Being both a bookworm and a film-buff, my little heart is sent into spasms of confusion when the next adaptation is released. Am I being disloyal to my page-dwelling side if I get excited, or am I betraying that silver-screen devotee in me if I don’t? In many cases, I am left disappointed, or unimpressed, or simply uninspired by the adaptations that I do take the plunge to see. However, in others, I am left to grudgingly concede that there’s a lot a film re-envisioning can do for the printed page. In the movement between the two, very separate, sometimes antagonistic, forms, something magical can happen. Add in a bit of off-brand music to “jazz” it up a bit, give the lens a real personality, get unconventional subject matter onto the Big Screen and out to its millions of disciples… In the most recent example of this transformative process, film has exquisitely rendered the imaginations of decades upon decades of children: Spielberg’s The BFG raises the words off the page into a Being Of The Screen.
The BFG: Childhood classics re-envisioned.
Spielberg’s new adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic The BFG is a great example of the beloved imaginary character being brought to life and image on the big screen. Although some aspects of this film have let down audiences, there is no doubt that the combination of Disney’s animation and Mark Rylance’s pitch-perfect performance has succeeded in transforming our favourite Big Friendly Giant from illustration to twinkling, word-jumbling and wonderfully alive screen presence. The balance of joy, of sadness and of kindness that has captivated children for decades radiates beautifully out of this film’s envisioning of Dahl’s text. Instead of feeling that the character has been trapped, or solidified by being set in front of us as a definitive “re-telling”, Rylance’s subtle performance, especially through those glittering eyes, and melodious, tumbling voice, really does justice to this legendary character.
Carol: Giving the lens a characterised point-of-view.
In the original novel by Patricia Highsmith, the story is told through the eyes of Therese Belivet. As a reader, you experience every flash of a thought, every tingle of desire in her, for this mysterious and magnetic creature that is Carol Aird. In his film re-imagining, Todd Haynes chooses to open this out more. The camera still prefers Therese’s perspective to Carol’s; we tend to go home with her, to her small New York apartment, go to lunch with her boyfriend’s family. But there are crucial moments when we switch to find Carol standing in the lawyer’s office, with her spiteful husband threatening to take her daughter away. Haynes’ film is one that beautifully balances the two women’s intimate points-of-view, using tender close-ups of their faces to catch minute flickerings between the two women, and distant, yearning shots that watch their movements through the city, through a windscreen, or behind a shop front.
Cloud Atlas: Making use of cinematic tools.
David Mitchell’s sprawling opus is complicated. Full stop. It’s a novel that takes us across time and space, reaches far back into the past in the time of slave owners in the American South, right out into an imagined future where human life on earth has regressed to a pre-language state. This always seemed like a book that could never make a film. I would say, the Wachowskis didn’t fully realise the nuance and lightness of touch needed to make sure this project didn’t devolve into a slightly contrived thought-piece… However, they did make one unconventional artistic choice enabled by the film medium that added weight to the story’s meditative “One World” outlook. Actors play multiple parts, crossing gender and race and language borders, to create threads of a character, or “soul”, through all the various historical time periods. Actors Jim Sturgess and Bae Doona play lovers in 19th century America as well as a dystopian futuristic Korean state. This filmic choice highlights narrative symmetries that are left intangible, and sometimes unnoticeable, in the book, providing a great example of harnessing the medium’s specific tools to enrich the original text.
The Great Gatsby: Flipping the genre with unconventional scoring.
In another example of the cinematic form being used to illuminate aspects of print, Baz Luhrmann used contemporary, popular music in his 2013 adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby. The score, including musicians such as Beyoncé, Lana Del Rey, Jay-Z, will.i.am and the XX, amplified the infamous hedonism of Jay Gatsby’s parties. Mixed with 1920s style themes, the modern score gives the film more energy and life rather than reducing it to a safe “period drama”. Familiar music makes the craziness and debauchery relevant to Luhrmann’s audience, and in fact increases the sensory bewilderment produced by these scenes.
Wuthering Heights: Radical contemporisation.
Andrea Arnold bypasses that great British tradition, the costume drama, by turning Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights on its head. Firstly, by casting James Hawson, a black actor, as Heathcliff, she immediately diverges from the conservatism that plagues period pieces. Secondly, the use of handheld camera work, high-contrast lighting and an impressionistic visual style, produces a film that is highly atmospheric and less traditionally “stagey”. I love adaptations like Arnold’s that make a commitment to the film medium and don’t shy away from the innovation it offers. Wuthering Heights (2011) brings the story out for it to be enjoyed again, but in a more modern, more relevant way, by a contemporary audience.
12 Years A Slave: Bringing history back into the mainstream.
Steve McQueen’s adaptation of Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir into Twelve Years A Slave is not stylistically revolutionary, however, the technical challenge that it confronts is the transformation of diary-form into film. It recreates the intensity of a first-hand account and thereby doesn’t allow the audience to detach from its contents. In the same way that his astounding feature Hunger (2008) delivers shocking subject matter with unapologetic matter-of-factness, so Steve McQueen’s directorial job here makes sure that the personality and the harrowing experience of this real person is maintained in his adaptation. Film is a mainstream medium and using it to bring history back into the light, especially the history of trauma and oppression, makes sure that we cannot forget. McQueen makes sure not to mess around too much with his original subject material, but lets the story itself take control of the screen.
Diary of a Teenage Girl: Playing with Imagery.
Yes, we’ve seen all the comic adaptations. Marvel and DC are not shy of over-sharing. That being said, in 2015 Marielle Heller decided to bring to film Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic novel Diary of a Teenage Girl, and does so beautifully by mixing live-action footage with transposed illustrations, lifted from the original page. This adaptation plays with the different types of imagery, bringing 2D images to a new energy and realism on screen in live-action form, but retaining the naiveté and personality conveyed through hand-drawn illustration.
Bridget Jones’s Diary Films: Ensuring women claim the Big Screen.
Now I’m going to shock those film connoisseur minds out there on the Raindance blog by bringing in a very plebeian-friendly example. Bridget Jones. She’s not Bergman, or Truffaut…or countless others, I’ll give you that. But the fact that these films were made, at a time when the whole “relatable-girl-next-door” trend hadn’t begun to prod our cultural consciousness…gives them a certain cultural currency.
We’re often told, films about women aren’t made because they’re a financial risk and Hollywood (any big film production company) is all about safe, secure, boatloads of money… Well, take a well-loved, tried-and-tested book, with its pre-established audience of female “purses”, and you’ve solved that prickly issue! The Bridget Jones adaptations got a relatable female character onto our screens, who remains loved – or at least accepted – by women the world over.
This selection of recent adaptations gives us a hint of what a good page-to-screen transformation can achieve. These films aren’t lazy, they aren’t uninspired. When done right, adaptations can be just as innovative, if not more so, than original film productions. They work between creative forms to draw out the best envisioning of a narrative, and, in doing so, can become prime examples of ingenious cinematic storytelling.