Adapt And Survive

The big release of this pre-pre-summer movie season has been The Hunger Games. Ever interested in how books are translated to the screen, I decided to take a day out and give Suzanne Collins’ novel a quick read before heading off to see the film. I’d been told by a number of people that it was basically just a knock-off of Battle Royale, but I went into it with an open mind to see for myself. And you know what? It turns out everybody was wrong. It’s not Battle Royale at all. It’s Battle Royale for chicks. Big difference.

So how do you rewrite Battle Royale for chicks? Apparently all you have to do is spend a lot of your pages talking about food, fashion and makeup. And when it comes time to have your deadly teenagers pitted against each other, you skimp on any details involving the weaponry. A spear is just a spear, a bow is just a bow. If you’re feeling particularly descriptive and want to get all adjectivey, you can dig deep into your meticulously researched notes and specify that it’s a SILVER bow. That’ll paint a picture. Now shut up about the tools of death and tell me about the cupcakes again.

Oh, and if you want your Battle-Royale-For-Chicks book to be a huge whopping success, make sure you throw in a Twilight-style love triangle in which the sullen, plain-Jane has to decide which of the two smitten hunky dreamboats she should choose. Decisions decisions. Have another pastry while you think it over.

As we’ve seen with Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, when you adapt beloved books in this era, you have to be a little more slavish to the source material than Hollywood has been in the past. Out of necessity, there will have to be a few embellishments and a number of edits to keep the running time reasonable. But gone, it seems, are the days when producers would pay top dollar for a popular series of novels — let’s use James Bond as an example — and then proceed to throw away everything except the title and a few character names. The fanbase for these books is considered to be much of the core audience, and you want good word of mouth to carry your box office. If the opening-day fans tell all their slower-out-of-the-gate fan friends that their favourite book got butchered, you’re going to have a much harder time making it to nine figures. And you might as well forget about the rest of your trilogy (The Golden Compass, anyone?).

After studying the book-to-screen process for many years, I’ve come to the conclusion that the art of adaptation can be summarized in four simple words:

Lucy Mancini’s giant vagina.

Not the four words you were expecting. Obviously. If you thought I was going to go for something trite like “Keep it simple, stupid,” you haven’t been reading my blog for very long. So who is Lucy Mancini and why is her vagina so huge you might ask. Allow me to illuminate.

Check any list of the greatest movies ever made and opinions may vary, but certain staples always make it into the top ten no matter who you talk to. Citizen Kane is invariably right near the top, Seven Samurai will reliably make an appearance, and The Godfather will more than likely snag one of the top three positions. Worthy choices all, and I’m very fond of each of them. Only one of the three is based on any sort of source material, and that’s The Godfather. The film, famously directed by Francis Ford Coppola, was adapted for the screen by Coppola himself, and Mario Puzo, author of the original best-selling novel.

Born in 1920, Mario Puzo grew up in the Hell’s Kitchen neighbourhood of New York. He probably saw enough crime there to tip him towards the mobster genre when he became a novelist and screenwriter as an adult. Although he worked on some decidedly non-mafia-esque projects, like the scripts for Richard Donner’s Superman movies, much of his output was decidedly mobbed-up. Based on his association with the massively successful Godfather film series, Puzo became a well-known writer who is remembered, more often than not, as a great author.

Misremembered.

The fact is, The Godfather is a pretty shitty book. It’s a sleazy little potboiler, full of sex and violence that was destined for the best-seller list because of its lurid content that was seen as rather exotic in its day. If the movie is any good at all, it’s due to the considerable talents of Coppola (already, at this time, an Oscar-winning screenwriter of Patton) as the principal translator of Puzo’s source material. I hold this example up as the finest work ever done in bringing a book to the screen because, remarkably, it’s an utterly faithful adaptation of Puzo’s literary bowel movement.

How is this even possible? Compare the two. The characters are all the same, what happens is virtually identical, even much of the dialogue is directly quoted. So why is the book junk and the movie genius? Context. Although the same things are said and done in both versions of the story, their meanings are completely different from one to the other.

This is best illustrated in the key scene following the failed assassination attempt against Vito Corleone. A response to the crisis must be agreed upon. The hotheaded son, Sonny, wants to hit back hard and kill their enemies. The thoughtful adopted son, Tom, cautions against going to war and wants to lie low. Michael, the enigmatic youngest son, speaks up and surprises the room by offering to broker peace talks that would see him personally assassinate their two main antagonists. The scene is nearly identical in the book and the film and yet they are worlds apart.

Michael’s moral downfall, as he gives up a promising future to toe the family line, is an American tragedy in the film. It’s an upsetting failure that robs the Corleones of legitimacy for at least another generation, and it weighs heavily on everybody. In the book, however, Michael’s fateful decision is seen as an American inevitability. Michael is a mafia thug at heart, and he was just kidding himself that he could be a war hero, marry well, and live an honest life. His moral degradation is of no consequence because he’s only being true to himself. In the movie, Sonny mocks Michael’s earnest decision to kill in the name of the family business. He doesn’t see his little brother as the capable, ruthless mob boss he will soon become as a direct consequence of this moment. In the book, using the same words, Sonny is merely teasing Michael because he’s actually quite delighted that his brother has given up his pretentions and come to terms with his true nature.

The actions are the same, the words are the same, the themes are completely different.

But adaptation isn’t just about finding what you really want to say within the original source material — material that may be at odds with what you want to do with your screen story. It’s also about editing. Specifically it’s about cutting away the dead weight that distracts from what you’re trying to accomplish.

Like Lucy Mancini’s giant vagina.

I’m enough of a Godfather geek that I will occasionally take a couple of days out to watch all three films in quick succession. Yes, the third one too, which could never hope to live up to the first two, but is more worthwhile than the needless critical vitriol would have you believe. As a fanboy, I like to mine new content from these familiar films by tracking the arcs of some of the lesser-known characters that more casual viewers wouldn’t normally notice. Minor players like Michael’s enforcer, Al Neri, or the aforementioned Lucy Mancini who appears briefly in parts one and three. You may remember her as the girl Sonny Corleone is having it off with in the bathroom during Connie’s wedding. She’s barely a blip in the film, but she’s a much more substantial character in the book — to no good effect.

Lucy Mancini’s subplot concerns her involvement with Sonny, and what happens to her after the bloody hit that abruptly ends their relationship. We’re told that the main reason she’s carrying on an affair with such a brutal Mafioso thug is because he’s an oversexed Sicilian with an enormous cock. The only cock, in fact, that’s big enough to make an impact inside her cavernous genitalia. Lucy, it seems, was born rather, um, shall we say, loose.

After Sonny’s untimely demise, Lucy is left with no one to fill the void, so to speak. Ultimately, she departs from New York and the main plotline, but we keep following her story nevertheless. Much of the final third of the book is devoted to Lucy’s journey of despair until she encounters a doctor who is abreast of a radical new surgical technique that offers vaginal tightening. After doubts and reassurances, Lucy goes under the knife and eventually allows her doctor pal to test drive the post-recovery results as they become lovers — something made possible by her sparkling new vagina that is a testament to the wonders of modern medical procedures.

I know what you’re thinking, and yes, all this shit really is in The Godfather. And did I mention this whole plotline goes nowhere and has no impact on the main narrative at all? It eats pages and pages and pages of the book and accomplishes nothing other than to make it even more trashy. I have a theory that Mario Puzo just happened to read an article about vaginal-tightening surgery in the late ‘60s and decided, almost at random, to throw it into whatever he happened to be working on at the time to pad out the page count. It could just as easily have ended up in the first draft screenplay for Superman or Earthquake if he’d read that article a decade later. The thing is, if he’d put it in a first draft of a screenplay, Lucy Mancini’s giant vagina wouldn’t have lived to see the second draft. In a novel, however, that shit made it to print.

Judiciously, Francis Ford Coppola cut the subplot from the film adaptation. I’m willing to bet it was the first cut he made, probably while he was still reading the book. Although Lucy Mancini did make a cameo in The Godfather Part III, details of her vaginal woes were never mined for any Godfather projects, which I find particularly telling since Coppola, ever determined to strip the original book for every nugget of potential plot, went back and used one chapter of exposition as the basis for half of the entire film of The Godfather Part II.

When books get made into movies, I always hear a lot of pissing and moaning about the stuff that was skipped or left out. And yes, sometimes it really is a case of Hollywood butchery. But let’s not forget that there are other examples where judicious omissions not only make for a better film, but make for a classic movie in light of some pretty sub-par source material. Adaptations are made not just by what you put in, but what you leave out. So let us be glad we never had to go to the theatre and be subjected to Lucy Mancini’s giant vagina. Or Tom Fucking Bombadil for that matter.

The GodfatherFrom my vast paperback collection: a first print edition from Fawcett (1970). Note the lack of the iconic puppeteer hand and marionette strings that would become the instantly recognizable logo for the franchise once the first movie was released a couple of years later.

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