Of the two methods of writing feature-length, story-type movies, as opposed to documentaries, for example, one method in particular tends to incur winces of shared pain and sympathetic inquiries as to general success and health.
One method is the more widespread "I have an idea!" This idea is usually written up as a treatment, done as some sort of sample, hacked and worried at while it undergoes a variety of metamorphoses, and finally is announced as a sure nominee for "Oscar for best original screenplay."
The other method is to adapt a book. It is this method which has most ignored the two axioms of an elegant, relatively painless production; "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." and "KISS---Keep It Simple, Stupid."
Usually, a novel is chosen out of interest in a number of connected features integral to it. Why these are of interest can be more a concern for a Ph.D thesis, but one popular reason has often seemed to be the mystic runic inscription; New York Times Bestseller.
Whatever the reason, making a movie of this book is a matter of simple adaptation, simply taking the story as shown by the book format and producing something in a movie format. This can result in a movie six hours in length, but there are ways around this. After all, the British Broadcasting Corporation does it all the time.
As for alterations, if someone or something is not in the original text, what is the point of putting it in? Claiming improvement of the story isn't going to wash. Umpteen thousand best-seller buyers didn't notice anything missing earlier, so why complicate things later?
Taking something out can have well argued reasons. An aforementioned six hour movie comes to mind. A singer named Anna Russell does a very accurate twenty-one minute rendition of Wagner's twenty hour Ring Cycle. The catch is leaving enough to make sense, but many times, given the variations from one story to the next, this does work, and work very well.
What I'm going to discuss here is a pair of novel to movie adaptations, specifically Dune, by Frank Herbert, and The Great Train Robbery, by Michael Crichton. Both novels were bestsellers, and Dune received both of science fiction's highest awards, the Hugo, and the Nebula, the year it was published. Unfortunately, however good the original novels, one of the attempted adaptations did not recieve the same good quality of attention as the other.
Dune, released in 1965, covers a number of issues ranging from ecology, to subtleties of politics and power, to religious messiahs. The setting is at least fifteen to twenty thousand years in the future, in "The Imperium," which encompasses at least most of the galaxy, quite likely, several galaxies.
The center of the action is the planet Arrakis, called Dune by its inhabitants, the Fremen. Dune is a pole to pole desert where water is often considered more precious than human life. The Imperial settlements huddle around the northern polar regions, and the Fremen inhabit the remaining desolation.
The unique feature of the planet is melange, a spice produced only on Dune. Impossible to duplicate, it increases lifespans, gives the ability to see the future, and arguably is the most important single commodity in the Imperium, especially in a number of specific parts of the Imperium. The Spacing Guild controls all space travel throughout the Imperium, and beyond. Guild navigators use melange to see the future, and thus follow what will be the safest course. The Bene Gesserit, in turn, is an all woman private society with influences in almost everything. The society's fully trained members have all the memories of their female ancestors and can occasionally foretell the future, and all the members use melange in their training. In the Imperium in general, everyone else who can afford melange uses it to prolong their lives. Finally, in all such cases of such major use, melange is totally addictive.
As the book opens, Dune is the fief of House Harkonnen. By Imperial order, the Harkonnens are about to be evicted in favor of House Atredies, their blood feud enemies. House Harkonnen is led by the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, a bloated sybarite so fat that he must resort to anti-gravity suspensors just to hold up enough of his bulk to enable him to barely shuffle. House Atredies is headed by Duke Leto Atredies, a distaff cousin of the Emperor, a warrior trained to command as well as fight. His son and heir, Paul, has also been trained as a warrior and leader. Furthermore, the Atredies combat training has become so advanced that the quality of the Atredies' private army has approached the level of that of the Emperor's own. For this last reason, the Emperor has secretly sided with the Harkonnens to ensure the Atredies' destruction.
Once on Dune, the Atredies quickly discover that where the Harkonnens had treated the Fremen as useless backcountry live targets, the Fremen are actually the fighting equals, and probably, superiors, of both the Atredies' and the Emperor's forces. As programs are being started to incorporate the Fremen into the Atredies forces, a number of Fremen legends also come to the fore.
According to Fremen legend, a messiah shall come among them accompanied by his mother, who shall be of the Bene Gesserit, and this messiah shall lead them to freedom. Paul's mother, Jessica, Duke Leto's concubine, is a member of the Bene Gesserit. Furthermore, the Bene Gesserit's major project is a private breeding program aimed at producing the Kwizatz Haderach, the one and only male who can be a full Bene Gesserit, can have all his ancestors' memories, and see the future with total accuracy. Adn by the beginning of the book, and right before the Fremen discover this potential messiah, the Kwisatz Haderach program is only one, maybe two, generations away from fulfillment.
When the Harkonnen and Imperial trap is sprung, Leto dies and Paul and Jessica barely escape into the desert. They are quickly captured by the Fremen, who recall the prophesies, consider the evidence, and soon declare Paul to be thier Messiah. By the end of the novel, Paul is leader of all the Fremen, and sole master of the spice. With this power, he not only destroys the Harkonnens, but also topples the Emperor, occupying the throne himself and, to the horror of the Bene Gesserit at his total independence, has turned out to be the Kwisatz Haderach.
A movie mistitled as Dune was released by Universal Pictures in 1984. From the beginning of the movie, the story is ruined by unnecessary and illogical alterations. For a start, in the book, while the Guild controls all space travel, its position is more of a very subtle parasite. It receives much power and profit from its position, but the moment it starts dictating major policy, it falls. Guild navigators, in turn, are people who take melange to foretell the safest courses to steer their spacecraft. Two appear at the end of the book, stepping away from a crowd of royal councillors and attempting to argue with Paul. Another appears in Dune Messiah, the sequel to Dune. He is a mutant, but is humanoid, with flippers for feet and hands. In both cases, and this includes Paul, although such a person can see the future, no melange fueled prophet can see another.
On the screen, the first major action involves a navigator arriving at the Imperial Court and demanding information of the Emperor. For reasons stated above, there is no way in which the Guild can demand anything. At the most, they can only adopt a position of a government not unfriendly, and make polite requests. Furthermore, the navigator is shown as a huge, bloated, wormlike thing, supposedly a mutant descendant of four thousand years of non-stop ingestion of melange. The problem is that the Fremen are in the same relative position. As they too, have ingested spice for thousands of years, why haven't they mutated into anything? Finally, the navigator makes it clear that he/she/it has seen Paul and a connection to spice. With this change in detail, the movie immediately destroys much of it's own storyline, and all chances of a workable sequel based on Dune Messiah, in which conspirators fence with conspirators, all hidden from and by each other's prescient powers.
A second set of problems involves character portrayal and development. In the book, Leto is an impeccable commanding general who is also a father of those he is fighting for. Paul is a ducal heir, nobility, a warrior who is in training to become a mentat, a human computer. With her Bene Gesserit muscular and emotional control, Jessica could face Hell and make it recoil.
On screen, Leto spends his time spouting general philosophy and carrying a lapdog. Rather than be the ducal heir, trained to rule and be a deadly warrior, Paul is portrayed as a simpering idiot. Jessica is shown as a hothouse flower which, yes, which, does little more than burst into hysterics when in trouble.
Another example of distortion to the point of ridiculousness is what the movie refers to as "the wierding way," involving a gadget called a "wierding module." This contraption would be strapped around the wrist and neck and would use the sound of a spoken word to destroy anything in a set area, or, from the evidence, anything convenient to the script, no matter the range or object.
The wierding way, as defined by context of the novel, was simply an absolute mastery of unarmed combat. It had nothing to do with sound, which is a dead giveaway for location, or equipment, which can malfunction at just the wrong moment. Its attraction to the Fremen was exactly its lack of sound and need for a weapon. Rather than keep things simple and elegant, the screen is filled with people adopting stiff, set stances, and screaming nonsense syllables to the sounds of explosive special effects.
These are only three major problems with this purported adaptation of Dune. There are also a large number of others, all helping to obscure a potentially great movie. I have encountered an argument that the movie is true to itself and works as a mood piece. While this may be possible, a test would be to change the personal names and places and see if the screen can still be connected to the book. As I think of what appears on the screen, I can think of approximatly four lines lifted from two scenes, and one scene itself, which would tie a limited cinematographic shell to an award winning novel.
Pretty pictures can be wonderful, but if a major force is stated as an influence or inspiration, either the connection is direct and obvious, or the endeavor is a failure. This movie is not an adaptation of the novel of its name.
The Great Train Robbery
One movie which is such an adaptation is the 1978 United Artists release, The Great Train Robbery. The novel is a semi- documentary telling of a train robbery in Victorian England. As the novel progresses, it wanders about, covering all sorts of subtle details of English Victorian life. With a few exceptions, any major changes from the book are where the movie drops all the documentary digressions and simply presents the story. Those major changes which are the exceptions would have been too problematical to use unaltered.
At the beginning of the movie, Edward Pierce, the mastermind of the robbery, outlines the then current situation.
"In the year 1855, England and France were at war with Russia, in the Crimea. The English troops were paid in gold. Once a month, twenty-five thousand pounds in gold was loaded into strongboxes inside the London bank of Huddleston and Bradford and taken by trusted armed guards to the railway station. The convoy followed no fixed route, or timetable."
"At the station, the gold was loaded into the luggage van of the Folkestone train for shipment to the coast, and from there to the Crimea. The strongboxes were placed in two, specially built, Chubb safes, constructed of three quarter inch tempered steel."
"Each safe weighed five hundred and fifty pounds. Each safe was fitted with two locks, requiring two keys, or four keys altogether."
"For security, each key was individually protected. Two keys were entrusted to the railway dispatcher, who kept them locked in his office. A third, was in the custody of Mr. Edgar Trent, president of the Huddleston and Bradford, And the fourth key was given to Mr. Henry Fowler, manager of the Huddleston and Bradford bank."
"The presence of so much gold in one place naturally aroused the interest of the English criminal elements."
"But in 1855, there had never been a robbery from a moving railway train."
Following its introduction and opening titles, The Great Train Robbery then deals with The Great Train Robbery. Like Dune, the movie departs from the novel. However, unlike Dune, the movie's differences can be justified, usually by the interests of storytelling simplification and while always ensuring that the storyline remains unbroken.
In the novel, two of the main characters are a central one named Agar, a master screwsman, or specialist in keys and safecracking, and one more peripheral, a master swell, or pickpocket, named Teddy Burke. In the novel, Pierce reqruits Burke for his small part after Burke picks a woman's pocket. Agar is recruited a little earlier, just for the safes. In the movie, Burke is dropped, and it's Agar who gets recruited after picking the woman's pocket, and the job is to get into a safe.
One of the facts of pre-nitroglycerine safe-cracking was that if you were in a hurry and the safe was too massive to steal to work on later and you didn't have the keys, then you didn't crack the safe. For that reason, one obvious target in the plan was forty-seven-year-old Henry Fowler, who almost always wore his key on a chain around his neck.
Henry Fowler was a simple individual, one who would simply climb into bed with simply anyone female who simply moved. Specific details weren't given, but he didn't seem too particular, and at one point in the novel, Fowler contracts syphilis.
At the time, it was thought that a cure could be achieved by having sex with a virgin, and could Fowler's good bachelor friend Edward Pierce possibly find him one? Pierce said he'd try, and after a few days, Fowler received news of one who would meet him at an assigned time and place. The one who met him, to quote the novel, "could not be much past the age of consent of twelve." During the assignation, Fowler's key was stolen long enough to make a copy, then returned with the theft undetected.
Had such a sequence been put into the movie, if raised howls of protest weren't a possibility, then a raised rating could be. Instead, a woman wanders into the Huddleston and Bradford at a time when Fowler's good friend Edward Pierce just happens to be in the bank. Fowler starts giving her pop-eyed stares, and Pierce comments that he knows where she can be found. Again, at a set time and place, Fowler's clothes---and the key---come off, and the key quickly disappears as Fowler waits and the woman, begins, to, get, ready, to, join, him---Oh my God! It's a raid!!. We've got to get out of here!!! While the woman puts back on one or two articles of clothing, Fowler grabs clothes and unknowingly just returned key and desperately dresses while hopping back down the stairs twelve steps ahead of the police.
Another change in the movie combined a pair of actions in the novel. The novel's robbery plan involved Agar riding in the luggage van with the safes, ostensibly to guard some packages. Once the train left London, Agar would use the copies of the keys to open the safes. However, the novel reports a long story about a theft of a case of wine from the same railway car, resulting in additional security with special orders: Only the railroad guard may ride in the van. Parcels large enough to hold a body are searched. Where the door had been unlocked before, a lock has been added to it, and the door is locked in London and not unlocked until Folkestone.
Meanwhile, another more peripheral character, Clean Willy, had been hired to simplify the copying of the two keys in the railway station. Sometime after Willy's part was finished, he became an informer. While evasive, he told the police enough for them to know something major was scheduled, but not what. Pierce, in turn, when he heard, knew the police had some information connected to him, but not what. In the novel, Pierce had Willy killed, and threw off the police with a wild goose chase.
In the movie, the wine theft was dropped, and instead, Willy told all that he knew. Pierce had him killed, then had to deal with the same restrictions, except that they were provided by the police, and aimed at protecting the Crimean gold.
A third, easily justified change from the novel to the movie deals with the post-robbery sequence of events. In the novel, the theft took place on May 22, 1855, and was not discovered until the next morning. Cables were then fired in all directions, after which everyone got involved. British and French police were soon running amok in conjunction with detectives hired by the banks, the railroads, and the shipping line which carried the gold.
For a month, nothing happened. On June 17th, all safes involved in the shipment were inspected, and only the Chubb safes were discovered to have unusual scratches, as well as traces of metal filings, grease, and wax, which would have come from the copying of keys. Only at that point did the affair became known as The Great Train Robbery. A railway guard, who accompanied the safes and had been bribed, became subject to renewed suspicion. On June 17th, a warrant was issued for his arrest, but he and his family had vanished. Nothing else was discovered for over a year.
In November of 1856, a series of events took place which resulted in the arrest of Pierce. After eight months of ineffective interrogation, news of the capture was leaked to the press, and the trial of Edward Pierce on the charge of robbery began on July 12, 1857. Throughout the trial, Pierce was more than willing to provide information to the court, and by August 2, he finished his testimony. On that day, he got into a police van to be taken back to prison, and disappeared without a trace.
In the movie, the long months of search, capture, and trial are compressed, or they'd be a movie in themselves. While the escape is effectively the same, the arrest is immediate; one of the police leaders waiting at Folkestone station for the gold sees the person Willy had identified as the mastermind. "Arrest that man!"
Beyond these and other like changes, The Great Train Robbery is effectively the movie of the novel, as it should be. The dialogue is believable, the costumes look thought out and believable, the sets, actions, everything, turned out well.
To reiterate; when making a movie adaptation, it's A Good Thing to keep the book in mind. Making massive changes just to add sympathy, create suspense, or whatever the combination of buzzwords, is unnecessary. Even if the novel is shortened to prevent making an evening at a movie an evening at the movie, the essential story should never be disrupted, should never become distinctive from its original form.
To adapt lines from the 1984 film Amadeus;
"Displace one note, and there would be diminishment. Displace one phrase, and the structure would fall.
If it works, don't fix it.
Keep It Simple, Stupid.
Chrichton, Michael. The Great Train Robbery. New York: Bantam Books, Inc., 1976.
Herbert, Frank. Dune. New York: Ace Books, 1965.
Ibid. Dune Messiah. New York: Berkeley Publishing Corporation, 1969.
Amadeus. The Saul Zaentz Company, 1984.
Dune. Universal Pictures, 1984.
The Great Train Robbery. United Artists, 1978.
© 1996 Cassiel C. MacAvity