Howl and "Adaptations"

What's interesting about Miyazaki's "adaptations" is how freely he discards all but the skeletal frame. Like the plot of any Road Runner cartoon, he uses the original work to setup the action, and then takes off from there. Add in his complex, roaming, episodic directoral style, and you end up with movies that are unorthodox, non-linear, and very Asian. This is not a commercial for the corporate cash cow. This is a wandering, epic journey.

We're used to movie spinoffs that are carbon copies of the books (Harry Potter comes to mind), but Miyazaki clearly doesn't have any lucrative franchises to protect. He's interested purely in telling his own stories. With Howl's Moving Castle, you get a sense of what elements resonated with him, which parts he stored away in his memories for years. Then he uses that framework to tell a greater story, one far more personal, using all his familiar icons and archetypes.

This, I'm sure, is what threw a lot of people of with Howl. They thought they were getting a movie version of the book. They weren't expecting Juliet of the Spirits instead. And you pretty much need the knowledge of his whole career, stretching back to Horus, Prince of the Sun, to understand and appreciate it. But that's what I love about Miyazaki's Howl. It's a collosus, an abstract collage of elements that should never fit, but do. Just like that walking castle.


Malik Ming said...

Stanley Kubrick, who based all but his entire career on adaptations, did this, too. The most radical and the purest case of artistic license I can think of was, of course, the transformation of Peter George's Red Alert into Dr. Strangelove. What better way to criticize the absurdity of nuclear deterrence than to present it as dark comedy?

Straight-forward adaptations aren't always so bad. Wasn't Grave of the Fireflies based almost entirely on the novel?

The most recent examples of both came out in 2007: No Country for Old Men by the Coen Brothers, an almost page-by-page faithful adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's novel, and There Will Be Blood, a radical departure from the original novel Oil by Upton Sinclair. Both are great films, they're just too different styles of adaptation.

Daniel Thomas MacInnes said...

Yeeeehhhh...any chance to bring up Stanley Kubrick is a good one! I just watched Dr. Strangelove again a few days ago, and just loved it to pieces. Kubrick always had a dark sense of humor that always creeps into his work, but Strangelove is surely his most madcap, like a post-punk Marx Brothers.

Interesting that you mention Takahata. Except for Pom Poko (which he wrote), every one of his directoral works have been adaptations. His style is neither towards strict adherance nor freewheeling departures, but a third option somewhere in the middle. He treats his source material with tremendous respect and devotion, digging deep within the charaters and environments. Then he expands that universe, gives it room to grow, and expands our vision beyond merely the major characters.

Heidi Marco Anne are the best examples, of course. You can see where Takahata expanded, grew, and moved things around. But it all fits so perfectly.

Here's a perfect example. Compare Takahata's Anne of Green Gables to the Canadian animation series that aired on PBS. Both series make many departures from Maude Montgomery's original book. But Takahata's Anne is more natural, more honest, and his growth fits within the novel's original world. He tells the story that Montgomery really wanted to tell. "Better than the book" might sound sacreligious, but it's very true. The same can be said of..well, his entire career.

So, yes, there is great variety in film adaptations, from note-by-note recitals to total deconstructions.

Malik Ming said...

I personally believe the best adaptations are those done by the director to fit his personality. Obviously, the original source can't be so far removed that it turns into a hack job. Like you originally put it, it's clear in what directors like Kubrick, Takahata, Miyazaki, and even Brad Bird (The Iron Giant) among others did was take the framework and then put their own personal spin on it. That makes the works much more interesting than, say, the Harry Potter films, which were so impersonal that the director was switched at least three times. If we looked hard enough, we could see a little of Chris Columbus', Alfonso Cuaron's, Mike Newell's, and David Yates' personality in those films, but why should we have to look so hard?

Directors should know better than to blindly adapt something. The sensibilities of the original author and the director must somehow match. Elmore Leonard and Quentin Tarantino were a perfect duo because both writers know the rhythms and characteristics of not just the crime genre, but of naturalistic and colorful banter. Tarantino switched a few things from the novel Rum Punch (i.e. casting Pam Grier in the original blonde white's place), but you can still see a lot of Leonard and a lot of Tarantino in Jackie Brown.

This is part of why there's so much controversy over (at least, with my friends) Steven Spielberg adapting the manga Oldboy, which was already well-adapted by Chan-wook Park in 2003. Why do it again? And why Spielberg? They don't seem a natural fit. (Actually, a lot of Spielberg's past adaptations, like The Color Purple, didn't seem a natural fit for him.)

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