.

Some of it must be left out for the movie to work.

You might be able to capture the heart an soul of a novel, but the medium by which you offer it has more limits that a reader's imagination. Sherlock Holmes can be many things to many people in a story; as soon as you put an actor on screen, what he looks like become fixed. Chances are, if you think of Holmes, you envision one of the actors who played him. There have been many. For years, I considered Basil Rathbone the Holmes to beat. Jeremy Brett took his place for me.

A lot of what is in a book you can simply show on screen. Some, you cannot. Unless you have a voice-over, interior monologues go away. And they should go away. Movies are visual and aural experiences, and sticking faithfully to the book is a bad idea.

I haven't seen Watchmen yet, but so far, that is the biggest criticism I've heard of it. Instead of character, you get backstory. This works well in a graphic novel, not so well on the screen.

Mike Frank said...

I think "The Princess Bride" is one of those cases where the movie was as good or better than the book.

The movie had the advantage that William Goldman wrote both the book and the screenplay.

The movie doesn't exactly follow the book but is more a different way of telling the same essential story.

This, of course, supports the point that movies and books are very different mediums and stories should be tailored to each medium in the way that is most appropriate to each medium.

Steve Perry said...

I don't think the question was whether the movie was as good as or better than the movie, but transferred beat-for-beat.

Godfather was a better movie than a book.

Usually, the book is better, but not always.

Goldman also did the book/screenplay for Marathon Man. Book was fun. Nobody who saw the movie forgets the late Laurence Olivier asking Dustin Hoffman "Is it safe?"

The closer a movie is to the book, generally, the better hardcore book fans like it. But that might not make it the best movie.

There is a line, attributed to Hemingway or Cain: "Isn't it awful what Hollywood did to your book?" is the query. To which the writer is supposed to have responded, "They didn't do anything to my book -- it's right over there, on the shelf. That's their movie, not my book."

Lynn Gazis-Sax said...

For anybody who's interested, here are some Web links to the relevant essays by Ellison, Graham, and Yudkowsky.

Hmm, I can find some points quite quickly where I'd differ with the Graham one; some of his rules of thumb for judging which of the things you're not supposed to say are actually likely to be true things you're not supposed to say strike me as perhaps too simple. Going through his essay ...

Do you have any opinions that you would be reluctant to express in front of a group of your peers?

Sure, but those would vary depending on which specific social group I'm thinking of.

If the answer is no, you might want to stop and think about that. If everything you believe is something you're supposed to believe, could that possibly be a coincidence? Odds are it isn't. Odds are you just think whatever you're told.

The other alternative would be that you independently considered every question and came up with the exact same answers that are now considered acceptable.

Well, actually there's a third alternative, that's pretty common - you selected the people you hang out with to be the ones who agree with you.

Take a label-- "sexist", for example-- and try to think of some ideas that would be called that. Then for each ask, might this be true?

Just start listing ideas at random? Yes, because they won't really be random. The ideas that come to mind first will be the most plausible ones. They'll be things you've already noticed but didn't let yourself think.

Actually, if I specifically pick the label "sexist" and start listing ideas at random that might be labelled that, the first ones I think of are the ones that hit my pocketbook if someone believes them. For instance, I think of "women are innately worse at math and science" earlier on the list than I think of "women are innately less promiscuous than men." Is it possible that the former has more truth to it than the latter? Oh, maybe. But definitely the former costs me, personally, more than the latter does, if people believe it too strongly, and especially if they believe it to the exclusion of looking at individual variance. If I, personally, weren't in the computer science field but did want to have lots of casual sex, maybe I'd think of the two ideas in the reverse order of how I do think of them.

In fact, Graham seems to notice this himself later when he says

I suspect the biggest source of moral taboos will turn out to be power struggles in which one side only barely has the upper hand.

In fact, a lot of taboos don't even have anything to do with the truth value of a statement. (E.g. The word "black" means the same thing that the word "Negro" meant when I was a small child. But the meaning of the word "Negro" has shifted, so that if I were to use it, I'd be adding to whatever else I was saying a meaning of "I really want to piss black people off by ignoring their expressed preferences.")

But any idea that's considered harmless in a significant percentage of times and places, and yet is taboo in ours, is a good candidate for something we're mistaken about.

To tell the truth, I think that some things really and truly are harmless in one time and place, and harmful in another. Not everything, of course - but some stuff does get affected by, oh, what economic system you have to work with, what your material life is actually like, whether you have available birth control, etc. If ages of consent vary some from place to place, maybe at least some of that is because people actually have the responsibilities and freedoms of an adult at different times, and it's more important that those responsibilities and freedoms track each other than that they happen at exactly 18, or exactly 16, or whatever. There are different family structures in different times and places, because at least some of the details of family structure matter less than the fact that you have a family structure where adults will care for kids and the healthy the sick. Etc.

It is true, though, that in any time and place, inevitably some of what's generally believed will be false.

Anonymous said...

It's been a while but I recall the Exorcist being extremely faithful to the book.

Josh Jasper said...

I'm surprised no one mentioned Sin City.

Anonymous said...

or Shawshank Redemption

Steven Barnes said...

Agreed that Maher wasn't "pushing the envelope." He was, however, tilting his lance at sacred cows, which was the point of my original note.
"The Shining"? Several major changes, including, of course, Scatman sacrificing his life stupidly so the white family can survive. I both hate and love Kubrick.