For a movie-lover, the journey down the road of reading source material is a perilous one. It's axiomatic that a movie is not a book or a stage play, and that two artistic forms often demand different approaches to the same basic concept. But it also forces a deeper interrogation of what "works" in art, and why. What does it mean to be "faithful" to the source material? And how much is it possible to separate the story from the way a given artist tells that story?
In many of the ways that seem to matter most to people, director R.J. Cutler's adaptation of Gayle Forman's young-adult novel If I Stay is scrupulously faithful to its source material. It's the story of 18-year-old Mia Hall (Chloë Grace Moretz), a cello prodigy with the whole world ahead of her—including awaiting news of whether she's been accepted to Juilliard—when a family car trip with her parents (Mireille Enos and Joshua Leonard) and younger brother (Jakob Davies) turns tragic. Mia awakens from the wreckage of an accident on an icy road to find that she hasn't actually awakened: Her body is in critical condition, and her out-of-body experience allows her to see the life to which she'll return if she chooses to fight for that life.
Like Forman's novel, Shauna Cross's screenplay weaves its way back and forth between flashbacks and the events at the hospital where Mia lies comatose. We see the beginnings and arc of her romance with Adam (Jamie Blackley), an on-the-rise rock band frontman who sees a kindred spirit in Mia's passion for music. There's rich material involving Mia's relationship with her parents—her dad an ex-punk drummer gone domestic, and her mom a one-time rocker chick—who nurture her gift and her love of classical music even as they seem completely alien to their own background. And eventually we see that the weeks before the accident found Mia at a crossroads, as her own musical future in New York puts tension on the future of her relationship with Adam.
If I Stay is often truly lovely in its small character moments—which is somewhat surprising, considering Cutler's primary directing experience has been with documentaries (The September Issue), and not with actors. There's an unusual, spiky chemistry between Moretz and Blackley that hints at the occasional conflict between their respective musical worlds, while Leonard and Enos get some terrific scenes that allow their rebel history to inform their parenting without turning them into clichés of the "cool parents." Even the truly tear-jerking scenes feel fully earned, most notably when various friends and family—particularly Stacy Keach as Mia's grandfather, in a startlingly raw piece of acting—say what they believe might be their goodbyes to Mia.
Yet despite the fidelity in the narrative structure and even individual lines of dialogue taken directly from the book, there are times when If I Stay as a movie seems incapable of duplicating what was so powerful in Forman's prose. There's an almost elegiac stillness to much of the book, even as the extra-corporeal Mia wrestles with devastating loss and witnesses the anguish of those around her. That's a tone filmmakers generally are afraid to attempt, and Cutler is no different; when Moretz's Mia learns a horrifying truth, she crumples to her knees, wailing and pulling at her hair, while dramatic music plays in the background. Those occasions, blessedly, are few, yet they're also some of the most crucial plot points in the story. Turning up the volume on them feels like a case of being unwilling to trust an audience to understand loss without plenty of external cues.
And perhaps it's nitpicking to expect so much from If I Stay, especially when it's so generally effective as a different kind of teen romance, and as a celebration of familial love in the broadest sense of the term. A movie is not a book, and the mournful feeling evoked by a writer's words on a page is a much harder trick to pull off in a studio-approved adaptation. That's why a "faithful" adaptation isn't as easy as making sure you tell the same story—because it actually isn't the same story as soon as you tell it in a different way.
IF I STAY