Saturday, February 13, 2010


1 : an act, process, or instance of translating: as
: a rendering from one language into another; also : the product of such a rendering
: a change to a different substance, form, or appearance

Last night, I took my newly 10 year old daughter A, her sister B and two of her friends to a long awaited event: the movie version of The Lightning Thief. This is a series of books our family has really enjoyed. J and I have read them, along with A and B. They've been great hits with each of us, for our own reasons. We happened upon this series last year, when A had recently completed a series on Greek mythology at school, so the cast of characters was fresh in her mind. J and I learned a lot about the minor characters in Greek mythology and enjoyed the modern day characters of Percy and Annabeth.

When A saw that the book was being made into a movie several months ago, she immediately asked if she could have a Percy Jackson movie and sleepover birthday party. A's birthday was January 5, so she waited five weeks to celebrate with friends in order to see Percy together. She was very excited and even loaned her copy of the book to friends so that they could read it before seeing the movie. She really wanted everyone coming to the party to have read the book first (that's my girl!).

So was the movie all we had hoped for? Not quite. We knew from the previews that the movie differed greatly from the book. In the book, the reader and Percy spend a great deal of the time not knowing who Percy's father is. The movie, by contrast, spills the beans on that mystery in the commercials! Removing the tension of Percy's confusion about his father didn't seem to further the plot and only made the ending of the movie less believable when Percy meets his father for the first time.

But my biggest complaint as a parent is that a series of books that are appropriate for third and fourth graders have been turned into a movie that's laced with sexual innuendos, swear words and violence. I'll acknowledge that many times a movie is scarier than a book - there's something about seeing someone else's vision of a monster that's more horrifying than we envision them ourselves. But turning a friendly satyr into a horny cohort is far from being a necessary change to the plot.

I believe that books and movies are different media and that changes are necessary in order to convey the spirit of a book onscreen. In fact, I thought the first Harry Potter movie was TOO faithful to the book. Sometimes, you do a disservice to your source material when trying to keep every single element in place. So how do you translate a good book into a good movie? Is it even possible to do so?

I normally find art inspired by a different art medium fascinating. I loved Girl with the Pearl Earring and recently enjoyed The Swan Thieves, which features a fictional Impressionist artist and a modern day painter's obsession with her. So why can authors successfully translate the hint of a story on canvas into pages that I enjoy while filmmakers tend to leave me frustrated with their efforts to take those words from the page and translate them into living, breathing images?

Perhaps this is my own bias at play. While I am routinely inspired by visual art, I'll take a good book over a good movie any day. The book lets me fill in the edges with my imagination, instead of being a passive receiver and a painting or photograph does the same thing - I get to supply the narrative (or not) to go along with the image.

The movie's numerous changes to the book prompted discussion from our group of girls. We talked about whether we would want a book that we wrote to be made into a movie, if that means giving up control over your vision for it. One friend shared that she heard Kate DiCamillo where the author said that having your book made into a movie is a lot like having your child grow up: you've done what you can and you have to let it go.

So it is worth what you lose in the translation to turn those words floating in your mind into images on the screen? What's a movie you've seen that made you love the book more? Is there such a thing?


Variations On A Theme said...

David and Olivia were disappointed and annoyed at all the bizarre changes. I really want to read the book - even though I already know Percy's father....from the trailer. Hate that.

WordGirl said...

Definitely read the book - I thoroughly enjoyed the series. Watching Roman Holiday's subtlety last night was such stark contrast to The Lightning Thief that it made me even more frustrated with current movie offerings - too bad I'd already posted about it!