Let me just start this by saying that I am a fan of books and films. I read and watch a lot. I’ve got a degree in English and Film Studies and another in Novel Writing. I’m not here fighting from one side. But this is something that annoys me whenever I see it.
I’ve come across memes like this on social media sites over the years and they keep on coming up.
These images are put forward as the novel being unquestionably better than a film. Let’s be honest, this is nothing but literary snobbery. It’s a blanket assumption that all adapted films are worse than their literary source. And that’s just rubbish.
Films and novels are two different forms of art and storytelling. They each have their pros and cons and they can do things that the other can’t. A film combines sound, the moving image and editing to create its self which a novel can’t. A novel can play around with narrative viewpoint and it can allow us an insight in to its characters through internal monologue which film can’t do. Novels can span hundreds of pages and allow for a lot of depth in their story. Films have to be a lot more economical to fit themselves in to an acceptable running time. Both forms can be overindulgent and bloated or lack depth.
People are too precious about novels.
I get it. You read the book. It was great. You got drawn in to its world. The characters became friends and you feel like you really know them. The film won’t have all that the book has. The actor doesn’t look like the character in the book. They cut this bit out. They cut that out. That didn’t happen in the book.
Get over it.
A film isn’t a book.
It’s a different thing and it is doing a different thing. They will take the source material and will have to adapt it to something which works as a film. So things will have to be changed. Sacrifices will have to be made. You can’t expect it to be exactly the same. Even in a TV series, which is allowed a lot longer time for its story, things will be changed. Of course sometimes the movie adaptation is a cynical cash grab cashing in on the success of a popular novel. However, if you give the material to good filmmakers who are passionate about the project then they will create something great.
Even if you don’t like the film, the book is still going to be there. You can still read it. It doesn’t suddenly become the movie version. Pages don’t just fly out of the book while you are watching the film. You can read it again. Yes, the history of cinema is littered with bad films made from good novels. But you know what? There are a lot of films which are better than their adapted literary sources.
Here are some films which are better than the books they are adapted from:
Under the Skin (2013) – Michel Faber’s satire on the meat industry is pared completely down by Jonathan Glazer and turned into a film about the nature of what makes us human. It’s eerie and unsettling and sticks in the mind. Mica Levi’s unique score creates an unearthly and disconcerting air.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012) – This is an unusual one as it is written and directed by the author of the novel; Stephen Chbosky. Chbosky has managed to create a wonderful teenage drama that is moving and affecting with a great soundtrack that comes to life better on the screen than it does on the page.
Fight Club (1999) – The book is great and I’m a big fan of Chuck Pahalniuk but Fincher’s film surpasses it. One of the best films ever made by one of the best directors, it is endlessly quotable and earned its place in popular culture. It’s funny and intelligent and its anti corporate message still manages to be relevant. It’s got a career best performance from Brad Pitt and an underrated score by the Dust Brothers.
Layer Cake (2004) – With an adapted screenplay by author J. J. Connolly from his own forgettable novel of the same name, Matthew Vaughn launches his directing career with a stylish British crime movie that’s energetic and a lot of fun and which was the launchpad for a long working but little known actor called Daniel Craig. I can guarantee you that the producers for James Bond were watching closely.
The Silence of the Lambs (1991) – Robert Harris’s Hannibal Lecter novels are good crime thrillers, however, they do now feel a bit aged and regressive, especially in some of the characterisation and they have spawned much better adaptations. Jonathan Demme’s adaptation is an almost perfect movie. Nominated for seven Oscars, and winning five including Best Picture and Director, it is a timeless classic that launched Hannibal Lecter in to an enduring horror icon in popular culture. Also watch Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal TV series because it is one of the best shows ever made.
Audition (1999) – The novel by Ryu Murukami is a slim and slight book that is certainly not one of his best and doesn’t leave much of an impression. The film by Takashi Miike is the director at his best. He creates a weird and disturbing atmosphere that needles its way under your skin. It is scary and layered and a classic Asian horror film.
127 Hours (2010) – Aaron Ralston met with an extraordinary situation when his arm was trapped underneath a boulder and he cut it off to survive. His book mostly just talks about boring climbing trips he’s taken. Danny Boyle makes an uplifting film about survival and reconnecting with others. It was nominated for six Oscars.
The Shining (1980) – Stephen King is a much loved writer who is the leading author in horror fiction. He’s written many novels, short stories and non-fiction books. His work gets adapted a lot and usually not very well. The Shining is the exception to that. Directed by cinematic genius Stanley Kubrick, The Shining is a masterclass in atmosphere and slow building horror and is the best horror film ever made. It stripped away a lot of the supernatural elements of the novel, including killer bush sculptures, and created a layered horror experience that is still being analysed and is held up as one of the genres finest.
City of God (2002) – The semi autobiographical novel by Paulo Lins really feels like a book of dark short stories, giving a shocking look at the reality of slum life in the City Of God. The film streamlines the book but retains its feel. It darts about but keeps its narrative focus. It is slick and stylish but doesn’t shy away from the shocking and brutal reality of the character’s lives. It was nominated for four Oscars.
Blindness (2008) – Jose Saramango’s novel, about an epidemic of blindness and its fall out, uses its sentence structure to comment on the nature of vision and reading. It drops periods and quotations marks and doesn’t give the characters proper names so that you have to really concentrate on the prose to understand what is going on and to keep everything clear. This makes the novel quite slow and hard going, not necessarily rewarding the reader for their effort. The film jettisons formal trickery and instead focuses on telling the story. It’s an overlooked and underappreciated film with a dark message about humanity.
Cloud Atlas (2012) – I know this will be a contentious one. David Mitchell’s novel is bold and ambitious and was nominated for a lot of book prizes. I think the Wachowski siblings and Tommy Tykwer did very well with what seemed like an impossible to adapt book. They bolstered they novel’s themes and were as ambitious in their execution as Mitchell was. They also didn’t get bogged down in the centre like the novel does with its boring story about the ‘true-true’.
Drive (2011) – Another film that not many people know is based on a book. James Sallis’s novel is a solid but slight crime drama. Nicholas Winding Refyn adapts it with his unique style and makes a stylish crime movie that has become entrenched in popular culture and launched Ryan Gosling into the stratosphere.
Johnny Got His Gun (1971) – This anti-war novel from Dalton Trumbo has, i think, been forgotten about over the years and the same can be said for the film. However, Their message is an important one. The film gets it across better. The book ends on a sermon about war and the pointless deaths of the people who fight in them and it feels like you are being lectured at. The film makes this point much better with a sombre and depressing ending that conveys the same point but doesn’t make it feel like you’re being told off by your teacher.
The Girl With All The Gifts – With a script written by the novel’s author M. R. Carey the film still suffers from the third act faults of the novel but lifts the rest of it. One of the best zombie films for years, it’s exciting, exhilarating and scary with an interesting and complex moral centre. It has another ethereal and unusual score, this time from Cristobal Tapia De Veer, which really adds to the tone and atmosphere of the film.
An adaptation is nothing to be worried or to get angry about. I understand if it’s your favourite book but I say give it a chance. With the right talent attached to it a successful adaptation can easily be created. Sometimes they come out like The Golden Compass but sometimes they come out like The Godfather and I don’t think you’ll find many people who would argue that that book shouldn’t have been adapted.