MIND MELD: The Best & Worst Genre Movie Adaptations
[Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!]
Sure the books are almost always better than the movie, but that hasn’t stopped Hollywood from adapting genre fiction. So with that in mind, we asked our esteemed panel…
This is what they said…
The best for me is The Exorcist. Because the screenplay adaptation is by the original novelist, it hews closely to the book and it never gives into either backing down from the book’s most controversial scenes nor inflating them. I’d also suggest that director William Friedkin chose the perfect style to compliment William Peter Blatty’s story — he eschewed the Gothic trappings that had been common in horror films up to that point, and instead took a documentary approach to the material, treating it in a dramatic and very realistic fashion.
For my worst, I’m going to choose the film version of Alan Moore’s brilliant Watchmen, because I’ve never seen another adaptation that so completely inverted the intent of its source material. Moore’s original graphic novel is a deconstruction of superheroes, but the film is a ludicrous celebration. My favorite example is a scene in which the very disturbed character of Rorschach crashes through an upper-floor window and falls into a ring of police. In the graphic novel, it takes three small panels to show Rorschach crashing through the window and landing, where he’s stunned and easily beaten down; in the movie, he falls forever in slow-motion and then fights off the cops successfully for some time before being overwhelmed. The entire movie mythologizes these characters where Moore’s intention was to show them as psychologically damaged. I was so furious after seeing that movie that I wanted to punch the projectionist.
The greatest peril associated with this question is that, even for somebody as wholly plugged into movies as your humble correspondent, any provided answer will inevitably leave out the sudden memory flash that arrives an hour or a day or a week later, that begins with, “Dammit, I should have said…”
With that in mind, and the added proviso that “best” adaptations are not necessarily the “most faithful” adaptations, and are often very, very far removed from their source material —
For science fiction, it is very difficult to better 2001: A Space Odyssey, as Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke’s original short story, “The Sentinel.” (It is also based on the novel of the same name, composed concurrently with the movie, but the original, original source material is clearly “The Sentinel.”) It is a work that not only conveys the premise but expands upon it, and explores the implications. Runners-up: A Clockwork Orange, by the same director from the novel by Anthony Burgess, the first two film adaptations of the Jack Finney novel The Body Snatchers, George Roy Hill’s adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. It is harder to single out the worst. For one I particular loathe, I would cite the film adaptation of Steven Gould’s novel Jumper, which jettisoned almost everything to like about a conflicted and vulnerable young hero from a bad family situation, as well as everything to like about the girl he falls in love with, replacing them with a kid who can only be described as a wish-fulfillment asshole and a generic female of no particular distinction. That was actual violence done to the story.
There have been more great fantasy movies than science fiction movies, so the field of candidates is far more extensive. A hell of a lot more if you count the Disney fairy tales. However, it is clear it’s difficult to better Victor Fleming’s The Wizard Of Oz, actually the third version of a fine children’s book that, without it, might well have fallen down the memory hole. It certainly streamlines Oz, but captures the magic very well. Runner’s Up: certainly Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Harry Potter movies, the Cocteau Beauty and the Beast, the Sabu The Thief of Baghdad, many, many others; again, it is hard to single out the worst, but it is difficult to name anything worse than the Russian production of The Blue Bird, a movie so intensely godawful despite an international cast of stars that it is almost impossible to get your hands on a copy, nor should you try.
Horror: nobody made an “accurate” version of Frankenstein until dueling Sherlocks Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller did their filmed stage version; the thirties films starring Boris Karloff and Colin Clive, Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein , nevertheless captured the feeling of the tale, and the tragedy of a monster who did not have to be one, so vividly that the make-up worn by Karloff remains the most popular image of the character today. Runner’s-up: Roman Polanski’s version of Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby, William Friedkin’s version of William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist, Alfred Hitchcock’s version of Robert Bloch’s Psycho, Michael Mann’s Manhunter as a version of Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon. Worst: because the very worst horror movies are among the very worst movies, this is a very difficult one to answer definitively, or even with a list of titles longer than I have already gone on. But if I had to name one that was particularly bad, I would cite the film version of a terrific twenty-page Ed Bryant story, ‘While She Was Out.” The story was about a put-upon housewife pursued by a gang of murderous thugs. It is a thrilling and classic tale, mostly because we’re in the protagonist’s head throughout, and because Bryant is a master at the blowdart sentence. The movie with Kim Basinger preserves the plot almost incident by incident, but — on-screen, without Bryant’s prose or any of the protagonist’s interior life, it is just another saga of a pretty lady running from killers, all that was unique about the tale lost. And more tiresome than interesting.
I’m going to start with worst because that’s an easy one for me: Nightfall. Or more specifically, Isaac Asimov’s Nightfall, which was indeed made into a feature-length movie in 1988. I made the mistake of seeing it in the theater, with a friend I was trying to introduce to science fiction. This was not a good choice. Asimov’s short story “Nightfall” is famous: there’s a planet that only experiences full night once every two thousand years, each time destroying a civilization that can’t cope with the darkness (or rather, the mind-boggling infinity of stars revealed when darkness falls). It’s one of those classic thought experiment stories that’s mostly people talking and being logical before the universe has its last laugh.
The movie is…different. For one thing, it’s got lots of sex and religious cults and rituals in which peoples’ eyes are pecked out by falcons (darkness…right?). It borrowed its sets and aesthetics from the Mad Max movies to create this weird post-apocalyptic setting, which would be cool if the story weren’t about an impending apocalypse. (This is about the only thing the movie has in common with its source material.) And then it has a happy ending, with like snowflakes or something instead of stars, and everyone’s smiling, and I still can’t tell you what the actual point of the movie is.
This isn’t just an adaptation that is completely divorced from its source material – we’ve all seen that happen, and sometimes borrowing a title can inspire great work in another direction. This is just a terrible movie that belongs on those weird USA Up All Night bad SF marathons, with low production values and a nonsensical plot with undifferentiated characters. It’s a terrible movie made even worse by being associated with such a venerated story. And I’ll never forget it, alas.
For best adaptation: I have a lot of candidates, so I’m going to cheat and talk about more than one. I loved Jurassic Park because it fixed what I felt were problems with the book: it gave the women characters jobs to do, which they didn’t have in the book; and it skipped over all those long sections of exposition that weren’t about “OMG dinosaurs!” This is exactly what adaptations are supposed to do.
I also really love how The Hunger Games series is progressing in film. The picture on-screen may not be what I saw in my head, but that’s because in some cases it’s even better. The movies so nicely capture the visual contrast between the Capital and the rest of Panem, and the stories clip along just as fast as they do in the books. I loved the books, and I’m loving the films as well.
One final shout-out to 2001: A Space Odyssey, which I think is a great adaptation because it pushed boundaries. It almost feels like cheating to mention it since Clarke and Kubrick worked together so closely on the project, but this movie was a chance for a science fiction writer to really put his mark on film, and Kubrick took that and made a film that’s still a benchmark for what a movie about space ought to look like.
Best Fantasy Adaptation: The Lord of the Rings
For the longest time I truly believed these books would never be made into full-length movies. I just didn’t think the film industry had the balls to them right. Yet I was very pleasantly surprised. The sets are spectacular, both epic and amazingly detailed. The acting is very good overall. Most importantly, watching these movies felt like reading the books. It’s like walking through Middle Earth in all its dazzling glory and darkness. I think they rank up there with the best films of our generation.
Worst: Conan the Barbarian (1982/2011)
I loved the original Conan movie. I really did. But it wasn’t Robert E. Howard’s Conan. It was campy and almost insulting to the original stories. Yes, it had Arnold and James Earl Jones, which was cool, but it felt like they mostly lifted the character and place names from Howard’s stories and slapped them on a generic sword & sorcery movie plot. I didn’t feel like I was getting a true look into the Hyborean Age. And the 2011 remake was even worse. The set design was crap, the props ridiculously cheap, and the story was uninspired. Such a wasted opportunity.
This is a very hard question…for me. I have so many adaptations that I dig and probably more that I don’t. I love John Carpenter’s version of The Thing. And I acknowledge the many liberties it takes from both the original story on which it’s based and the first filmed version. I like the film version of Christine…some of the casting is shite but overall it’s solid. But then for every faithful or decent interpretation, you get things like Pet Semetary, a dismal film based on a terrific novel. And a lot of the time the shortcomings come down to casting. I hated that chick in Star Trek: The Next Generation and she wasn’t going to win me by playing an unlikable wench wife in a film.
Asking me to pick a favorite anything is nearly impossible. It depends on mood and day of the week. My favorite today could be the filmed version of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Every bit as bleak and haunting as the novel. Tomorrow you could well get a different answer.
I’m going to say that one of my all-time favorite film adaptations of a book is 1972’s The Other. Directed by Robert Mulligan and based on Thomas Tryon’s novel of the same name, this wonderfully rendered slice of Southern gothic is damn near flawless in its subtle creepiness and overall foreboding atmosphere. Its success is based mainly on casting and strong direction. While there are notable changes between the book and the film, mainly in the ending. I find it a very strong film and well worth the time if you’ve never seen it. You should also read the book. You should always read the damn book!
I thought the best movie adaptation was Disney’s The Black Cauldron based on the second book of Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain series. I thought it was faithful to the book and I found it absolutely enchanting as a child. Dark, treacherous, frightening. I loved the show so much that I blew through the series of books. I loved that it was adapted for children but didn’t pull any punches. It was a frightening movie, and that made it intriguing.
The worst adaptation I ever saw was The Keep, based on the book with the same title by F. Paul Wilson. I’m absolutely mad about his novel, which was creative, exciting, and creepy. But the film was long and boring without any of the tension that Paul put into the book. It made me snoozy. Nobody watches a horror film because they want to be snoozy.
Let me try to tackle each acronym (SF, F and H) separately:
SF: 2001: A Space Odyssey (inspired by Arthur. C. Clarke’s short story “The Sentinel”); runner up, Blade Runner
F: The Lord of the Rings Trilogy; La Belle et la Bête (1946, loosely adapted from the fairy tale)
H: Carrie, The Shining, We Need to Talk About Kevin
SF: A Sound of Thunder, Battlefield Earth, The Incredible Shrinking Woman, Howard the Duck (adaptation only in that it uses a preexisting Marvel character)
F: The Last Airbender (adapted from an animated series, not prose fiction),Tarzan, the Ape Man (1981), the recent The Legend of Hercules (admittedly an adaptation only in the sense of being vaguely related to myth); Catwoman; many others
H: Alone in the Dark (2005, adapted loosely from a series of video games), Dracula II: Ascension (again, not strictly a story adaptation, but it does adapt a character created in prose fiction); dozens of others
In each case, I think the film succeeded or failed because it respectively did or didn’t work as an independent work of film art or entertainment. A good film adaptation should be, first and foremost, a good film; it’s only of secondary importance that it’s an adaption. It can deviate as much or as little as it needs to from the source material to work as a film. What is at stake is not the translation of a story from one medium to another, but good film-making. 2001 is a visionary work by Stanley Kubrick that happens to be, so to speak, infused with some of Arthur C. Clarke’s ideas. And so on.
Despite that, each film I chose as the best of its category can be rightfully criticized. Mike Resnick, for example, has written that Blade Runner is “dumb” (The Resnick/Malzberg Dialogues #8: Movies). He’s got a point. But a case can be made that in certain types of films the “intelligence,” or lack thereof, of the plot and character motivations takes a back seat to the overall aesthetic experience presented by the film. In other words, the suspension of disbelief lost through implausible plot developments is more than made up by acting, photography, music and so on. There are a few implausible developments in some of Shakespeare’s plots, too, but we usually overlook them for similar aesthetic and character-related reasons, particularly when we see them staged as plays.
When it comes to the worst adaptations, the competition is stiff, and I’ve only selected a few representative titles among many shoddy adaptations and “inspired by” fiascos.
Most films are bad, not worth watching. There’s no reason we should expect SF/F/H adaptations to be exempt from this reality. Fortunately for us, though, there are so many films, that if even only a small percent is competent, and an even smaller percent is good or great, we can still keep busy for a long time.
This turned out to be a much more difficult question to answer than I originally assumed. My original response for best movie adapted from SF/F/H fiction was, “Fight Club!” But though the movie is one of my all-time favorites I’ve never read the book. My next choice? The Princess Bride. Haven’t read it either. The Lord of the Rings? Nope. Shutter Island? Nuh uh. Jurassic Park? No. Haven’t read any of the books responsible for said movies. With my geek cred going straight down the gutter I decided to start with the worst movie adaptation.
Marc Forster’s adaption of World War Z (starring Brad Pitt) is the worst that I can think of. In a world without Max Brooks, World War Z would just be mediocre, toothless, and uninspired. But in a world where Max Brooks not only exists, but wrote one of the best zombie novels of all time? Forster’s World War Z is a kick in the teeth. The funny thing is that everyone knows how the New York Times bestselling novel should have been adapted. World War Z doesn’t belong on the big screen. Instead the source material should have been adapted into an HBO miniseries that would respect the interview-style narrative. AMC’s The Walking Dead has proven that viewers appreciate zombies and high drama. But that’s not the World War Z we got. We got Brad Pitt at his most bland, hurdling through plot holes and lapses of logic to deliver brain-dead “entertainment.” Oh, and laughably bad running CGI zombie/ants in the vein of the I Am Legend adaptation. The worst part though? World War Z didn’t fail. There’s going to be a sequel to this abomination.
Now that I’ve had time to think about it I’ve decided that the best movie adapted from SF/F/H that I’ve read would be Harry Potter. I can’t single out any specific movie so I’ll just say the Harry Potter series in general. I grew up reading those books and I grew up watching those movies. The biggest problem that seems to crop up from film adaptations of books is the cognitive dissonance that comes when a reader’s imagination clashes with a directors. I never had that with Harry Potter and that is sort of a miracle given the scope of Rowling’s vision and a child’s imagination. It wasn’t until I visited Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida this past Thanksgiving that I realized how successfully the books were translated for the big screen. I got to explore a mock-up of Diagon Alley, reminiscent of the one found in the films and it was wonderful! The Harry Potter movies could have wound up being as dreadful as the Eragon adaptation. Fortunately there was a true respect for the world Rowling created — everything from the casting to the screenwriting and the set design reinforces this. I believe that’s what it really comes down to. Respect. I can’t fault studios for trying to make money (it’s all business, baby) but if those responsible for making the film don’t exhibit deference for the source material you wind up with…well, World War Z. That’s not to say that directors should always stick strictly to the book, word for word. It’s just that the essence needs to remain true or else fans are bound to feel cheated.
On a lighter note does anyone know what the first script of the Twilight movie was like? Here’s an excerpt from an L.A. Times interview with Catherine Hardwicke, the director of the first film…
“The very first thing in the script said that Bella was a track star. She’s obviously not a track star so the first moment you’re like whoa. And then she’s sitting in a diner with James and the bad vampires in the first couple pages. Wow, that doesn’t make sense. And there’s this whole FBI organization that’s tracking these bad vampires, the nomadic vampires, as they go down from Canada to Mexico. I mean, it’s pretty way out. And by the end the FBI is chasing them around on jet skis out in the ocean.”
Now let’s be honest – who wouldn’t prefer that version?
I approach this question with uncertainty. What we mean by “best” or “worst”? If, by “best,” the question asks what science fiction, fantasy, or horror adaptation fully lives up to the source material, then the selection of potential answers becomes very small indeed. Of truly transliterate work, only Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby stands out, both in terms of seamless adaptation (if you’ve seen the movie, you don’t need to read Ira Levin’s book; if you’ve read the book, you don’t need to see the movie) and quality (critics consider it a classic for a reason). In fact, Polanski attempted to stay so faithful to the novel that he called Ira Levin to ask him the specific issue of the New Yorker in which Guy Woodhouse (John Cassavetes) sees a shirt ad. Levin revealed to Polanski that he made it up, and then explained that filmmakers often deviated from the source material when adapting it. Don Siegel, Philip Kaufman, and Abel Ferrara understood this when they made their respective adaptations of Jack Finney’s chiller The Body Snatchers, each with unique results. Whether set in the small town of Santa Mira, California, or among the hills and concrete spires of San Francisco, or the faceless grounds of an Alabama Army base, each of these filmmakers takes Finney’s basic concept and a healthy serving of the novel’s paranoia to create arresting entertainments. Each version makes some specific changes, yet leaves the core story intact.
Often adaptations don’t work because the filmmakers simply don’t understand the story, the materials, or the genre itself. At times they attempt to simply film the book—it worked for Polanski, after all—but lose sight of why those books became classics. As a result, those movies lack the spark of life, arriving on movie screens as inert photons. Gavin Hood’s adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game worked hard to capture the novel’s ideas, characters, and themes, and even lifted several scenes verbatim from its pages, yet it struggled to stand out against other, greater (or even better) movies. Indeed, Ender’s Game suffered the same problems faced by David Lynch’s adaptation of Dune. You might include as much material from the novel as you can, but it doesn’t mean they will translate to the screen, or that you understand the material. Harry Potter fans flocked to the movies upon their release, yet with the exception of Alfonso Cuarón’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, none of them stood on their own as movies. They were too faithful to the books.
And then there are those adaptations that suffer from the times in which they are made. Director Robert Fuest, who made the television series The Avengers and the Doctor Phibes movies so visually arresting, focused his surreal eye on Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius with The Final Programme, in a movie so transcendently awful the viewer comes away with the feeling of a bad trip. Nancy Reagan would have featured it in the Just Say No campaigns of the 1980s. Likewise, the artistic direction Nicolas Roeg took with The Man Who Fell to Earth probably made sense to a 1976 audience, right down to its androgynous antihero Thomas Jerome Newton (David Bowie), but it often seems so at odds with Walter Tevis’s Bradburyesque tale, its telling set within its period, that it evokes titters rather than wonder in modern viewers. It is a cinematic bug frozen forever in pop culture amber.
Ironically, the worst adaptations in science fiction, fantasy, and horror often make for the best movies. I know many science fiction fans (and literary fans who discover Philip K. Dick in college) who sneer at Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner because it strays so far from the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? that it might as well not be considered an adaptation, yet the movie remains a classic in part because Scott and screenwriters Hampton Fancher and David Peoples understand that a literal adaption would have been impossible. Likewise, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker adds layers of mystery and allusion to the novel Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky to create something arresting and unique; complaining that the movie deviates from the book, rather than showcasing the filmmaker’s failings, in this case reveals the moviegoer’s artistic myopia.
Perhaps the greatest of adaptations, however, uses its source as a springboard. Few modern cinephiles know Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Sentinel,” a nubbin of a story about a group of scientists who uncover a million-year-old artifact on the moon. Clarke wrote other, better stories, but a modern reader would find it difficult not to hear the opening bars of Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra. It is the story that inspired Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which stands as one of the greatest movies in cinema history, in no small part because Kubrick took what he needed from the story to work with his own vision. Looked at one way, Kubrick’s masterpiece appears to be a poor adaptation. Perhaps it is, but in the end, such a complaint is irrelevant.
Movie adaptations of well-loved books can be such a sore point. Every reader sees a movie in their head, and if you read the book first, the film is never going to look the same as your head-movie, ever. The funny thing is that some of my favourite book-to-movie adaptations are the ones that strayed furthest from the source material.
Lord of the Rings. This has to be my contender for best adaptation. Peter Jackson’s, of course, not the animated version I dimly remember from the seventies (I think I’ve blotted that one out subconsciously – oh the trauma. Oh, the not-hotness of Aragorn). The Jackson trilogy to me is an ideal film-of-the-book because it respects the essence of the story without a blind fidelity to the text. So, for example, we lose Tom Bombadil, the Most Annoying Hippy in Fiction (TM). (Honestly, the Tom Bombadil from the parody Bored of the Rings is so close to the original I can barely tell them apart.) In Jackson’s version, Aragorn in the shape of Viggo Mortensen is exactly as hot, noble, and tormented as he should be. Sure, Arwen is more kick-ass than Tolkien intended, in Fellowship at least, but I liked that, and I wish she’d carried on that way. Frodo is better-looking than I imagined, but that works for me, and Elijah Wood plays his decline so convincingly. Sam’s casting is perfect. The Ringwraiths are properly terrifying. The whole look, atmosphere and emotion rings (sorry) true to the book, and that’s much more important than a slavish adherence to events on paper.
Having said that, this one-woman jury is still out on The Hobbit. I know it isn’t finished yet, but… Three movies from a short and perfect book? Really? Just please don’t split the last episode in two and make it four. I know that’s a thing now. Just don’t.
Am I allowed honourable mentions? Because I loved how The X-Men translated to film. The first two movies took my breath away. Again, they didn’t follow the comics (indeed barely at all), but it was a whole new canon that I loved as much as I loved those early-hundreds issues of the comic books. Hugh Jackman is the perfect Wolverine: angry, conflicted, hard and loyal. Ian McKellen brought such depth to Magneto. And Kitty Pryde was never my favourite character, so I was pleased that the first movie revolved around Rogue. As for the third movie, let us never mention it again.
Peter Pan (the 2003 live action version): So much more gorgeous and dangerous and heart-thrilling than the Disney version, and Tinker Bell rocks.
Blade Runner: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was one of my favourite books as a teenager. Again, the movie takes massive liberties with the book, but who cares?
The Hunger Games: An exception to my rule in that it’s very true to the source material — and also fabulous.
True Blood: Am I allowed a TV show? In some ways it’s true to the books, but not when it has its own take and its own instincts. Where would the TV show have been if they’d killed Lafayette? Yet Eric and Bill and Sookie are so close to their paper versions, and they’re terrific.
I have real trouble picking a book-to-movie that I don’t like, because if I’m suspicious, or the reviews are bad, I try to avoid it. For instance, I have forever sworn off The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (despite Martin Freeman), purely because of Marvin the Paranoid Android. He SO does not look like that!
But — and I know I’m in a minority —
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. I honestly think they suffer from their determination to be The Books, But On Film. The design is stunning, the cinematography beautiful, and the adult actors do a wonderful job. But as much as I liked the child actors in the later films, I can’t watch them in the first two without wincing. The Prisoner of Azkaban, though? Fabulous.
Finally, my biggest Missed Opportunity: The Golden Compass. I actually liked it a lot, and adored the daemons especially, but this time — and once more, contradicting my usual rule of thumb — too many compromises were made in the translation from page to screen. It doesn’t somehow make as much sense as the book, and it wasn’t a commercial success. Which meant we didn’t get the sequels — and I’d have LOVED to have seen the sequels.
When I first shared the subject of this Mind Meld with my wife, she said, “How will you ever answer that? You almost never go to the movies.”
Her observation was, I’ll admit, disheartening. I was afraid she might be correct! After all, if a film has been made from a book, and if I have already read the original, I seldom feel compelled to see it on a screen.
In light of our double-barreled dose of awareness then, it’s certainly fortunate that I spent the last few weeks immersed in L. Frank Baum’s Oz stories, because they reminded me of the “best” cinematic derivation from science fiction or fantasy literature that I have ever experienced: Victor Fleming’s 1939 version of The Wizard of Oz, with Judy Garland cast in the role of Dorothy Gale, is unquestionably my candidate for the honor.
What makes The Wizard of Oz a successful film, and why that particular version? Well, that’s a little more difficult to explain. It wasn’t the first Oz film—as early as 1908 there were attempts to translate Baum’s work to screen, and in 1914 his own film company released a trio of cinematic efforts—but it was the first to truly capture the public imagination as effectively as the stories themselves.
The remarkable fact is that it was also able to do so despite innumerable dissimilarities to the source material. In an era when every cinematic deviation from canon is annotated, analyzed, and argued to death (witness the fanaticism that dogs every installment of Tolkien’s legacy, from either extreme), it feels odd to realize that almost nothing about the movie could be described as a “faithful adaptation.”
Consider: Dorothy Gale was originally illustrated as a blonde child, and as depicted in print, existed at some unspecified age between seven and eleven years. Although her exact number of birthdays was never counted by L. Frank Baum, the number was at best a fraction of the not-quite-seventeen summers a young Judy Garland brought to the role. The film shifted the domain of Glinda, the Good Witch clear across Oz, and in the process she absorbed not only the previous resident (the original, unnamed Good Witch of the North), but appropriated the scripted tasks of several other Ozian denizens. In the film, the Munchkins appreciated garish colors (earlier, you might say they all had the blues) and became innately musical (in the book only three Munchkins noted Dorothy’s arrival, and they did not sing at her), while Dorothy’s footwear attained its own chromatic aberration (an underwhelming set of silver shoes were transformed into the universally iconic ruby slippers). Those are simply examples from the first few chapters of the initial novel in a long series; descriptive differences abound, and Baum penned another thirteen volumes after The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, as well as a half-dozen short stories. By the time Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s “Technicolor Triumph” was unveiled, an additional nineteen novels had been added to the chronology by Ruth Plumly Thompson, designated Baum’s successor as the “Royal Historian of Oz.”
And, wonder of wonders, The Wizard of Oz on the silver screen ignored almost all of that canon. In the year Ruth Plumly Thompson released her last original installment, Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, and Jack Haley linked arms, skipped, and sung their way into the Emerald City… and they didn’t even have to wear Baum’s officially sanctioned green goggles to shade their eyes from the glare. The film rebooted the entire sequence and reimagined the core, yet didn’t undermine the public’s appreciation for the source; nor have the original songs and screen colors faded from appreciation today.
That, in my mind, is why The Wizard of Oz remains such an incredible cinematic success, unparalleled in modern movie mythology: The point was to capture the inner essence and enjoyment of Oz, rather than risk that enjoyment by making its outer essence the point.
Since it was released in 1939, I’ll note in passing that if the Worldcon administrators choose to award Retro Hugos next year, The Wizard of Oz will be eligible for a Retro Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation at Sasquan, the 73rd World Science Fiction Convention, to be held 19–23 August 2015 in Spokane, Washington.
I’m at a bit of a loss for a comparable “worst” film. Without the requirement for an origin in science fiction, fantasy, or horrific literature the selection would be easy, although my choice for ultimate condemnation (James Cameron’s Aliens) would doubtless throw my credentials into question. Weight of that restriction tempts me—no doubt there will be others, with better justifications than I could present—to accord the distinction to Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers.
The reason I hesitate to leap upon the bandwagon is that, although I have no fondness for his film, it accomplished exactly what it set out to do. In that respect, and in the reverence accorded the source, there isn’t much difference from L. Frank Baum’s legacy.
In the reception accorded that adaptation, there is all the difference in the world.
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