Neuromancer to be butchered for cinema?

Paul Raven @ 10-01-2008

Neuromancer promo image I have a bad relationship with the movie industry – they have a terrible habit of taking books I love and murdering them on screen. I had a rant about it when I first heard someone had optioned William Gibson’s Neuromancer, but Jason Ellis has just pointed out the fact that they’re actually casting it already.

Being somewhat detached from the cinema world, I have no idea who Hayden Christensen is, or whether he’d be any good as Case (or indeed as anyone). But there’s a microcosm example of why good books die when they leap to celluloid, in the commentary at this film fan site where Ellis found the news:

“I’ll be honest and admit I’ve never read NEUROMANCER and my rudimentary attempts to try and understand the plot have only confused me. But it seems very much a precursor to the Matrix with the book even referring to “the matrix.”” [my emphasis]

Face, meet palm. I’m guessing there’ll be a lot of explosions and bullet time to keep the slow readers happy. [Image lifted from linked article at JoBlo.com]

Anyone care to suggest a book-to-film conversion that really worked, with the obvious (and in my opinion unique) exception of Blade Runner?

[tags]Neuromancer, William Gibson, movie, film[/tags]
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26 Responses to “Neuromancer to be butchered for cinema?”

  1. Horatius says:

    The Russian film Stalker by Andrei Tarkovsky was a beautiful interpretation of the Strugatsky brother’s novel Roadside Picnic. It holds a mix of bleakness, beauty, and awe that is rarely seen today in film.

    Tarkovsky also did the original Solaris, another book adaptation that I would say was quite successful. Most people might be more familiar with the new version starring George Clooney. Unlike the original, the remake is rather forgettable.

    There was a writer who once remarked that reading a book was more complex than watching a film or play because it requires the reader to perform along with the book. (Can’t remember the writer’s name, Philip k Dick? Help me out people.) Perhaps what’s required of a good book to film adaptation is a challenge to the viewer. 2001 was wonderful because it does not patronize the audience.

    I’ve also caught wind of a new Hollywood Stalker remake. Hope for the best, prepare for the worst I suppose.

  2. Andy says:

    Fight Club, of course, was touted by the author as being actually better than the book, in ways. I can agree with this.

    As far as true-to-the-book adaptations go, though, you cannot beat A Scanner Darkly. It PERFECTLY fits the PKD book in mood, plot, characterization… really everything.

  3. Ian Sales says:

    Is it fair to hold up Blade Runner as an example? It doesn’t actually bear much resemblance to the source novel, after all. The recent A Scanner Darkly micht be a better example.

    I can think of two non-genre examples off the top of my head where the film is actually superior to the book: The Commitments and Marnie.

  4. Justin says:

    Children of Men (dramatically altered)
    Lord of the Rings
    The Prestige
    Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (originally a play)
    Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (ish)

    But you’re right, when it comes to adaptations, there are far more failures than successes.

  5. Ian Sales says:

    Children of Men the film was greatly superior to The Children of Men the book.

  6. Nancy Jane Moore says:

    Note: I already tried to post this a couple of times. The first one failed, but when I tried again I kept getting messages that it was already posted. So I’m adding this note and hoping this doesn’t turn out to be a duplicate. Since I spent 15 minutes that I should be devoting to my move to Texas on this comment, I am determined to see it on the site!

    Going way back, M*A*S*H the movie was much better than the book, which was pretty bad despite being full of good anecdotes. (The TV series has actually aged better than the movie.) That’s about the only movie I can think of that was better than the book and it’s not SF.
    However, Robert Altman is not flawless in this respect: He completely butchered The Long Goodbye, Raymond Chandler’s best book. I’m sure he was making a point, but he shouldn’t have used a great novel to make it.
    There are movies that do justice to the ideas in the book. The Name of the Rose was a great movie, though it took a different approach from the book, which is also great.
    I liked Children of Men (the movie), but I think the book was more interesting, and much, much darker.
    Novels and movies have very different structures. When it comes down to it, movies should either be written from scratch or adapted from short stories. Novels have too many complexities for a movie.
    And the particular trouble with SF movies is that everyone is more interested in special effects and action adventure than in telling a complex story — they don’t associate SF with complex stories. So yeah, I have lots of fears about Neuromancer as a movie. But it’s nice for Gibson to get a payday.

  7. ShaunCG says:

    Almost every big, successful and clever anime film of recent years was based on a manga first and foremost. Actually, at this point I’m just thinking of Masamune Shirow, the man behind Ghost in the Shell and Appleseed. The films based on those mangas were all excellent.

    I’ve not yet managed to watch the original Crash but how does that stand up as a Ballard adaptation?

    Oh, and I’ve not read the books – really not my thing – but the Bourne trilogy are fun action films and, I figure, fair adaptations of the source thrillers.

    Let’s not forget older films as well, like Jurassic Park and Soylent Green, and comic films, like Spiderman and Sin City. Or the Dune and CoD miniseries, which despite being dumbed down are entertaining, reasonably thoughtful and definitely faithful screen adaptations.

    Oh, and wasn’t Twelve Monkeys originally based on a short story? And that reminds me of Memento, also based on a short story…

    Opinions may vary on these films but they all win points for either being faithful and accurate versions of the source material, or taking it in a new direction and doing something else that works.

    Basically there are lots of films that are good or bad, and also faithful to the source, and lots of films that are good or bad, and do something completely different to the source. I don’t think adapted from book = awful is a fair equation.

    Tbh Neuromancer could work well as a thriller as the plot, twists and turns aside, is very linear, and the 25 years on the futurist elements of it have permeated the mainstream quite thoroughly.

  8. Fredrik Jambrén says:

    The film stardust was imho an nice adaption of the novel with the same name.

  9. Reality bytes says:

    1984 the movie wasn’t a bad representation of the book, both being dark and depressing. The TV series Red Dwarf is far better than the Grant Naylor books.
    All I can think of is Gibson’s Johnny Mnemonic movie, and how atrocious Keanu Reeves acting was. Hard to endure the bad casting, Ice T as the rebel leader? I never read the book because the movie was so bad. Gibson’s works IMHO require too much imagination to be well suited for modern movie budgets, and malaise. I have been re-watching the Star Wars original lately, and I am reminded of the level of detail that went into set designs for older movies. They don’t make em like they used to.

  10. Michael says:

    I’ll second the Lord of the Rings, of course. Minority Report was good, I thought — but I haven’t really read Dick much (I just never meshed with him, I guess — I tried reading A Scanner Darkly and couldn’t finish it, which is unusual for me.)

    I’ll definitely watch this Neuromancer. And I’ll love it. Because for me, movies occupy a different part of the brain from books. I loved Johnny Mnemonic. I even loved Starship Troopers, although we don’t talk about it much in public.

    Oh, and speaking of Heinlein, there was the Puppet Masters, with Donald Sullivan. That one was pretty good.

    Even I couldn’t take the original movie adaptation of Dune, of course. It was just colossally awful, and not even in a good camp way, just … pathetic. Except for Sting, of course, because nothing can make Sting uncool. But ornithopters that didn’t even flap? Ugh. What was the point of making it?

    Also: from what I remember of the Bourne novels, the movies sparked very little recognition. That might be good or bad. I did like the novels, but especially after the third movie, I turned to my wife and said, “I could have written a better movie than that.” I do pretty much demand of my media producers that they do a better job than I could.

  11. Shannon says:

    I love Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers. Outside of SF, LA Confidential strikes me as an excellent adaptation.

  12. Rasmaestro says:

    Starship Troopers is an excellent film, I agree. Mostly, because of a healthy amount of self-irony.

    Johnny Mnemonic had none of that, probably because of the bleak environments of the book. But the real problem with JM was that I was not in any way reminded of the book.
    The graphical glitter and Hollywood polish was too far from the grittiness of Gibson’s work.

  13. Rasmaestro says:

    How can anyone state that the HHGTTG film was better than the books? That’s it…Hell has just frozen over…head for the hills, folks…

  14. Dan says:

    vaguely related to the anime comment, but the (Japanese) film of Koji Suzuki’s RING is far better than the novel.

  15. Paul Raven says:

    Well, if nothing else, I’ve learned one lesson – I can post about books and authors until the cows come how, but if I want a lengthy comment thread I just need to mention films! 😉

    I agree that films and books have different structures, and I think that’s why I don’t get on with cinema, because I was such a bookworm so early on. And that’s why that, even though there are great adaptations of books into movies (some of which are mentioned above, but I’m right behind Rasmaestro on the HHGTTG issue), they never fulfil my entertainment itch as well as the books do.

    I expect I’ll watch the Neuromancer movie, but I’ll not be paying £8 to see it in the cinema. And pity the poor buggers who watch it with me and have to put up with me correcting the dialogue and scenery as it goes along … 🙂

  16. Ian says:

    Hayden Christensen would be the actor who played Anakin Skywalker (the older one ) in the new star wars films. Personally I found him a bit wooden but who knows.

  17. ZZMike says:

    Way outside the realm of science: “The Devil Wears Prada” is a good example of a fairly dull book turned into a great movie. I just saw “Water Horse” – the movie is so loosely based on the book as to be almost unrecognizable. “Mission Impossible” is another one in which the director had no idea what the TV series was about – he never saw it.

    The problem with books from movies is that when you’ve read a book, you have mental images of what the characters and places look like, so when the movie comes out with completely different images, it’s often a letdown.

    On the other hand, to film every page of a big book like Neuromancer or Cryptonomicon would end up being a 6-hour movie.

    Sometimes known as a TV season.

    I second Michael’s vote for Dune as the worst adaptation ever. But even Sting couldn’t help it. They tried to mash all three books into one incoherent mess.

  18. Sam J. Miller says:

    Separate from the fact that it gets my vote for Greatest American Film, I think *Psycho* is a prime example of a mediocre novel being turned into stark raving cinematic brilliance. The shower murder sequence is worthy of Eisenstein.

    *Candyman* was based on a short story (“The Forbidden,” by Clive Barker), not a book, but it definitely takes unimaginative pulpy literary source material and turns into some really effective art.

  19. spectre says:

    Bah. I already had Cillian Murphy picked out in my mind for Case.

    Most movies that are actually good that derive from novels are good, in part, because they deviated from the novel significantly. What works in text doesn’t always work on film.

    Seeing as how Neuromancer is probably my favorite book of all time, I must keep expectations low for the film.

  20. Marian says:

    In my opinion The Jungle Book movie is better then the book.

  21. Blue Tyson says:

    The Bourne movies are absolutely nothing like the books, apart from having an amnesiac spy killer and the odd similar name.

    A movie adaptation that worked?

    Jaws.

  22. Paul Raven says:

    We’re going to need a bigger comment thread … 😉

  23. Nancy Jane Moore says:

    Like Paul, I was a reader first, and still think there’s nothing quite like getting lost in a book. But these days we have many different ways of getting stories, and they all have their virtues. At the moment, I’m very hooked on good serial television. Joss Whedon, who really understands the medium, got me started, and I’m now a big fan of The Wire. Battlestar Gallactica is also very good. Unfortunately, few other people in the TV world really understand how to take advantage of the serial format, so there’s not a great deal of material out there — nothing like the number of good books.

    I suspect serial TV is closer to a novel than a movie can ever be. (Think about Dickens publishing his novels as serials in newspapers and magazines.) Movies are short for a reason — there’s only so long we can sit and watch something and they’re not designed to be put down and picked up again later. So it’s almost impossible to stay faithful to a novel and make a movie from it; it can be possible to take a piece of the novel and go somewhere with it, but that’s a different story.

    I played with oral storytelling a few years ago. One of the things I did was adapt some of my very short stories for telling. I discovered that what worked on the written page didn’t work as well orally — I had to adapt. Suzy Charnas has a good essay in her recent book Stagestruck Vampires: And Other Phantasms on adapting a story to a play. Again, the structure was completely different — she ended up rewriting it again and again to get it right, and then, of course, had to yield to actors and directors working with it.

    All the forms of storytelling — old and new — are valuable. And all tend to follow Sturgeon’s Law (I forget the actual crap percentage, but you know what I mean). But they are also different, so when a story is adapted from one to another, it has to change. The more we understand this, the better our different art forms will be. Here’s my favorite current example: The movie version of The Golden Compass actually does a great job of creating visuals of the book — as a fan of the book I really enjoyed it — but it doesn’t work as a movie because it’s too faithful to the book.

  24. Justin says:

    @Rasmaestro

    I didn’t think that it was better, but I think it worked as a film.

  25. JDA says:

    I wouldn’t say it was better than the book, cause it wasn’t, but Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange” was not in any respect an embarrassment. “The Shining” turned out pretty well too.

  26. Rusklander says:

    1984 was also handled with extreme care and attention to detail.

    Very worried about Neuromancer. Not least as all it’s fresh ideas have been plundered so much over the years there must be a massive temptation to ‘re-vamp’ or attempt to modernise it.

    The 2003 BBC Radio adaptation tried to fuse Gibson’s first vision of Cyberspace with the reality of the web today and turned a gourmet paragraph into a happy meal.

    Gibson:-

    Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts… A graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the non-space of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding.

    BBC Radio adaptation :-
    Cyberspace. A Virtual space in which actual websites, information banks, emails and virus have apparent solidity. Cyber jockeys can ‘jack in’ and move freely in this space as if in a real world.

    Hopefully Hayden will have real toxin sacks implanted around his pancreas that dissolve if his acting starts wooding up.

    Incidentally, I’d love to see a verbatim film made of ‘Do Android dream of Electric Sheep?’ as it’s significantly different to Blade Runner with a far greater focus on empathy for living things.