Adapting a popular story for the cinema is a simple process. The key lies within an accurate comprehension of the original source material’s structure.
There can be nothing more depressing than the disappointment that comes from a failed attempt at adapting one’s favorite novel. This sad event, usually proceeded by many anxious weeks of questioning Will they or won’t they?, culminates with that final moment when one sits down and the curtain parts. As that first frame lights up, the anticipation of an experience as memorable as the first read pushes one forward in their seats.
Unfortunately more often than not, this breathless hope wilts away, dashed upon the craggy rocks of insipidly forced plot points and false moments of character.
Why does this happen? Is there something inherently different between the written word and the cinematic frame that makes it impossible for one to live up to the original?
The easy answer lies in the understanding that novels are primarily internal, film is external. And while this difference in transmission techniques can cause issues in communicating certain parts of a story, the real problem is actually something much deeper. After all, there have been successful adaptations. One need not look much further than the works of Stephen King for proof of this.
A Story For Every Season
Written in 1982, Different Seasons is a collection of four short stories organized into the quarterly sections of the year. Technically speaking, the stories within are not exactly short, they more closely approach novellas, but the discussion about the processes used to adapt them is fundamentally the same. A story is a story, no matter how big or how small. As different in tone as they are in subject, each story inspired other artists to the task of adapting them for the big screen.
Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption became Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption (1994), Apt Pupil became Bryan Singer’s Apt Pupil (1998), The Body became Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me (1986), and the final story, The Breathing Method has yet to make it to the screen, though there are rumors that someone is taking a stab at it. Attention will therefore be focused on the middle two as the last has yet to be adapted and the first has already claimed the title of The Best Movie Ever Made. No need to analyze perfection.
When one wishes to examine the spectrum of successful adaptations, there can be no better example than The Body and Apt Pupil. One was successful. The other was an aberration. One was an instant classic that builds upon the original source material. The other was a complete bomb that trashed any semblance of King’s original message.
What is most interesting is that both films significantly modified their respective endings. In The Body it isn’t Gordie (played by Wil Wheaton in the film) who shoots the gun, but rather Chris (River Phoenix) who pulls the trigger. In Apt Pupil, Todd (Brad Renfro in the film) doesn’t bounce a basketball menacingly, he loads up his rifle, heads to a bluff overlooking the highway, and begins picking off innocent drivers.
So why did Stand By Me become a classic and Apt Pupil become a complete dud?
Performances notwithstanding, the reason for the former’s success lies in the fact that the original structure was left intact.
Resolve and Meaning
One of the most important concepts of meaningful story structure, perhaps the most important, lies in what the Main Character decides to do at the end of a story. From the moment trouble begins (popularly referred to as the Inciting Incident), the Main Character sets upon an approach to deal with those problems. As the story progresses, so too do the challenges to her resolve. Eventually she reaches the point of greatest climax wherein she is faced with a decision: either continue doing things the way she always has or try something new. Because of the challenges she faced throughout the story, this decision can easily fall one way or another. That is why it is often referred to as a Leap of Faith moment—the Main Character has no idea which approach is more appropriate.
This Leap of Faith moment helps to communicate the Author’s original message. If the Author wishes to say, Look, she was going about things the wrong way, then they construct a story wherein her adoption of this new way of doing things solves her own personal problems (see Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll House). If they wanted to take the cautionary tale route, they could also construct a story wherein the Main Character’s determination to stick with their original approach only causes more problems for them personally (see Clarice in The Silence of the Lambs).
Likewise, if the Author wanted to say, Look, she was going about things the right way, then they could construct a story where the Main Character’s steadfast determination made things better for them personally (Eliza in My Fair Lady). Or, if they wanted to show the other side, they would create a story where the Main Character’s decision to try a different approach only ended up adding to the personal angst they already had (Marcia in A Face In The Crowd).
Either method is fine, and it should be noted that this explanation is a gross generalization—there all kinds of subtleties that could be built upon this—but the concept itself is solid and vastly important when it comes to communicating the message of the story. If stories are about solving problems, then it would make sense that there would be a meaningful connection between the Main Character and how they ultimately approach the problems in the story. If the Author has something important to say then this concept of the Main Character’s final decision, or resolve, will have some relation to their emotional well-being at the end of the story.
The Right Approach
Rob Reiner, along with writers Raynold Gideon and Bruce A. Evans, did a masterful job of maintaining this structural relationship in their adaptation of The Body. As mentioned before, the major difference between book and film was who fired the gun that kept Ace and his cronies from taking credit for the find. In the movie, Gordie left them speechless. In the book, it was Chris.
In both versions though, Gordie’s resolve was the same. Because of the issues surrounding his brother Denny’s death, Gordie had developed an approach wherein he always took the safe route, preferring to avoid the repercussions of conflict rather than face them head on. Gordie says nothing when Ace takes his brother’s hat, overreacts to Chris’s reveal of the pilfered gun, and stalls crossing the trestle just long enough to close the gap between their location and the approaching train. This learned approach causes him plenty of anguish.
In the end, though, he takes a chance regardless of what may or may not happen to him. Confronting the older kids, without a thought towards how these physically superior thugs will end up paying him back, shows that Gordie has decided to take an alternative approach to the one he started out with. King’s message was that this change of character was the right thing to do. The boys leave and Gordie finds his place in the world.
It is only how Gordie’s confrontation is revealed that marks the difference between novel and film.
This is where the whole “books are internal, films are external” idea comes into place. Gordie’s growth of character in the book takes place almost entirely within his own head. Sure, the overreaction to the gun and the delay at the trestle were external manifestations, but his eventual “Leap of Faith” amounted to a single line in the book:
…what I heard coming out of my mouth instead of sweet reason was my own death warrant: “Suck my fat one, you cheap dimestore hood.”
Because the film lacked the ability to show how significant these words were to Gordie’s emotional growth, the filmmakers needed to find some external way of providing the same dramatic punch. Thus, the idea that Gordie should be the one to reveal the gun. And to help show what a monumental change this was, they added the scenes of Ace stealing his older brother’s hat in the beginning. The hat didn’t even exist in the original story.
Rob Reiner and Co. understood what King was trying to do with this story, and found a way to externalize many of Gordie’s struggles without compromising the original meaning behind them. The film maintained the bittersweet ending present in the source material by making sure that, regardless of what tragedies befell his friends in the years to come, Gordie LaChance grew to a point where he could finally resolve the issues revolving around the looming shadow of his older brother and find some relative internal peace.
Which brings us to the train wreck that is Apt Pupil.
The Wrong Approach
In the Summer of 1974, young Todd Bowden discovers his “GREAT INTEREST”—Nazis and their atrocious war crimes of the Second World War. The knowledge of their heinous acts, many of which were committed in public and without restraint, ignites the teenager’s imagination so much so that he can barely get to sleep at night. He wants to know more and more of what happened, every last detail, and luckily meets someone who can give it to him: retired Nazi war criminal Dussander. The two develop a predatorial relationship that inspires each to become more and more public with their violent tendencies.
And so ends the similarities between book and film.
In Bryan Singer’s version, Dussander locks Todd in his basement with a vagrant who needs finishing off. Dussander had plunged a knife deep in the visitor’s back, yet was interrupted by a heart attack before he could complete the job. Todd is forced to defend himself and in doing so murders the poor helpless man. Besides being oddly disturbing in tone (as opposed to similar fare like The Silence of the Lambs or Se7en), this scene completely breaks the structure of the original story.
In the book, Todd’s growth into a killer was something he did on his own time and under his own volition, it was not something he was forced into. Anyone placed into the same basement situation as Todd might have have reacted the same. His violent act came off more as an act of self-defense rather than the natural progression of someone incited towards a more public display of violence.
This was not the point of King’s original story.
The thing that interested Todd so much about the Nazis was that their crimes were so brazen, almost as if their evil was tacitly accepted by those around them. This is what excites him and what motivates him to grow into the evil kid he finally turns out to be. Many of the Nazis believed that what they were doing what was right. And in the end of the original novella, Todd ends up doing what he thinks is right:
He thought he would clean his rifle and just sort of think the whole thing over. Try to get it straight in his mind…he closed his eyes…When he opened them again, he felt better than he had in months—maybe better than he had felt in years.
This is Todd’s Leap of Faith moment. Sitting there, contemplating his recent murder of guidance counselor Rubber Ed, Todd decides to take that different approach. No longer content to hide in the shadows, Todd takes his struggle to the bluff overlooking the highway.
And in doing so, Todd finds peace.
Changing the Meaning
The original story was saying Look, Todd was going about things the wrong way. He shouldn’t have kept this all to himself, if he wanted relief, he should have been more public about it. As an Audience we revolt at the very thought of doing something like this, but the world of a complete story can’t be argued with, it can only be accepted. This is the power of the original story.
King’s version of Apt Pupil is as much a story of Triumph as Star Wars ever was. That feeling of contentment one feels during the final pages of that story juxtaposed with the morality of the events is what gives it that dark twisted ending. That repulsion is the essence of its genius.
Even director Bryan Singer found the ending extraordinary:
I told [King] the ending reads so beautifully. I could never measure up to it; I would have killed it.
This is, of course, his defense for altering the ending, but in allowing this fear of living up to expectations to take control, Singer garbled the Original Intent of King’s story.
Threatening Rubber Ed with accusations of homosexuality reveals that Todd has decided to continue taking the same approach as he always has, not change as he did in the book. After all, he manipulated his way into Dussander’s house, why are his vague threats any different? The film deviates completely from the original source material’s story structure.
In the book, Todd grows to a place where he chooses a different approach; he becomes the “Apt Pupil” from which the novella finds its title. In the film, he simply soldiers on, shooting that dark scowl he had almost from the beginning. All hopes of transmitting King’s original message become flights of fancy and flittering visions of what could have been.
Adaptation becomes rank disappointment.
Structure Carries A Film’s Message
Alter the structure and the message becomes unintelligible.
Both book and film started out the same way. Thematics and character relationships were put in place that would eventually lead Todd down that dark and very public path. When that avenue of truth was boarded over with an artist’s cautionary fear of failure, the film become a mess, almost to the point of being laughable. That’s why that ending scene in the driveway comes off so ridiculous—because of the structure one half-expects Todd to kill poor David Schwimmer with a basketball!
Todd was setup to become a killer every bit as deadly as Dussander once had been. When he doesn’t, the Audience feels let down and empty as if the last panel of a comic strip has been left off. As reprehensible a message as it was, that was the intended message. Placating advisory boards by breaking structure and meddling with the message and motives behind King’s initial creative impulse, the filmmakers behind Apt Pupil did a great disservice to great meaningful storytelling.
Adaptation Requires An Understanding of Structure
In sharp contrast to The Body, the artists behind Apt Pupil pulled their punches, and in doing so fell flat on their faces.
Successful adaptation is simple: Understand and honor the source material’s original structure. The structure of a story is responsible for communicating the Author’s Original Intent. Reworking or modifying the original construct can only end in confusion and disappointment for the Audience. There is something the original Author was trying to say, something that drew its initial audience and inspired the “GREAT INTEREST” of the potential filmmakers in the first place.
Why not respect that creative impulse and build upon it?
Advanced Story Theory for this Article
What the Main Character decides to do at the Leap of Faith moment signifies their Main Character Resolve. Whether their decision leads them to a place of peace or a pit of even greater angst determines the Story Judgment. The two coupled together help to communicate the meaning, or perspective on life, the Author wishes to share with them.
Change can be Good, Change can be Bad. Remaining Steadfast can be Good as well as Bad. Every combination is open to an Author, it’s all a matter of what they want to say and what kind of story they want to tell.
In both the original versions of The Body and Apt Pupil, the Change/Good combination was depicted. Gordie overcame his Problems of Conscience with Temptation, and in doing so effectively closed the door on the issues he suffered due to the death of his older brother.
Todd overcame his sleepless nights caused by the Knowledge of what the Nazis did by taking a moment to Think and to really process all that came before. When he opens his eyes, all the angst and turmoil that had been growing inside of him simply disappears. Todd is in a better place emotionally, comfortable with what he feels he needs to do.
This is why the story carries such a dark emotional weight to it. As an Audience we have been told that Todd’s Change was a Good thing—a change that most would find morally reprehensible. By leaving this deeply meaningful ending out of the adapted version, the filmmakers not only disappointed many Stephen King fans, they left audiences brand new to the story completely lost as to what the point of the film was.
Effective communication requires an accurate structure. Without it, the broadcast becomes simply white noise.