Silver Screen Scribblings

I’ve lost count of how many books have been adapted for the Big Screen… Seriously.

This year, we’ve had more Twilight nonsense, My Week with Marilyn, We Need to Talk About Kevin and dozens of others, including Marvel Comics adaptations and cult films that don’t see it to the big box offices, but limp over to DVD and get discovered by a bored movie buff years down the line when they’ve run out of things to watch and are hunting around HMV for something to get cheap.

There are some that are great adaptations; To Kill a Mockingbird and Gregory Peck’s (yumyum) Oscar-worthy performance, The Shining and Jack Nicholson’s quote-worthy acting (add One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to that list too). Gone with the Wind is a film you should only watch if you managed the book in the first place; and Peter Jackson did a pretty good job with Lord of the Rings, considering Tolkien himself said it could never be made into a film.

Then there are the shocking ones. The ones that you wish you had never wasted that £7 and bucket of popcorn on. Poorly acted, graphics that make you feel seasick, and an overblown budget for some drivel that barely compares to the book at all. It ruins a good book.

It seems that Marvel have been the only ones to successfully transition between medias. Consider this, though, that they had a significant advantage in that their film was pretty much already story-boarded for them, and the comics did a pretty good job of tacky one-liners that do so well on screen, so you don’t even have to rewrite the damn things. (As a side note, I’m a complete geek with graphic novels, both the booky kind and film kind, so I am in no way dissing them, because I’m SO RIDICULOUSLY EXCITED for The Avengers film I could die and I own ALL the X-Men films on DVD).

So, why all the adaptations? Sophie Coppola based her Marie Antoinette film (disappointingly starring Kirsten Dunst, but a guilty pleasure of mine) on the Antonia Fraser biography, and her world-famous Virgin Suicides also came from a book. Then you have Ulysses, Breakfast at Tiffany’s (so far removed from Truman Capote’s original novella, it’s barely worth mentioning), The Shawshank Redemption, Fight Club, Pride & Prejudice, Watership Down… the list could go on! Guardian Books listed the Top 50 Adaptations, but that doesn’t even cover the half of it.

Is is a lack of originality in Hollywood that keeps spewing out all these adaptations? Do scriptwriters panic and realise that the best stories are already in bookstores, on paper? Peter Jackson claims he adapted Tolkien’s novels out of a love of the books himself – he wanted to share the joy he found. But what then of the books that are completely ruined by their half-attempted Silver Screen counterparts? Is that a vision of joy gone wrong? Does the cutting room floor contain the secret to what should have been a good film, but ended badly because of the fear of the Box Office?

Some books have changed endings – there is no kiss in Pride & Prejudice, but one was added for the film. Some people live while others die, when in fact it should have been the other way round. The film industry take liberties with these books – cutting and changing to make something that “sells”. Surely, if the book is popular enough to adapt in the first place, it was selling pretty well before you changed it? But, that doesn’t change the churn of book adaptations that come out of Ell Lay…

What are your favourite adaptations? What are your worst? What films did you watch without even knowing they were books?

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Silver Screen Scribblings

  1. This is exactly why I don’t see movies that are based on my favorite books. I refuse to watch Harry Potter, I never saw Water for Elephants (come on, the book is so damn good and they casted Robert Pattinson?!), and I will definitely refuse (and maybe protest) the screening of my favorite book: The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

    But, great post! 🙂

  2. Jaws
    The Godfather
    Jurassic Park
    The Shining
    Forest Gump
    Blade Runner
    A Clockwork Orange
    Brokeback Mountain
    Fight Club
    the Mist
    Stand By Me
    The Shawshank Redemption
    Pinocchio
    Silence of the Lambs
    One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
    The Princess Bride
    Trainspotting
    2001: A Space Odyssey
    Control
    Psycho
    The Bourne Trilogy
    Planet of the Apes
    We Need to Talk about Kevin

    These are all films based on books where I prefer the film adaptation. Just my opinion, I know some are contentious, but many I’d be amazed if anyone could argue with them (Godfather, Jaws).

    Cinema and literature are separate mediums, and one is not superior to the other. Some things work on screen that don’t work on the page. This is why Nabokov’s own adaptation of Lolita (he scripted the Kubrick version himself) is so different to his own novel, and works better than the more recent ‘closer’ adaptation.

    “The film industry take liberties with these books – cutting and changing to make something that “sells”.” This isn’t always fair. The film ‘industry’ is no more a money driven industry than publishing. We Need to Talk About Kevin for example, was a blockbusting best-seller all over the world (that I didn’t enjoy much at all), and the film is actually a great small art-house film by one of Britain’s best directors.

    • I agree on some of those, and I agree that the publishing industry also tries to do what “sells”. However, would some of those films have ever been made if they had not been successful in the first place? I think trying to predict a market is like trying to find your way in the dark – it’s nigh on impossible, which is why people try to go for the safe option. Look at the adaptation of Northern Lights, where they removed the religious element to avoid controversy. But the book is a success regardless, so why make it different? Yes, screen and paper are different, but at the same time, if you can envision a book as a film, then surely it would work anyway? Having said that, I can’t judge Lolita as I have neither read it nor seen the film! The bit that annoys me is that people seem to think seeing the film is just as good as reading the book, which I think is a shame.

      • I agree wholeheartedly about Northern Lights, although that was an exceptional case. That was because of corporate fear rather than artistic choice. Films cost much more to make than a book costs to publish, so they essentially chickened out of making the film properly, which is a real shame.

        Novels by their nature contain much more detail than a film can hold (without being hours and hours long), which is why short stories are often very fertile ground for great films. But length isn’t the only issue.

        For a film to succeed artistically, changes do need to be made, beyond simple cuts. Unreliable narrators, internal monologues and other literary devices cannot work on film. Then again, film can achieve things that literature can’t, (through the use of montages, music and performance) which is one reason it has become the dominant artistic medium in the later part of last century.

        Just to throw a spanner in the works, how comes nobody ever complains about the truly awful ‘novelisations’ that are adapted from most blockbusters? The pain does occur the other way round too, but it is rarely brought into the debate.

        I agree seeing the film isn’t ‘as good’ as reading the book, but it also isn’t any worse. Each needs to be judged on its own merits. I just think it’s a shame that cinema is often spoke about as an inferior art form in this general debate, I think that’s my main issue really.

  3. I think we’re on the same page in some respects… I can’t bear the thought of “novelisations” either. I think one thing works on paper and another on screen. I’m a massive film fan, don’t get me wrong – I adore the film industry – I just feel that sometimes they should put more trust in a screenwriter. They are amazingly talented people, and shouldn’t just be expected to regurgitate something already written. I don’t think film is an inferior art form – I think it’s amazing, I just don’t think it should be used as a medium for so many novels. Novels and films sometimes work (The Godfather being case-in-point) and can work fantastically together, but as a whole, I think they should be separated to some extent. I don’t think seeing a film justifies not reading the book, and vice versa – a lot of films have opened my eyes to some books! My problem is that most of the films at the moment seem to be adaptations of a book – where’s the originality? Where’s the creativity of director, producer and scriptwriter? Where’s the actors making a character their own? Look at some of the classic films – they are so classic because the director has a vision, not taken from a book, and the actor creates a character that comes alive. I want to see more of that again – I feel acting is now performing one person’s interpretation of a book, when acting is such a skill in itself that it should be allowed the freedom of creating its own personality.

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