Monday, June 02, 2008

Good Book-to-Film Adaptations

I used to believe that there was no such thing as a good adaptation of a novel to film. "They always ruin it," I would say. But recently I have seen some good adaptations (and still some not-so-good.) The film can never be exactly the same as the book. Changes are required, but they can be good ones or bad -- or perhaps, done for good or bad reasons.

Here are a couple examples of adaptations (filmizations?) that I thought worked:
  • The Pallisers. Anthony Trollope wrote a series of six volumes, about 600 pages each, that was converted by the BBC into a 26-episode miniseries. I would say that they didn't leave out anything important. That's one mistake often made in film adaptations. They did have to leave out or simplify quite a few things, but I feel that they still captured the spirit of the books. Interestingly, the lines spoken by actors in The Pallisers tend to be paraphrases of what Trollope wrote. They get the point across, in a condensed modern style. (Dialogue, in historical novels or film adaptations, is a whole other interesting subject.)

    Somebody posted an irate review on IMDB, listing every single thing in the film version that differed from the books, in an attempt to demonstrate what a bad adaptation it was. Reading this review made me realize that change is not always bad. I would say that only one of those changes was major enough to surprise me.

    But this person, for example, complained about the fact that two characters took on the role of narrator, requiring them to say things and go places that they never did in the books. In effect, they passed on facts in the form of gossip . . . which seems perfectly reasonable.

    One of the major characters dies towards the end of the series. This event takes place "between" two books -- Trollope doesn't describe it directly. In the miniseries, however, this character got a prolonged deathbed scene, which very much annoyed the fellow on IMDB. This is a perfect example of how film differs from literature: namely, you cannot deprive an actor of a good death scene. Even I know that. (Someone -- perhaps Christopher Eccleston -- said that those are the very best scenes of all.) I mean, you just can't.

  • Lady Audley's Secret. This book, little-known today, was first published in 1862. I like it. If you like Dracula (the original novel) you might like it too. It contains no supernatural elements whatsoever, but both books share a sense of brooding menace and a fascination with railway timetables. (Good stuff.) Anyway, some people made a movie out of it in the year 2000. And they changed some significant things, but strangely enough I didn't really mind. The reason, I think, is because Lady Audley is meant to be a sympathetic character, and the creators of the film felt so very sympathetic that they wanted to make things easier for her. One gets the impression that they actually read the book -- and, just as important, they respect the book. I think that's the key to a good adaptation. Filmmakers who think they can improve on the book (especially if they think that special effects should be used to add something that was not there before), or who want to tell a story of their own and use the book for window dressing . . . those are problematic. People who actually pay attention to the book, perhaps, are more likely to create a good adaptation.


Ben said...

Is it unfortunate that many people feel so strongly related to a book or story that they disapprove of someone else's relationship to that book or story? This is the root of the entire "book is better" conundrum.

A lot of books simply don't lend themselves to being re-imagined as a movie. This adds fuel to the fire as well. Books are not screenplays, and as screenplays are pretty boring to read, they are not books. The art forms are not codependent on each other.

LDR said...

You're right - it's all about "someone else's relationship to that book or story." The filmmakers naturally interpret the story in their own way, and if that clashes with the viewer's interpretation, they don't like it.

The question of what books make good films is a really interesting one. But it seems to me that the two art forms must be related, or nobody would ever be able to convert a book into a film.