A movie’s source material doesn’t matter

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Brad Pitt tries to save his family from being chowed on by zombies in "World War Z," all while having amazing hair. Photo credit: Jaap Buitendijk, (c) 2013 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved. Brad Pitt tries to save his family from being chowed on by zombies in "World War Z," all while having amazing hair. Photo credit: Jaap Buitendijk, (c) 2013 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

It’s the perfect time of year to discuss a longstanding moviegoers’ gripe: “The book was better.” Or “they changed the ending.” Or World War Z is an in-name adaptation only. (To be fair, that last statement, sort of uttered by World War Z novelist Max Brooks, isn’t a gripe. It’s the book’s fans who are doing the griping.)

So far this summer there’s been a lackluster Superman movie (Man of Steel), but Brad Pitt and Marc Forster’s World War Z is making serious box office inroads. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is five months away (its scheduled opening is November 20), but there’s already been lots of yapping on the Interwebz about whether it will stick closely to the book.

And here’s my wholly informed, professional critic’s opinion about all this stuff: Who gives a shit if a movie is different from its source material?

Sure, that’s dismissive and maybe even a little mean. Some stories affect readers deeply, and those readers in turn expect to have their stories represented faithfully when transferred from source to screen. It rarely happens. And when a really faithful adaptation does happen, it, too, can be wretched (see: Sin City; the problem was not the source material).

The truth is—and we all know this deep down, and we’ve all heard it before—it doesn’t matter whether a movie adaptation of a book (or comic or graphic novel or play) resembles its source material. At all.

Did you enjoy the movie? Great. You didn’t? Too bad, but you can still enjoy the Action Comics No. 1.

Again, these are all things we know. Most of the time, books or comics or whatever are just too long—even the short books—and too dense, too detailed, and too subplot-heavy to be transferred without alterations.

And sometimes there are images in source material better left to a reader’s imagination. What if, in Ang Lee’s adaptation of Life of Pi, he’d included the scene from the novel in which Pi, the protagonist, tries to eat the tiger’s feces? Instant barf-fest (though John Waters would probably be pleased). If Tony Kushner had used Doris Kearns Goodwins entire Team of Rivals for his screenplay Lincoln instead of the slim section he used, it could have been a 13-episode HBO series.

Consider comics. Man of Steel‘s creators have 75 years of source material to draw from. Yikes. At least they tried something new-ish, even if the results are bad-ish.

Plus, let’s be honest. We only care about an adaptation’s integrity when we don’t know (or care about) the source material. Does anyone sniff derisively because There Will Be Blood barely resembles Upton Sincair’s Oil!, or because Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo significantly alters parts of Pierre Boileau and Pierre Ayraud’s D’entre les Morts, or because Apocalypse Now is different from Hearts of Darkness and careens into super-weirdness when they find Kurtz?

But make World War Z a movie about the outbreak of the zombie plague instead of a series of accounts about the war 10 years after its end? THE HORROR. QUEL DOMMAGE.

In the long run, does it matter that a pre-Joker Jack Napier kills Batman’s parents Tim Burton’s Batman? In 1989, it certainly felt like a big deal. Then Christopher Nolan made Batman Begins and everyone sort of forgot about Burton’s alterations of the Batman universe.

That’s a long way of saying don’t fret. The great thing about Hollywood is that it keeps giving fans chances to hate it. If you dislike Man of Steel (which is entirely reasonable), it’s possible that in another decade, Warner Bros. will hit the history eraser button and reboot the franchise. They did it with Batman. They’ve done it with Superman twice.

The bottom line is that we all pay our money, and therefore we all get what we get. And you’re not really going to skip out on World War Z just because it’s different from the book. Are you?

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