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She Has No Head! – Tamara Drewe and the Art of Adaptation

Adaptations fascinate me.  I think I became aware of my fascination when I took an “Adaptations” class at the Savannah College of Art & Design with James Sturm, one of my favorite professors and by far my favorite class when all was said and done.  The class certainly clarified the fascination but it mostly illustrated to me how difficult truly good adaptation is.

[some slightly NSFW pages after the cut…]

If anyone is bothering to adapt something chances are it’s because a lot of people already loved the original – in whatever form it took.  So before step one is taken there is this incredible responsibility to respect and honor the original material.  Nine times out of ten however, for me this is where most adaptations stumble and fall.  Like any fan I want respect for my original beloved material, but not at the sacrifice of something excellent on its own that smartly acknowledges its new medium.

Comic books and graphic novel film adaptations often disappoint me in this way.

The last ten years have produced a slew of comics book and graphic novel film adaptations and most have been misses for me.  I liked the first two X-Men films in part because while I felt respect for the characters in every frame, they weren’t slavishly devoted to the material in a way that undermined their own purposes.  In the same way the two Iron Man films pleased me (although Iron Man II could easily lose 40 minutes and be a better film for it).  And Nolan’s first two Batman films try to be the best FILMS they can be with the wonderful character tapestry provided as mostly an excellent road map.

On the other hand the Spider-Man movies never worked for me, even though I’ve enjoyed bits of them (the scene on the train in #2 gets me every time).  Overall though they’re too faithful for me, too earnest.  So much of the dialogue feels like it comes straight from the comics, and while it feels right in the comics, it feels painfully cheesy and clunky to me on a 40 foot screen (especially if said by Kristen Dunst).  Sin City I found to be a fascinating experiment of what would happen if you had the most direct interpretation possible, but it’s another failure for me.  It’s beautiful and wonderfully cast (although the sin of casting a Nancy that won’t take off her top while being as literally faithful as possible to the rest of the book strikes me as a bit idiotic and against the whole point) but the actual film makes me giggle and roll my eyes in places where you’re not supposed to giggle and roll your eyes because tonally what worked on the page for Sin City doesn’t work on the big screen in the hands of an ensemble cast.

Tamara Drewe, adapted by Moira Buffini and directed by Dangerous Liaisons and The Queen* director Stephen Frears, however, is a good adaptation.  The film easily captures the essence of the large cast of characters, and the story, except toward the end, is quite faithful to the book, but it knows when to deviate for its own sake.  Does part of me miss this that or the other that I’d read and loved in the original?  Sure.  But I can also see that cutting here and changing there made a better film – and in the end that’s what I want – the best book AND the best film.

Tamara Drewe, a graphic novel by Posy Simmonds that originally appeared as a series in The Guardian in 2005 and 2006 and was collected as a graphic novel in 2007 is, for the uninitiated, a story about a writer’s colony in a small country town in England run by Beth, the wife of Nicolas, a famous novelist in residence and the writers that take sabbatical there.  Things get turned upside down when Tamara Drewe (a once large nosed and now small nosed) local girl returns home.  Drewe is also a writer (a journalist with designs on being a novelist) and as the “new” sexy young thing on the block it’s an understatement to say that she turns heads and breaks hearts.  Equal parts comedy, romance, and tragedy, the book wonderfully weaves together its well-rendered ensemble cast and idyllic location with an almost mad cap adventure comedy vibe thanks to affairs, betrayals, famous drummers, dogs that chase cows, love-sick brutally bored teenagers, and sensitive writerly types.  The art (also by Simmonds) is airy and light and surprisingly beautiful while still being economical, effective, and just good clean storytelling.  There are some rough spots here and there, but overall it’s quite lovely.  Simmonds Tamara Drewe is actually itself an adaptation in a way as it’s considered to be a loose/modern reworking of the Thomas Hardy novel Far From The Madding Crowd.  If I was less of an oaf I would have read this novel and would have recognized this on my own, rather than having to learn that fact on wikipedia.

An excerpt…watch out, some nudity…gasp!

I suppose as a (still, sadly unpublished) writer the sensitive writers aspect appeals to me perhaps more than the average reader, but I think it’s still a highly relatable and enjoyable tale that hits notes that can appeal to anyone.  There is the somewhat unconventional use of sections of prose throughout that is treated almost like journal entries from the POV characters and even though this is usually a turn off to me in comics (heavy prose/text blocks sans images) I found it fitting for the story and well-executed.  I liked Tamara Drewe far more than I thought, which naturally left me nervous for the adaptation.

Here are two pages the writer in me especially loved…perhaps because my current “process” looks/sounds a lot like Drewe’s and I hope I’ll eventually end up with something more like Nicholas’ process – of course without the whole cheating, taking for granted, generally being a dick aspect.

But Tamara Drewe the film did not disappoint.  It hit all the right notes, pulling faithfully from its source, respectfully and honestly, but knowing when to pull back and respect the medium of film instead.  The cast is excellent, and up and comer Gemma Arterton does not disappoint as Tamara Drewe.  The setting – an idyllic countryside of farms and quaint towns is breathtaking (and left me aching for a holiday – as a writer or just a person in desperate need of a good vacation).  Moira Buffini’s script moves well and the dialogue is faithful to Simmonds work but with some fine tuning to better fit the screen than the page. Most of the plot deviations between the film and the graphic novel occur in the last twenty or thirty minutes and for the most part I think they were wisely chosen edits, omissions, and in one case a rather delightful little addition that I wish Simmonds had thought of for her original piece as it had some nice cyclicality to it.

I had a few minor complaints – superficially – that I hated the font they used in the film (see the poster title) and felt it didn’t well fit the graphic novel or the film.  Less superficially, there is one scene – just one – in which the character Beth suddenly breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to the audience.  The scene comes out of nowhere and no character, including Beth, ever does it again.  I know why they did it, but it’s a huge mistake and one that instantly pulled me out of the film.  The style (breaking the fourth wall) could have worked had it been used throughout – and in fact might have made sense considering the journaling nature of the original material – but as a one off moment it’s a serious mistake.

Overall however, it was a really solid little film that also always felt respectful of the original, which is really all I can ask of an adaptation.  I recommend checking it out if you have the opportunity and that you read Simmonds lovely graphic novel if you haven’t yet.

You can buy Tamara Drewe by Posy Simmonds at your local comic book store and at Amazon, Barnes and Noble and other online retailers. Tamara Drewe the film was released on October 8th, 2010 and is currently playing in select cities. You can view the trailer and other details here.

*I picked The Queen and Dangerous Liaisons as they are my two favorite Frears films, though he’s certainly done far more.

23 Comments

[…] A new She Has No Head! – about the Tamara Drewe graphic novel turned film, and the art of adaptation – is up.  Check it out! […]

sort of off-topic: never read the book but man those backgrounds are killer. such a great sense of place.

i hear you on the Spider-Man over-faithfulness. i think the “spirit” of the source material is the most important, however undefinable that is. i like adaptations when they change a bunch of stuff from the original, myself, because why would i want to see the same story or same characters or whatever, i’ve already seen that in the comic. i’m not really a fan but i think Ghost World is a good example, it has the same characters and same ideas, but the story is different and the characters make different decisions. they both start at the same point and then go off in different directions, i get really interested when adaptations do stuff like that.

i’m not sure what my favorite comic adaptation is. with the exception of the X-Men movies i usually like comic movies adapted from comics i don’t like, and vice versa. for me at least, i don’t think respect for the original is a necessary component, i think there can be filmmakers who even dislike the original material but then take the same core concept as a starting point and make something completely different but which is still good. maybe even if that qualifies as a good film, though, it doesn’t qualify as a good adaptation. i guess it depends on how each person defines it.

@ross: I think you’re using “spirit” in much the same way I’m using “respect”. Spirit may actually be a better descriptor.

I agree that Ghost World is a really nice adaptation that takes a great book and makes a good/great movie that is different but still holds on to the spirit of the original thing.

There are definitely a ton of adaptations I like that I didn’t list and a TON of adaptations that I dislike that I didn’t list…these were just some big ones that I feel really positive and negative about .

Before people start inundating you with why they think Spider-Man is a great movie adaptation and X-Men sucks, I thought I would chime in with a ‘good article’. The movie was quite good and I may even dive into the comic. I think the large blocks of text are turning me off, but I will power through it because the art is wonderful. Another successful She Has No Head.

LOL@Adam

Kelly, thanks for giving us a peek at the comic – I’m more interested than ever! (And of course, the film.)

Adaptations run a fine line, whether the source is a comic or a book, as to how much to include, and how to communicate sequences or concepts in an economical manner, and if something needs to be truncated or eliminated, does the material that remains fully convey the intent of the source material, or merely map out the sequence of events in the story?

Superhero comics should inherently have an advantage over a novel (or even a series of novels) because rarely is anyone attempting to adapt a single, specific story, and I agree they are usually stronger when the story is completely new, weaving in only elements from the long history of the magazines. Deviate too far and you have… well, Superman III or Batman and Robin.

Ghost World is one of my favorite adaptations!

Nothing on 300 or Road to Perdition? Dunno about everyone else, but I thought the movies were quite true to the graphic novels at the same time did well on the creative liberties taken.

What about novels to comic book adaptations?

Have you read Marvel’s take on The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger, based on the Dark Tower series?
The Stand is more faithfully adapted to the novel, although the Dark Tower series is mostly new materials derived from the novels.

I loved Sin City precisely because you can laugh at it. Its serious and seriously absurd at the same time. And the part where the dead cop is talking to Dwight is just surreal. I think Sin City is one of the few comics that works as a direct panel by panel adaptation. I love it. But I can see if you went into the movie expecting it to be, well, Darwin Cooke and not Frank Miller then you would have a problem. But I agree that most adaptations can’t get away with being so faithful.

Though I disagree that the Spider-man movies were any more or less faithful to the source than say, Iron Man. Raimi made HIS Spider-man movie. Take the First one. Gwen Stacy is gone (this is a big deal imo). His webs are organic. He is in high school, not college. And at no point did I think, “man this dialogue sounds like it was written in the sixties!” Now, its all well and fine to say you didn’t care for the Spider-man movies themselves but I see none of its problems being that Raimi was too caught up in the source material.

But I get your point. One of the reasons I think Watchmen worked was because of the changes Zack Snider made. They really thought about what would and wouldn’t work on film. I don’t think, in adaptations, that one HAS to divert some the source material, just that the new medium has to be considered.

Also. Thanks for the heads up on Tamara Drewe. I likely would never have picked it up had I not known what it was about. It seems interesting at least.

Congratulations, Kelly! Today’s column made in into Google’s headline display for comic book news (which I have set up on my iGoogle page). Does this mean that CBR has to start paying you now? lol

Comic to film adaptations are fascinating, because the mediums seem so similar on the surface.

SIN CITY was interesting, but I am not sure that I would ever want to see that experiment repeated. It required turning off the portion of your brain that evaluated it as a film and instead forced you to view it is a film-comic hybrid. It was fun. I also agree with you on Jessica Alba as Nancy. I respect Ms. Alba’s modesty, but the film-makers made a mistake in casting her in that role. A significant portion of the point of the character was that she took her top off. It was made stranger by the entirely unnecessary nude scene by Carla Gugino as Lucille elsewhere. It had me thinking about actors and agents when I should have been engaged with the plot.

The other overly faithful failure was WATCHMEN. Moore and Gibbons did a lot of meta-commentary about the medium in the comic itself. Very little of it translated well into the film. When Snyder was freer to use film as film in the credit sequence, it played much better.

Bryan Singer’s X-MEN films were wonderful in large because Singer was using the world of the X-Men as a way to talk about issues that mattered to him personally. They had the feeling of old school science fiction. The allegory was extremely clear to anyone even partially willing to see it. That aspect brought a fresh energy to the plot mechanics.

It seems as though non-superhero comics have an easier road. They are treated more like prose novels in their adaptations. The film makers do not feel the need to make any special references to their source material. GHOST WORLD, ROAD TO PERDITION and other films adapted from creator-owned, non-cape comics feel exactly like movies from any other source material. They rise and fall on the strength of the film-makers.

TAMARA DREWE looks fantastic. I am a big Stephen Frears fan. The material is right in his zone.

The Spider-Man movies didn’t seem that faithfull to me. I guess they stuck to the source material more than most super-hero movies, but they still weren’t that close. And I thought the changes that were made were mostly bad ones.

Someday I would love to see a comic-book film that doesn’t bother with an origin story at all, and just takes place in the present continuity of the series exactly. You know, a story that simply tells one adventure in the career of the heroes and can be placed right in between two current issues and fit perfectly. I really think it could be done with a series that stays fairly stable over the long term, like the Fantastic Four. It wouldn’t work for a lot of series, though.

With that being said, I do think there are a lot of film adaptations that are really good, even when they bear little resemblance to the original– The Day The Earth Stood Still, for instance, or The Rescuers. Or even The Wizard Of Oz, although I think the book was so much better, the movie is still great. (I couldn’t think of a good comic-book example, although the Josie And The Pussycats movie had some good qualities.)

Superheroes look utterly retarded on the silver screen. It’s because it is such a simple concept, it will only function within ‘four colors’.

And if it is a comic and a good one, it can’t be faithfully adapted – otherwise it wouldn’t be a good comic.

I love the fact Kelly has presented a thoughtful review of an adult and complex story not involving superheroes, and nearly all the comments are about superheroes. Ugh.

Sorry.
I’ve never heard of the book or movie she’s discussing, so I couldn’t comment on that. I instead responded to one of her statements about a superhero film because that was something I know and have an opinion about.

@Hooper Triplett: Thanks for the support, but in fairness to the commenters I did reference some huge superhero movies in my discussion of adaptations I’ve liked and not liked in the past, so I can understand why people went there. In hindsight I should have also referenced some non-superhero adaptations I liked (Ghost World, The Crow, American Splendor and others) and some I didn’t like (30 Days of Night, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, 300, and many many more).

@Tom: 300 is definitely on my NO list (though in fairness I didn’t love the comic, so maybe it never had a chance with me – I’m more likely to blame “visionary director Zach Snyder” though). I thought Road To Perdition was not a bad adaptation but something about the movie doesn’t really work for me, it’s not a favorite of mine. I feel similarly about History of Violence, good film, good adaptation, but just not one of my personal favorites for some reason.

I haven’t read many novel to comic adaptations to my knowledge – though since I hope to do one myself someday, I probably should.

@Keith: I wish! But thanks for the heads up on my google front page hit. :)

@Mary: I agree that too much emphasis is often put on origins – I’d say in film and in comics. Sometimes the origin is best left unsaid.

@Dean: I was very excited when Sin City first came out as I thought it might be brilliant because it was intended to be such a direct adaptation, but it was probably one of my toughest lessons to see that it didn’t work even though it was filled with beautiful imagery and actors I love (ahem, Clive Ownen, ahem).

X-Men remains to this day one of the best examples to me of a fantastic large scale comic adaptation, I still love it. And to take one of my all time favorite female characters (Rogue) and put her on the big screen with so many changes…well, you really have to be getting something right for me to have fallen in love anyway.

The reason the ‘got Rogue right with so many changes,’ was because they made rogue Kitty imo. Shadow Cat is a great character. Rogue has a powerset that is ripe for angst. Put them together behind a pouty Sookie Stakhouse (um, er, Anna Pacquine?) and its film gold.

And why, pray tell, do you have a problem with Zack Snider? I mean every single one of his movies recently have been gorgeous slo-mo violence porn (yes, even the one about owls) but they have also been fairly successful adaptations (yes, even the one about owls). For 300 it made perfect sense (its a war epic by Frank Miller, go figure). Watchmen was less successful but at least it got people to show up and the trailer alone likely spiked sales of the comic (the movie was very visually distinctive and I give them props just for the design work alone).

I think Zack Snider would fit in the conversation quite well.

Also, I think the reason people are drawn to talking about the superhero adaptations is because people seem to have more invested in Superheroes. Remember the hoopla over making Spider-man black? Would anybody have cared if filmmakers made Tamara Drew black? Superheroes mean more (for some reason) and I don’t blame people wanting to talk about them on a comic site.

@ Mary Warner:

I need to differ with you slightly on the subject of origin stories.

The serial nature of superhero comics often mean the origins are the only stories that have a clear beginning, middle and end. With Marvel properties, there is also usually a clear character arc. Stan Lee almost always started his protagonists as one type of person and left them literally transformed. Even unpopular heroes often have surprisingly solid origin stories. For example, the Golden Age Hawkman & Hawkgirl have tons of potential when you are only focused on telling the one story.

On this other hand, even the best arcs have all kinds of elements that would require heavy exposition without a prequel. Very few of them really resolve anything in a lasting way. That makes for a pretty unsatisfying movie. So, these big franchises tend to start with a bang and fall apart quickly. Superman managed one and three-quarters in the Chris Reeve era. Batman managed two in the ’90s. The X-Men managed two. Spider-Man managed two. Iron Man managed one and a half.

Mostly, a superhero movie franchise has fallen apart by the time productions starts on the threequel. I worry that setting a movie in anything like current continuity would generate the same venomous response that greeted SUPERMAN RETURNS when it tried to pick up the continuity of the prior film series.

Perhaps it is an unfair comparison since tv is also a serial medium and adapt longer stories more easily, but does anyone else remember The Maxx animated series on MTV? I read the comics after the show had ended, and it boggled my teenage mind how the show was exactly like the comics. But there certainly have been many adaptations that suffered for being too faithful, as many have noted here.

Great post, Kelly!

“..and CAN adapt longer stories…” D’oh!

I find myself surprised whenever I argue that the Sin City movie wasn’t as good as it could have been because it’s too faithful. Everyone else seems to think that the faithfulness is what makes it good in of itself.

I thought Sin City was great.

I though 300 was absolutely terrible.

My take on faithfulness is that the filmmaker shouldn’t change something unless there is a specific reason to change it. Organic webshooters are a good example. They changed it because otherwise they would have to add in a story abotu Peter Parker being a brilliant inventor who was somehoe unable to turn that into money to support his family.

Turning Batman into a casual killer as Tim Burton did, however, does not improve the story and destroys the character.

obladi…

I agree with your point about how adaptations can suffer for being too faithful to the source material. However I don’t feel that Spider-Man was a good example to use to illustrate that. Spider-Man didn’t wisecrack or trash talk in any of the movies, except for the line “Here’s your change!” to Doc Ock. That’s HUGE to me. The dialogue, while sometimes campy, also didn’t really have a 60s Marvel feel to me either.

There are plenty of valid reasons to dislike or like the movie, but IMO being too faithful to the source material isn’t one of them. Besides that, very solid and enjoyable column. I’m going to try the Tamara Drewe book myself.

I’m going to have to look for this. I’m unfamiliar with either the book or the movie. But, it looks like something right up my alley.

While I liked the Spider-Man movies, I think that the adherence to the source both helped and hurt. When there were regular shout outs in the first two, I enjoyed it. But, I feel that the third movie really requires the viewer to know the source to understand what is going on.

In my opinion, a comic book based movie should either be as direct an adaptation as possible (Crow, Sin City, Watchmen) OR be more of an “inspired by” with recognizable characters and situations and the occasional shout out to the source (X-Men, Batman Begins.)

Theno

HOW COULD I FORGET?!?! best comic adaptation ever: the 1990 TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES MOVIE!!!!! :D

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