Movie as a derivative work: good for the author, good for the reader?

The derivative work is the metaphysics of copyright. From its humble origins in the 19th century, when the focus was on the copyright status of translation, the economic potential in commercializing a work in various forms has made the derivative work a central part of the economics of contemporary copyright. That said, the underlying notion that a movie is a protectable reproduction of a computer game (think "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider") is, for some, an act of copyright faith.

Adapting a book, especially a successful one, into a movie, is challenging both artistically and commercially. For every instance of "To Kill a Mockingbird", at once among America's great novels and Hollywood's most distinguished movies, there are scores of successful books that have failed in the cinema.Given how low the success rate is in transforming notable books into winning movies, it remains a mystery to this Kat why the effort to do so continues apace. The answer would seem to lie in the unique commercial manner by which the movie business is conducted, together with the monetary potential that authors see in turning their books into movies.

But not all authors are so inclined. Take Carlos Ruiz Zafon, the author of the 2001 international bestseller, “La sombra del viento” or, in English, "The Shadow of the Wind." This Kat suspects that Kat readers who have devoured the book need no further elaboration on how the text carries the reader through a can’t-put-it-down story within a story set in post-World War II Barcelona. Indeed, as special as the story lines, characters and atmosphere of the novel are, the real hero of the novel is Barcelona itself, far from the city that we encounter as tourists. Both Mr. and Mrs. Kat confess to have each stayed awake until the middle of the night to finish it.

Surely this book would seem to have been a worthy candidate for moviedom. Au contraire. Despite some initial intimations that the movie would be only a matter of time, no such film has yet been made, nor does it seem that it will ever reach the celluloid screen. In a form of question and answer, Zafon explained, despite that he has also worked as a film writer, that--
“I have no particular wish to see a film made of the novel. I don’t believe everything has to become a movie, a video game, a TV show, a T-shirt, or a piece of merchandising as a matter of course or just because the almighty dollar says so. I believe nothing can tell a story, explore the universe of its characters and its many wonders with the depth, joy, and effectiveness of a novel if it is done right. This is a book for people who love to read, who love books and reading, and it will remain so. Nobody can make a better film of this novel than the one you’ll start to see when you begin to read its first pages."
He then goes on—
“The greatest multiplex in the universe is inside your mind, and the only ticket you need is a good, well-written novel.”
All of this has taken on immediate meaning for this Kat. Planning to take part in the INTA Annual Meeting in two weeks’ time In Barcelona, the idea arose: Perhaps there is a walking tour that is based on the book? The answer is indeed—“yes”. Now looking forward to this adventure, this Kat began to reflect on the significance of the lack of a movie version. He has concluded that what makes the tour attractive is precisely that there is no movie “to back up” the reading experience.

Take “The Cemetery of Forgotten Books”, from which the entire narrative evolves. This Kat will presumably be taken to a place that corresponds to The Cemetery of Forgotten Books. This Kat will have revisited the book to refresh his memory; upon encountering the site itself, this Kat will seek to make sense of it. This encounter will be this Kat’s private and unique mediation between the act of reading and the multi-sensual encounter with the site.

Consider what happens when a movie is made from a successful book. Say not just any movie, but the film version of "The Da Vinci Code”; not just any locale described in the book, but Rosslyn Chapel, which is a compelling example of 15th century architecture located in the outskirts of Edinburgh. In visiting the site, this Kat had both the book and the movie in mind.

The problem is that, as Walter Benjamin pointed out in his iconic 1936 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, the camera has intervened between what was once the live audience and the actors. As a viewer, we are at the mercy of whatever the camera has chosen for us to see—“the audience’s identification with the actor is really an identification with the camera.” This Kat’s encounter with Rosslyn Chapel was no longer a direct mediation between it and the text. The derivative work has prejudiced his encounter in processing the text.

Taken to an extreme, this Kat recalls the utter disappointment when he took his then teenaged Kitten to visit the hall at Christ Church College Oxford that served as the site for the hall of Harry Potter fame. Young Kitten was crushed, lamenting that the “real” hall looked “nothing” like what was portrayed in the movie. His sense of deceit was palpable, even when, as here, the movie versions of the books were wildly successful.

The problem lies with the nature of the movie as a derivative work of a novel. Even when Gregory Peck gives a performance for the ages as Atticus Finch in "To Kill a Mockingbird", the derivative work has impaired one’s ability to obtain the maximum from the reading experience. It reminds us just how copyright, in protecting creation, does so at the potential cost of doing harm to the user experience with respect to the very works that copyright seeks to protect.

Picture on upper right by Peter Damian

By Neil Wilkof
Movie as a derivative work: good for the author, good for the reader? Movie as a derivative work: good for the author, good for the reader? Reviewed by Neil Wilkof on Tuesday, May 09, 2017 Rating: 5

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