Monday, September 10, 2012

The Book is Better

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a book in possession of a film adaptation must be in want of a better film adaptation.

Or something like that, anyway. Although, in actual fact, it's incorrect to say that the book will always be better. Instead, where there are multiple formats, the first will always be better - a film adaptation of a book will generally suck, but so too will "the book of the film". And don't get me started on films adapted from computer games or, worse still, computer games derived from films.

The reason for this, in large part, is that different media have different requirements. What works in prose doesn't necessarily work on the screen, while converting the primarily visual (and often quite visceral) film experience to the page tends to fall flat. And, of course, most novels are too long, too complex, and have too many characters to fit well in a 2-hour film - most films are much closer to short stories in scope.

And so, changes are necessary. Characters must be collapsed, plot lines removed entirely, the story simplified. That's not "dumbing down" necessarily - it's just a requirement for the film to be less than 5 hours long. (And, conversely, writing the book of the film requires adding a whole lot of padding that's just not in the film. The problem being that that padding can't add anything substantive to the plot, and so is just wasted space.)

But changing things for the adaptation can never make them better. Because what I get out of the book is probably not exactly what Peter Jackson gets out of the book, and his changes therefore leave Faramir not ringing true (at least in "Two Towers"). Or you have my friend Roger considering the presence of Elves at Helm's Deep to be an unforgivable error, because it utterly changes the dynamic (of Man standing alone and isolated for the first time). Or whatever.

The consequence of this is that you're stuck with all the weaknesses of the original, you're stuck with the weaknesses inherent in the change of format, and anything that you do to try to mitigate these is also a weakness. The best you can hope for, the very best that can be achieved, is a companion piece that is as good as the original.

(I should note that that assumes you start with a good book, or film, or whatever. Theoretically, if you start with a book that had potential but was executed badly, you could make a superior "cover version". But who's going to fund a film adaptation for a bad book?)

Now, it is worth noting that some adaptations are more worthwhile than others. "The Time Traveller's Wife" is an example of a poor adaptation - the film almost requires you to have read the book to make sense, but if you've read the book then there's no value in the film. (And, further, the film compresses the emotional heart of the novel almost out of existence. Not the best move, really.)

The three "Lord of the Rings" films, despite their changes, are examples of good adaptations, capturing at least the heart of the books. Although it's noticable that the weakest parts of the films tend to be those invented for the films - the bridges in Khazad-Dum, Aragorn's fall and rebirth in "The Two Towers", and so on. (Which doesn't bode too well for "The Hobbit", but that's another rant.)

Then there are the occasional adaptations that actually bring something new to the table. I watched the film of "Atonement" a couple of years ago, and it was no better than okay. But over the weekend, as I finished the book, I found that some of what I remembered from the film gave a better appreciation of what the author was getting at in the novel, which was interesting.

And then there's the 'definitive' adaptation - the version that sets the standard for all that follow, and indeed adjust the way you imagine the book as you go on. I refer, of course, to "Pride and Prejudice", in which Darcy now looks like Colin Firth.

(This last was a little amusing, as the copy I read actually had a picture of Keira Knightley on the cover, from a different film adaptation. And, actually, "Atonement" also had Keira Knightley on the cover... I wonder if she'll also be on the cover of "Anna Karenina" if and when I read that?)

#33: "Atonement", by Ian McEwan (A book from The List. And, somewhat surprisingly, the new best book of the year - a thoroughly satisfying read.)


Kezzie said...

I LIKE this post! Very well written Stephen!

I have one reference for this discussion. Gregory Maguire's book, Wicked. I hated the book, hated the ending- loved how the musical gave it a positive spin!

Chris said...

Kezzie is quite correct.

Execrable book. Good stage musical about witches. Bizarre!

Also (possibly) Shawshank Redemption?