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The Book and the Film Should be Friends

Herbie's picture


Perhaps this comes from my love of books, which will always surpass my (admittedly great) love for movies, but the best movie adaptations of books are the movies which follow most closely the book. Usually, the movie retains the basic plot, though there are exceptions, such as Ella Enchanted (book|film), but for me, the truly great adaptations are so fantastic because of their attention to detail. Any movie can recreate a plot, but the details, the scenes that don’t lend anything to forwarding the plot, the sets, the dialogue, the tone, the music, are what make up the best parts of a movie.

In my mind, the best movie adaptation of a book is Holes (book|film), based on Louis Sachar’s book by the same name. The pool of adaptations I considered for this category and obviously prestigious “award” was limited to adapted films where I had seen the movie and read the book, thus eliminating several Academy Award-nominated films from running against Holes, including Atonement (book|film), Precious (book|film), and any installment of the Lord of the Rings (book|film) trilogy directed by Peter Jackson. Technically, both the book and film versions of Holes are intended for younger audiences (i.e. children), but I am a firm believer that being an adult does not preclude you from enjoying entertainment geared to a younger age bracket. One of the things I most enjoyed about the book was its non-linear storytelling, incorporating events from the 19th century alongside the modern day story in order to advance the plot, while keeping the reader in suspense as long as possible. The film executes these changes artfully and smoothly, making it easy for the viewer to follow along. I also tend to think that non-linear storytelling is easier in film because (usually) different actors play the different roles and wear different costumes. In addition to the cues that normally come in written text, such as chapter changes or large breaks between paragraphs within a chapter, a film also supplies visual and audio cues. Different costumes, different sets, scene changes, and music, all provide those necessary cues so that the brain registers the transition to a different time. Film adaptations make it easier for their audiences to understand changes that occur, allowing for more attention to other details in the story.

Of course, it’s much easier to critique poorly adapted films. After all, there are many more of those. Some adaptations are bad because they change the setting and make it different from the book. As far as I can tell, these decisions are usually the result of a tight budget. For instance, Disney’s 2001 adaptation of Meg Cabot’s young adult fiction series The Princess Diaries (book|film) changed the setting from New York to San Francisco. When Matilda (book|film) became a movie, she also became American, not British, as did the main character in the film version of The Wedding Date, based on the book Asking for Trouble by Elizabeth Young (book|film). Though these changes may not seem like they matter very much, location can affect the plot.  In the film version of The Princess Diaries, a large part of the plot centers on Mia’s car, a car that she does not own in the books. Changing the location, normally considered a minor detail, can have a large effect on the plot.

Movie adaptations also enjoy cutting out important characters, usually by killing them. Again, The Princess Diaries film gives Mia a dead father; the book merely has an impotent father after a bout of testicular cancer. The recent Swedish adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (book|film) kills one of the most crucial characters with breast cancer, long before the story ever begins.  I’m told that the Lord of the Rings film adaptations eliminated at least one character (Tom Bombadil) entirely without any explanation. Logistically, this often makes sense in a film. Why cast extra actors when the screen writer can eliminate them from the script entirely but still have the plot make sense? Production companies, I’m sure, save thousands of dollars during that process, if only in actors’ salaries if not also in extra days for filming and editing. However, by cutting characters from the plot, film viewers are losing out on interesting character interactions, opportunities for the screen writer to shine, but also on the accuracy between the book and the film.

But again, the most important part of an adaptation is the director’s and the producers’ attention to detail. I know many people, for example, who have to make an effort to separate the Harry Potter books from the movies (book|film). While the plot points may be (mostly) the same, we as viewers still miss many details which make JK Rowling’s series so fantastic. In the film, we miss out on her fantastic puns and wordplay because there’s no focus on the students’ textbooks. We also miss many of the details about what precisely they learn in their classrooms because the movie chooses to leave that out. Granted, there are time constraints, but the movie even ignores some of the character’s physical attributes. Daniel Radcliffe does not wear green-colored contacts while filming, so viewers who are not also readers do not know that Harry should have green eyes. Emma Watson does not have large front teeth and abnormally bushy hair, so neither does Hermione. Alan Rickman was born in 1946, but Geraldine Somerville was born in 1967, yet Severus Snape and Lily Potter were in the same year at school and were friends for many years. Through casting, the director and producers have already made detail-altering changes to the books, which makes viewing a completely different experience. After all, it is very difficult for an audience to suspend enough belief to think that Snape is young enough to have been peers with Lily Potter and Remus Lupin (David Thewlis, born 1963), both of whom look younger, though by varying degrees.

It would be naïve of me to assume that every person who sees a film based on a book immediately goes to the bookstore or the library on his or her way home to purchase the book. If I myself don’t do that, how can I expect the rest of the world to do it? But because most viewers are not running out to become readers as well, I think they deserve a film that is true to the book. They deserve to know that the movie they’re watching is as close as movie can be to the original. Viewers should not have to wonder about whether or not the details are exactly true or whether a character really behaves like the actor portrays him or her. Authors should know when they sell the rights to their book that the plot points won’t be completely skewed. For instance, Meg Cabot makes fun of The Princess Diaries film in every book in that series that was published after the movie’s release. Movie adaptations, in my opinion, ought to be so like the book, a viewer can perfectly imagine reading the words on a page. Movies should not be different from a book; rather, a movie should just be a different medium for reading the book, cost and time be damned.




Anne Dalke's picture


thanks, first, for all these most excellent "citations," your carefully paired links to the book-and-movie versions of the same story; it's very helpful to have them so easily available for comparison.

But, despite the wealth of evidence you've assembled, you haven't convinced me. I guess my first push-back has to do w/ the binary construction of your argument: the better/worse framing of the duality (I've just said the same thing to aseidman, who set up her paper similarly). Why should-or-must one genre out "rank" the other? What gives an original the "authority" to control all future variants? Wherefrom that claim?

Before we even got to the age of film: what if Dante, or Milton, had been bound by your guidelines: that adaptations must "closely follow the original"? What if Philip Pullman been as respectful here of Milton's original, as you demand all adaptors must be? We'd all still be reading the Bible (a great book, mind you, but one with some great gaps, also, that more contemporary versions have quite admirably filled in ....).

My own view is that the whole point of adaptation is to create something new, and that most adaptations are hampered by their inability to do that. I don't go to films to see the book I've read; I go to films for precisely what you denounce: "viewing a completely different experience"--and am still struggling to understand what's "wrong" about that....I'd say, rather than "deserving a film that is true to the book," what I deserve is some fresh, new vision, something that uses the resources of different genre to craft something different, that was not capturable in print...

I'm just realizing that all your work so far has been about this matter of change across time: you looked first @ the ways in which Bryn Mawr's Honor Code has been updated in response to internet activity, and altered to address on-line forums; you looked next @ the shift from pretentious, snobby books to forms of storytelling that enable increased access. So why does the story that you tell here actually reverse that trajectory, to insist that the original should set the limits of its adaptations, a frame it cannot exceed?

P.S. the next day--reading TBP1988's "What is in a name? That which we call an adaptation"  led me to a summary essay on the field of adaptation studies, which traces the "pervasive legacy that haunts adaptation studies: both the assumption that the primary context within which adaptations are to be studied is literature," and "the notion that adaptations ought to be faithful to their ostensible sourcetexts."

The bottom line of this review essay is that adaptation studies needs to problematize the "evaluative problems the field has inherited from literary studies—fidelity, hierarchy, canonicity"; that theorists of adaptation should look "more closely at the ways adaptations play with their sourcetexts instead of merely aping or analyzing them," and so replace the questions about appropriation and adaptation with what was once called "intertexuality," but might now more accurately seen as "intermediality."

Thoughts? Reactions?