KERRIE MURPHY ON WHY SOME IMAGINATIONS ARE BEYOND ILLUSTRATION
THERE is nothing quite like that sinking feeling you get when you hear that a beloved book is set for movie adaptation. This feeling is not driven by some elitist notion — plenty of films do novels justice, some are even superior — but sometimes the translation of a book to the screen ends up making as much sense as the same sentence run repeatedly through Alta Vista’s Babel Fish translator.
The Babel fish was imagined by Douglas Adams in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy . When inserted into a person’s ear, it lives off brainwave energy and excretes telepathically into the mind, allowing the host to understand any language. It’s appropriate the term originated in a science fiction comedy because this is the genre that comes off worst in adaptations.
Adams is perhaps the best- known author of this class of books, but fellow Brits Terry Pratchett and Robert Rankin are also creators of what the latter calls ‘‘ far- fetched fiction’’.
So news that director Terry Gilliam may finally realise his long discussed movie adaptation of Neil Gaiman ( author of the Sandman comics) and Pratchett’s Good Omens is worrying. If anyone could do justice to a loose parody of The Omen in which a hospital’s baby mix- up results in the spawn of Satan being raised as a normal child, and an angel and a demon unite to prevent Armageddon because after spending so much time on earth they decide they quite like it, it’s the director of Brazil . Both Gaiman and Pratchett have said he’s the only person who could pull it off.
But the fact it’s taken so long is a clue to how hard it will be to film. As with Hitchhiker’s , which was first optioned in 1982 but did not reach cinemas until 2005, the idea of a movie adaptation has floated around for some time. The script Gilliam hopes to work with was completed in 2002.
Gilliam told Empire magazine that the time finally may be right, not only because CGI technology has advanced but also because Gaiman, co- author of the screenplay of last year’s Beowulf and an adaptation of his own novel Stardust , is a hot property in Hollywood.
But although advances in technology have made computerised special effects faster and cheaper, they’re still no match for an author’s imagination. You have only to look at the lavish reworking of the plots taken from Rob Grant and Doug Naylor’s sci- fi television comedy Red Dwarf for the spin- off books to see the difference.
Then there are the almost 40 books in Pratchett’s DiscWorld series ( there are constant threats of a film adaptation) that detail the lives of witches, wizards, trolls, elves and werewolves who live on a flat planet that sits on the backs of four elephants which are standing on the back of a giant turtle. This would not be cheap to realise on film.
Of course, the Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings series are hardly slices of realism and the movie adaptations are mostly considered a success. The difference is money.
Although he has sold more than 55 million books, Pratchett is not in the same league of audience familiarity as J. K. Rowling or J. R. R. Tolkien ( perhaps he should change his name to J. T. Pratchett). And film budgets are allocated according to an author’s fame.
Take Adams’s Hitchhiker’s , arguably a better- known book than anything by Pratchett. The budget for that film was $ US50 million, while the first The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter movies were budgeted at $ US93 million and $ US125 million respectively.
But the hurdles for Good Omens run deeper than convincingly depicting Armageddon, a flaming 1926 Bentley and flying motor scooter, all of which feature in the story.
The problem is that books ( or radio, where Hitchhiker’s was born) describe, rather than show, what’s going on, and so much of the humour of these books comes from their descriptions and authorial comment. For instance, try to think of a visual way to explain the running gag in Good Omens about how any cassette ( remember them?) left in a car for more than two weeks automatically turns into The Best of Queen.
In these books, the story as such may not be all that funny and coming up with a visual equivalent of the witty writing isn’t easy. The 1981 BBC TV series of Hitchhiker’s cheated by blurring the line between the show’s narrator and the voice of the titular book. But the movie gave up, jettisoning classic lines such as the idea that the Vogon spaceships ‘‘ hung in the sky in much the same way as bricks don’t’’ and cutting out funny dialogue in order to condense scenes.
But the Hitchhiker’s plot is weak and practically peters out at the end: it’s the jokes that make reading it worth the effort. Without them, the flaws loom large.
Good Omens is chock- full of hilarious footnotes, such as the character who thought ‘‘ paparazzi was a kind of Italian linoleum’’, and Gilliam will have his work cut out doing them justice in a film.
The final problem is, well, people such as me: the fans who read and re- read the books ( and watch the TV shows, listen to the radio versions and play the computer games), and who are very possessive about their beloved fictional universes. Cater to them too much and the movie will be incomprehensible to those who haven’t read the book, but stray too far from the source and you risk noisy negative word of mouth by a generally net savvy audience ( take a look at http:// www. planetmagrathea. com/ notinthefilm. html for one fan’s meticulous detail of crucial omissions in the Hitchhiker’s movie).
The trick lies in tweaking the story for a briefer, visual medium while still capturing the spirit of the book. Gilliam has some hard work ahead of him: get Good Omens wrong and the fan reaction may turn out to be more violent than Armageddon.