Page to Screen: Atmosphere and Messages (Week 3)

This is the final entry in a series of articles from Joe, you can read the introduction here, his entry on Characters here and last week’s article on setting and pacing can be found here.

By Joe Strange


In my first week I praised the way that, because we commit so much time to books, they can create far more established characters. Last week I brought up the fact that because films are a visual art, they can excel in world building and exposition-light scene setting. In this entry, my last in the Page to Screen series, I want to focus on how films can be crafted to have completely different atmospheres and messages to their source material.

As with world building, films can have an upper hand in setting a story’s atmosphere. One reason for this is that because of the shorter time commitment and the focus on outward audio and visual sensations, a film commands more of its audience’s attention, and as such they are less effected by the viewers state of mind.

How many times have you read a book and felt more angry at a character’s actions because you yourself were feeling a bit peeved at something? Or saddened more so than usual at something because you’ve been through recent turmoil? We live through the books we read, and they through us. Because we spend so much time with one another it’s only natural that not only do books effect our state of mind, but our state of mind effects the way we experience books. This is true to some extent with films, but not half as much as with books.

What this ultimately means is that films can dictate how they want you to feel more intensely, because they know that for those 2 hours they have your attention, your mind and your emotions, and if they want to play with it then they can. It’s one of the reasons that horror films are so effective. The way that this is done is through controlling the atmosphere of the piece.

Pastel colours, soft lighting and a plucky folk accompaniment? You’ve got a light and playful atmosphere right there, and the audience should, if you do it right, be sucked into that alongside your character.

You rarely get that vibrant feeling of atmosphere with books, that’s not to say that books can’t set atmosphere, they absolutely can, but it’s down to the reader’s imagination to interpret that atmosphere, and like I said in week 1, everyone imagines and experiences books a little differently, with films that’s not the case. The atmosphere is canon.

What this can lead to is a difference in experiences, especially with the cinematic trend leaning more towards the dark and gritty.

The Hobbit, and I didn’t want to focus too much on this book when I started writing this series but it’s full of material, is a fairly light hearted affair; the book has dwarves singing, dancing and the main groups of enemies they encounter are goblins, a more comical enemy than Orcs, and Spiders, which while being based on one of humanities basest of fears, are never described as terrifyingly as they could be.

The films however, has a much more epic and darker overtone than the book. The introduction of Beorn is one of the most notable differences in the series. In book it’s a comical affair, with Gandalf introducing the Dwarves to Beorn two by two, and exploiting the shape changer’s hospitality (Much like he did with Bilbo at the beginning of the story). It a funny and light scene making use of wit and charm. On the other hand, the film sees the company rushing to the door of Beorn’s home, slamming the door in the face of the Bearman and waiting until morning when he had calmed down. It’s tense and exciting, but definitely not the same sort of scene.

This difference in tone can also transcend into the themes and messages of a film. I mentioned the Hunger Games in earlier weeks, and how the narrative voice is changed from the first person perspective in the books to an omnipresent third person in the films. What this allowed the film makers to achieve is something quite impressive.

Due to the subject nature and the tropes seen in young adult fiction, it’s easy, but very wrong, to put the Hunger Games aside as another story about how important it is to have a boyfriend, even more so when you read the first person narrative which focusses a lot on the subject. What the films managed to achieve by shifting their voice was to bring forward the consequences of Katniss’ actions and make the audience aware of the turmoil that we don’t get to see while reading through her eyes. This makes these films about much more than a single girl’s story, it becomes a story of a rebellion, of being part of something much more. Which is much harder to put across when you’re only experiencing it through one girl’s eyes.

When films make these choices, they also change some of the messages that they convey, and I hope these aren’t done by accident. Think back to the Hobbit example, what is a more positive message to be giving your audience with regards to getting what you need? Approaching politely, and (albeit through ‘tricksy’ means) persuading he who has what you want to allow you to have it, or running in and slamming a door in their face?

I know that seems like a jump to conclusion, but these message changes don’t always need to be huge, and sometimes they’re not always overt, which can be more dangerous. The Harry Potter films are great fun, and I very much enjoyed them, but the final instalment sees Harry throw the Elder Wand away, now that’s a nice empowering scene which  shows that it’s not the tool but the worker but it’s overly emotional and a rash decision. Do you know how it ends in the books? Of course you do; Harry uses the power of the Elder Wand to fix his own broken wand and then buries the super powerful wand with Dumbledore, its rightful owner.

The messages here are very different, one shows respect for the dead and not forgetting the path you forged to get you where you are, the other, well, the other is just wrong.

Well, it’s been a long road and over the past month I’ve spoken far too many words, and even so there’s still a lot more to be said on the topic. I hope that after reading this series you think a bit more about what makes a good adaptation, and if you’re in the business, understand what real life audience members think about the general state of this art; in short, don’t rush it and make sure any changes you’re making make sense.


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