The Weekend Australian - Review - - Viewpoints -

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.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Igor Sak­tor

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