May 2004

Liz Miller

hollywood madam

A Nerdy Day At the Movies, and The Three Laws of Adaptations

I don't normally go down to the OC without a good reason, but these days seeing my brother Eric qualifies. And earlier this month, everyone in Los Angeles had already seen Hellboy and I felt like spending a day at the movies, so I hit the 405 early one Saturday to hang out with the bro at the cineplex.

In the nerd evolutionary cycle, I'm about four years ahead of Eric, as he still plays role-playing games and is probably a few years away from managing a trip to Comic-Con. This means that not only has he read Isaac Asimov's I, Robot anthology a lot more recently than I have, but he's much more inclined to get outraged over the trailers to the upcoming Will Smith action-fest.

"Robots don't kill people! There are laws! The three laws of robotics! Asimov said!" he moaned afterwards.

"But killer robots are really cool," I teased.

"Yeah..."

"And Alex Proyas is directing, and he knows how to direct."

"Yeah..."

"And you like Will Smith -- you even liked him in Men In Black 2..."

"Yeah..."

Never was a movie more poised to confuse the fanboys than I, Robot.

But when Eric brought up the Laws of Robotics, it made me realize that we need to set up some standards for the analysis of adaptations. (This realization comes a bit late, and probably ought to have occurred in the first of these columns, rather than the fifteenth, but these are details I choose not to dwell on.)

The way that we keep the killer robots from killing us in Asimov's fiction is, to quote the Fresh Prince, "the three laws -- your perfect circle of protection":

  1. A robot may not harm a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by the human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence, as long as such protection does not conflict the First or Second Law.

The rules intrigue me because they establish a clear hierarchy of importance -- the human's well-being over the robot's, the human's will over the robot's. But they don't imply that the robot is insignificant in comparison to the human -- merely secondary. Given that the human built the robot, this seems fair, Star Trek: The Next Generation or not.

I try to think about film versions as separate entities from the books they're based on. The complications of filmmaking make it completely impossible to do a verbatim adaptation, after all, and sometimes all one can do is judge a movie on its own merits. But a killer robot can't escape its true murderous nature, and a film adaptation can never exist as a unique entity. Thus, as an adaptation, it's forever indebted to the source material, and thus, the source material has dominance.

In using the rules to think about adaptations, the first thing to determine is what's important about the process, and what specifically leads to bastardizations of good books. The Scarlet Letter is a crappy adaptation because it takes a story about morality and hypocrisy and transforms it into a reflection upon Gary Oldman's naked ass (forever a symbol of forbidden passion). Fight Club is a great adaptation because it remains true to the novel's depiction of undermined masculinity. It may be impossible to adapt a story note by note. But holding true to the intention of the book will lead to a faithful adaptation.

Thus, the First Rule of Adaptations: A film adaptation may not, through omission or direct action, undermine or reverse the meanings and morals of the source material.

Sometimes, meaning and morals are cool, but they're not what makes a book worth adapting. Great characters, great dialogue, a killer action sequence, hot sexy sex scenes may not lead to the making of a brilliant and insightful film, but the Hollywood Madam cannot live on brilliant and insightful films alone. After all, I didn't want to see Hellboy for the philosophy. I wanted to see the world's greatest paranormal detective bash the shit out of monsters and Nazis. I got exactly what I wanted.

However, Jane Campion's adaptation of In the Cut depicted the naughty sex of Susannah Moore's book down to the last detail, but it also tacked on the most bizarre happy ending since The Scarlet Letter, completely distorting the book's horrific, yet strangely compelling conclusion. Thus, we come to the Second Rule of Adaptation: A film adaptation must adequately capture what made the source material compelling, as long as it does not conflict with the first rule.

A book may be a masterpiece of elegant prose, an exciting dive into a brilliant character's point of view. Books have the luxuries of space and time -- writers can detail the background of a character with a paragraph of text, spend pages describing locations, and reveal what's going on in a character's head with a simple shift of POV. A filmmaker, however, does not have finite resources -- movies must work within a budget, within a certain length, and within a certain set of standards and practices. A thousand people may influence a movie based on a book written by one guy in a moth-eaten sweater. Creating a character is reliant on an actor's performance, who may have been hired because of an Oscar nomination, or because of the way he or she fills out a pair of leather pants. And of course the story has to be simplified and cut down, the ending made palatable to the mythical "middle America."

To ignore the challenges this presents the adaptation process is to be hopelessly naive, and to expect that a film will be completely faithful to the source material given these obstacles is to expect miracles. Scenes are going to be different. Characters may change in speech or deed; some may disappear altogether. Allowances like these must be made -- but not at the expense of the source material's spark.

Thus: An adaptation can make the changes necessary to work as a product of its medium, as long as these changes do not conflict with the first or second rules.

Book-to-film adaptations, of course, take prominence in this discussion, but when you think about it, the rules are applicable to any medium-to-medium transfer of story and character. The point is that an adaptation which follows these three rules will, in theory, not suck. It'll resonate with the source material's meaning, depict the elements that sparked with readers, and still be able to work as a film.

If a movie does all these things, but still fails to be a compelling, entertaining experience? Blame the book.

As for I, Robot, will it succeed as an adaptation? Perhaps. Perhaps it'll capture what made the original stories interesting, debate the same questions raised by Asimov's fiction, all while working as an exciting, fun summer action fest.

Or perhaps Will Smith will just bash the shit out of some killer robots and Eric will complain some more.

After all, if the Three Laws of Robotics can't save us from the killer robots -- can the Three Laws of Adaptation save us from the bad movies?

Only time will tell.