The Momentum Blog
Posted January 16, 2014 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke
In last week’s post I briefly alluded to the success of Catching Fire as a film adaptation of a popular book. In order to examine why I think it’s an enormously successful film, it’s worth looking at how we should measure the quality and success of book adaptations to the screen.
There’s a particular part of the story that occurs in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows where Harry and Hermione are on the road, travelling from location to location, on a seemingly hopeless quest. Additionally they are doing so without Ron who has left the two alone, and it’s the most extreme moment of conflict between the three friends in the entire series.
In the book, the situation itself builds up over a series of chapters, and after Ron’s departure, plays out in long passages of exposition and dialogue exploring Harry and Hermione’s disappearing hope and drive on their particular quest.
In the film adaptation, this extended section of the plot plays out in the following scene, a scene which to me is the strongest piece of cinematic storytelling in the entire series:
So why is this scene so good? Why is it emblematic of a successful approach to adapting fiction – particularly popular fiction – for the screen?
The Harry Potter films are never going to go down as exemplars of the cinematic form. Wildly successful financially, as adaptations they benefit enormously from the collective knowledge of the books by their audience.
The Philosopher’s Stone and The Chamber of Secrets were plodding in their fidelity to the books, almost tokenistic in how they were adapted, they were examples of film adaptations made to please the audience, who just want to see visual representations of their imagination. They don’t want to experience the story on screen, they want to be reminded of the story they read. While this approach can be initially successful, over time the efforts look tepid and uninspired.
The Prisoner of Azkaban had the fortune of being directed by Alfonso Cuaron which made it cinematically enjoyable and visually entertaining, but was a case of sacrificing one over the other, and the motivations of the characters – particularly during the time-travel ending – is almost indecipherable if one hasn’t read the book.
The Goblet of Fire was possibly the worst example of adaptation in the series: entire plot lines are abandoned midway through the film, characters are forgotten about, and the audience is left not entirely sure what’s happening and why. This problem only increased as the books became longer, with The Order of the Phoenix, The Half-Blood Prince and The Deathly Hallows also suffering from having to adapt hundreds and hundreds of pages into two hours.
In short: they all relied on extensive knowledge of the books for them to actually make any sense. Cinematically, they don’t.
What the above scene does is distill pages and pages of words into two minutes of dialogue-free visual storytelling. The relationship between the characters is painfully evident, including the character who isn’t present, and the performances of the actors acknowledge the complexity of emotion that occurs at that part of the plot. It’s also a rare use in the series of existing music as first diegetic and then non-diegetic soundtrack to the scene. The thematic concerns of the music underscore the characters and the scene and the entire plot.
Everything works, very quickly, very easily, very economically.
If a picture tells a thousand words, then this is how to adapt.
But sometimes, the inverse happens, and a sentence in a book ends up telling a thousand pictures. Take, for example, a moment in an entirely different series, in The Return of the King when the fractured friendship of Frodo and Sam is put to the test by the presence of Gollum.
Remarkably similar to the Harry Potter example, particularly in that the scenes are there to make manifest the enormity of their quest, and the difficulty they have in sustaining and withstanding the journey. In the book, this dynamic to Frodo and Sam’s friendship is suggested, but nothing more comes of it. It’s there to embody the danger Gollum’s presence represents, but that is all.
When adapted to the screen, this doesn’t work so well. An audience needs more than just the suggestion something might happen. If there’s threat, there needs to be the playing out of that threat. So the film sees that moment through, and Frodo and Sam’s friendship does break down to the point where they separate, and it becomes the ultimate breaking of the fellowship created in the first book. Here, the source material is expanded to visually tell the same story in a different way.
Ultimately, there needs to be a balance between the book and the film, in an adaptation. The story needs to work, it needs to be a representation of the story that already exists in written form. But it needs to be told according to the rules and abilities of an entirely different medium. Sometimes that means expanding and creating, other times it means condensing and suggesting.
The reason why this is problematic these days, is the success of franchises like Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings have shown to studios that there’s enormous financial reward in adapting an popular fiction series. Transplant the audience into a cinema, and you get the revenue.
But if the recent failures of Ender’s Game and The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, and conceivably the Narnia and Twilight films, are representative of anything, it’s that audiences will get sick of the endless repetition of by-the-numbers adaptations. Films that are either just visual replications of the books, there to remind the audience of what it was they once read, or films that don’t adapt, they just remove until the book is a filmable length, but all the coherence and nature of the plot lost by omission.
Where Catching Fire succeeded, was in understanding how the story as it was in the book worked, and finding a different way to depict that onscreen. It wasn’t too afraid to alter or invent, but knew enough of how to tell the same story visually.Tagged: adaptation, Books, film, Harry Potter, lord of the rings, movies
Posted October 29, 2013 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke
If we cast back a decade, readers of all ages and genders around the world were pouring their way through two series: Harry Potter and His Dark Materials. Interestingly, each have authors that are of a different gender to their main characters – J.K. Rowling and Harry; Philip Pullman and Lyra.
Does it matter?
In Rowling’s case, it’s difficult to find either criticism or praise for her tackling of a teenage male protagonist. Considering she carries and develops Harry from the ages of eleven to seventeen – his entire adolescence – it seems surprising that there is little in the way of attention given to how she writes him over seven books. Indeed, there is a lot of discussion of Harry as a character, and his progression through Rowling’s plots, but not much on Harry as a male character, written by a woman.
For Pullman, however, almost every interview or profile mentions his ability to write ‘strong’ female characters – a badge of honour, it would appear. He also writes Lyra through her adolescence, but only across three books and over a shorter period of time in the character’s life. Pullman, to his credit, sees nothing much in his choice of gender for a protagonist, stating that he’s always glad to find strong female characters in his books, so clearly the story delivers the character, regardless of gender. Additionally, Pullman says:
‘I’ve always thought that in order to show girls being strong, you don’t have to show boys being weak. I try to maintain a balance and to depict strong and weak, good and bad, men and women, boys and girls.’
So why are Pullman’s efforts worthy of highlighting, and yet Rowling’s not?
Do we hold a different standard to men who write women than women who write men?
I suppose it’s still novelty enough, or at least infrequent enough, that when an author chooses to write a main character with a different gender to their own it warrants a mention. The implication here is that most follow the write what you know rule. But then again, it possibly also comes down to how much one subscribes to the idea that there are fundamental differences between the genders, particularly when it comes to perspective.
A study from 2011 looking at the gender of central characters in children’s books published between 1900 and 2000 found that male protagonists were almost twice as common as female protagonists. Granted, this is only a section of written fiction, but considering the demographic of readers it targets, it’s worth the point. I don’t want to get too much down a rabbit hole of gender priorities in reading, but there is a clear dominance of a male point of view, at least in this area of fiction.
Does this then explain the difference in reaction to Rowling as to Pullman? It is possible that Rowling’s effort was hidden somewhat, in the sense that a male protagonist is more expected, therefore an author adjusting to a male perspective doesn’t warrant as much recognition. But an author presenting a less-established perspective, and one that is not their own, clearly becomes something worthy of mention, even of praise.
(This is also on top of the fact that Rowling had to initial her name as a means of not upsetting potential male readers even though the central character was already male. Apparently male readers’ egos are so fragile we couldn’t handle it. The shock. The shame. It’s the literary equivalent of putting a bendy straw in a guy’s drink.)
Clearly there are many excellent books by excellent authors that don’t fret over what gender their character is and whether it’s the same as theirs. Obviously, an author’s name needs to be central to the promotion of the book. It would seem ludicrous not to include it. Not only for the obvious and all-encompassing reason of crediting the creator behind the words, it’s also necessary for a reader to identify who they’re reading, hopefully with the goal of reading more from that name. But how much does the gender of that name challenge how we read it?
Or even if we read it at all?
Off the top of my head I can think of a dozen female authors who at one point or another have written using a male pseudonym. I cannot think of one example of the opposite. I’m sure there is, but nothing’s coming to mind.
To return to Pullman’s quote above, he insists his approach is to write a balance, and write equally. He never raises one gender above another, or any other facet of life. To him, they’re all just details in among a billion details, any of which could be chosen as part of a plot, or the identity of a character. It matters not whether boy or girl, man or woman. As he says elsewhere, ‘you cannot change who you are, only what you do.’ And if what you do involves writing stories, creating characters, surely you’re free to do it how you like?
And for us readers, does it really matter what gender we are when we read a book? Does it really affect the process that goes on between the page and our imagination?Tagged: authors, gender, Harry Potter, His Dark Materials, J.K. Rowling, Philip Pullman, writers
Posted August 27, 2013 by Mark
Steven Spielberg and George Lucas recently spoke about an upcoming implosion in Hollywood, predicting that a string of $200 million blockbusters would fail and that would spell the end of the blockbuster era. If they’re right, soon we’ll be in an entertainment landscape where better, smaller films dominate, rather than a handful of uber-budget franchises.
What I want to argue isn’t that Spielberg and Lucas are wrong, but that the era of the blockbuster has already ended, and that we are in a new and more frightening era – the Age of the Franchise.
Are franchise movies and blockbusters the same thing? No, even though one gave rise to the other. The main difference in my definition is that a blockbuster is a film in which there is a clear beginning, middle and end. It’s a film that dominates the box office over a sustained period of time. It’s a film that only has a sequel if the box office justifies it. And many blockbusters weren’t blockbusters until after their release date. Examples of blockbusters: Jaws, Star Wars, Independence Day, Jurassic Park.
A franchise movie is a different beast. Franchise movies are made with the express purpose of getting not just one, but several sequels. More often than not it comes from source material, such as comic books, novel series, television or older movies. The franchise movie dominates the box office for a brief, intense, period before being pushed aside by the next franchise film. Rather than a sustained box office run, franchise movies make the bulk of their money in the first three to ten days of release. These are movies that have guaranteed box office. Examples of franchise films: Any Marvel film, Transformers, Harry Potter, etc.
It used to be the rule that sequels were all about diminishing returns. The first movie would make the most money, and the sequels less and less. A three film series was the best anyone could hope for, and if a fourth movie went into production, it was almost embarrassing, and usually direct to video (of course there are exceptions such as the Star Trek series). Now, the first movie is pretty much a marketing campaign for the sequels, with a follow-up only deemed successful if it significantly out-grosses the previous film. This has already been taken to its logical conclusion with the Iron Man movies, Thor and Captain America essentially being expensive ads for The Avengers.
So if the blockbuster era is bookended by Star Wars movies, the franchise era is bookended by Harry Potter and, well, who knows? Maybe Batman v Superman?
Tagged: films, genre, Harry Potter, movies, star wars
Posted July 26, 2013 by Nicola Rhind
The publishing industry can be cutthroat at times, and the stakes are high for unestablished authors competing for contracts and readers. Audiences are more selective, faced with so much choice that they don’t even know where to begin (Should I start Kardashian Konfidential or The Handmaid’s Tale? The choices!).
Bookstores – whether digital, or bricks and mortar – carry thousands of titles all begging to be read. Even earlier in the process there is competition between authors to secure publishing contracts, leaving many unfinished works languishing by the sidelines. So how do you start yourself off in an industry with limited resources to be shared? The answer is simple, really: the Internet.
Now I know that that is a really obvious answer, considering the major advances in technology that have allowed for say, digital publishing, but I am more specifically referring to the realm of fanfiction, and the vast online communities that create a built-in fan base of readers and mentors for aspiring authors. Fanfiction sites allow writers to borrow from the popularity of better-known books, movies and tv shows, and develop their own work within these ready-made worlds. For a hopeful writer, this provides an opportunity to improve their writing skills and test story ideas within the marketplace.
While fanfiction is a great tool for getting your foot in the door as an author, this is also the realm where the boundaries start to become a little bit blurred, as amateur authors mix their own ideas with already established worlds. How do you decide who owns what? Do authors have any rights to their work after fans have adopted their stories? This is an issue that has resurfaced time and time again, and was really thrown into the spotlight with the rapid and raunchy rise of the Fifty Shades of Grey EMPIRE, a story that famously emerged from the sparkling depths of the Twilight Saga fandom. Similarly, fans of J.K. Rowling have spawned hundreds of thousands of Potter-esque fables, which is also linked to the success of seemingly overnight hit Cassandra Clare. Clare had successfully dabbled in Harry Potter fanfiction, and upon completion of her online works was offered a publishing deal that produced a trilogy not unlike her previous offerings. Bloggers across the Internet have been heatedly discussing the contested originality of Cassandra Clare’s published works, and it certainly brings up the issue of ownership once more, particularly in terms of ownership of elements to a story (like particular characters and plot points).
More recently, the online book blogging world has been shaken by the mysterious and sinister case of Jordin B. Williams’ novel Amazingly Broken that has sparked accusations of intense plagiarism of multiple best sellers, identity fraud, and all-round skullduggery when it came to promoting the book. Readers were furious to find Williams’ book had directly plagiarised large passages from other authors of a similar genre, and the author has since been confusingly linked to a previous fanfiction story with a duplicate plotline. The issue remains unresolved and very perplexing, as new details are still being uncovered.
The expansion of the publishing world online has opened up an intense can of worms regarding intellectual property and plagiarism. Perhaps these examples are a cautionary tale for aspiring authors looking to utilise online communities, or a warning to publishers to be wary of unknown writers. Either way, the backlash online can be immense.
Tagged: ebooks, fan fiction, Harry Potter, ownership, plagiarism, reading, Twilight, writing
Posted April 2, 2012 by Anne
MARK’S TOP 5
Patrick Bateman – American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
Everyone’s favourite serial killer. Bateman is an enigma and each time I read the novel I have a different reaction to him. He’s capable of shocking acts of the most extreme violence, and is totally obsessed with surfaces, and bad 80s pop music.
Tyrion Lannister – A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin
I’ve managed to get through three of these massive books quite quickly as I read as fast as I can to get to Tyrion’s chapters. He’s a member of the hated Lannister clan (boo Joffrey, you twerp!) and he’s usually trying to help them get what they want (no spoilers in the comments below, I haven’t finished the books yet!) but you can’t help but like him and hope he succeeds.
Abigail Gentian, Campion & Purslane – House of Suns by Alastair Reynolds
In order to explore the galaxy, Abigail Gentian creates 1,000 clones of herself (500 male and 500 female) and sends them off in starships. Several million years later, two of those clones, Campion & Purslane, are travelling the galaxy together as they’ve fallen in love. Perhaps the most narcissistic coupling in the history of the universe.
Roland Deschain – The Dark Tower by Stephen King
King’s epic seven novel saga (soon to be eight) is held together by the presence of Roland, last of the gunslingers. He looks & dresses like a character from an old Clint Eastwood Western, but he has the skills and spirit of one of King Arthur’s knights. He can’t remember how long he’s lived for (time doesn’t have much meaning in mid-world) but it seems that he’s always been obsessively searching for the Dark Tower, as once he reaches it he can save all worlds (including ours). He’ll save your life and then kill you if it’s called for.
Joe Pitt – The Joe Pitt Casebooks by Charlie Huston
The Joe Pitt books are written in a masterful noir style and feature a main character who’s something of a private detective for vampires. He’s tough, and in many ways he has a strong moral core. But he’ll also betray friends, play everyone against each other and beat up people for the heck of it. In each book he winds up getting brutalised in quite creative ways by his enemies so by the time he limps into the last chapter you just hope the guy finds some peace.
Lily Bart, The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
The stunningly beautiful and bitingly sardonic Lily, who throws away every opportunity she is afforded due to pride. “Why must a girl pay so dearly for her least escape,” Lily muses as she contemplates the prospect of being bored all afternoon by Percy Grice, dull but undeniably rich, “on the bare chance that he might ultimately do her the honor of boring her for life?”
Scarlett O’Hara, Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
When I was little I convinced my mother to make me hoop skirts, which I wore around the house for months after reading this book, so enamoured was I with the delightfully charming and malevolent Scarlett. “Marriage, fun? Fiddle-dee-dee. Fun for men you mean.”
Patrick Bateman, American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
His materialistic obsession with surface detail and image divides readers, -“It all comes down to this: I feel like shit but I look great” – but I’m firmly on the side of Bateman worship. His general revulsion for human kind is strangely appealing, and charmingly/jarringly similar to the sentiments of those around him. “If another round of Bellinis comes within a twenty foot radius of our table we’re going to light the maitre d’ on fire. So you know, warn him.”
Anne Shirley, Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery
This is a no brainer. Whenever I’m asked about the spelling of my name Anne Shirley’s line spills unbidden from my mouth – “Anne with an ‘e’”.
Anton Chigurh, No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy
I was tossing up between the heroes, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell and Llewelyn Moss, or the villain, psychopathic killer Anton “What’s the most you’ve ever lost of a coin toss?” Chigurh – of course I had to go with the villain, even though one of my favourite lines in the book is the Sheriff’s “If it ain’t a mess, it’ll do ‘til the mess gets here”.
Sebastian Flyte, Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
“Drinking is not a hobby, Sebastian,” says Lady Marchmain to her wayward (probably homosexual, definitely alcoholic) son. I disagree. I adore Sebastian’s indulgence in the finer things life has to offer, but perhaps I should treat him more as a cautionary tale than inspiration. “If they treat me like a dipsomaniac, they can bloody well have a dipsomaniac.”
JOEL’S TOP 5
Harry PotterBret Easton Ellis, favourites, Harry Potter, Patrick Bateman
Posted March 28, 2012 by Joel
So JK Rowling finally made her ebooks available for sale last night. It’s about time. It’s been described as the ‘Beatles moment’ for ebooks. The Beatles moment they’re referring to is when the Beatles finally acquiesced to selling their albums digitally on the iTunes store.
The Potter ebooks are a bigger deal in book publishing circles than the Beatles going on iTunes for a number of reasons. Imagine that instead of making their music available on iTunes, the Beatles had set up their own website and payment system and forced all the retailers to link through their site in order to purchase their content. Imagine, too, that all music being sold at that point by major retailers was sold with restrictive DRM (digital rights management) and the Beatles were the first major brand to sell without it.
JK Rowling and the Pottermore project (led by ex-HarperCollins head of digital Charlie Redmayne) have done something with ebooks that has never been done before. They’ve effectively forced Amazon to list the books without actually selling them directly. That means JK Rowling and co. get all the sales (and I mean all of them – there’s no commission being skimmed off by paying via PayPal or anyone else). They also get all the customer information that Amazon would ordinarily collect. And they’ve done it by making their books available without DRM.
The screenshot above is the only DRM that Pottermore is including on the books sold through the site. It sits on the copyright page, and identifies the user of the ebook. If you were to post up the unaltered version of a Pottermore ebook on a file sharing site (or email it to a friend, who then shared it), you could be identified with this code, and presumably you could be sued or blacklisted from Pottermore if Ms Rowling was so inclined.
This kind of watermarking, also known as ‘social DRM’, doesn’t restrict the user from doing what they want with the file, but it does make the user think twice about sharing (particularly with someone they don’t trust). As far as I can find by opening up the EPUB file this code doesn’t exist anywhere else in the book except for on the copyright page, so it would be relatively easy to remove it (but not much easier, it should be pointed out, than removing normal DRM from an ebook).
The power of this kind of DRM, though, is that it can be applied by anyone, not just a book retailer, and it costs (virtually) nothing to implement. Importantly, it also means that ebook readers of any platform can buy your book and put it on their device without syncing, linking, three different logins or any other issues. It allows sharing among friends and family that you trust, and it passes the Grandma test (my grandma would understand how it works).
Amazon has been forced to list the books to avert serious leakage from their platform. If Amazon had decided not to link and list the Potter ebooks via their site, then Pottermore would have sold them to Kindle customers anyway. And those Kindle customers, who may have never bought an ebook from outside Amazon before would all of a sudden know that it was possible and how to do it. And Amazon doesn’t want that.
This opens up a massive opportunity for publishers to use a brand like JK Rowling to get some more leverage with Amazon. The Pottermore purchasing system may not be the smoothest around, but it works and it’s certainly not beyond publishers or their intermediaries to set up something similar. Publishers have tried to do this before – but they haven’t done it with a brand like Harry Potter.
There’s more than one way to skin a cat, and Pottermore has demonstrated one way that publishers haven’t tried yet. Amazon’s chokehold on the distribution of digital books is not as watertight as it seemed just yesterday morning.
For its part, Momentum is making our very first debut author’s book available without DRM. The Chimera Vector is available for pre-order right now from your retailer of choice for the early bird price of $AU2.99. Go on, you know you want to.Amazon, Charlie Redmayne, digital publishing, DRM, Grandma test, Harry Potter, iTunes, JK Rowling, Kindle, Pottermore