Whether it should make it that far... I'm going to say that's up for debate too.
I wrote on this topic once before this blog began, when my Facebook page was new, and it's been on my mind again a lot lately as I've gotten into my new work in progress, which, like Uglies, deals a lot with body image issues. I'm working out how and how much to describe my characters to get the spirit of the story across without inadvertently generating more fodder for unfair standards and comparisons.
Now seems like a good time to re-post.
I favor more faithful adaptations; I’ll rarely criticize a piece for sticking too closely to its source material, and I’ll be ruthless if I feel it’s missed the original point, but working under the assumption that all works are untranslatable to some extent, I can never say with full confidence that anything is impossible to adapt in a worthwhile way.
The usual examples don’t sway me on this point. I like the movie version of Watchmen. I think Little Shop of Horrors works just fine with a tragic ending and no curtain call. The only story that has made me seriously consider the possibility of untranslatability is Uglies, by Scott Westerfeld. And that kind of breaks my heart, because it’s one of my favorite stories, and it deserves to be explored as deeply and brought to as wide an audience as possible.
If you’re not familiar with the basics of the Uglies series, here they are with minimal spoilers:
In a sci-fi futuristic dystopia, everyone receives an operation on their sixteenth birthday to make them perfectly, flawlessly beautiful. Pre-op, you’re an Ugly. Post-op, you’re a Pretty. A small fraction of the population is selected to become enforcers known as Specials, who receive a different operation that makes them more intimidating beautiful. Our hero is sucked into a group of rebels who’ve discovered that the operations aren’t just cosmetic; they include brain alterations that make people more compliant (or in the case of Specials, less compassionate) and keep the seemingly perfect futuristic city under easy control.
Now, it’s one thing to say that Pretties are pretty and Uglies are ordinary and Specials are both pretty and scary. It’s much harder to show it inarguably. Westerfeld gets to describe what the different operation results feel like to look at, and the message gets across. Certainly, there are images that can get the right general reaction, but they can’t be as accurately tailored to each person’s natural responses as the images the text elicits when it targets the reaction directly.
Yes, the argument that “I prefer my own imagination” is used pointlessly by someone against every movie adaptation that gets made, but few stories rely so fundamentally on the effects of images. In universe, the effect is quantifiable and objective. When made real, they suddenly become subjective.
One of the most basic principles of the Uglies universe is that everyone is born “ugly.” They are seen as such because of the naturally unattainable standard of surgical prettiness that the characters are all used to seeing. How does one cast an actress to look ordinary next to "Pretties" while making the point than she is not in fact ugly? And that's only the problem with the first book. How does one then present that same actress as each of the three surgical categories she ends up in over the course of the series?
Uglies is a sharp, smart, complex commentary on body image and standards of beauty, and also nature vs. nurture vs. free will concepts of identity. Social commentary aside, it’s a solid epic adventure with a female hero and a moving romantic subplot that does not render her passive or eclipse her heroic journey, and the world can certainly use as many of those as it can get with as prominent a showing as possible, but I simply can’t picture the necessary visuals for a film version to have the intended effect.
Fingers crossed that I’ll get to believe it when I see it.
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