Can cinematic adaptations of literature ever be successful?

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“Terrible things were happening all around us. Right next to me a huge reptile was gnawing on a woman’s neck, the carpet was a blood-soaked sponge – impossible to walk on it, no footing at all. ‘Order some golf shoes,’ I whispered. ‘Otherwise, we’ll never get out of this place alive. You notice these lizards don’t have any trouble moving around in this muck – that’s because they have claws on their feet.”

It is perhaps surprising that this passage from Hunter S. Thompson’s 1971 novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was one of the easier ones to adapt to screen. Its claustrophobic, oppressive and hallucinatory imagery was far easier to translate to the screen than, for instance, Raoul Duke’s internal musings and reflections on the decadent American psyche during the Nixon years in Terry Gilliam’s 1998 cinematic rendition of Fear and Loathing.

Fear and Loathing is, perhaps, an example of a book that lends itself somewhat to cinematic adaptation – the source material is shocking in and of itself (a shock value that relies in part on the aesthetic qualities of hallucination), therefore success in translating it to film relies more on the artistic vision of the director coupled with the visual adeptness of the cinematographer than anything else. In this regard, Terry Gilliam and Nicola Pecorini respectively deserve credit for their rendering of the swirling, bulging, reptilian world of Hunter S. Thompson. Yet, the film lacks the depth and thoughtfulness of Duke’s introspection, and by extension lacks the fusion of surrealism and reflection that made the novel so fascinating.

Watching the film after finishing the book got me thinking about the process of adapting a novel for the silver screen, and the limitations inevitably imposed by the change in an art form. Film and literature exist on different planes of artistic endeavour and criticism for a reason and their differences go beyond a visual-linguistic dichotomy. Reading a novel creates a world, in abstract form, that is simultaneously unique to each reader and shared by all of them at once. This characteristic of a novel’s universe or narrative is unrealisable in cinematic form, no matter how skilled the director, cinematographer, producer or screenwriter.

Reading a novel creates a world, in abstract form, that is simultaneously unique to each reader and shared by all of them at once

Everyone has a beloved novel that suffered from artistic dumbing down and executive despoliation in its transferral to film – Steve Coogan barking awkwardly as Hades in the Percy Jackson adaptation was enough to stop my twelve-year-old self from bothering with the rest of the film, let alone the sequel. Even commercially-titanic projects like The Hobbit film trilogy missed the mark by quite a distance. Despite this, some of the films widely considered to be among the greatest in history have been adaptations of novels. Occasionally films elevate stories and characters first introduced in novel-form far above their literary versions, as in the case of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, Phillip K. Dick’s Blade Runner or Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho. Others depart quite significantly from the source material, but still evoke the spirit of the original work, à la Apocalypse Now, Casablanca, O Brother, Where Art Thou? and the aforementioned Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

Cinema as an artistic format has different demands and parameters to literature: not only does the cinematic story need to be squeezed into a sub-three hour (at most!) package, but the vast majority of film projects are invariably predicated on commercial success and studio executive satisfaction. The novelist has their entire, limitless lexical range at their disposal in the exercise of their craft, the filmmaker only what can be achieved with a finite amount of resources in a finite amount of time.

 I can find no finer cinematic adaptation of a novel than Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 epic Apocalypse Now

With the above in mind, I can find no finer cinematic adaptation of a novel than Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 epic Apocalypse Now. The film is skeletally based on Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella Heart of Darkness and perfectly encapsulates what I meant about cinematic adaptations evoking the spirit of their literary muses. John Milius’ screenplay departs so far from Conrad’s original material that the film stands on its own feet as a shattering portrayal of a personal journey through the Vietnam War, and yet it still retains a spiritual link to the tale of Charles Marlow and Mr Kurtz in the Belgian Congo.

If one endeavours to merely recreate a novel onscreen, then one will very likely do little more than upset a devoted literary fanbase and produce a mediocre picture

It seems to me that only when a filmmaker is able to acknowledge and understand the different parameters and characteristics of literature and film as art forms can they ever hope to succeed in the adaptation of one form to the other. If one endeavours to merely recreate a novel onscreen, then one will very likely do little more than upset a devoted literary fanbase and produce a mediocre picture. It is only when directors and screenwriters attempt to transcend their source material and engage in some kind of organic creative process that truly great cinematic adaptation of literature can be achieved, as in the case of Apocalypse Now.

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