Adapt, deal or die

Bethany White discusses the age-old argument of book-versus-movie.

Currently, swathes of classic and contemporary literary works are finding themselves revamped on screen; Christmas alone has seen the release of Life of Pi, Great Expectations and The Hobbit. 2013 promises such literary delights as Les Misérables (which came out this past Friday – turn to our Screen section to read a review), The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters. This phenomenon isn’t new. Legendary filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock adapted extensively from the books Psycho, The Birds and Vertigo, to name a few.

An impressive novel, however, hardly necessitates an impressive film (see Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, The Golden Compass, or The Grinch). Even Hitchcock’s adaptation of du Maurier’s corker Jamaica Inn was a lead balloon. Screenwriters and directors must be careful when adapting. The task of teasing out elements of a book that can be transported to screen is a delicate one. Talented filmmakers may discover sympathetic characters, inventive plots and vivid descriptions handed to them on a silver platter. No wonder, then, that literary adaptations are so popular.

The arguments for books over film are hackneyed. Changes are unavoidable, due to the obvious differences between the two forms of media. The immersive act of reading a book requires imagination. Simple words on a page are  visually realised in the reader’s mind. A good author and a sensitive reader unite in the shared act of visualising tangible and evocative people, places and scenes. Readers invest in the characters they spend so much time with between the covers of a book (hence the outcry when Anne Hathaway gifted Em in One Day with a garbled “English” accent).

In films, this creative process is handed over to film makers. There are those who are violently against the adaptation of books, arguing films maul the imaginative process.  Certain formats do not lend themselves to adaptation, largely due to narrative technique. Books that rely largely on interior monologue can be hard to translate on screen, such as Gregg’s 1983 sub-par adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s stream of consciousness novel, To the Lighthouse. Conversely, Ang Lee’s recent adaptation of Yann Martel’s supposedly unfilmable Life of Pi provided one of many examples of faithful, intelligent adaptations. Life of Pi is a philosophical novel requiring extensive interpretation on the part of the reader; the film is no different. Furthermore, Life of Pi featured stunning visuals, unusually enhanced by 3D, created by additions to the original storyline purely for visual gratification.

But directors must be careful what they alter or expect to suffer outrage from fans. Executive decisions must be made – but with care. Peeves was lamentably missing from the on-screen Harry Potter films, and Shelob’s absence from The Two Towers caused concern, until she was brought into the stunning finale to the Lord of the Rings trilogy. LotR director Jackson reanimated Tolkien’s dense trilogy into cinematic masterpieces, far more palatable to a popular audience, whilst satisfying fans of the books. Less can be said of The Hobbit. Whilst the first instalment was enjoyable (but long), it left audiences wondering how he would make two more films out of the 300-page book. It looks like Jackson may have stretched The Hobbit beyond its girth.

The books-versus-movies debate will continue for as long as both exist. A very good film can be different from a very good book. There is no ‘inherently better’ format; both can and do provide an intellectually and visually rewarding experience. Equally, both can be trash.  Measure books and film by the standards of their modes alone; anything else is a categorical error.