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Bred in Captivity: Stories in Their Natural and Not-So-Natural Habitats

Cremisi's picture

         Any lover of books can relate to the disturbance and slight disgust one feels when a favorite piece of literature is adapted into a movie. As we have discussed in “The Stories of Evolution and the Evolution of Stories”, when a viewer sees a beloved story adapted into a film, the initial reaction is that the tale has either been whittled down, shaven, or catastrophically ruined by the cinema. The majority of the people in class agreed that there is a certain “mindlessness”--a sluggish feeling of less processing and activity in the mind--when it came to viewing a film. Symbols that are part of a schema are blatantly presented in a film, whereas symbolism in novels are often more clandestine and intangible in their presentation. A movie leaves someone feeling as though they are carefree and haven’t been doing nearly the amount of work as if they had read the novel. Watching a movie is unintelligent relaxation. 

       This all may be true; humans do enjoy a certain amount of simpleness. Any student would attest to the fact that they would rather study pithy notes than attempt to consume a textbook; evolution often adheres to parsimonious tendencies where “the simplest and easiest is the most likely”; palm-sized smart phones have replaced the cumbersome, monstrous bricks we called cell phones in the 80s. However, is it wrong to place the same expectations of the material the reader found in the book to be 100% accurately depicted in the movie?

       The generalization that all movies based on books are whittled and dumbed down is erroneous. Not all movies are a mere splinter from an oak tree. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote The Curious Case of Benjamin Button as a short story back in 1922. At its best, the short story seemed like a few pages of scribblings about an uninteresting character (well, other than the minor fact that he ages backwards) in a very mundane life. It possessed no desires to delve into matters such as time, love, and scientific inquiry--numerous topics explored in the film. The short story followed a fellow named Benjamin Button who grew backwards. Fitzgerald wrote it with detached amusement, and it skated on top of any deeper meaning. It read like a superficial account of a very average life without too much beauty or complexity to it. The movie, however, was a wonderful expansion. The short story Memento-Mori gave rise to the complicated movie Memento, a film which is far from “mindless” or “simplified”. The beloved children's book, Where the Wild Things Are blossomed from simple and sweet into a movie steeped in adult ideas and non-childlike themes. Though a movie based on a book is often a condensed version of it, to say that it is “whittled down” or “bad” is a very foolish mistake as movies demonstrate variations in growth and expression.

            Like movies, If conditions allow, will humans grow larger and more complex, or simpler and smaller? The human today is significantly larger than the human just a mere 200 years ago--the average shoes size for a woman was a 3 while it is now an 8. If becoming larger were counter-productive, why is it happening in humans? An organism is trying (though not consciously) to become the best, most successful organism it may be while expelling the least amount of energy. Our larger bodies are a result of our improved diets, shelter from disaster, and occasional triumph over maladies. Environment, time, and nutrition have allowed us to grow bigger. This could be a possible explanation of why some mammals were massive before--their environment used to be much more conducive to it. As humans started gaining more power, using more resources, procreating, and taking more resources, the resources and land previously enjoyed by larger mammals soon became much less accessible to them. In turn, they got smaller. Their environment changed, so they had to as well.

          It may be helpful to view a story as a wild organism. When a story is in a “book” environment, the story is like an animal in a utopia: they are allowed to have open endings (no constraints of borders), infinite length (lands for grazing without end) and a world of ideas as well as pictures (multiple ways to express needs). When the story switches to a “movie” environment however, its lifespan is limited to about 1 1/2-2 hours, it doesn’t have the benefit of internal thought without voiceovers, and it must solely rely on images. The environment for the story has changed, so the story, just like an organism, must adapt or it will perish.

         Books adapted into movies are not stories “being whittled” but rather adapting to fit the environment (that is, it should still maintain its appeal and overall message while being viewable in a time limit). A story like Benjamin Button would not be suitable for the theaters in the way that the story is written: a light, amusing read, would be an unimaginative, uneventful bore of a film. It had to be changed and adapted. 

         The Dutch people tower above the rest of the population. That is not to say however that the Dutch are more superior, or that people of Asian descent (being much shorter) are “less” of a person. It is no doubt that populations differ due to their environment. When one compares people or even different species, the idea of “better” is futile, politically incorrect, and even a bit ridiculous. If books, stories, and movies are different organisms, then they are all subject to a different environment. They exist and should be accepted as they are with their own potential and realized niche without scorn. As for competition, people may choose to read books or watch films (thus bettering either the film’s or the book’s survival) but according to Eltonian Niche Concept, a book does what a movie doesn’t do and vice versa--they should therefore be treated as different species because their roles in the cultural niche are independent. 

        All living organisms are a different arrangement of matter--a book-based movie is a different arrangement of a book. It is completely and utterly useless to judge a book or movie’s worth as compared to the other. It is, however, completely acceptable to prefer one of the other--much like how I prefer lions to pandas, or The Count of Monte Cristo book to the film. It’s silly to say however, that lions are a more useful organism than pandas, or that The Count of Monte Cristo in book form is more useful than the movie. Once the matter has changed from book form, the screen writer has become the new creator of the story. If we look at the Library of Babel, the screenwriter is choosing to rearrange one of the twelve original stories and presents it in a similar fashion with characters whose names and events mimic those in the book. 

       A movie based on a book should not be held to expectations of high fidelity replication of the story--no one gets mad if a child of a couple possesses neither his father’s nor mother’s chin (though that is not to say that there are not many parents who wish dearly that their children would be miniature versions of him or her).

       A possible reason that we get so upset over the imperfect rendition of book to movie is that we know who writes the screenplay and how the screenwriter does it. Differences and idiosyncrasies in humans however, are much more acceptable because they are created by a process very much beyond our control (how matter actually grows, forms and develops). In addition, we also are perpetually in a large debate over who or what does the creating of life. In the organic aspect of life, we have no choice but to accept the fact that mutations will occur and environment and genetics will ultimately shape who a human is. (though, there have been instances in history where groups have attempted to find a standard of ‘perfection’ and homogenize the race, like Nazi Germany or genocides in Rwanda). With a screenplay, we demand that the screenwriter (an actual person we can attribute success or failure to) be more adroit in his/her transcription of a book to a movie. In the end however, it simply comes down to the fact that a screenwriter is rearranging matter into a different form, then placing it into a different environment. If we zoom out of our current perspective, one could even say that all books and movies are related to one another much like how organisms all have a common ancestor. All stories, according to Dennet, have been taken, adapted, and tweaked from a finite number of stories (twelve) in the Library of Babel. 

                The next time a book is adapted into a movie, before the reader who treasures the book tears into the screenwriter and director for “taking out the most important part of the book!” or “completely changing the order” should remember one thing: if one should treat stories like organisms, that is, all creatures (stories and modes of stories) are different and made generally from the same matter (twelve stories of Babel), then there is no way that one organism is “better” or more “evolved” than another (there is no way that a story taken from a book could make a perfect movie.) As long as the readers, writers, and environment is different for the story, the stories, like organisms, will have to learn how to adapt. Another writer has taken over--a new “bond” or marriage has created a “random assortment” of sorts between the perception and views in a screenwriter’s and director’s head and the elements most subject to plasticity in a story. Because stories are not asexual--they build on other stories, are interpreted differently by different people, and go through translations and editing,  the reader must allow a few mutations and idiosyncrasies for the progeny in a different habitat.