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?

Challenge of the biopic, Redux

Back in July I posted about biopics and about the tensions inherent between fact and fiction in what is, essentially, a dramatisation. Despite this – despite the fact that I know I can’t rely on them for the facts – I like biopics. Of course, I don’t like all biopics, and there are some I like more than others. The reasons I like them are, I was going to say, rather capricious, but perhaps idiosyncratic is a better word. Depending on the particular film, I may like it because:

  • I am interested in the person; and/or
  • I am interested in the subject (literature, dance, theatre, music, etc) or the era (World War 2, the Regency or Tudor periods, etc); and/or
  • I like the director; and/or
  • It is simply a good film!

In the case of biopics I’m a bit more relaxed about quality – and when I say this I mean I am more relaxed regarding cinematic style and innovation. Being relaxed about quality though doesn’t mean I like poor performance, poor scripts, poor direction. It just means I’m more tolerant of, shall we say, less cinematically challenging films if they are biopics. This probably doesn’t make sense to anyone else, but there you are!

And, I have to say, that most biopics we see are of the conventional variety. That’s not to say that there aren’t innovative biopics out there  – because there are  (such as, for example, the relatively recent and exciting I’m not there about Bob Dylan) – but most, it seems to me, are not. This is certainly the case with the one I saw this weekend, Mao’s Last Dancer. It is conventionally told – but the story itself is so powerful, who cares? From my memory of the book, the film is “true” to his story even if the facts have been stretched here and there for dramatic effect. It is, anyhow, worth seeing for the three actors who play Li Cunxin, and for the gorgeous dance sequences choreographed by Graeme Murphy and Janet Vernon.

Image courtesy Clker.Com

Image courtesy Clker.Com

It just so happens that in the October issue of Limelight is an article by Lynden Barber called “Hollywood goes classical”. It’s about biopics of musicians. In it he quotes Australian composer Nigel Westlake as saying:

I don’t think there would be any historian who would consider these films anything more than entertainment and as about as historically accurate as Gladiator.

Well, I ask, why would an historian, or anyone, expect a biopic to be historically accurate? A biopic is not a documentary but a dramatisation. Do we read/see Shakespeare’s history plays for history? No! And neither should we look to biopics for verifiable historical fact. We can, though, expect them to provide some truths. In the case of Mao’s Last Dancer those truths include the resilience and mental strength exhibited by a boy removed from his home at a young age by “the state” and forced to make his own way in the world.

I am of course being somewhat disingenuous here. A biopic does need to be reasonably factual – otherwise, why not make a film about a completely fictional character – but we should not expect it to be citable fact. This makes it a rather slippery beast – and one that is fun to talk and write about!

The Young Victoria

As I wrote in a past post, I do love a biopic! And this week I saw another one, The Young Victoria. In many ways it covers much the same ground as the 2001 miniseries, Victoria & Albert. Both show Victoria’s lonely childhood, the poor relationship between her mother and Victoria’s uncle the King, her mother’s poor choice of adviser, and the political manipulations from Europe to forge a match between her and Albert. However, while Victoria & Albert, being a miniseries and therefore longer, takes the story up to Albert’s death, The Young Victoria stops at the point where Victoria recognises that she can and should give Albert a “real” role in the palace/the monarchy. The essence of the story is not really spoilt by stopping it here – and, anyhow, the film fills in the rest of their story through a few end-titles.

As a biopic, it’s a lovely romance. As a film, it’s a pretty traditional costume drama. That said, the acting is excellent – with Emily Blunt as Victoria and Rupert Friend as Albert being particularly convincing. The costuming and the sets are sumptuous. The script is crisp and natural.  The music is full and strong, but a little heavy-handed in places, a little too traditionally appropriate to an historical royal biopic, if you know what I mean.

From my knowledge, the film is pretty accurate historically, with just a few bits here and there exaggerated for dramatic effect. It deals lightly but clearly enough with the various political agendas running at the time – as they related to Victoria. All in all, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable film…and if it’s about anything (besides, that is, being the story of Victoria and her Albert) it’s about the idealism of youth. What a lovely pair they made.

The challenge of the biopic

I do love a biopic – essentially, a movie dramatisation of the life of a real person – but I also know that I must always keep in mind that it is a dramatisation. That is, it is not a biography but more like a biographical novel. The challenge with this is that when I know the subject well – such as Jane Austen (have I told you I’m a fan?!) – I can tell where poetic licence has been taken in order to tell a good story. But, when I don’t know the subject well, I can walk away believing that what I have just seen are the facts.

A year or so ago, I saw the film Becoming Jane. It created quite a stir among Janeites because it took great liberties with her life: it took what our sources can only confirm as an attraction (possibly an intense one, but one that was quickly nipped in the bud) and created a highly romantic story that included a near-elopement. To the purists this took too great a liberty with her life. To the feminists it was “corrupt” in its implication that it was only as a result of this “romance” that Austen was able to write the love stories that she did. To the general public though it was a lovely period piece about someone who has become one of the century’s icons. Me? I thought it was a very entertaining movie – but it was not my Jane!

Coco Chanel, 1920s (Presumed public domain)

Coco Chanel, 1920s (Presumed public domain)

Coco Avant Chanel

Anyhow, this brings me to the film I saw today, Coco Avant Chanel. I know next to nothing about Coco Chanel’s life and so I could easily walk away from this film believing that I know exactly how she got to be the fashion doyenne that she was, and exactly what role was played by two men – the Frenchman Balsan and the Englishman Arthur “Boy” Capel – in the development of her early career. That would, though, be a bit disingenuous of me. And the film itself should clue me into that a bit as it clearly skirted across some parts of her story. For example, at one point it showed Balsan treating her almost as a whore (or kept woman – “my geisha”) and then suddenly accepting her into his rather wild “fold”. It showed “Boy” as her first great love but rather glossed over the financial arrangement between them, something which the film implies compromised Coco’s sense of independence. It teased us with a close relationship with a sister but didn’t resolve that. However, I did enjoy the movie. I liked the transition from 10 year old Coco (then called Gabrielle) to the young woman peering through the curtains before going on to perform in a cabaret-style bar. It neatly gave us the sense that she was an outsider, watching and waiting to join in. That is certainly one of the themes of her story as told in this film. Oh, and I loved the way it showed her subversive attitude to fashion – her blending of comfort (no corsets, looser fit, androgynous look) with style and elegance. A woman after my own heart, though I must admit that comfort rather than style is what I mostly achieve!

Co-producer of Becoming JaneGraham Broadbent, says of his film that ‘There are documented facts and we’ve joined the dots in our own Austenesque landscape.’ Should we care – does it matter – that we can’t all see the joins between the dots when we see a biopic?