Pod Bay One

2018 retrospective: film

All the films I saw in 2018 were adaptations of novels or installments of ongoing series. But how does one adapt a novel to film successfully?

Written by Matthew Lloyd on 6 January 2019

I saw seven films in the cinema this year, which is above-average for me these days. Two of them were Marvel movies, which were probably above the standard for most Marvel movies, but still largely unmemorable beyond being lightly entertained at the time. Chris Hemsworth was funny in one of them.

Then there was the Star Wars movie, which I don’t think was very good, but which I still enjoyed rather a lot. The most memorable thing for me was the introduction of Enfys Nest, who for me is probably the character from the Disney Star Wars films that most captures for thirty-something me what Boba Fett did for (pre-)teen me: the character whose backstory seems the most interesting and thus will inevitably be disappointing.

I feel compelled to clarify that Enfys isn’t my favourite character from the new films, a position held currently by Rose Tico with Cassian Andor somewhere close behind. Most of the cast of Rogue One falls into the Fett/Nest spectrum of people who might have interesting backstories; but knowing some of the details as they’re actually fleshed out means that they can’t take the prize – Chirrut and Baze aren’t actually married to one another? I’ll stick with my headcanon, thanks.

Still, for a film about Han Solo, a character whose background never seemed particularly interesting, I thought Solo: A Star Wars Story (dir. Ron Howard) was far better than it might’ve been.

Three of the films I watched this year were adapted from novels. I can’t really comment on A Wrinkle in Time (dir. Ava DuVernay) as an adaptation, having not read Madeleine L’Engle’s novel, nor can I particularly remember the film beyond it being a mildly entertaining if not brilliant film, but I was a thirty-something person seeing it without a child, so my perspective hardly matters.

I was more personally affected by the disappointment of Mortal Engines (dir. Christian Rivers), based on the first of Philip Reeve’s quartet of novels known by various names. (My favourite is probably the Hungry Cities Quartet for its silliness; if I’m being serious I would probably go for Predator Cities Quartet; if practical, the Mortal Engines Quartet.)

The story, which focuses on a mobile London in a time of traction cities following a planet-destroying war, should have been visually stunning and memorable for its cinematic presence if nothing else. The failure was probably in allowing the team behind The Lord of the Rings movies to adapt it rather than someone inspired by Mad Max: Fury Road (dir. George Miller, 2015); the novels are often described as Steampunk, but Petrolpunk would suit an adaptation just as well.

I find myself most comparing this film to The Golden Compass (dir. Chris Weitz, 2007), in that it utterly fails to adapt the story for a different medium, despite a pretty good cast. I think The Golden Compass probably did better in terms of cast and visuals, although Mortal Engines was a more fun film (or rather, I didn’t let my cynicism about the whole thing completely sour me against it as I did with The Golden Compass).

Even before I saw the film my enthusiasm for Mortal Engines was largely sapped by Rivers’ comments on the decision to make Hester Shaw’s scar less disfiguring than it is described in the book. While the significance of Hester to those with facial scars, and the necessity of challenging Hollywood’s warped sense of how human bodies should look, are important, the comments also revealed that Rivers just didn’t seem to get the character of Hester and her relationship with Tom, and why that matters to the story. Throughout the film, we largely just have characters that do things because that’s what they do, not because their actions make sense to them as characters. It’s a solid symptom of a film that’s been badly adapted from the source material.

The best film I saw in the cinema this year was also an adaptation of a science fiction novel. Annihilation (dir. Alex Garland) had its flaws as an adaptation, and certainly its differences to the book can be cause for complaint, but for me personally it worked as a film separate from the source material. VanderMeer’s comment that he “never expected or wanted a faithful adaptation from Garland – just a good one”, cited in the Hollywood Reporter article linked to above, seems to me a perfect attitude to take to adaptations; the problem being that if an adaptation is unfaithful and bad the most obvious cause for complaint will be the faithlessness (or the absence of faithlessness, to go back to The Golden Compass for a moment).

Garland understands that a film has different requirements to a novel, and emphasises the visual aspects of the Shimmer rather than the questions of subjectivity and reliability that are emphasised in Jeff VanderMeer’s 2014 novel. I believe that Annihilation is one of those rare cases where the novel and film complement one another in their alternative approaches to the subject matter.

Adapting a novel is one thing; adapting the life of a novelist is another. In September my local cinema was screening the 2017 film Mary Shelley (dir. Haifaa al-Mansour), which depicts the relationship between Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (née Godwin) and Percy Bysshe Shelley up until the point at which the former publishes Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. I enjoyed the film and its melodrama, but was trying to remember what I knew of Mary Shelley’s life and its accuracy throughout (the absence of Fanny Imlay was glaring).

I also couldn’t help comparing it to the play Mary Shelley by Helen Edmundson, which I saw in Oxford in 2012. Edmundson’s play focuses on Mary’s relationship with her father, William Godwin, and how Frankenstein was a reaction to how he raised her. And of course, my favourite adaptation of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s life remains a book – Charlotte Gordon’s Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley (2015: Random House).

In addition to the films mentioned above I also watched Tomb Raider (dir. Roar Uthaug), Deadpool 2 (dir. David Leitch), and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (dir. Jake Kasdan) on planes. It’s probably not fair to judge these films based on that experience, but two of them were both fun and not Tomb Raider.