Adapting books: turning oxen into bouillon cubes

February 4, 2018

Having your book turned into a movie is like seeing your oxen turned into bouillon cubes. John le Carré

As an author, you can’t expect a movie to be an illustration of the book. If that’s what you hope for, you shouldn’t sell the rightsBernhard Schlink

When you’re making a movie of a book, people are always waiting with their knives.    Joel Edgerton

A book can be a great friend, an advisor, a means to an end. A book reveals so much more than a movie would ever do. For example, when I watched the movie “The Hours” I was fascinated by the story. Just a year later I decided to read the book. And what was my surprise that I was even more dazzled by its writings than I was by the images… The images in my head were more vivid than the film could ever transport me to that feminine universe that the author was trying (and so successfully granted me) to conceiveAna Claudia Antunes

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Auguste and Louis Lumiere recorded their first footage of workers leaving a factory on 13 February 1895. It didn’t take long for moviemakers to seek out books. It is hard to say which is the first ever adaptation as many silent movies have been lost. There were William K.L. Dickson’s eight short films based on Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle. When I say short they seem to have been under a minute. The 1902 silent film A Trip to the Moon by Georges Méliès was inspired by a couple of Jules Verne’s novels, From the Earth to the Moon and Around the Moon. It is also frequently referred to as the first science fiction film. In contrast to Rip Van Winkle we the legendary German director Erich von Stroheim’s rendering of a Frank Norris novel Greed. This silent 1924 MGM film was originally 462 minutes long, although it was cut down to 140 minutes for cinematic release. Since these early days there have been many more. But is it a good idea to take a 500-page novel and put it on the silver screen?

For me there are two fundamental disadvantages of adapting books to the silver screen. The first of these is that you have to leave out so much. This is the same argument when you have an abridged audiobook. You have to concentrate on the plot. This is a fine, but there is so much more to a book than this. The larger canvas a novel provides allows the authors to develop their characters. The second obvious drawback is that books let readers use their imaginations. It is invariably a disappointment to see a director’s vision of what we have already imagined. If you really love a book it’s highly unlikely that a film will make you want to be unfaithful. I feel that way about Bonfire of the Vanities. The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy was another big let-down. You’re much better off with the books or the radio series.

Films do have their advantages too. Imagination is good, but directors can produce some spectacular images. If you add brilliant acting, what’s not to love? What’s more life is short. We don’t have time to read all the books out there. Sometimes I prefer to spend a couple of hours enjoying the film. It is true that once I’ve seen the film I find it almost impossible to read the book. I realise that this is not completely logical as they are often very different. It’s just that I find it difficult to invest the ten hours that a book may well take me. I have read both the Silence of the Lambs and Jaws, and I liked both of them, but I think the films were better.  There are others where I imagine that the film may be better but I can’t be sure as I haven’t actually read the book: The Godfather Psycho and Doctor Strangelove come to mind

I have long thought that TV is a better way to adapt. You do lose some of the cinematic brilliance, but you do avoid the biggest problem the lack of time. This is clearly seen with the TV adaptation of I, Claudius. I love the book, but the TV series is spectacular. It is not for spectacular special effects; what it does have is brilliant acting and the time to develop the story. And in recent years we have seen the rise of streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon and Hulu we now have adaptations with high production values. Over the last few years I have enjoyed a number of excellent adaptations Show Me a Hero, Big Little Lies, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Night Manager and Decline and Fall. What I like now is that many of the dramas are base on non-fiction. This year we have TV series such as McMafia, Sharp Objects, The Alienist, Fahrenheit 451 and The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story to look forward to.

In the end the best option is to enjoy all the different cultural forms. I think there is much choice out there. The only problem is to find the time.

 

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