Adapting novels for the screen


Books are an enduring source of material for filmmakers, but what makes for a successful transition to film?

It’s doubtful author Raymond Chandler had actor Humphrey Bogart in mind when he envisaged the character of gumshoe Philip Marlowe. If he had, Chandler would have described the private dick as a short, funny-looking guy with stilted delivery and a toupee. As it was, Chandler wrote of his sleuth hero in novels such as The Big Sleep, as a tall, slender, potentially menacing presence.

Nevertheless, when asked what he thought Hollywood had done to his novels, Chandler replied that Hollywood had done nothing to his novels.

“Look,” he said, “they’re sitting right over there on the shelf.”

In language as precise and economical as dialogue he placed in the mouth of his characters (assuming the story isn’t apocryphal), Chandler managed to convey what should be a simple message: novels and film are different media. We negotiate and interpret them differently. They offer different pleasures, require the use of different senses, affect us in different ways.

And yet we persist in comparing and contrasting the adaptation of a book into film, usually unfavourably.

We rate how faithful has been the rendering of the tome, list the important episodes that are absent in the big-screen version, and whether the actors are worthy or appropriate to deliver the lines that were originally written for paper, not multiplex. Writing in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, William Arnold clearly considered the film version of Snow Falling on Cedars inferior to the novel.

“The book’s poetically precise prose, bold structural devices, riveting delineation of character and heartbreaking tale of anti-Japanese prejudice in 1940s Washington state established (David) Guterson as a major novelist. The film version … goes after these qualities. (It) is visually poetic, non-linear in structure and relatively uncompromising. Even though it’s a big-budget studio release, it’s very much an ‘art’ film. At the same time, it has – perhaps inevitably – lost much of the novel’s drive and originality, and its characters have, to a large extent, been reduced to movie stereotypes. As good as it is many ways, the film is not as emotionally gripping as it should be, and comes off as rather a predictable liberal statement.”

Not content to view a film adapted from a novel as a text in and of itself, we feel compelled to contrast it with the book with which it shares its name – even though the reading of each renders its own, separate rewards.

Consider the example of Alfonso Cuarón’s Great Expectations. In the film starring Ethan Hawke, Gwyneth Paltrow and Robert De Niro, the story had been shifted from 19th century England to modern-day Florida and New York. Several of the characters’ names had been changed, including that of the main protagonist from Pip to Finn. In fact, it could be argued that so little did some elements resemble the 19th century novel, including the ending, that Charles Dickens would have a tough time connecting the film with his work.

John Updike has written of experiencing just that when he struggled to recognise any similarity between the film called The Witches of Eastwick and the novel he wrote of the same name.

Similarly, were Philip K. Dick still alive, he might have marvelled at the spectacular visuals of the movie Blade Runner, but apart from a few characters whose names he created, would have struggled to connect it to the novel he wrote called Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Obviously readers of books are going to make a connection when a film is made of a particular work, which might explain why John Irving insisted the adaptation of his book, A Prayer for Owen Meaney, alter its name after the makers of the movie departed radically from the plot in his novel.

Consequently Simon Birch was released, more or less without fanfare.

Irving subsequently wrote the screenplay for the recently released film version of his novel The Cider House Rules himself.

US-based film reviewer Paul Tatara says films based on Irving’s books “often feel like two or three different stories sewn together like Frankenstein’s monster,” regardless of who writes the screenplay. Which is not to say that Irving lacks talent, but is a phenomenon that is more a reflection on the nature of his writing, which often weaves wildly disparate parts into a cohesive whole. In his novels, and other books, such a style doesn’t seem out of place. When we’re reading books, we expect them to be meandering, descriptive and elliptical. But in film, story is all, and things that often work on the page seem incongruous or unnecessary in a script.

So what makes a film a commendable adaptation, and is such an occurrence desirable, or even possible? Perhaps the adaptation of The Name of the Rose gives us the most helpful example of a way to understand the relationship between book and film.

The writer of the novel, historian and academic Umberto Eco, said there was no relationship at all. None. One was a book, one was a movie that happened to share the same name. Indeed, the two texts are rather different and after an attempt at Eco’s dense, labyrinthine work, one might wonder how anyone could even contemplate filming it. No such attempt was made. Rather, director Jean-Jacques Annaud made what he called a “palimpsest” of Eco’s book. Kind of like a medieval etch-o-sketch, a palimpsest was a piece of parchment used over and over again.

What Annaud meant was his film offered resonance, lines, traces, characters and plot elements of the novel, but was by no means an attempt to film exactly what Eco had written. Given the scope of Eco’s novel, and the sophisticated ideas and language, such an exercise would simply have been impossible.

In the case of Dickens, one of the complications in an adaptation for modern audiences is the episodic nature and arch style of the writing. Dickens was writing for an audience that was bereft of television, radio and internet. His novels were originally penned in serial form for newspapers, with intricate plots and characterisations. And while Dickens was a prodigious writer and prolific in the extreme, his style, like that of many 18th and 19th century novelists, is not readily converted to big-screen dialogue.

For example, in once describing a character grinning from ear to ear in The Pickwick Papers, Dickens wrote he “exhibited a grin that agitated his countenance from one auricular organ to the other.”

Like Irving, the very nature of Dickens’ writing – its “writerliness” and its convoluted, episodic form – makes conversion to film problematic.

Jane Campion was criticised for her film version of Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady for the most part, it seemed, because she dared, like Cuarón, to attempt (not altogether successfully) to make a film that was relevant to contemporary audiences. Reading James can provide a rewarding experience but it’s not easy-going. He uses long sentences, contrived plots and dense passages replete with internal dialogue. In short, like Eco, he’s a writer who wouldn’t appear to be a natural for film.

Like Annaud, Campion didn’t even try to “adapt” James for the screen. Rather, she presented something of a palimpsest of her own, featuring elements such as contemporary Australian schoolgirls talking about relationships at the start of the film. It was if to say, right from the beginning, “This is not a faithful adaptation.”

And where James was notoriously circumspect when writing about his characters’ sexual exploits (he refrained from writing about the topic altogether), Campion shows Isabel Archer’s (Nicole Kidman) inability to choose between two lovers by having her sharing a bed with both of them.

The best indication of whether a film adaptation has succeeded might therefore be if the film contains something of the “spirit” of the novel, and whether it has entertained, engaged or provoked – rather than how closely it resembles its source material.

Decent films have been made of relatively ordinary books (Gone with the Wind) and vice versa (Catch 22, and many more). Also, adaptations of some novels, Mario Puzo’s The Godfather and James Ellroy’s LA Confidential, for instance, have made excellent films only partly because they were based on decent books. Mostly they appeared to work because excellent directors (Francis Ford Coppola and Curtis Hanson, respectively) worked with fine writers, actors, cinematographers, technicians, editors and so on to produce highly regarded movies.

What Puzo, and Irving and others must have discovered preparing novels for the screen is the vastly different roles writers of novels and scripts have. In penning a book, the novelist is screenwriter, cameraman, director, costumier and musician.

But in writing a script the writer is but one contributor in what is a decidedly collaborative process. Further, a scriptwriter provides just enough for actors and directors to work with, not an elaborate set of instructions. And when scriptwriters consider a novel something of a holy text that must be adhered to as much as possible, the final product often doesn’t work.

Speaking at the Melbourne Film Festival following a screening of his film Brown’s Requiem, director Jamie Freeman described the process of turning James Ellroy’s considerably flawed debut novel into a film script. The first step was to go through book and highlight all the parts (passages, characters, plot devices, dialogue) that initially appealed to him. As he fashioned these elements into a workable film script, he cut out the pieces – part by unwieldy part – that couldn’t, or wouldn’t be made to fit in. Characters were lost, plot modified, chunks of dialogue discarded.

Then as the financial constraints really started to kick in (probably about the time he decided to use a significant portion of the budget on an early 60s convertible), Freeland decided he’d ditch one of lead character Fritz Brown’s defining characteristics: his love of classical music.

Yet in attempting to include too many scenes and characters, Freeland made a movie that was both sluggish and confusing. Sure, the lowly budget can’t have helped, but ultimately the result of Freeland’s approach was a film that didn’t come across as particularly Ellroy-esque, nor engaging.

It’s to be expected some fans of certain novelists are going to have their noses put out of joint by films that don’t live up to their expectations of how so-called great literary works should be represented. When Canadian director Patricia Rozena’s film version of Mansfield Park was criticised by fans of the Jane Austen book for making the heroine Fanny Price (Frances O’Connor) somewhat raunchier, Rozena responded thus: “I enjoy Jane Austen very much as an author, but it all felt vaguely twee to me.”

It’s the flipside to Chandler’s comment. What Rozena is basically saying is, if you want to read Austen’s novels, they’re sitting over there on the shelf. A film is something else altogether. Deal with it.

This article originally appeared over at The Urban Cinefile.


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