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Adaptations

July 6, 2021 (488 words)

It’s always a challenge when they try to turn your favorite quirky novel into a movie. What makes the novel so rich and rewarding in the first place is the way it takes us into uncharted territory. The best quirky novels make us think about something or someone from a perspective we haven’t previously considered.

When it comes to capturing a revealing detail about a person or a place, the novel has a distinct advantage over a movie. Sure, a picture may be worth a thousand words, but sometime it takes a thousand words (or more) to really capture the essence of a thing – a physical locale, a given character’s motivation, the underlying dynamic of a particular relationship.

What makes any story hold our interest is the way the familiar is used as a path to the unfamiliar. Places we’ve heard about or maybe even visited, but haven’t gotten the full flavor of. Characters who are immediately recognizable on the surface, but who surprise us in the end as being unlike anyone we have ever known.

Some stories just take time to develop and unfold properly. The novelist has the opportunity to do his or her work in stages, layering in more context as the plot moves along. Like a bird building a nest. The reader, in turn, has the ability to pause and reflect, to maybe even put the book down and go about one’s daily chores, returning at a later date. This does wonders for the reader’s ability to understand and appreciate the proceedings.

A movie, on the other hand, has to get in and get out. It only has ninety minutes, give or take, to get the job done and the story told. (Unless you are the famous writer-director Terrence Malick. In which case you have about three hours to get your point across.)

Given the inherent time constraints, it’s difficult for a movie to truly break new ground. And when one does manage to accomplish this feat, that film is usually not seen by too many people.

While any movie worth its salt will hold a surprise for the audience – the proverbial plot twist – the stock-in-trade of a release that does big box office is the familiar. Stories we kind of already know featuring actors and actresses who are easy on the eyes, and help hold our short attention spans. Without wanting to come across as too much of a cinematic snob, most popular entertainment is aimed at reassuring us about what we already hold to be true.

The quirky novel, and the rare successful movie adaptation of such a novel, usually sets out to show us something different. And in so doing it often tries to challenge a familiar assumption in some fundamental way. Sitting through such a challenge, whether issued from a page or on a screen, is just not a popular pastime, when all is said and done.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr
July 6, 2021

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