Sometimes, the Movie is Better Than the Book

Adapating books for the screen, which was never an easy task, has become even harder with the growing influence of fandoms. The movie studios which invest in adaptations don’t just have to produce something accessible to the casual viewer but also appease the specific tastes of a book’s fans. As we all know, receptions of adaptations vary widely – largely depending on a particular series’ fans and the moviemaker’s commitment to the book.

However, not all deviations make a movie inferior to its literary counterpart. The medium of print has different strengths than that of film, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that some things get cut. Books can be much more detailed, as they are meant to be read over several hours. Movies work with much less time and so each moment of a movie matters more. Still, in the right hands, a film adaptation can be the essence of a book displayed on the big screen. None of the fluff and all the right stuff.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is one such adaptation. It often comes under fire from fans for not adhering to the book more closely. It alters the plot, changes a few details and drops an entire fan-favourite conversation. While the rest of the movies in the series are guilty of the first two, the last is seen as an almost unforgivable sin. What is remarkable though is what does make it in to the movie despite the tweaks. Simply put, it’s magic.

Something the later movies lack is an appreciation of J.K. Rowling’s fantastical world. As the tone of the novels darkens, the films too take on a grittier aesthetic. In these movies, the ‘magic’ part of Harry Potter’s world is simply that canvas that hosts a much larger plot. Ironic, considering that magic was what drew us to these movies in the first place.

Prisoner of Azkaban on the other hand sees Harry’s world the way its viewers would. So the opening scene involves Harry staying up past his bedtime, something we can all relate to even if we don’t practice magic. Later, a wizard at the Leaky Cauldron uses magic to stir his coffee while he reads. Neat, we think, we could do with something like that.

Consider the first time we see dementors. We have shots of condensation, Harry’s misty breath and even a shot of a bottle of water freezing up. The film goes to great lengths to help us imagine how cold it would be. Lupin’s class on the other hand feels warm and genial, much like the professor. The scene celebrates comedy for its ability to dispel fear. Alfonso Cuarón uses a spider on roller blades, a confused crossdressing Alan Rickman and clever music to create a cheerful tone. It makes magic great again, and in a way that could only be done visually.

Other adaptations take only their structures from their source. They eschew the rest for new settings, new dialogues and even revise the material to provide commentary. Vishal Bharadwaj’s Omkara and Maqbool are excellent examples of this. They import the plays Othello and Macbeth and mix them into stories of gang violence and politics. They also use the opportunity to do things that are beyond the scope of the stage.

For example, blood is a memorable and recurring motif in Macbeth. After murdering the king, Macbeth and his wife see blood everywhere. It’s a symbol of their guilt and Maqbool expresses that same guilt using point of view shots. In one shot, presumably from Maqbool’s perspective, we see a pool of blood. He asks for it to be cleaned. A second later when a servant looks, the blood has disappeared. Something near impossible to do onstage, yet so easy to do in film.

Maqbool is also important for the way it revises Macbeth for India. Whereas three witches prompt Macbeth to kill the king, Maqbool is prompted by two policemen (played fabulously by Naseeruddin Shah and Om Puri), one of whom is a pandit. The pandit tells Maqbool that he is fated to take the reins. While Shakespeare’s scheming pagans trick Macbeth, fate itself is responsible for Maqbool’s downfall. Accordingly, the aforementioned shots of blood occur before the murder. Unlike Macbeth, Maqbool is guilty even before he has committed the crime.

The adaptations discussed vary significantly from each other. They follow different philosophies and are made for different audiences. Still, each one uses cinema to its strengths and demands to be seen on their own terms. They show that it is not important to stick to the plot of the original. The only important thing is to make a good movie.

Sureet Singh is a 21-year-old graduate in economics from NMIMS, Mumbai. Find him on Twitter @_kenoshakid

Featured image credit: Youtube