Familiarity, Adaptation, and Risks to Creative Power: A Nervous Nerdfighter Watches the Stars

by Heather Gois

I might be risking expulsion from the International Association of Bibliophiles for this, but I’m going to admit it, anyway: I love movies. I know that it’s vaguely sacrilegious for those of us who embrace a passion for books to admit that any other form of media claims a piece of our hearts, but I actually love both novels and film for similar reasons. Movies are  a bit like books on steroids.  Full length film can do most of the wonderful things that a novel can do, and it can even do a couple of those things even better. Both novels and movies draw us into unfamiliar worlds, both real and imaginary, on an immediate, intimate level; they can both mold a collection of pretty lies on paper into something capable of conveying transcendent and powerful truth; and they can both persuade their audiences to feel real things for imaginary human beings.

That said, film can also do a few things that prose fiction simply cannot. It can engage a greater number of the senses, for one thing. For another, it can combine two powerful channels to human emotion at once—namely, music and narrative—combining them in a myriad of subtle ways to stir up something cathartic and sincere in its audience. Between the two, written narrative, with all of its complex beauty, is my first love, but even I have to admit that film boasts the wider scope.

Even so, this binary cuts both ways. There are some important things that books can do that film just isn’t very good at. Being a visual medium at heart, film isn’t very adept at conveying the breadth and richness of narrative voice. This isn’t always a problem. It doesn’t even hurt all book adaptations, but I think most Nerdfighters would agree that this limitation will present a big problem for a film version of  The Fault in Our Stars. Possibly the best thing about TFiOS,  the thing that makes the book so special, is John’s lovely, complex, and unique narrative voice…almost all of which would be lost on a visual media like film.

The other aspect of the world of film that might do real damage to The Fault in Our Stars isn’t really rooted in the art of movie making so much as the business of it. Generally, Hollywood executives find formulas that sell, and then do everything they can to make sure that otherwise brilliantly original screenplays fit those formulas. This is the main reason why I’m concerned about the possibility of The Fault in Our Stars  becoming a studio made movie; and, when I say I’m concerned, I mean that I feel a bit like a slightly overprotective extended family member who’s just heard that my beloved TFiOS is about to do something that might be very bad for it. I want to be encouraging and support its decision, but that I’m-happy-for-you smile on my face is just a little too tight to be sincere.

You have to understand: I adore John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. Like, wrote-John-Green-a-letter-thanking-him–for-writing-it kind of adoration. A good movie based on it–a movie made by a director who really got the book, who understood what makes it so special–would be a thing of true and powerful beauty. But, see, here’s what I’ve noticed about movie studios from years of cine-phile observation and behind-the-scenes style research: there’s this thing in the screenwriting world called “studio stink,” and it can go a long way toward ruining an otherwise great movie.

Studio executives seem to prefer to fit every movie that they greenlight into one of a few broad categories of films that have made them lots of money in the past, and then tell the screenwriter, “we’ll buy your script; now re-write it until it’s more like every other movie in this genre we’ve ever made.” As a result, an otherwise refreshingly original movie becomes a part of a Category, determined based on the elements in the script that already match elements from a given studio money maker. For example: you have a script for a haunted house movie that looks at the genre from a different angle and has an interesting twist? Great; we’ll keep the twist ending, but rewrite the rest of the movie until it follows every haunted house film cliché that’s ever appeared in any other movie that made money. (I have a feeling that this is exactly what happened to the script for Insidious).

Now, what this might mean for The Fault in Our Stars: TFiOs, for all of its beauty and subtlety and humor and specialness, does have a few key elements of one of those broad studio Categories. As a lover of both books and movies, I want to be excited about the prospect of a TFiOS movie, but knowing what I know about movies, I can’t help but see some unfortunate writing on the wall: in the wrong hands, this beautifully crafted, subtlety complex book could get stripped down into another movie-of-the-week about Kids With Cancer with a little tragic teen romance thrown in. This would be one of the most unfortunate missed opportunities that Hollywood never knew they had.

I know that John Green is a smart guy, and that he will take good care of his baby, probably writing the screenplay himself, but I speak as both a proud citizen of Nerdfighteria and a concerned member of TFiOS’s extended reader family when I say that I hope he will be able to protect that script from standard studio stench, and remind those derivative suites why the “creative types” are the majority shareholders of awesome in Hollywood.


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