Recently, I got into a conversation with someone about whether it should be necessary to say, read a novel a film is based on in order to enjoy the film. He proposed that is can be necessary to read other material to appreciate a film, and that is fine.
To me, this means saying it is all right if a film does not stand on its own, or more specifically, that it’s all right if a film cannot stand on its own. This raises an interesting point, which I think about every time I direct something: what is it the medium of film brings to the material?
Some film does not benefit the source material. This may be because the story does not lend itself well to the tools of a visual storytelling medium, as would be the case, theoretically, with No Exit, which takes place entirely in one room. It may also be that the joy of the source material, be it a book or a radio play, is in the prose describing the scene, or the audience’s enjoyment of imagining the scene. In any case, when adapting to film, the director must ask what the medium can do to buttress and harness the material, rather than simply pointing a camera at the subject to satisfy our curiosity about what something looks like.
In adapting for film various sketches, I’ve been forced to answer this question. Often, as is the case with the Art Team sketch for example, I’ve had to throw out all the original staging and re-block the material entirely, even changing positive aspects of the live performance (in that case) to suit the cinematic needs of the material. It’s an example of killing your darlings. If you have to excise the aspects of the material that made you attracted to it in the first place, then maybe it’s not suited for adaptation, or you just aren’t approaching it correctly. Either way, you must strive to make the film capable of standing on its own.
This is not to say that it shouldn’t be possible to include Easter eggs for audience members familiar with the source material, but if your film must get by entirely on the knowledge of source material, than your film isn’t standing on its own and cannot be adequately enjoyed by the majority of the film audience. Those sorts of films are fine to show as a publicity stunt at Comic Con, but in the cinema you cannot count on an audience that knows what you left out of the scene. If you want them to enjoy what you have created, you must make it understandable, and forcing someone to have read another source before seeing the film is making the piece deliberately obtuse and will alienate your audience.