A Philosopher's Blog

Three Questions to Ask About Pages to Screens

Posted in Aesthetics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on May 30, 2014
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While I consider myself something of a movie buff, I am out-buffed by one of my colleagues. This is a good thing—I enjoy the opportunity to hear about movies from someone who knows much more than I. We recently had a discussion about science-fiction classics and one sub-topic that came up was the matter of movies based on books or short stories.

Not surprisingly, the discussion turned to Blade Runner, which is supposed to be based on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? By Phillip K. Dick. While I like the movie, some fans of the author hate the movie because it deviates from the book. This leads to two of the three questions.

The first question, which I think is the most important of the three is this: is the movie good? The second question, which I consider as having less importance, is this: how much does the movie deviate from the book/story? For some people, the second question is rather important and their answer to the first question can hinge on the answer to the second question. For these folks, the greater the degree of deviation from the book/story, the worse the movie. This presumably rests on the view that an important aesthetic purpose of a movie based on a book/story is to faithfully reproduce the book/story in movie format.

My own view is that deviation from the book/story is not actually relevant to the quality of the movie as a movie. That is, if the only factor that allegedly makes the movie bad is that it deviates from the book/story, then the movie is actually good. One way to argue for this is to point out the obvious: if someone saw the movie without knowing about the book, she would presumably regard it as a good movie. If she then found out it was based on a book/story, then nothing about the movie would have changed—as such, it should still be a good movie on the grounds that the relation to the book/story is external to the movie. To use an analogy, imagine that someone sees a painting and regards it as well done artistically. Then the person finds out it is a painting of a specific person and finds a photo of the person that shows the painting differs from the photo. To then claim that the painting is badly done would seem to be to make an unfounded claim.

It might be countered that the painting would be bad, because it failed to properly imitate the person in the photo. However, this would merely count against the accuracy of the imitation and not the artistic merit of the work. That it does not look exactly like the person would not entail that it is lacking as an artistic art. Likewise for the movie: the fact that it is not exactly like the book/story does not entail that it is thus badly done. Naturally, it is fair to claim that it does not imitate well, but this is a different matter than being a well done work.

That said, I am sympathetic to the view that a movie does need to imitate a book/movie to a certain degree if it is to legitimately claim that name. Take, for example, the movie Lawnmower Man.  While not a great film, the only thing it has in common with the Stephen King story is the name. In fact, King apparently sued over this because the film had no meaningful connection to his story. However, whether the movie has a legitimate claim to the name of a book/story or not is a matter that is distinct from the quality of the movie. After all, a very bad movie might be faithful to a very bad book/story. But it would still be bad.

The third question I came up with was this: is the movie so bad that it desecrates the story/book? In some cases, authors sell the film rights to books/stories or the works become public domain (and thus available to anyone). In some cases, the films made from such works are both reasonably true to the originals and also reasonably good. The obvious examples here are the Lord of the Rings movies. However, there are cases in which the movie (or TV show) is so bad that the badness desecrates the original work by associating its awfulness with a good book/story.

One example of this is the desecration of the Wizard of Earthsea by the Sci-Fi Channel (or however they spell it these days). This was so badly done that Ursula K. Le Guin felt obligated to write a response to it. While the book is not one of my favorites, I did like it and was initially looking forward to seeing it as a series. However, it was the TV version of seeing a friend killed and re-animated as a shuffling horror of a zombie. Perhaps not quite that bad—but still pretty damn bad. Since I also like Edgar Rice Burroughs Mars books, I did not see the travesty that is Disney’s John Carter. To answer my questions, this movie was apparently very bad, deviated from the rather good book, and did desecrate it just a bit (I have found it harder to talk people into reading the books since they think of the badness of the movie).

From both a moral and aesthetic standpoint, I would contend that if a movie is to be made from a book or story, those involved have an obligation to make the movie at least as good as the original book/story. There is also an obligation to have at least some meaningful connection to the original work—after all, if there is no such connection then there is no legitimate grounds for having the film bear that name.

 

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9 Responses

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  1. ajmacdonaldjr said, on May 28, 2014 at 12:56 pm

    The SCOTUS has the same opinion of the US Constitution. Their decisions need not follow it literally. They can interpret it as they wish, and create whatever decisions they wish to create, using the US Constitution as a rough guide. The US Constitution’s authors’ original intent need not be considered. Personally, I like Dick’s book better than I do the movie. I was actually rather disappointed the first time I saw Blade Runner. On its own it’s a good film, but it’s not as good as the book, nor a film that would have been faithful to the book.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on May 29, 2014 at 3:32 pm

      I like the movie more than the book, but it might be because I saw the movie first and have nostalgic associations with the movie. I read the book in grad school-so not much pleasant nostalgia there.🙂

      • apollonian said, on May 30, 2014 at 12:32 pm

        This is actually an interesting answer/expo, brief as it is, that u give here, Mike–u could tell us what u mean by “movie” of the original work. And note there have been “movies” (literally) made about Constitutional matters, as I’m sure u know–so these could be “movies” of the “movie” or of the “book,” evidently.

        For example, how then would u consider the so-called “Civil War”?–would be one good subject-matter to be commented upon. I, for another example, consider the Civil War to be one HUGE, horrific tragedy.

        • apollonian said, on May 30, 2014 at 12:38 pm

          –“Tragedy” being a primary motif in art and literature, of course.

      • ajmacdonaldjr said, on May 31, 2014 at 8:09 pm

        I think it depends upon which we see or read first. Both the book and the film are good🙂

  2. T. J. Babson said, on May 30, 2014 at 8:56 am

    “I would contend that if a movie is to be made from a book or story, those involved have an obligation to make the movie at least as good as the original book/story.”

    I think this is an impossibly high standard.

    • apollonian said, on May 30, 2014 at 1:33 pm

      “Impossibly high”?–perhaps, but it’s also a little non-sensical too, “good” being un-defined–in my view, un-definable.

      Mike’s actually rather good at this–invoking a likely theme, then using a word so vague for meaning (like “good”), and then we commenting so extensively.

    • WTP said, on May 31, 2014 at 10:13 am

      It’s not even a standard. It’s a rant. I seriously doubt anyone sets out to make a movie worse than the book. It just comes out that way. This is typical of what I say about what passes for philosophy. Wait until someone does something and fails, then pretend to be “smart” by criticizing what has now failed. Where’s the observation about movies that differ significantly from the books but are far better? Planet of the Apes comes to mind, but there are many others. The movie sometimes makes one forget yhe awful book that provided the kernel of the idea.

      is the movie so bad that it desecrates the story/book?

      This is just sophistry. Do professors who use philosophy to further their own bad ideas desecrate Socrates, St. Augustine, or Sarte? Well, Sarte desecrates himself, but that’s beside the point. The book is still the same book. A bad movie made from it can dono harm to the book, especially over the long haul. The bad movie will soon be forgotten, and often such bad movies put a spotlight on the book causing more people to read it who might never have heard of it. Thinking of The Razor’s Edge for one example, though the second movie wasn’t as bad as it was criticized.

  3. apollonian said, on May 30, 2014 at 1:21 pm

    Spenglerian Decline Is Oh So Jolly, Just Before The Horror Starts, We See

    Mike, like the over-grown child, spouting mystic “ethics,” “contends,” demands, insists, declares, etc., as usual, and u notice he invokes something, “moral standpoint,” which he does not and cannot define, so far as we know, Mike just a mystic, actually, who mystically invokes ethics as be-all and end-all, always without any foundation or rational exposition.

    Thus Mike insists about movies having to be “good” as the book–“good” left un-defined, u notice, as usual.

    But rational ethics must be rational first and most, hence the property rights of author and movie producer are paramount, the movie producers typically paying big-bucks to the much-poorer authors for all rights, thus the property changing hands, etc.–it’s actually just a simple legal issue regarding property rights.

    Note then artistic products in way of literature can be quite involved, including not only particular plots, but also the more general subject-matters. So the movie might invoke the general subject-matter, but without the plot, or changing the plot.

    Remember, in the end, if the movie expresses the plot of a given work faithfully, the original work being so popular, the movie is apt to making lots of money, also advertising the book and plot-theme too–good example being recent “Hunger Games” movies.

    So Mike had fun w. this blog-essay of his, musing and commenting about works he liked and didn’t like, even though his under-lying ethical notions are so mystic and absurd, as so often–and this is okay, I say, getting us all to thinking and commenting, but should Mike be paid by tax-payers for doing this and so “professing” in the classes?–I say absolutely not, the tax-payers NOT being properly served for this sort of foolery.

    It’s no accident, either, I note again, that USA is going down proverbial tubes in CYCLIC, Spenglerian “Decline of the West.” Mike is having a good time, in meantime, getting paid his huge, un-justified salary fm the tax-payers for whom he has the typical contempt, pushing “climate-change” lies, etc.–such, again, is Western “decline.”


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