Books into films

‘Do you mind what they did to your book?’
‘Well, they can’t do anything to my book. They can’t alter a single comma … ‘

I came across the above in an article about P. D. James‘ in the September issue of goodreading magazine. The discussion relates to her non-crime novel The children of men which was adapted into film. What a great response I thought, because …

Pride and Prejudice (1940 film)

1940 film adaptation (Image via Wikipedia - Presumed public domain?)

I tend to take a pretty relaxed view towards adaptations. I see books and films as completely different media. Rather than expect the film to replicate the book, I like to see how the filmmaker has interpreted it. These are the questions I ask myself:

  • First: Did I enjoy the film as a film? Did I like the story? Did I like the way it was acted, directed, photographed, scripted? What did it “say” to me? Did it move and/or entertain me?
  • And then, if I’ve read the book, I think about the filmmakers’ interpretation. What was their take on it? Did it accord with mine? If it didn’t accord with mine, was it an interesting take? Was it a valid take?

And so, for example, I am one of the few Jane Austen fans who likes Patricia Rozema‘s Mansfield Park. Her Fanny is certainly not the Fanny of the book, but she is an interesting creation nonetheless and, as I see it, an attempt by Rozema to “update” her and to invest her more clearly with the strength of mind that she clearly has but that many readers lose because her “issues” (such as not taking part in the play) seem “wimpy” to modern eyes.  (This is not the only point of difference in the film, but discussing these is not the point of my post).

A poster on the Ellen and Jim blog has attempted a “classification” of film adaptations, using Jane Austen as an example. Here it is:

  • Close (or faithful) adaptations (such as the Pride and Prejudice film, 1995, starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle), meaning “literal transposition of plot hinge-points, keeping most major characters, important crises, dialogue, themes”;
  • Intermediate (or analogous) adaptations (such as Patricia Rozema’s Mansfield Park, 1999), in which “the film-makers drop hinge-points or characters, change enunciations, and alter the book’s themes, even radically”; and
  • Free (or loose) adaptations (such as Clueless, 1995), meaning “a transposition into modern or other era terms which keeps only enough idiosyncratic elements of the major story and characters to be recognizably partly derived from the book”.

You will know my approach to adaptations when I say I enjoyed all three examples I selected above – which is not the same as saying that I think all adaptations work. I was less enamoured, for example, of the 2007 ITV adaptation of Mansfield Park. It had the unfortunate effect of making me laugh – at the wrong time for the wrong reasons – and its plot changes did not seem to me to enhance the themes.

Further on in the Ellen and Jim blog post is this from John le Carré on the adaptation of his The Constant Gardener:

the job of the movie … is to take the minimum intention of the novel and illustrate it with the maximum of freedom in movie language in movie grammar.

That sounds very reasonable to me, but now I wonder about you, as I know a few readers here are keen moviegoers. What makes a successful adaptation to you? How important is fidelity – however you define that – to you? And, if you like, what are some of your favourite adaptations?

36 thoughts on “Books into films

  1. Hmmm… if that particular Fanny isn’t like the Fanny of the book, then maybe I’ll think more highly of her? 😉 And I’m guessing it would be a stupid question to ask if you have that particular version on DVD?

  2. I definitely fall into the category of people that enjoy most forms of adaptations. Even with Jane Austen books I do not mind if they change the story a little etcetera. For example, I loves Lost in Austen which in a way makes fun of Austen obsession, but it is so cleverly done!

    Another favourite adaptation of mine is the BBC miniseries of North and South.

    • Thanks Iris. I enjoyed Lost in Austen too – particularly the first half. It was fun wasn’t it. I enjoyed North and South too and, as I recollect, it was a good adaptation. Miniseries tend to have the advantage of length, don’t they, which makes it easier for them to achieve a close adaptation if that’s the desire.

  3. Sue, so nice to read your take on book adaptations into film. I struggle with this greatly. I, as well as many others I am sure, LOVE the (and only the) 1995 adaptation of P&P. I did not like Mansfield Park and in fact did not finish it but have yet to read Jane Austen’s book so I guess I did not appreciate the film just as a film. As a rule of thumb, I read only books if the book came before the film (I usually do not read books that came after the film) and I usually look so forward to watching the movie to give life to those characters and situations – but sometimes it’s such a huge let down – for instance, recently, The Count of Monte Cristo was a huge letdown but who could even come close to the unabridged version of the Dumas masterpiece? I like your take on just seeing the director’s interpretation…..:)

    • Thanks Farnoosh. I thought about mentioning the reverse – books from films – but decided not to because like you I’m not really interested in them. That could be an interesting discussion in its own right couldn’t it?

      I agree that it is hard to make a film of a really long book – they tend to cut to the chase and leave out those side stories, minor characters etc that give the book its depth, so if you want to see that replicated you are usually bound to be disappointed I think.

      It’s a long time since I read and saw it, but I seem to remember feeling that the adaptation of Brideshead Revisited into the miniseries was excellent – but it was a miniseries and quite a long one at that so it had the time.

  4. My view is similar to yours on adaptations while le Carré probably goes a little bit further than I would like to see. I don’t mind additional scenes as long as they as they feel faithful to the original source. As you say, it is a completely different medium and I enjoy seeing what a director can do to take advantage of it. There are some movies that are true to the book and I still don’t like them, such as Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence (which felt like a distracting “look what I can do with this camera technique’ exercise to me).

    I’m a fan of many “free” adaptations. Many fall back on the “look how difficult it is to film a movie adaptation of this book” approach, although some still shine when using this trope (Tristram Shandy, A Cock and Bull Story comes to mind as a good one).

    The harder one to judge is the middle class which are looser adaptations, especially when you can say you love the book and love the movie even when they are completely different stories. Mansfield Park is one of those for me, and may have more to do with me seeing the movie first before reading the book. I wonder if the order in coming to a work makes much difference?

    • Thanks and welcome Dwight. John le Carre is VERY openminded isn’t he. I thought that was rather intriguing really – he’s not precious and I like that. My understanding is that the Australian writer/artist Shaun Tan has a very tolerant/open attitude to adaptations too. I missed Tristram Shandy which was a shame. I love Clueless, and I rather enjoyed Bride and Prejudice though I think it did lose its way, particularly in some of the scenes set in the US (as I recollect).

      Good question re order… I do try to read books before I see films (but am not rigid about this because time gets the better of me). My sense is that it is often hard to have your own “image” of the characters etc if you’ve already seen a film version…

  5. Gummie: I have this thing for the book-film connection–an endless pursuit, and it’s something I can’t resist.

    I don’t expect the film to follow the book perfectly. In fact in the best case scenario, the film version will add some new dimension to the film. This may well be from the medium’s emphasis on the visual. And while the film versions are often disappointing, when they work, there’s usually a big pay-off. Sometimes when I see a particularly bad film version, I am very annoyed by it, as surely it takes a toxic sort of talent to ruin good raw material.

    Now for some film versions I want to talk about. Colonel Chabert is not Balzac’s best–a rather sketchy novella, but the film version is exquisite–one of my top ten. The film version flushed out the characters even while it remained extremely faithful to the plot. The script emphasized the role of the lawyer, a minor character in the book, but a major player in the film. The main characters, Chabert and his wife (Depardieu and Fanny Ardant) come to life in the film version, and it’s through the lawyer that all the competing desires and justifications of these characters are revealed.

    I recently read Vera Caspary’s Bedelia. Loved the book and then went to the film version. This was one of those big pay-off scenarios. The book was set in 1913 Connecticut and most of the action took place during a snow storm. Very claustrophobic. In the film version (with Caspary writing the screenplay), the film began in 1938 Monte Carlo and Yorkshire. The film’s script lets the viewer know that there’s something horribly wrong with Bedelia–but just what is held in suspense. Is she a nutter, a liar or a bigamist? All that unfolds in the film. The book gives more of Bedelia’s background while the film leaves the roots of her behaviour a mystery. The sequencing in the film adds to the suspense build-up and then there’s a third character, Ben, who’s emphasized in the film.

    Reading the book and watching the film gave me a great deal of respect for Caspary’s talent. The film and the book versions are individual versions of the same story, but they each give a better understanding to the other.

    Then recently there was another scenario: I loathed the film Damage (unexpectedly) but then found the book a compelling, compulsive read. After reading the book, I can see the problems translating this to screen as the book is all interior monologue (with few exceptions), and it’s the main character’s thoughts that make it such a good read. How do you translate that to screen? Heavy voice-over?

    And on the Austen issue, I am normally a Jane Austen snob but enjoyed the Rozema version immensely.

    • Thanks Guy … what a shame that I haven’t read/seen the examples you gave. I seem to remember your review of Bedelia though and thinking it sounded like a goof read.

      I was going to raise the interior monologue issue in my post but then decided not to make it a long post but see what comes up in discussion so I’m glad you raised it. The most common approach is the voice-over isn’t it and it is often false or heavy-handed. There are visual ways of doing it also but again that can be overdone. This is not really an interior monologue issue but filmmakers have had trouble adapting, as I’m sure you know, Austen’s Northanger Abbey with Catherine’s gothic imaginings. Part of the issue seems to be the actual imaginings and the other part is what they mean in terms of the book.

      You know, I had a feeling you might have like the Rozema version so thanks for confirming that! (Of course, Frances O’Connor was very fetching wasn’t she that she was hard to resist!)

      • The voiceover works well with noir.

        Another example I thought about was About Schmidt. I didn’t like the film, but there was something about it (the treatment of the wife) that led me to the book. The book was a revelation–a really great read and one of the few times I felt like punching a fictional character. Can’t believe how Hollywood screwed that one up.

  6. I disliked the adaptation to Children of Men. The world in the novel wasn’t in such bad shape as the world in the film.

    I don’t remember all the dirt and chaos that is shown in the film.

    People still lived in better conditions.

    • Thanks for your comments here Guy and Isabella. I haven’t read any PD James or seen the film so can’t comment on that … she’s a fascinating woman (and said something similar about crime and literary fiction that I quoted McDiarmid saying in a recent post, which was interesting but not surprising so I decided not to mention it).

      Isabella: I heard that Never let me go was coming out and have mixed feelings too. Actually, as I recollect, I rather liked the adaptation of Remains of the day. I love Ishiguro and have read all his novels and the recent short story collection (except The unconsoled) but Never let me go is my least favourite. Good but for some reason less memorable for me.

      Guy: I saw About Schmidt but can’t recollect a lot about it except, as I recollect, the opening scene of his retirement. Isn’t that the one with him in his office, surrounded by boxes and watching the clock? Anyhow, ‘fraid I can’t comment any further. I think it was one of those so-so movies for me – I do like to watch Nicholson and Bates but it’s left no emotional residue with me one way or another. One recent-ish adaptation that I did like was Atonement. I thought it was cleverly done – and particularly loved the soundtrack with the little sound of the clicking typewriter.

  7. I like the classification system! My wife and I just watched The Last Station after we’d both read the book (you may know its about the last years of Leo Tolstoy and his wife Sofia). The film is excellent and very close to the book – Helen Mirren makes an excellent Sofia and Christopher Plummer is just as I imagined the elderly Tolstoy. So I guess that one classifies as “close”.

    • Yes, I like it too – but then I’m a librarian and I like classification! But, it does seem to be a useful way of approaching adaptations. I saw Last station – but haven’t read the book – and rather liked it too. My daughter had done a major essay (5000 words) on Tolstoy’s change of heart (how it can be seen in his post Anna K literature) in the last years of his life and so I found it most interesting. Mirren and Plummer were great … but oh dear, what a man eh!

  8. I liked the Last Station too–even though I was prepared to not like it.

    Gummie: I can’t recall the specifics of the opening of About Schmidt, but it’s Jack Nicholson in retirement. The way the film (which I didn’t like) handled the role of Schmidt’s wife made me curious about the book. I would say that the film is a loose adaptation but that’s about it. You might read the book and then later watch the film with this niggling idea that some points are familiar.

  9. I would have to say my favourite adaption of a novel to film is the 1970 Mike Nichols version of Catch 22, simply because the opening scene so marvelously sums up the novel with a visual pun, wherein Milo Minderbinder is traveling in a Jeep with Colonel Cathcart (?) talking about the price of eggs, while in the background a plane crash lands and bursts into flames.

    • Oh thanks Anne. I considered not responding to you because it would mean having to confess to not having read the book OR seen the film. Slap hands I know! But you make a good point how film can use visual (or audio) clues to convey ideas/emotions etc conveyed textually.

    • Yes, I agree with you. I would have said that I never actively choose historical novels – and then I look at my reading and discover I’ve ended up reading more than I thought. They keep worming their way in and making me ponder yet again that history-fiction nexus!

  10. What a good idea for a blog entry.

    For me it’s a question of fidelity of spirit, which is a hard thing to nail down.

    It’s whether I have the impression they understood and respected the book, and sought to capture something of its truth on film.

    That doesn’t require strict fidelity. In fact, for me strict fidelity can kill a film. To take a somewhat lowbrow example, I read the first Harry Potter book and watched the first Harry Potter film. The film is extremely faithful to the book, which kills it. What works on the page (sort of anyway, I wasn’t taken by the book) doesn’t necessarily work on screen and where the book was reasonably tight the film lagged and lacked pace.

    So, fidelity of spirit, not fidelity of fact.

    The other failing is sometimes it’s evident the filmmakers didn’t really respect the book. If it’s just a property, a springboard for the movie, then the movie may be good but it’s much more likely not to be. You have to love the source material to make a good film from it. Clueless is brilliant in part because of its profound fondness for the original.

    • Why thanks Max. It probably deserves more analysis but this is a start…

      “Fidelity of spirit, not fidelity of fact”. That’s exactly how I feel. What a good way of expressing it. Of course you CAN have fidelity of fact, but that’s not the criteria to look for.

      Respect is related really isn’t it? In other words, if you don’t respect it you are unlikely to be faithful to the spirit?

      • I think that’s right. To be faithful to it you have to get the spirit, and that (among other things) demands a bit of respect.

        It’s often obvious in song covers. All too often a cover is just someone singing the song, without any appreciation of what the song is. It’s why many covers aren’t very good.

  11. Max, Song covers is a great analogy. There are some great cover interpretations … but a lot of ordinary ones as you say. A couple of my favourite interpreters of recent times are KD Lang (particularly her Leonard Cohen and Neil Young) and Eva Cassidy.

  12. Excellent post! Finally, I’ve found someone who is as interested in this topic as I am, for I first started my blog 3 years ago based on this premise, that books and films are two different art forms, and should be appreciated in their own rights. However, I feel a film adaptation needs to respect the spirit of the book, and should not diverge too far from the intention of the author.

    Interesting categorizing from Ellen and Jim’s Blog, which I’ll definitely visit and read further. While I agree generally with them about these useful classifications, I appreciate too of your more flexible view of movie adaptations, that certainly would make us more free to enjoy them… which reminds me of Ishiguro himself telling screenwriter Alex Garland regarding the adaptation of his book Never Let Me Go, and I quote from Time Magazine:

    “Your only duty is to write a really good screenplay with the same title as my book.”

    Well, I’m glad Garland had not taken Ishiguro’s words too literally, but remained relatively faithful to the source material. I’d love to know more about your views on specific adaptations. If you have time, do click on the following link and find some posts on which you’d like to share your very informed opinion, which I’ve been so privileged to have gathered on my blog. 😉

    • Thanks Arti … I will pop by again, but must say that my “informed” opinion is best just after I’ve seen films! I’m not one of those people who can remember fine details long after the event, much as I wish I did.

      That’s fascinating the Ishiguro felt so strongly about the title, isn’t it.

      As for “spirit” of the book, that is a very broad thing, isn’t it – but is essentially encompassed I think by my sense of “take” on a book. What do I see as its “essence” or “spirit” and what does the filmmaker see this as?

      Author’s “intention” is trickier one I think. What’s most important do you think? The author’s intention (and how do we define that?) or our impression/take?

      • You’re absolutely right about the idea of ‘take’. A film is the visualization of the filmmaker’s interpretation of the book, his/her take on it. Having said that, as one of the last resistant modernists, I’d like to think that the author does have a particular intention or an overall premise shrouding the work which I’ve vaguely referred to as the ‘spirit’ of the piece. I feel that any film adaptation should not stray too far from it. Somehow, I still can’t fully embrace Roland Barthes’ s take on writing that ‘The author is dead…’

        While ‘Clueless’ may be a free rendering of Emma, it still follows the underlying story idea. Or, take ‘West Side Story’, you could say it’s a 20th C. version of Romeo and Juliet… although not a direct adaptation. See how ‘loose’ I can be 😉

  13. Arti, I agree pretty much with all you say here – it’s really just that I prefer to go with “take” or “spirit” than “intention”. You’ll find that I’m pretty wishy-washy and tend to take a middle road on a lot of things – so I won’t argue at all with you about Barthes. The author is not all, but neither is s/he nothing.

    I agree with you re Clueless and Westside story – and applaud your loos-ity!! What about 10 things I hate about you? So long since I’ve seen that though, that I can’t quite recollect how well it did get the spirit of “Taming of the shrew”.

  14. Pingback: Louisa May Alcott | Little Women

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