From bestseller to blockbuster
Starting today, Harry Potter mania will be pretty hard to avoid.Skip to next paragraph
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"Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," a movie based on the first in a series of children's novels that has broken all kinds of publishing records, opens today. In addition, Harry and his friends will be appearing in as many mediums as a marketer can imagine - video games, a set of special Lego building toys, and endless other merchandise, including candy called Bertie Bott's Every Flavor Beans (Brussels sprouts, anyone?).
Some fans of the book say all this Potter paraphernalia is ruining a wonderful tale. But pundits of popular storytelling suggest that this charge may sell everybody short: Books differ from movies, which differ from video games or Legos or stuffed animals. Each medium can have something to contribute to experiencing a great story, they say.
"When you invent a universe, hearing [about] it once is not enough," says Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse (N.Y.) University. "A two-year-old who insists on
hearing a story told over and over is just an unsophisticated manifestation of an urge we all have to see the story in as many manifestations as possible and in all its depth."
The history of the popular tale also suggests that once a good story enters the public consciousness, it is not inevitable that the story is ruined when translated into new media.
"Every story starts somewhere," Mr. Thompson says. It's important not to get caught up in the concept of purity. "If we take that attitude of purity, we prevent a lot of great things from happening."
Thompson points to a long history of stories being adapted, including Shakespeare. "People said the film 'West Side Story' was based on 'Romeo and Juliet.' But that story already existed in [Shakespeare's] time. What Shakespeare did was take a hackneyed story and gave it great language."
Film and television in this century are full of further examples. "The Godfather" started as a mildly successful book but went on to become a cultural phenomenon as a trio of films. The same was true with "M*A*S*H," which began as a mediocre book and went on to great critical and popular acclaim as both a film and a television series.
The translation even occasionally goes back the other way. "There were some great books based on films like '2001: A Space Odyssey' and 'Miracle on 34th Street,' " Thompson adds.
Understanding the essence of the story is the point of departure for any good adaptation. "I don't think about genre," says screenwriter Chuck Leavitt, who wrote the screenplay for "K-Pax," which was based on a book by the same name.
"I just look for a story that grabs me." Once hooked, each medium has its particular strengths, and the story is written to best utilize what each has to offer.
"The book was written as a doctor speaking into his microphone," Mr. Leavitt says. "To make it more visual, we had to take the story out of the office." The shift from literature's more internal - and sometimes abstract - way of communicating to the more literal visual language of film worries some observers, who suggest that film reduces the power of literature. But, Leavitt says, that underestimates the language of a visual medium.
"We traded the ambiguity of the spoken word for an ambiguity on screen," he says. Acting choices, such as a suggestive smile at just the right moment, or lighting angles that deflect the attention from one on-screen element to another, are ways the same subtle tones can be achieved using different tools.