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.

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