Hollywood Vs. Excellence

June 3, 2007 9:00 am

As someone who partly grew up in Hollywood and is familiar with what goes on behind the scenes, I shudder when a book I really like comes under contract.

Harry Potter. Some of you have read the stories, so you know what I’m talking about when I say the movies made from the books became little more than a hack job. The characters were changed, dialog went missing, imagery was ignored, even some important plot development was left out (e.g. S.P.E.W. and the hats). Why? Because the director felt it was unimportant or unnecessary. In other words, it didn’t fit his view of what he wanted.

The first Harry Potter, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone", wasn’t too far off the mark. The dialog stuck pretty much to the book. Only a few important plot bits were changed; Harry reads the back of the card he got with the chocolate frog, necessitating the need to add Hermione finding the link between Dumbledore and Nicholas Flamel, instead; Harry and Ron help out Hagrid, by arranging for one of Ron’s older brothers, who studies Dragons, to meet them at the top of one of the towers and take it away (Draco Malfoy never actually saw it), this establishes the brother in "Goblet of Fire." Speaking of Malfoy, Harry’s first encounter with him in the book, on the train, establishes one of the main reasons for Malfoy’s enmity. There are more, but those stand out in that one.

Some of the imagery that was used in the movie, I suppose, was "poetic license." Still, I have never been in any bank, of whatever age, that had outright spiderwebs hanging on virtually everything, nor have I ever been anywhere the buildings were so haphazardly built. Yes, it adds to the "different" look. But, still… "The "Rememberall"… in the book it was the size of a golf-ball. Much harder to see, making the feat of catching it on the fly that much more significant.

Book two, movie two: "The chamber of secrets"… Ah, now some of the stray changes begin to make themselves felt, along with more changes to … everything. Even continuity screwed up on this one (continuity, for those who don’t know, is the group in a production company responsible for such things as: which side an actor parted his hair on in the scene that will be one second later, in the scene being shot. Or things as major as, "But, he was just wearing a tux…. Now he’s wearing jeans?").

Example…. Hagrid’s hut got moved to a hillside. If they’d thought the movie needed some humor, they should have left in "Gnome-flinging", instead of making Ron Weasley more slapstick. I also don’t recall, in the book, that the flying car got chased by the train… more slapstick. And they left out a (Truthfully, unnecessary) bit about Hermione getting put in a headlock. Also left out, was a sequence where Harry Potter is invited to a party for "Nearly Headless Nick" when he first begins to suspect that the voice he hears is real.

Movie three: "The Prisoner of Azkaban." Even more slapstick. The bus? If this was to be an ILM movie, then maybe they should have paid for it. Granted, it was the director’s decision, but still, it was far too much. The proprietor at "The Leaky Cauldron" was changed. Harry, in the book, was able to wander Diagon alley, and met his friends there, not at The Cauldron. Dementors weren’t as described. Dumbledore now looked like some dotty old man who’d forgotten to change out of his bedclothes… and not a little threadbare, too. The change in actors also generated a change in Dumbledore’s basic character. Instead of kindly, which is how Rowling portrays him in all the books, he is now, for lack of a better description, a cranky old man, subject to shouting at times, unlike the book character who never raises his voice.

Other things? There was no visit to the kitchens where we run into Dobby, the House Elf freed by Harry in the last book, nor Hermione’s reaction to House Elves in general ("It’s slavery!"). Also, the fact that she starts a group to "free" them, despite the fact that they like it just fine right where they are. The importance of The Whomping Willow was changed… not to mention the fact that it had been connected to the underground tunnels (and why it’d been disconnected). Next-book importance was the fact that the Weasley twins were showing less interest in continuing at Hogwarts, and more interest in making joke items.

As the next two were made, the split from the books made necessary by plot devices left out, more things changed. I really, really would have liked to have seen the Swamp created by the twins.

Evidently, the current popular view in Hollywood is: "Put in as much CG as we can afford, nobody will notice that there isn’t a story." Really? Then, why aren’t things like "Animusic" a box-office hit?

Another perfect example is "Eragon." I read that before it was even "known" as a book, have read the second one, and I’m waiting for the third. The movie? Well, they used the same name for the movie and the same names for the characters. He even finds a Dragon’s egg which hatches. I suppose that’s all a plus…. somewhere.

Since it’s only one book/movie, I’ll show you more of what I’m talking about.

He’s hunting in an area where no-one goes, "because it’s too dangerous", and has it come crashing down near him. Eragon then takes it to the local butcher to try and bargain with him for some meat… no luck. Departure; when he leaves, he runs into the butcher’s daughter, who wants to marry Eragon’s cousin, but can’t bring herself to defy her father. She gives him some meat for his family, and sends a message to the cousin.

There are sequences where this byplay runs back and forth, culminating in the book’s reason the cousin takes a job at a mill in another town, in order to make enough money to marry the girl. Not the movie version, at all.

The egg hatches after quite a long time, and Eragon hides her in a spot in the forest, visiting her often and, eventually, learning to communicate with her, by himself.

The butcher, especially since he doesn’t like Eragon’s family, is only too happy to rat on him… By the bye, this takes place in winter.

Things happen, and Eragon comes into town to do some business, runs into the "bad guys", finds out they’re looking for the egg, and heads back to the farm to warn his uncle. The Dragon meets him and starts to go to the farm, but shies away, flying in terror from the bad guys. Eragon has never used any kind of protection against the scales, since all of their experience has been minor.

Have any of you ever ridden a horse bareback? I like to because it gives me more of a feel for the horse. If you’re talking several hours, though, you’re talking about walking like a cowboy for a while… if you can even walk.

Eragon is already bleeding, but has to go back to the farm to see what he can do… finds the place blasted… tries to bring his uncle to the town, nearly dies, then is cared for by the blacksmith and his family, since he’s nearly dead himself.

There’s a lot more, but I think you get the idea.

Where am I going with all this? Well, Hollywood historically excuses hack jobs by claiming that they can’t possibly do the whole book in the time available. While this is mostly true, ( you couldn’t do a whole book page by page), you could at least stick to the dialog and plot. Two excellent examples of "Oh, yes you can" are: "Narnia" and "Howl’s Moving Castle."

Strangely, Narnia was able to use the dialog, use the imagery, and follow the book quite accurately. And, no they didn’t cheat on the acting or the CG. If you want a look at really first rate CG, watch this movie. Particularly, my daughter likes to point out the cheetahs.

Ok, maybe that was a fluke?

Howl’s Moving castle, then. While there wasn’t much CG, it is in a format that’s even harder on the schedule and budget… 2D animation. Hayao Miyazaki believes in excellence, and it shows in the detail and faithfulness to the "heart" of the story. By the way, it was not written by him, but Diana Wynn Jones, an author I’d recommend.

Others, then? How about the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy? That’s three movies with plenty of space to "cheat." Well, they didn’t cheat on anything and they excelled. They even made a decent profit.

I’d like to point out one more. I have not read the book, but I want to point out what people who value excellence can do, when left to their own devices. "Steamboy", I saw the interview of the director and artists, CG and 2D both. The director did something that I cannot visualize any Hollywood director doing; he gave credit to the people who did the work… on camera! If you want to see true CG excellence, get this movie on DVD, and frame-by-frame it, the detail work is superb! I will say this, though…. listening to Patrick Stewart say "Eddie" a hundred different ways, became a bit hard to deal with in the English-dubbed version.

My point is this; Hollywood has always been a glory game, and has never felt the need to change. This view makes it a minefield for anyone who wants to sell a script or a book, since the last word, there is, "the bottom line".

Advice? Always get everything in writing… if they say it isn’t necessary, drop the phone in the soup, and go "Oops". Of course, if they’re there, just ask your agent, who should already be there, and your lawyer to come by. It’s amazing just how fast those assurances devolve into, "Umm, let me check on that. ".

My best advice, though, would be to talk to people who have a good reputation for quality, and have made movies from books that you have read. 


My real name is Louis Meert... I'm archdruid here at Renderosity. I have been read to, and have read nearly everything I could find since the age of six. My particular passions tend to be Fantasy and Science Fiction. I love humor, especially in a Fantasy setting. I have also read the autobiographical novels by Gerald Durrell. I have travelled the world, mostly courtesy of the US Army, including Antarctica ("wintered over" there with the army). I love horses and hope to have another string again. I'm teaching my daughter bladework (full length Claymores, for now... lighter blades later). Currently, I have written one, and collaborated with my daughter on a second book, which "we" are working on animating. I have been in and around computer graphics, in one way or another, for the last thirty five years and am currently "independant" (I work for a slave driver... me).

June 11, 2007
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Article Comments

BruceG ( posted at 12:00AM Wed, 13 June 2007

I agree. The same thing happened to Dune

deemarie ( posted at 12:00AM Wed, 13 June 2007

I also agree with you, especially with Eragon. The Hollywood version of the movie was a cheap attempt to make money off the book. Grrrrr, I hate it when that happens :] Thanks so much for the thought-provoking article. Dee-Marie

pookah69 ( posted at 12:00AM Wed, 13 June 2007

It's unreasonable to expect a movie to match a book word for word. They are completely different mediums.

eldritch48 ( posted at 12:00AM Wed, 13 June 2007

Eragon was just a crappy movie. Howl's Moving Castle though, was nothing like the book. They changed at least as much in it as they did in the first couple of HP movies. Where was Wales? Where was the other wizard? Bottom line is, you might not like what gets changed, but something always gets changed. Visual and text mediums are just too different.

Gog ( posted at 12:00AM Thu, 14 June 2007

There are so many books where the film misses it's incredible, Dune as mentioned, I'd also note Starship Troopers, some similar names, and the bad guys are vaguely insects are about the only connections in that one, too many others to list Alien misses a bit from the end ot the book that then leaves aliens flying madly away to introduce the queen, the list goes on... I was even left wondering about some of the changes in Lord of the Rings, why did they have such a downer on Faramir for example? Great interesting article.

icprncss2 ( posted at 12:00AM Thu, 14 June 2007

Please don't even mention Dune. They took one of the greatest books of the 20th century and turned it into a freak show. As for LOTR, nowhere in the trilogy do you find Aragorn not wanting to be king. I always figured this was a case of some schlock writer figuring he could do Tolkien one better.

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