Wednesday, September 2, 2009


As some of you are no doubt aware, as is the case in many religions and other assorted belief systems, there exists in the sci-fi community a core of strict, even virulent orthodoxy with regard to the translation of a beloved story from one medium to another.

While this is certainly also true of other genres, We the Geeks seem to take our chosen passion very, very personally. It's an affront to us when the entire Tom Bombadil segment gets dropped from LotR. It is absolutely criminal that Dr. Manhattan takes the fall for Ozymandias, instead of a giant alien space squid. Might as well just slap my momma if you're gonna go THAT far.

The psychological explanations for this are many and are no doubt explored elsewhere in excruciating detail. For purposes of this discussion, I'm not interested. It just is. What interests me here are the conditions under which a rabid fan is willing to make an exception.

I got to thinking of this after Marvin the Paranoid Android became a recent fixture of discussion over at the grownup table. It just so happens that this very evening, I completed a listening of the complete five-series BBC Radio 4 production of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

I'm a huge fan of HGTTG. It's one of the first sci-fi series I ever read. The Infocom game for the Apple was the first computer game I ever played. My dad and I used to listen to the original BBC radio show on tape during long drives through the night on family vacations. It never got old. The mice still crack me up.

This more recent production was absolutely freaking marvelous, and I can't recommend it highly enough to any fan of Adams' work. The voice acting was all wonderful and believable, they stayed true to the main storyline while throwing in the random updated reference (custom cell phone ringtones are a pretty neat idea, digital watches are right out), the shift of exposition to character dialog was handled adroitly, and the expanded sound effects and production values tied it all together nicely.

But here's the thing: they completely, totally, utterly changed the ending.

Note: spoilers will follow. Do not proceed without prior knowledge or peril-sensitive sunglasses.

Still here? Good.

Now, normally this sort of thing would throw me into an absolute rage. How dare they presume, especially after Douglas Adams' death, to twiddle the (admittedly bleak) ending of Mostly Harmless just to make it more audience-friendly? Yeah it was bleak, but so what? The man himself said he intended it that way, though he'd apparently had second thoughts after publication. This sort of presumption usually makes a rabid fanboy pen strongly-worded letters to the responsible parties, imagining the wrath of their broken sentences impacting the hapless target like anthrax ink on semtex foolscap. They will pay.

But...this worked. It was a complete rewrite. Disneyfied, almost. No bleakness. Everything's okay. Look, they're all fine! All the main characters and a bunch of secondary bit players! Why, even Marvin's back, and he shuffled off the mortal (ignition) coil back in Book 4! Happy days are here again!

Absolutely MADDENING, right? Wrong.

They did it with style, and they did it with respect. This wasn't the ugly exploitation of a cultural touchstone for a meager profit, animating a corpse and putting it in a funny hat to parade it around with a tin cup (I'm looking at you, Brian Herbert). This was an act of love for Douglas Adams' work and it was reflected in the quality of the result. He might've written it himself, given the chance, he wasn't above the odd Deus ex Machina now and then

The distinction between "OK" and "OMFG" is an intangible, and it's what I'm trying (at length) to grasp. What makes the difference? Is it purely subjective - I want to like it, so I excuse what would normally drive me nuts - or is there an objective measure by which the average fan determines how much change they'll deal with? Because we've all done it. You've never, ever, ever seen any book, comic or otherwise, adapted to film without substantial change, and you never will. But barring completely outrageous butchery we usually accept the result, albeit with some grousing.

What's your breaking point? What went too far for you, and why? Or, alternatively, what did you gloss over and deal with?


  1. Aside: best picture ever is at the top of this post.

    Generally speaking, I thought every decision Peter Jackson made with the LotR adaptation was genius. I totally didn't mind skipping Tom Bombadil and all of Tolkien's poetry. I want to say there is one part of the trilogy that is the exception and sticks in my craw, but if there is I can't think of it right now.

    I also like HGTTG a lot and watched both the old BBC miniseries and the recent movie. I didn't particularly care for either one of them, especially the movie. I thought the ending to the novels was terrible so I'm actually pretty inspired to listen to what you're referring to. It's been too long since I read the books anyway.

    My breaking point was half way through the third one of those Brian Herbert Dune books. I had to look myself in the mirror and ask, "Why the hell are you reading this?"

    I think I also have a perfect example of the same situation you're talking about, where a remake or adaptation is different, yet good. Unfortunately, I can't remember what it is. Let me think on this some more.

  2. I didn't miss Bombadil either, and I was actually a bit shocked at how many people did. (Central character? That twit? C'mon.)

    I did, however, sorely miss the Scouring of the Shire. Besides being a great action bit (and if we didn't all love a good siege, we'd hardly have watched the rest of the film), it also staged some pretty critical character development for the Hobbits.

  3. Yes, the scouring of the Shire was something missing. I was hoping that might make its way onto the extended DVD, but I'm guessing it was simply a casualty of time since the movies were already so long. I still can't think of what that bothersome part may be that I mentioned. I want to say it's in the Two Towers. Personally, I was thrilled that Galadriel's line, "All shall love me and despair!" was kept in for the movies. That's such a great line. Shouldn't Obama adopt that for a slogan?

  4. I think he's reserving the "despair" bit for "look on my works ye mighty and..."

  5. I think you are confusing Geek with Greek.

  6. It's not a book, but Resident Evil got a movie adaptation that had nothing to do with the game. After the first 20 minutes or so I put it on fast-forward, which turned out to be a good plan because the whole rest of the movie seemed to take place in a few aluminum corridors, which is kind of a waste of the visual medium.

    I love the words this captcha generator comes up with. I just got "unibum." Presumably a rear end with a single large cheek.

  7. I also had the misfortune of seeing Resident Evil. I can't believe they made three of them. It's getting to the point in a lot of these movies now where they don't even make a pretense of having a good story. You're just supposed to want to watch blood, gore & nudity. Seriously: who goes to the theater to watch all these things?