Sunday Salon: Literary Adaptations

The other night, I (finally) watched the film adaptation of one of my favorite novels, Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy. The 1996 film, directed by Michael Winterbottom and starring Christopher Eccleston and Kate Winslet, was a fine adaptation—perfectly cast and just as shocking and uncomfortable as the book. And I was relieved to find that the screenplay did not use Hardy’s name for Jude’s son, so there was no risk of snickers at the tragic and horrifying story of “Little Father Time.” (Hardy, I love you to pieces, but what were you thinking?!?!?!)

Even though the film was as good and as faithful an adaptation as I might have hoped for, it lacked one essential quality: Thomas Hardy’s glorious prose. Characters do sometimes speak Hardy’s words, but so much of Hardy’s fine writing includes descriptions of the landscapes and of his characters’ states of mind. These elaborate descriptions give filmmakers great material to work with, and Winterbottom does a wonderful job of taking those descriptions and putting them on screen, but it’s not the same as reveling in the long, poetic descriptions.

The film did get me thinking about what makes for a good film adaptation of a book. Is absolute faithfulness important? Are some books more filmable than others? Is the book always better?

For my part, I don’t consider faithfulness the most important quality in a film adaptation. That is, I don’t think that it’s vital to cover every plot point and include every character. Film is a different medium from a book, and what works on the page may not work on screen. For example, as much as I love Tom Bombadil from The Lord of the Rings, I tend to think that his scenes would be impossible to film in a way that doesn’t just seem silly.

What’s more important for me than plot faithfulness is faithfulness to the spirit of the book and to the characters as written. The 1997 film L.A. Confidential, which I believe is one of the greatest adapted screenplays ever written, demonstrates exactly how such faithfulness can work. James Ellroy’s original novel is sprawling and dense and complex and appears completely unfilmable. Curtis Hanson and Brian Helgeland chose to focus tightly on the three cops who form the emotional core of the book. Anything that didn’t closely relate to these three men was didn’t make it into the screenplay. The remaining crime and investigation don’t precisely follow the same course as in the book, but the essential qualities of the characters and their journeys remain. I found the novel overwhelming, but the film is a masterpiece, one of a handful of films that I could watch and then immediately watch again. (In fact, watching it once usually makes me want to watch it again.) Ellroy himself approved of the changes, despite initially thinking the novel couldn’t be filmed.

Is there such a thing as an unfilmable book? In the past, some fantasy and science fiction novels would be darn near impossible to film without seeming cheesy, but that’s less of an issue these days. I do think some books lose something in translation, as Hardy novels lose the brilliant prose when brought to the screen. Any book that relies heavily on its language will most likely not have the same magic on the screen. It could have a different sort of magic, but something will be lost.

As for whether the book is always better, I’m not sure it is. L.A. Confidential is a perfect example of a film that succeeds in ways the book does not. There are other films, though, that in my opinion are just about interchangeable with the book, say About a Boy by Nick Hornby. I love the book, but the film is so faithful that those who’ve only seen the movie probably haven’t missed much. I prefer the book only because I encountered it first, not because I think it’s better.

And that brings me to what may be a controversial point for a lot of readers. I’m not particularly strict about reading the book before I see the movie. I know! Shocking, right? My general rule is that if I was already planning to read the book, I’ll make an effort to do so before I see the movie, but if the book wasn’t even on my radar before the film, or if I had no intention of reading it, I may go ahead and see the film. The more praise a film is getting in its own right, the more likely I am to go ahead and watch it without reading the book, sometimes even if I was moderately interested in reading the book. After watching the movie, I may then go back and read the book, or I may not. Usually it depends on how much I loved the movie and how much I think the book will enhance my experience of the story and characters.

What do you think makes for a good film adaptation? How important is faithfulness to the original? Are there any adaptations you particularly love or hate? Any books you’d love (or hate) to see adapted t0 the screen? (I’m thrilled that Martin Scorcese is working on Silence by Shusaku Endo and can’t think of a better Father Rodriguez than Daniel Day-Lewis, but I’m shaking my fist at the universe for letting Ron Howard become associated with the adaptation of the Stephen King’s Dark Tower series.)

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36 Responses to Sunday Salon: Literary Adaptations

  1. Yvann says:

    I would love to see Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop adapted for film. I can see Kate Winslet, or Kristin Scott Thomas, as the embattled Florence.

    Not that I have read the original, but I thought that the new movie version of Brideshead Revisited was much better and more approachable than the TV series. I suppose I will have to read the novel to see how true it is to the novel!

    And I completely agree with you about About A Boy. I saw the film first and therefore when reading the book, saw Hugh Grant, Nicholas Gault and Toni Collette as the characters.

    What do you think about reading the book before or after the film?

    • Teresa says:

      I haven’t seen the Brideshead movie, but I did see the miniseries (years after reading the book). Most people I know who saw it thought it did go against the spirit of the book, so they were cranky.

      It’s not at all unusual for me to read books after seeing the film. If a book was already on my TBR list, I might try to read it first.

  2. gaskella says:

    But what about books made into films, after they’ve already been made into TV series? Unfortunately, Pride & Prejudice and Brideshead Revisited, despite stellar casts, couldn’t hold a candle to the wonderful TV adaptations – which because they had upwards of six hours to play with, could explore all the book offered. Being forced into two hours felt not enough to do the books justice, but we had been spoilt first. Had we not had the TV series, we would have been more receptive to film’s need to cut to the essential plot.

    I prefer to see the film after reading the book, but I can handle it the other way too.

    • gaskella says:

      I should have read Yvann’s comment fully first. I was spoilt by seeing the TV series when it originally came out – then I read the book of Brideshead – so probably a different perspective!

    • Teresa says:

      Mini-series are a whole other category, aren’t they? I love them because they do have that luxury of time. And there are some books that I think could only be properly done as miniseries. (As grumpy as I am about Ron Howard’s association with the Dark Tower, I am pleased beyond measure that they’re doing it as a feature film series/TV series hybrid thing.)

      P&P is an interesting case. I didn’t like the movie much, but I think most of my dislike was quibbly stuff–a few awkward, non-Austen lines, stuff like that. In general, it didn’t really go against the spirit of the book, but it was impossible to get the amazing mini-series out of my mind.

      But then there’s also Bride and Prejudice, the Bollywood take on P&P, which I found delightful. Such a clever re-imaging!

  3. litlove says:

    I’m very much of the opinion that it’s the spirit of the book, not the details, that need to be placed centre stage in a film adaptation. I don’t think books and movies work at all the same way, so you have to make changes to fit the genre. I know they are a bit old-fashioned these days but I did love all the Merchant-Ivory adaptations because I felt they combined the right levels of fidelity and cinematography. But I didn’t like the early Harry Potter adaptations because they were too bothered about repeating the book on screen (obviously the later books were too huge for that to be a possibility). As for unfilmable books, I’d probably put in a vote for Ella Minnow Pea. It would make a good film in one way, but what would you do about the dialogue???

    • Teresa says:

      I love the Merchant-Ivory films. They are old-fashioned, but I think that’s part of what makes them amazing. And when you consider that Forster was writing in an old-fashioned style at a time when modern techniques were coming to the fore, it seems perfect that they adapted his books!

      I very nearly brought up the Harry Potter films. I whole-heartedly agree with you. I enjoyed seeing the books visualized in the first couple of films, but they didn’t feel like great movies on their own. For me, it turned around with the third movie.

  4. Jenny says:

    I don’t have any definite feelings about the importance of reading a book before you see a movie. In general I work on the assumption that whichever I consume first, book or film, that’s going to be the thing that I prefer forever. (Which tends to hold true.) So I try to guess which I’d like better, the book or the film, and if it’s the book, I read the book before seeing the film, and if it’s the film then I don’t.

    Faithfulness to the original can be great, but it doesn’t always work. I thought the early Harry Potter movies suffered by being slavishly faithful to the books, to the point where it felt like the writer and director were just going through the motions in the film. (Not that it wasn’t neat to see those things brought to life, but I wanted there to be more surprises.)

    I’d love to see Diana Wynne Jones’s oeuvre adapted to the screen — properly, not very very very loosely like that film of Howl’s Moving Castle *grumble grumble*. The key seems to find someone who is ruthless about cutting things that don’t work on screen, but loves the source material with all his/her heart. (Like Peter Jackson.)

    • Teresa says:

      I’ve never consciously thought through whether I think I’ll like the book or movie more before deciding which to experience first, but I think my choosing whichever I’ve heard of first often has that effect. And I have sometimes ended up liking the second version I experience the most. I like Atonement the movie more than Atonement the book, but I read the book first. And I saw Howards End before reading the book, and the book is now one of my favorites. So I’m weird that way.

  5. Jenny says:

    My sister-in-law is a very visual person with a very visual imagination, so she dislikes seeing a film before she’s read the book — she finds she can’t ever create her own imaginary version of the characters after she’s seen it filmed. For myself, I don’t like seeing a filmed version too soon after I’ve read the book. I’ll start critiquing the film for changing small details, and since I don’t really think a film should adhere to every detail, I’d rather wait until all that has become a little fuzzier in my mind!

    I think someone should film one, if not all, of Alan Furst’s spy novels. They’d make a mint. And I’ll second Other Jenny’s recommendation for Diana Wynne Jones, only I really, really loved the Miyazaki film.

    • Teresa says:

      Ha! I sometimes like seeing the movie right after reading the book so I can nit-pick with authority—but it’s probably not the best frame of mind to have when going to see a movie, especially since I *don’t* think it’s important to adhere to details.

      I loved the film of Howl’s Moving Castle, too, but I hadn’t read the book (still haven’t). In fact, I didn’t even know it was a book until long after I saw the film. I was on a Miyazaki jag at the time and that’s why I saw it.

  6. Faithfulness to the spirit, rather than the letter, is more important to me. They’re two very different mediums, and sacrifices must be made.

    I find very internal novels, such as The Lovely Bones and Atonement, difficult to adapt to the big screen, while more external novels are easier—by which I mean, how external do characters get? Little is said about real emotions in Atonement, but Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead focuses on the internal quite well. Then again, it’s a play, so hush. :B

    • Teresa says:

      I really loved the film of Atonement because I thought the filmmakers were so clever in subtle suggesting the “twist” without giving it away. (The typing in the soundtrack was brilliant!) But I didn’t really love (just liked it) the book, so I wasn’t invested in how faithful it was.

      I can’t imagine The Lovely Bones on the big screen, and all the reviews I’ve seen (including yours) convinced me that it just doesn’t quite work.

  7. Frances says:

    I think a film maker has to stay true to the essence of the story for me to enjoy and adaptation of a much loved book but there must be some give especially when it comes to chunksters. Unless we are talking mini series, it is just not possible to remain true to every scene and turn of plot.

    Also, film is a visual art and novels are not. Internal monologues are not easily reproducible nor are conversations that meander endlessly through 75 pages. A different medium requires a different treatment of the source material.

    I find that I am most particular about casting when it comes to adaptations. Having seen the character so clearly in my mind’s eye, I always feel (irrationally) pissed off when the casting deviates far afield. One recent piece of casting that I am thrilled about however is Jane Eyre. It all looks spot on to me!

    • Teresa says:

      I can get extremely vexed about casting! Almost every time I’ve heard Hugh Grant is cast in an adaptation of a book I love, I get cranky because I can’t picture him in the part. In fact, in Sense and Sensibility I pictured him in an entirely different part (i.e., Willoughby)! But then he ends up being great, so what do I know?

      But what I LOVE is seeing a trailer and finding that the perfect actor has been selected for a role. That happened several times for me with the Harry Potter films. Alan Rickman, Kenneth Branaugh, Maggie Smith, Imelda Stanton, Helena Bonham-Carter. All those choices got me very excited.

  8. Erin says:

    I found that Vanity Fair starring Reese Witherspoon did a wonderful job bringing a rambling, doorstop of a book to a focused plot. A lot of the book is the author’s satire and commenting on society, instead of focusing on the main characters. The movie did away with a lot of the satire and just focused on Becky. Mira Nair, the director, did a fabulous job with casting and set design. Pillars of the Earth was another wonderful production that stayed true to the story.

    • Teresa says:

      I think I saw Vanity Fair too soon after reading the book because I got exasperated at the focus on Becky. But what you say makes a lot of sense, and the design was spectacular!

  9. Florinda says:

    “I’m not particularly strict about reading the book before I see the movie. I know! Shocking, right?” Not to me. I stopped being a stickler about that a long time ago, and as one who prefers Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings to Tolkein’s, I’m not a firm believer that “the book is always better” either. I’ve been surprised by some unexpectedly good film adaptations, and have been befuddled by the very idea of making movies out of some books. And there have been times when I didn’t even realize a movie was adapted from a book until after I’d seen it (which usually sends me in search of the book).

    They’re different art forms. Some elements work even better on film – a picture CAN be worth a thousand words – and others don’t translate well at all, but I try to weigh each on their own merits.

    • Teresa says:

      I’ve often found out a movie was a book long after seeing it. Notes on a Scandal is on my shelf only because I spotted it months after seeing and loving the movie. (Haven’t read the book yet, but you know how that goes.)

      Totally agree that they’re two different forms, and it’s good to think of it that way. But when the deviations are extreme (usually because of added material), I sometimes wish the filmmakers had written an original story since they didn’t respect the source much.

  10. Kathleen says:

    I feel like I could have written this post myself! I agree with everything you wrote.

  11. cbjames says:

    I’m with you, but I’ll go even further. I think a filmmaker has no responsibility to the original material at all. His or her only responsibility is to make a good movie. If the movie is good enough, then all will be forgiven. If it’s not, then no level of faithfulness will make up for that fact.

    That said, and awful lot of filmmakers make changes that do not improve things. I think the film version of The Golden Compass is an excellent example. The movie is outright cowardly compared to the book. If you don’t have the guts to deal with the material properly, do not even try.

    One great example is Tristram Shandy. It should be an unfilmable book–it’s nothing but one rambling digression after another, it all takes place during a single day, most of it in a room featuring three men talking about things that are not the central plot. Yet the recent movie is very funny and very entertaining. It’s actaully a movie about how unfilmable the book is. I saw the movie first and am enjoying the book now.

    • Teresa says:

      That is a radical view! I don’t mind pretty serious departures—your Tristram Shandy example is a great example (though I didn’t love the movie). I also think some of the modern updates of classic novels, like Clueless and Bride and Prejudice, are great. But what I really dislike is when I get the sense that the filmmakers don’t like or understand the source material.

  12. Deb says:

    What a coincidence–one of the other blogs I visit regularly had a long post today about whether the upcoming version of “Mildred Pierce” will be better than the Joan Crawford version from the 1940s–and, if it is, is that because it is much more faithful to James M. Cain’s original novel.

    I gave up trying to make my vision of what goes on in a book jibe with what takes place on the screen after I saw “Gone With the Wind” (at about 16 years old) and was crestfallen when I realized that I was watching a big, lush, technicolor romance based on the story of a hard-headed, hard-hearted, greedy, unscrupulous woman who pulls herself and her family out of post-Civil War poverty. Don’t get me wrong, I like both the novel and the movie of GWTW, but I see them as two separate things and never the twain shall meet. I find that’s the best attitude to take when viewing an adaptation of a novel–especially a favorite one.

    The best adaptation I’ve seen was a very, very early Masterpiece Theater adaptation of Henry James’s THE GOLDEN BOWL (also one of my favorite James novels). It did an excellent job of showing the dynamics between the characters and also kept James’s narrative distance (the story is told by a man who is getting most of his information second-hand from his gossipy wife) which is very tricky to do.

    • Teresa says:

      That “never the twain shall meet” attitude is probably the fairest view of the two art forms. It can certainly allow for greater appreciation of both. I find it hard to take that attitude when it’s a book I dearly love, though.

  13. Jeanne says:

    My daughter is like Jenny’s sister-in-law, and that has made me more careful about reading the book before we go to see a movie. That said, we let my son, who was five at the time of the first Harry Potter movie, see the movie first, and then he became a rabid fan of the books. I tend to want to see the movie first, myself. The thing I liked about the LOTR movies was the way the battles were pictured–that’s not something I’m good at visualizing.

    So I guess I’m going back and forth about situations in which I want to see before reading and vice versa.

    • Teresa says:

      It depends on the situation for me, too.

      And I know plenty of people who fell in love with a book or series because of the movies or a miniseries. That’s how my mom got into Jane Austen and how I got into Dorothy Sayers.

  14. Marie says:

    I loved the movie and book JUDE THE OBSCURE. A good film adaptation just needs to work as a movie, and not all books make great movies right off the page, so if the director needs to change something about the book to make it work better on screen, so be it. Having said that, of course I’m always disappointed if I don’t think the film adaptation of a favorite book was done correctly or accurately or the way I’d want it done. But I try to take a deep breath and not worry about it too much. Unless it’s a real travesty, LOL :)

    • Teresa says:

      Wasn’t Jude heart-breaking? Michael Winterbottom also adapted Mayor of Casterbridge but set it in the old West–The Claim, I think it was called. He has the right visual style for Hardy, I think.

      I need to remind myself to take those deep breaths more often when it’s a beloved book!

  15. Steph says:

    So interesting that you mentioned About A Boy in this post, because that’s a movie I completely agree is totally interchangeable with its literary counterpart. I actually saw the movie first and was then a bit disappointed to read the book afterwards because the two were so alike! I didn’t feel like I got anything different from either medium.

    Generally speaking, I agree that the most important thing in an adaptation is to be faithful to the spirit of the book. That’s why I still really enjoy the later Harry Potter movies; although they’ve taken some liberties, many of the changes I feel are organic and feel like they could easily have been in the books. I also love many of the Jane Austen films that have been done, particularly the BBC/A&E Pride & Prejudice (booo to the Kiera Knightly version!) and the Emma Thompson Sense & Sensibility. I admit that I also really like the version of Emma that stars Gwyneth Paltrow, even if Ewan McGregor dons a terrible wig (we shall not speak its name!) in the service of playing Frank Churchill!

    • Teresa says:

      It seems everyone agrees that the HP movies got better as they stopped hewing so closely to the books. I agree that they’ve kept to the spirit quite well.

      I must confess I am not a fan of Gwyneth Paltrow’s Emma. I’ve always seen Emma as more comic than that movie was, but it was a bad movie on its own, maybe a little slow. I think my favorite Emma is the one with Kate Beckinsale, because I thought it showed how silly Emma herself was, and the recent miniseries with Romola Garai was pretty good. And then there’s Clueless, which is remarkably true to the spirit of the character.

  16. Alex says:

    Completely agree with you re. faithfulness to the spirit of the book. I used to think the epic fantasy A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin was impossible to adapt, but lo and behold, HBO will premiere it of the 17th of April.

    I always try to read the book first, just so that it doesn’t interfere with my mental images, but I’m not orthodox about it.

    Picking up o Steph’s mention of Austen adaptations, I liked the movie Mansfield Park, but don’t really consider it an adaptation of the book (and don’t even get me started on the version with Billie Piper. Maybe Fanny Price is a character too goody-goody to adapt to movies nowadays.

    • Teresa says:

      I was thinking about that Mansfield Park. I think you’re right that as a movie it wasn’t so bad, but as an adaptation it was atrocious. It seemed like the filmmakers just wanted to capitalize on the Austen name to tell a story about all that was wrong with the era. Not in keeping with the spirit of the book at all.

  17. Melissa says:

    What a great post. I have strong feelings about this as well. As so many have mentioned, there are movies that make necessary changes that don’t hurt the story their telling. But much more frequently they add unecessary drama/action that detracts from the original tale. I think there are some books, like Ender’s Game, that would be incredibly hard to make into a film. Obv the graphics would be difficult, but it’s more the fact that so much of the story is about Ender’s inner turmoil. That’s just hard to translate to film. I just read Jude this year and I’m excited to watch the movie version!

    • Teresa says:

      I know there’s been talk of an Ender’s Game movie for years, but I agree with you that it would be a really tough one, both for the reasons you mention and also because you’d have to find a large cast of really good child actors.

  18. gina c in al says:

    It looks like we are going to get to see at least the first part of the film adaptation of something I had thought was well-nigh Undadaptable. Atlas Shrugged Part 1 is being issued in limited release on April 15 (yes, they meant it to come out on US tax day). I doubt that it will be coming to Alabama, but am looking forward to the net to give me the (probably depressing) details.

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