Writ Large: Novel To Screen

Since the first film camera rolled for the first time the world of literature has been relentlessly mined as potential celluloid plunder. In 1896 Gerald Du Maurier’s book Trilby and Little Billee was adapted into a short, and that same year Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle was made into The Awakening of Rip. With more substantial adaptations of the likes of Ben Hur and Oliver Twist coming at the dawn of the 20th century. It seems like most films these days are derived from some other source material, be it video games, graphic novels or the best-seller chart.

Fourteen of the (current) top 20 highest grossing movies of all-time are based upon children’s books, comic books, fantasy fiction, and theme park rides, with the remaining six being three sequels, two James Cameron films (one based on a true story) and a Pixar movie. It makes good business sense to be unoriginal, or, at least, have a solid foundation on which to build your motion picture. Of course, with adaptations you can’t always please everyone, and for all the love thrown at Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy there will always be its vehement detractors bemoaning the lack of Tom Bombadill (even in the extended editions). Likewise, Harry Potter fanatics never really seem to be happy, complaining that the film’s either cram in too much from the door-stop it’s trying to adapt or not enough.

Potentially one of my favourite page-to-screen conversions is a destruction of the artform, in Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman’s delightfully skewed Adaptation, in which screen-writer Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) struggles to adapt the book The Orchid Thief into a movie. Such is the twisted brilliance of this movie that Charlie’s brother in the film, Donald (also Nicolas Cage), was co-credited with the actual screenplay and Oscar nominated despite being entirely fictional himself; further blurring the line between reality and imagination.

Sometimes as a new film based on a novel approaches I am faced with the quandry; should I read the book first or wait for the film? In instances where I’ve plumped for the latter and then read the novel, I often hear the actor’s voices in my head, their nuances effecting my own rhythm of reading, or my mind’s eye tries to direct the visuals with whichever director’s tics and trademarks. Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (and any other of his writings) will be forever narrated by Johnny Depp in my brain thanks to Terry Gilliam’s masterful vision.

It’s peculiar how, despite promotional tie-in novelizations, the reverse doesn’t seem to occur, that films are adapted into novels with as much respect as a film-maker might take. But then again, often you finish reading a book and think ‘This would make a great film!’ it’s very rare to come out of the cinema, shaking your head and saying ‘Well, that would make a better book.’ Bizarrely though, during my GCSEs, we studied the tie-in book of Dead Poet’s Society, which was, in fairness, written by the film’s screenwriter Tom Schulman and featured the immortal line ‘Carpe Breastum, seize the breast.’ (Not included in Peter Weir’s vastly superior film)

2009 ended with one of the most prolificly adapted characters of all-time making his, arguably, most faithful appearance on screen with Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, and over the first months of 2010 we’ve had the likes of Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones (a film that surprised me by being worse than a book I found to be terribly written). Next up Tim Burton’s take on Lewis Carroll’s Alice books is another in a long-line of pseudo-sequels, from American McGee’s video game to Frank Beddor’s The Looking Glass Wars trilogy. Elsewhere there’s been Percy Jackson, Precious, Up In The Air, the Twilight saga; all based on novels with much more doubtlessly round the corner.

In a lot of cases the book shelf seems to be a good springboard into a, potentially more lucrative, career in Courier 12 point. It’s a strange thought to start considering how many of your own favourite films are based on something that existed previously in another medium and comparitively how few of the films that reach our screens are wholly original ideas. In a strange way, for me, it’s almost a bonus point if a film isn’t ‘adapted from’, ‘based on’ or ‘suggested by’… Though that’s not to say a shocking ammount of my DVD collection comes complete with those tags.

© BRWC 2010.

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Alton loves film. He is founder and Editor In Chief of BRWC.  Some of the films he loves are Rear Window, Superman 2, The Man With The Two Brains, Clockwise, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, Trading Places, Stir Crazy and Punch-Drunk Love.

  • Trevor Smith 1st March 2010

    Another very interesting and in-depth piece by Owain. Loved the first two paragraphs – very insightful.

    It really annoys me when i hear the words ‘Oh but the book was so much better.’ The first thing i say to a person who says this is : ‘How many pages was that book ?’ and i get the usual answer of about 300 pages, sometimes more. I then point out to them the average movie is 100 minutes, which is roughly 100 pages. The penny then drops with them.

    People have to understand that a film maker has to eliminate alot of a book and on top of that create his own vision and a film – not a novel, from the writing. So before they criticize the film maker they need to respect him or her for what he is trying to acheive, instead of looking at it from their novel experience.

    Stephen King went crazy at Stanley Kubrick about The Shining ! As it was such a different vision to his book… But look at it now – one of the great Horror films of all time and in many peoples top ten favourite list.

    Thoughts ? And I haven’t seen The Lovely Bones yet, but i want to. So you didnt rate it Owain ?

  • Anonymous 1st March 2010

    The Lovely Bones – AVOID
    Please, please, please read the book.

  • Owain Paciuszko 3rd March 2010

    I don’t think it’s hard for a film-maker to adapt a book as long as what’s key in their mind is capturing the mood of the story, they could disperse with every element of the book itself and effectively create a worthwhile film spring-boarded from the book’s premise and theme, a la Children of Men.

    I thought The Lovely Bones was a terrible film, it felt like a extended trailer, for such a long film nothing is given any depth or weight and so many potentially thrilling or emotional scenes seemed brushed aside, cut away from or, even, bizarrely, played too comedically?!

    However, I also thought the book was atrocious for entirely different reasons, in Sebold’s novel I just didn’t buy the voice of Susie Salmon at all. She did not read like a 13 year old girl, if you want to read a great novel (also adapted into a film) from a young girl’s POV then pick up Mitch Cullin’s book Tideland (then watch Gilliam’s wonderfully disturbed film).

  • Sledge 12th March 2010

    The book is stunning ,really. But the film…
    Oh Dear.


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