The 3:30 Project is a collaborative blog by three life-long friends: Maggie, Mary Margaret and Jillian. So often people rant on and on about how an adaptation, sequel, or remake could never possibly be as good as the original. This week we challenged ourselves to take an opposite approach and look at adaptations that we think actually worked– ones that maybe even got it a bit better or brought a whole new appreciation to our understanding of the first version.
My sister Emily and I loved reading Roald Dahl when we were little, and Matilda was undoubtedly a favorite. I have memories of us reading his paperbacks together, sprawled out on the carpet, with our yellowed paperback copy adorned with Quentin Blake’s classic illustrations of the stringy- haired little girl (that I’m sure Emily still owns). What I remember most about Matilda was it’s combination of eerie supernatural magic, slightly foreign “British-ness,” vivid characters both love-able and malicious, silly yet dark humor, and like many Roald Dahl stories, possessing palpable lessons about morality, justice, the importance of kindness, and in this case, the hidden strength under what seems outwardly meek, unloved, and small.
I saw Matilda: The Musical on Broadway with my mother in the summer of 2014. Ironically, two weeks later, I was given the opportunity to join the show’s wardrobe department, where I worked as a frequent sub stitcher and dayworker for a year and a half, until the show’s closing at the end of 2016. It was my first gig on a Broadway musical, and I was thrilled to work on a show that I enjoyed so much—the kind of show that made me truly excited about my part in making live theatre happen.
Matilda: The Musical is a fantastic adaptation of Dahl’s novel, superior in my opinion to the 90s film version. When you make an adaptation, I think it shouldn’t simply be because the original was “a good story” or successful, beloved or likely to garner attention (and ticket sales). One compelling reason to reinvent something is because you believe you can illuminate or bring to life some crucial essence of the original work in a new medium, and for this, theatre seems perfectly suited to Dahl’s work.
Why, you ask? Here’s just a few of the many reasons:
*Highly Theatrical Characters– Tricky to do on film, where outlandish characters can seem garish, the stage is the perfect place for Dahl’s characters like Mrs. Trunchbull and the Wormwoods to be dramatically over-the-top, without seeming strangely disjointed from the gentle realness of Miss Honey.
*Creepiness!- Dahl’s stories are rife with the creepy and dark; I mean the school principal locks unruly students in a horrifying closet called “The Chokey!” A dark theatre, complete with lighting, sound, music, fog machines, and stage tricks is an incredibly immersive experience, and so incredibly evocative of the eeriness and thrills of Dahl’s book, as well as vividness of a child’s imagination, which is a critical part of the story.
*Supernatural Elements– The recreation of Matilda’s telekinetic powers is inherently better on stage as opposed to film, because for most audience members, there is a true level of wonderment and “how do they do that!!” when live “stage magic” plays out. Even for a backstage worker like me, I am still often amazed by effects created by stage artists. I think with modern films, we are so aware now of the capabilities of computers and post-production, so it seems less magical, while seeing a little girl live on stage miraculously writing on a chalkboard with her mind, seems intrinsically more spectacular by the hiddenness of the trick.
* Revolting Children!- Matilda is about a child who does incredible things, and while watching a company of children sing, dance, and act their hearts out for over two hours, it’s hard to deny the amazing abilities and sensitivities of even the very young. Certainly children have much to learn, but we so often dismiss how much children are capable of doing and understanding. Watching the virtuosity of these real life kids (who genuinely seem to be having fun backstage, too!) perform so spectacularly, is to me a beautiful illustration and inspiration of what Dahl tells us through his little book-loving girl. Small does not equal weak. Force does not equal power. The power of your own mind and heart are stronger than an unjust regime.
I’d like to believe in this kind of justice- where a kind and brilliant child could topple a cruel despot. Where those who start out powerless and unloved achieve justice and peace.
Like every 4-year-old in America (possibly the world), my daughter loves the movie Frozen. For most of 2016, she would only wear Elsa dresses in public. I have 3 singing Elsa dresses, 3 Elsa nightgowns, a dress we affectionately refer to as the “hoop dress” and an Anna dress. So, I get that if the goal was to sell merchandise, Frozen is doing pretty well at my house.
You know those people who are always saying, “Oh, DO NOT watch that movie until you’ve read the book”? I hate those people so much.
I’m an English major, and all English majors start out as book lovers, that’s obvious. But you learn pretty quickly that the world is so full of good books, you could never hope to read them all in your lifetime. And you also learn that truly great books are a different story.
Good books have interesting storylines and enthralling characters. Great books have interesting storylines and enthralling characters and masterful writing.
Good books are prime fodder for excellent movies, and since they don’t have masterful writing to begin with, they don’t lose anything in the adaptation. Here are some very well-loved books that I deem totally skippable in favor of the screen version.
The Hunger Games. Great story, great characters, but the writing is not special. In the film version, you get a purer, more elegant, more artful story by elevating the plot and the characters and leaving out the mediocre narration.
Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire. As a creator of worlds, George R.R. Martin ranks right up there with J.R.R. Tolkien. As a creator of complex and fascinating characters, some might compare him to the Bard himself. But as a writer? No. A lot of readers have been angry that Martin appears to invest more time in the HBO series than in finishing the book series. But I say let him. He started a good book series, but now he’s writing a great, groundbreaking, go-down-in-history television series. And I’m thrilled with that.
But it’s not just mediocre books that can be surpassed on screen. Even really good books by some of the best authors can sometimes be surpassed by their film adaptations. The number one best book I have ever deemed to be totally skippable in favor of the movie version is Ian McEwan’s Atonement.
Ian McEwan is considered one of the great writers of our time. Atonement was nominated for the Booker Prize – it is a really good book. McEwan takes a lot of risks in his storytelling, and some of those risks don’t exactly work out. If you’re interested in examining the craft of novel writing, it’s fascinating. But if you’re interested in a challenging, thought-provoking story without – for example – complex characters who end up not mattering in the end, a handful of themes that get dropped part way through, and the confusion those extraneous elements bring to the story’s conclusion, then skip this excellent book and watch the extraordinary film.
In the film, you get beautiful costumes, historical sets and an enriching musical score. But most importantly, you get a purer version of the story.
The best novels are already pure – distilled down until every sentence matters. That’s why for me, Atonement, in spite of its well-crafted prose, falls short of being a truly great novel – there’s too much that could be weeded out. And that’s what the film does – it weeds out the author’s wandering literary experiments and leaves a profound and meaningful story.
Life’s short. Spend it reading the books you love. Because if you spend it trying to read all the good books, you’ll miss out on a lot of phenomenal films.
Leave us a comment about the adaptations or remakes you love!