From Book to Film: A Perilous and Potholed Road - Raindance

I have wanted to write this post for a while. I love literature (as most literature majors at university do), and I love films (as all interns at Raindance do). Quite a few films are adaptions of books. It is the perfect fit. But do you know what is not always the perfect fit? Filmic adaptations of novels. And I bet you would agree. I would also wager that the following sort of scenario has happened to all of us at one time or another:

We make a pilgrimage to the cinema, brimming with excitement and, perhaps, a dash of weariness. We get comfortably seated in the theatre, our outrageously priced snacks placed strategically around us within grabbing distance. The opening titles, mercifully, flash onto the big screen just as we begin to shiver with anticipation. Finally, the novel that has for so long lived in our imagination is about to be realized on the silver screen for our entertainment. On screen, the protagonist appears and we think, “hmmm… That’s not what I imagined him/her to look like. I always imagined a [insert favourite actor here] sort of man/woman.” Twenty minutes into the movie, we say to ourselves, “Whoa, wait a minute… that is not supposed to happen.” Another thirty minutes pass, and this time we audibly mutter, “No. No. NO. Nope. Definitely not.” The credits roll and, with a look that can only be described as crestfallen, we turn to our companion and exclaim in unison, “the book was so much better.”

The perilous road from novel to film. Eerie looking, isn’t it?

No, I am afraid that the journey from bound manuscript to silver screen is not without its perils, and the trail is littered with ventures unsuccessful. This can seem counter-intuitive as both books and films are concerned with storytelling. Yes, there are avant-garde films that deliberately eschew coherent narrative, however, I think we can agree that story is the pounding, pumping, pulsating heart of most film. While the author and the filmmaker stand united in their common goal to tell a story, where they differ is in their means of expression. The author relies on language and the imagination of the reader to breathe life into their story, whereas the filmmaker commands sound and image to communicate story to the audience. Now here’s the rub: while the objective remains the same from novel to screen, the means of expression are not so easily transferable. Though I am undoubtedly over-simplifying the many difficulties of adaptation, I took some liberties and boiled it down to the four major translation problems that often jump out at me:

1. The problem of narration.

The narrative of the novel variety often does not lend itself to the medium of film. Yes, both novels and films are narratives in that they aim to tell a story, however, they go about it in fundamentally different ways. Be it a first, second, or third person narrator; omniscient, limited, or attached; the novel’s narrator provides the reader with critical information. Narrators give a reader insight into the psyche of the protagonists, and/or the secondary characters. In film, a character’s feelings must be portrayed either visually or through dialogue. Luckily, filmmakers have become very good at doing just this. Of course, actors are skilled (theoretically at least, if not, in all cases) in inhabiting a character and expressing their emotion. Then there is cinematography, production design, and score that can help convey tone, emotion, and mood.

And then there is the voice over-something that all filmmakers should always use wisely. Narration in films can work really well, however, in the wrong hands it can seem like a cheap storytelling device. A film must strike that perfect balance between narration and visual storytelling. Helpful narrators fill in knowledge gaps for the audience. As there is often not time to delve into backstory and context, a couple of swift sentences from a narrator can bring an audience up to speed. The cardinal rule of narration is that you must not repeat the information that is being told on screen. Now, rules are made to be broken and all, but you must be sure that you’re bringing something pretty extraordinary to the table. Voice overs are commonly used as an avenue for the main character to express their emotions to the audience.  Filmmakers can also call upon the voice over to give the audience a sense of objectivity or an air of predestination. It is certainly a valuable tool, and it can help create an atmospheric film.

2. The beauty of prose.

That casual glance was a beginning of a cataclysm of love that still had not ended half a century later.

Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez

There is just something about reading a beautiful, eloquent, poignant phrase or passage. It’s almost like tasting a fine wine. You can savour it. Roll it around in your mind, making sure that it reaches all the far corners. In a movie, these moments are fleeting at best, if there at all. The show does not stop for you to be swept away by a line that struck you.

Not to mention that so often the most exquisite or interesting language in literature comes from the narrative voice or descriptive sentences, also known as the as the aspects of books that don’t make it in films. I imagine it is a daunting task for an actor to have to deliver the “casual glance” from excerpt above. Of course, film does have the gift of sound and vision on their side. Sound and cinematography can be just as poetic as prose. Dialogue, however, can gain strength when spoken aloud, versus read as in a novel. Just watch (or, more importantly, hear) the St. Crispin’s Day speech in Kenneth Branagh’s film adaptation of Henry to see what I mean. You will also probably notice that the rousing music and camera work add an epic quality to the scene.

3. The losing battle against imagination.

The unreal is more powerful than the real. Because nothing is as perfect as you can imagine it. Because it’s only intangibles, ideas, concepts, beliefs, fantasies that last. Stone crumbles. Wood rots. People, well, they die.

Choke, Chuck Palahnuik

The human imagination is a pretty powerful, fantastical, and limitless entity. I know, that is hardly a groundbreaking observation. Just type “quotes about imagination” into Google, and you’ll hear people with far more credibility say the same much more eloquently. Nonetheless, I think we are all in agreement that our minds can conjure greater things than we will ever have the opportunity to see or experience in reality. Books harness the power of the reader’s imagination– it is the very thing that fuels them. Take Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story, for example.  Our imaginations can create things that are difficult to execute in reality. As author Chuck Palahnuik notes in the above quotation, only our imagination can operate on the level of perfection. So when we imagine, for instance, Pride and Prejudice‘s Mr. Darcy, it is our perfect version of him. We build him from the guidelines provided by Jane Austen, but to our own specifications. It is, without a doubt, our interpretation, our vision of Austen’s character.

One of the most acute phenomena with the novel is the ability of (and opportunity for) the reader to put themselves in the place of the protagonist. You know, like that George R. R. Martin quote that you will find on every Tumblr dedicated to the love of reading: “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who does not read lives only one.” Sometimes this can happen to the point where we actually envision the protagonists as ourselves, a spell that the film medium cannot sustain. Novels are a more participatory experience, while films tend more towards a voyeuristic experience. And here, I have a theory. I have often marveled at the success of the Twilight series. From teenage girls to grown women, Stephanie Meyers had a considerable portion of the female population captivated. However, the writing is not exceptional, and there is not much craft in the novel’s approach to storytelling. I suppose there is a certain “romance” to the story, and it has magnified the star-crossed lovers formula to the extreme, but I still didn’t think that could fully account for the series’ wild success.  Now here comes the hypothesis: I think that the books’ characters are so undeveloped that it becomes absurdly easy to substitute yourself in their place. Before the films came out, I bet that if you had asked a girl what Bella Swan looks like, she would have described, at least in part, herself.

4. Expectation.

No two persons ever read the same book.

Edmund Wilson

We humans often expect a lot. In particular, I find that the culture vulture crowds can be particularly tricky to please. After you have read a book, you no doubt have a very clear and individual vision of the story and its elements. When you go to see the filmic adaptation, however, you are viewing and experiencing the director’s unique vision of the story. We experience books on a very person level. As no two people are the same, no two people will read the book in the same way. Needless to say, it is very difficult for a film to meet the expectations of someone who loved the novel.

Of course, great directors will have a great vision. A vision that may even satisfy your expectations, even if it does not perfectly align with your personal conceptions.

 The Great Gatsby: a popular case study.

The Great Gatsby, also known to some as the novel that couldn’t be made into a film. Well, it has been adapted for the screen, and several times, but the success of the adaptations is contentious. Most notable are 1974’s The Great Gatsby, which starred Robert Redford and Mia Farrow with the screenplay written by Francis Ford Coppola, and the 2013 Baz Luhrman film with Leonardo DiCaprio taking on the challenging role of Jay Gatsby. While neither of the films were poor attempts at adapting the famous novel, they also were not wholly successful in capturing the essence of the work. And why is that? It’s probably because the filmmakers confronted all of the above problems. Let’s take a look at the recent Luhrman adaptation:

1. First of all, the nuances of the narrative voice in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel are difficult to capture on screen. The book is told from the perspective of Nick Carraway, but Carraway often does not feel like the protagonist. Carraway is a peculiar first person narrator in that he is not particularly active in the story. Instead, the story is driven forward by Carraway’s observations which mostly revolve around the love affair between Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan.  Carraway’s narration is completely captivating in the book, but his inaction and constant recounting become monotonous on screen. Generally, an interesting main character isn’t passive; they are doing things, instead of having things done to them, or observing things done around them.

2. They say a picture is worth a thousand words. I say they have not read Fitzgerald’s prose. The image is not superior to the word, and the word is not superior to the image, but they are not always interchangeable.

3. The Great Gatsby is remembered (at least in modern America) as the novel that defined the Roaring Twenties. Within that, Jay Gatsby is the novel’s personification of the era. Dangerously disillusioned, Gatsby drowns himself in glamourous excess, yet he desperately longs for something irretrievable- the past. He is the tragic representative of the Lost Generation. Less of a singular man and more of a figure of mythic proportions, Gatsby is an illusive character who is nearly impossible to pin down on screen. Fitzgerald’s creation is more suited to loom in our minds, genuinely larger than life.

4. Everyone in America has either read The Great Gatsby, or claims to have read The Great Gatsby. As such, the expectations are nearly insurmountable. Plus, everyone is a critic. Apparently, I am too.

A silver lining:

A visual metaphor for the shiny beacon of hope.

But things are not all doom and gloom, my friends! While adapting a novel for the screen comes with many challenges, which I so glumly listed above, it is possible to do so successfully. Interspersed on that road littered with less than impressive adaptations, there are also films that stand out like shiny beacons of hope. While there are aspects to storytelling that novels accommodate particularly well, the same can also be said for film. Both mediums have their strengths, and films can tell some stories just as good as, if not better than, their novel counterparts. I think I’ll save a list of those films for a part two.

Have your favourite books been adapted for the screen? Did you like the film, or were you left disappointed? I’d love to hear in the comments below!