From bestseller to blockbuster
LOS ANGELES — Starting today, Harry Potter mania will be pretty hard to avoid.
"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.
Film also can allow new elements of the story to emerge. Last year's "Chocolat" took the story in ways not touched on in the book, involving the main character, a chocolate maker. The film explored the cultural development of chocolate in Latin America during a time of turmoil, which allowed for vivid visual imagery.
This was a wonderful idea, says Joanne Harris, who wrote the novel "Chocolat," upon which the film was based. "If I'd have thought about the history of chocolate when I was writing my book, I'd have done it myself," she says.
The British author of the Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling, has praised the new film of her first book as being very close to her image of Harry Potter's world. But remaining literally faithful is less important than keeping close to the spirit of the source material, says writer Shawn Slovo.
Ms. Slovo had the task of adapting the British bestseller "Captain Corelli's Mandolin" into a screenplay. The novel tells a complicated story with many characters over a long period of time.
"The book has many more characters than you can possibly put in a film narrative," Slovo says. A final screenplay had to reflect "the purpose and the integrity of the book," but must be allowed to tell the story in its own way.
"If you keep to the spirit of the story, it doesn't matter what goes into [the adaptation]; if the core story is solid, each medium will allow for it," says Paul McCusker, executive producer of audio drama for Focus on the Family Radio Theater, a group that re-creates classic literature for audio.
Mr. McCusker says he feels an obligation to deliver story details that fans of classic works expect, but also cites one of Hollywood's screenwriting gurus, William Goldman, who believed that it's not as important to get the details right as to get the story's spirit.
Indeed, some say that malleability between mediums is inherent in popular tales, especially ones such as "Harry Potter" that contain so many classic elements of the mythic hero's journey - in this case, a young orphaned child, who finds that he has secret powers, sets out to overcome the evil that killed his parents.
"One of the marks of a good story is that it is adapted and retold," says Anne Collins Smith, assistant professor of philosophy and classical studies at Susquehanna (Pa.) University. "The use of storytelling to convey truth is an ancient and appealing mode of expression."
The ancient Greek playwrights, such as Euripides, took the old myths and put their own spin on them, creating large and popular works of theater.
"This engages not only the rational mind, but the emotions and imagination and creativity," she says. "When you're a listener, and the story lives in your imagination, it fosters a desire to express your own creativity, to emphasize or express the same or a different truth."
But there is a cautionary tale in the modern version of this ancient story.
By overshadowing all other versions of a popular story, the marketing juggernauts who support a film or TV show can manage to ruin a good thing.
"Take 'the Hallelujah chorus' from Handel's 'Messiah,' " says Thompson, the media pundit. "It is one of the most exciting pieces of music in the Western canon, but it's been worn out. You can't hear it anymore without echoes of clichés.
"The same is true with Da Vinci's 'The Last Supper' or the 'Mona Lisa.' These images that have surfaced in so many iterations have not been able to withstand overuse."