Destroy All Monsters: DIVERGENT Adaptations

Matt Brown, Columnist

Adaptation fascinates me. Sometimes it perfectly achieves its objectives: I couldn't have cared less about the entire Dorne storyline in George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire novels before two weeks ago; but now that Pedro Pascal is playing Oberyn Martell on the fourth season of HBO's Game of Thrones, the subplot has a visceral dramatic focus to it that has solidified its place in the overall storyline and propelled it to the top of my interests in the ongoing TV show. (Plus, really hot.)

On the other end of town, following the news that Lionsgate would (as has become fashionable) split the final novel in their Divergent series, Allegiant, into two feature films, we are faced with an interesting adaptation quandary. I haven't read the book, but based on the commentary online, I gather that many readers found Allegiant a less-than-stellar conclusion to Veronica Roth's trilogy.

What, then, is the burden of responsibility when adapting this book? The decision to divide the novel in two is purely market-driven, of course; shareholders will be more confident in Lionsgate's long-term health if it can show a dependable first-quarter blockbuster for the coming three years, rather than two.

But on a more pragmatic level (which, coincidentally if not insignificantly, also concerns the franchises long-term financial health): how do you go about adapting this story, under the circumstances? Do you translate the book to screen in as faithful a manner as possible, as happened with Divergent? Or do you take the opportunity that the change of mediums presents, and try to make a better Allegiant (Parts 1 and 2) than Allegiant?

Fidelity in big-screen adaptation has become a peculiar pop-cultural obsession, if only because it is so new; arguably, not until the Harry Potter movies were any franchises particularly concerned with the notion of pissing their pre-existing fanbases off by straying too far from the canonical source material. The first two Harry Potter films shouldered that burden to much derision (although, to my book fan's eye, they still flew through tracts of J.K. Rowling's source material that could have been given more onscreen weight).

The Lord of the Rings trilogy is a masterpiece of adaptation, hewing closely enough to the flavour of the novels to keep the entire audience convinced that they were seeing a highly faithful screen version, while still tossing and rearranging vast chunks of the narrative (particularly in the second and third films) to keep the movie workably movie-ish.

This latter element is, of course, the point; we might take a generalist's view of storytelling and assume that a story is a story is a story, but the way those narratives work on the page or the screen are arrived at through a massively different set of tools. Adaptation, as a forceful process, is required to conform the content to the beats and rhythms of cinema - especially, I'd argue, when one is aiming for a blockbuster. These carnival rides are far more strict in their peaks and valleys than other genres.

This brings us to one of the more challenging adaptation properties currently in the market: The Hobbit trilogy, which deserves a longer dissection at a later date. But there, I think we'd agree, the burden of adaptation has become so enormous that it has contorted the property into something scarcely recognizable from its source material, to much public dismay.

I don't think extending an adapted work to multiple films is a bad strategy. I will happily argue that the first instance of the two-part adapted movie finale, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, came by its extended length honestly and even expertly (even while, beyond question, making the Warner Brothers accounting department knock off early for Christmas that year).

J.K. Rowling wrote a dense final novel from a plot standpoint, and while all the detours and deviations in the book might not to be everyone's taste (I could forever do without Xenophilius Lovegood), it's difficult to excise a strand of Rowling's story without pulling the whole tapestry apart. But in the Deathly Hallows case, the line of thinking is still based on the notion that an adaptation should remain faithful to the source, as much as possible; and in this case, the only way to do so was to extend the film to mega-length.

But should it? A brief hubbub was generated on the internet a month or so ago, when Zack Snyder - who should really never be allowed in any glass houses with stones in his hand - claimed to have made the Watchmen movie solely to save it from the likes of Terry Gilliam, who had proposed adapting the graphic novel into a movie with a vastly different third act.

I have difficulty finding the problem in Gilliam's approach, at least in theory. As described above, when making a movie derived from an external source, shouldn't the effort always go towards making the best movie you can, at the end of the day? Up until very recently, movies treated their source works with reckless abandon, understanding fully that a good premise from a novel or a comic is just that: a premise. Jurassic Park improves upon its novel in a number of significant ways; The Lost World tosses the novel completely (except for the title and the accordion trailer sequence) and comes away better for it. Jaws, The Godfather and every single comic book movie ever made since Superman (except Sin City) exemplify the point.

This past week on Hannibal, Raul Esparza's deliciously venal Dr. Chilton met his Lecter-designed doom, in spite of that character surviving in the source material until at least the third novel. I loved it. Not only did Chilton's death on Bryan Fuller's television series make perfect sense from both a narrative and thematic standpoint, but it also served as a refreshing reminder that the series is, at the end of the day, its own animal: and is brightly, passionately alive as a result, in a way that Snyder's Watchmen adaptation (and Sin City) never were.

I've previously gone on the record with my contention that Game of Thrones has already proven itself the better of its novelistic antecedent, and with the producers now claiming to be working towards a seventh-season endgame, we're really going to see the tension between source and adaptation play out, in delightfully macro scale, on our televisions over the next 3 years. Planning to conform A Song of Ice and Fire into seven television seasons suggests that producers D.B. Weiss and David Benioff are either going to excise A Feast For Crows, A Dance with Dragons and The Winds of Winter almost completely from their story, or write their own conclusion to the series from whole cloth, or abandon the narrative in media res.

In any case, though, their declaration of independence from George R.R. Martin - who remains, admittedly, an active participant in the series, probably more so than he participates in the writing of his two remaining novels - couldn't be clearer.

Returning to Divergent, I was excited when the movie went into production, precisely because the novel was, in my opinion, quite thin. There wasn't much to its story, really, but it seemed like a perfect springboard from which a canny filmmaking team could create something that was more than the sum of its parts.

Instead, Divergent turned out to be a slavish, nearly page-for-page adaptation, enshrining as much of Veronica Roth's novel on the big screen as was narratively feasible, so much so that its title felt ironic. I didn't dislike the movie by any means, but it left a lot of money on the table in terms of what could have been done with its narrative framework, had it been less besotted with its source and more interested in the potential for a big screen science fiction franchise derived from a clever thematic rubric.

I hope they take more chances with the final films. Second drafts inevitably improve upon the originals.


Destroy All Monsters is a weekly column on Hollywood and pop culture. Matt Brown is in Toronto and on Twitter.

Around the Internet:
  • Zeto

    Obviously, this article is about Hollywood adaptations. It would be good seeing a second part about destroying foreign material. Example: Dragonball Evolution.

  • Pa Kent Says Maybe

    Yeah, but that's kind of the point. Innint? If a film of a source is enslaved to the source, what is the point? It ends up preaching to the choir. You love a book --- I mean, really LOVE it --- why would you need it to be made into a movie in the first place?

    It's tight-rope walking. I'd never read the Tolkien books before the movies. And, for reasons of my own, I never want to, now. Is that a good thing? Before you answer, do you need to know that I didn't much care for the movies?

    A filmmaker can destroy the material and come up with something great. But, fuck with Batman and you end up with Nolan. Totally evil.

    There isn't a net, and we often see the filmmaker splat in the dust of the center ring.

    Movies is movies, and books is books, says the dullard, diminishing the potential of either.

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