I’m very clear about how I spend my free time; I like watching films, but I love reading books. This means that I can be very hard to please when it comes to literary adaptations on the big (or even small) screen.
It can’t be denied that, far too often, films do not live up to their source material. It is pretty much impossible to cram a whole novel into a manageable watching time, and that’s even before engaging with the struggle to convey a literary style on screen. Still, I want to use this blog to celebrate great story-telling rather than snipe at easy targets. When there is a match in quality between the reading and the viewing experience then something magical happens. The truth is, there are some incredible ‘films of the book’ and below are my go-to examples when playing devil’s advocate…
Daphne Du Maurier is probably the queen of source novels. Hitchcock adapted any number of them and I could easily have gone for ‘The Birds’ or ‘Rebecca’, but last year I saw ‘Don’t Look Now’ and was entranced. The short story was one the scariest books I read in 2012 (I nearly couldn’t finish it, I was so creeped out by the opening chapters). Imagine my joy when I realised that the 1973 film was just as good. In fact, I think I even preferred how Roeg conveyed the shocking ending to the story.
Stephen King really disliked what this adaptation did to his book, but I think the film is brilliant. Kubrick took some of the main ideas of the novel and then made them odd and scary and wonderful. On the other hand, he also missed out some other, very scary, parts of the book (wasps anyone?) so there is something to be had from reading the novel for any die-hard horror-film fans. One thing King was most upset by was how his original ending was changed. The film’s denouement is very different from the source material and is an utterly unforgettable closing scene. For sheer audacity, ‘The Shining’ has to be mentioned in any debate about books vs. films.
I saw this film before reading the book and, I’ve got to be honest, I think it really added to my enjoyment of the original. It meant that I could picture Ridley Scott’s stunning cityscapes and incredible costumes while reading the, somewhat less luscious, prose. On the other hand, the novel reflects its title, dealing with complex themes of empathy, identity and theology in a way which shows a clear focus on substance over style. Basically, I love the book and the film for very different reasons, but they’re both excellent examples of how science fiction can be engaging, entertaining and challenging.
I don’t want to be misleading here. It’s not only genre fiction that can translate well into film. Nick Hornby has written a lot of very well-adapted novels and my favourite will always be the 2000 version of ‘High Fidelity’. For a long time this was my bench-mark for films of books because the virtuosity of the narration (first person or voice-over) makes both book and film equally excellent media for telling the same story. Unlike the previous entries in this list, I find ‘High Fidelity’ almost uncanny in the way it creates the same atmosphere and plot but in ways utterly appropriate to the different art forms.
In an unusual (for me) foray into non-fiction, ’84 Charing Cross Road’ is equally charming on paper or celluloid. A sequence of letters between a New York spinster and a British bookshop may seem like the least cinematic of topics, but the 1987 film is a joy from start to finish. As an additional pleasure, the adaptation changes a book about book-lovers to a film about book-lovers without any loss of reverence or passion for the main topic. If you enjoy reading (and I’m assuming you do) then you’ll really enjoy either telling of this beautiful tale.
It would be highly hypocritical to write this post without any reference to literary fiction. Fortunately I have Ivory’s 1993 adaptation of Ishiguro’s beautiful novel to show that it can be done. Anthony Hopkins is the repressed and deluded butler who is trying to make sense of his life and lost opportunities. As both film and book progress, he must face hideously banal truths about his past, his identity and everything he holds dear. Like all the entries on this list, the book has been adapted by those who understand its message and how best to convey this on screen. Highly, highly recommended in either format.
This last entry probably doesn’t belong in the list at all, because I loathe the book. I have actually never been able to finish it because I genuinely find the level of violence just too repugnant. On my last attempt I tried skipping the violent chapters, but then the alternating dull passages just got unbearably tedious. In contrast, I watched the film under duress only to find myself loving it. It seemed to convey everything the novel was suggesting, but with a level of style which meant the escalating violence was kept in proportion and the comic timing could really shine. I’m sure that if you did like the book you’ll also enjoy the film, but I want to use this space to plug the movie to those who are like me. This is the top end of the scale – films which surpass their source material.
One final honourable mention, I don’t think ‘Clueless’ is as good as ‘Emma’, but it is still my absolute favourite film adaptation of any Jane Austen novel. You can tell it’s good because it can even be enjoyed by people who aren’t already in thrall to the original author – a feat few versions of classic novels can boast. Also Alicia Silverstone is, for my money, the most charming, well-intentioned, and also the least irritating ‘Emma’ I’ve seen on screen. I’m not sure any period costume versions quite capture the freshness of the novel, but this chic-flick really has it all.
I know that this is far from comprehensive, but it’s at least a small contribution to an ongoing debate between readers and the rest of the world. There are so many similarities between films and books, it would be a real shame to label either as superior. I’m hoping that the current releases of new book to film adaptations will give me a load of new titles to add to the list. In the meantime, please let me know what I missed out and which films I simply have to see.