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.)