Thursday, May 29, 2008

Novels and films ... can you compare them?

Can a great novel be translated effectively to the screen?

It’s a common question among book fans, and one that regularly creates debate whenever a much-loved novel appears on screen.
The biggest challenge for us when we a book and then watch the film, is to view the film on its own merit.

Because we know the story before it unfolds on screen, it’s hard to judge how well tension is built, or characterisation developed, because we’ve already determined who the characters are in our minds. We’re not discovering anything new with the film from a narrative perspective (unless, of course, the film-makers have taken liberties with the story).

I’ve recently read two novels and then watched the screen adaptations, and found the answer to the question above to be yes and no.

First up was The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro , directed on screen by James Ivory (screenplay by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala). I loved this book (see previous post), and remember being impressed with the film when I first saw it at the cinema backin 1993.

For me, while the film is exceptional on its own merits (Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson are almost flawless and Ivory's direction is wonderfully understated), it cannot deliver the depths of emotional impact – or reader satisfaction of discovering the profundity of Mr Stevens’ denial - without the repressed butler’s narrative.

On the other hand, I enjoyed Atonement by Ian McEwan more on screen than the page.

While I appreciate the elaborate way in which the author tells his tale, I found his use of multiple perspectives in the novel distracting and frustrating, especially as the moment of betrayal approaches.

On the screen, director Joe Wright (working with a screenplay by Christopher Hampdon) uses these perspective cleverly to build the tension and drama at the centre of the story, without telegraphing the injustice to come or slipping into melodrama.

The cast is superb, the visual style at turns beautiful and bleak, and the ending more palatable, simply because of the visual elements. (Without giving away the ending for those who haven’t read the book or seen the film, it belongs to the Yann Martel post-modernistic approach to narrative: if you believe it, it is the truth.)

In both of these film adaptations, different mechanisms are used to progress the narrative, and they work well. (It’s something film-makers should remember when translating stage plays to film, as they often look exactly like the play – but with more elaborate locations.)

So, for me – to state the obvious - books are books and films are films. Each needs to be judged on its own merits, and one does not influence the impact or quality of the other (a bad film doesn’t somehow make a great book any less so).

This is a post I’ve been planning for a few weeks (just hadn’t got around to watching Atonement until last night) and Booking Through Thursday beat me to the punch with the question by a week.

I’d really love to hear your thoughts on the topic. What are the best and worst examples of novels-to-screen, and why?

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Everyone loves a book list - don't they?

In my short career to date as a blogger, I’ve noticed there are a lot of book-related lists that regularly pop up on posts.

The titles differ, but generally they relate to people providing some form of recommended reading list.

Given that reading tastes and responses to stories are so subjective, I’m wondering how much stock book lovers put into lists created by others.

Bob Carr (former New South Wales Premier), has written a book called My Reading Life, in which he discusses his list of recommended books, and how he came to compile it.

In an article in (yes, you guessed it) The Australian Literary Review, he talks about how his reading choices have changed over the years. In particular, how he found himself more interested in classics at the height of his political career.

“In my 20s and 30s, I was restless about my reading choices – too heavy on current affairs, political biography and contemporary fiction. I needed lists, recommendations, guidance. The barrier to reading the classics, certainly for me, was a fear of being bored.”

He talks about changing literary tastes as we age. “…as infants, we read to identify with characters, as adolescents we read to learn about life. But as adults we read books for the sake of their form, their visions, their art”.

Carr says a list of books – assumedly created by another – disciplines our choices and provokes us.

Personally, I’ve never actually taken a list and systematically read everything on it (except the seven required plays in Stuart Spencer’s The Playwright’s Guidebook - a worthwhile exercise).

Probably the only time I would do so, is if the experience promised to deliver a result greater than the sum of its parts; if by reading a certain list I would gain a better understanding of a theme, a writing technique, a particular topic, etc.

So I’m wondering what everyone thinks of book lists. Do you use them? Have you ever read every book a list created by someone else?

Friday, May 16, 2008

Have novels replaced religion?

In the most recent Australian Literary Review, Delia Falconer suggests the decline of God as a source of meaning in the West has occurred side by side with the rise of the novel.

She makes the observation as the opening statement in her review of literary critic James Wood’s book “How Fiction Works”.

It’s an especially relevant comment, given Wood believes fiction has taken over as the measure of authenticity and power of the sacred. He says although fiction requires a different kind of belief to religion, it creates a parallel sense of “the real”.

It’s true that society today looks to narrative to understand and find meaning in the world. We turn to television, film, poetry and theatre to explore and analyse issues and ideas. In this context, the novel is as powerful as ever.

And this raises interesting questions about the place of narrative in religion, and why religion longer has the power it once had in the West.

Falconer says that for Wood, the best novels seem to create an approximate reality so intense and morally driven, that they may temporarily mend the world as a godless "broken estate". (And obviously, Wood is picking his reading material from the literary section, although I have no doubt there are religious experiences to be had in chick lit…)

Franciscan priest and author Richard Rohr (who I’ve mentioned before on this blog), believes the decline of popularity of Christianity in particular has been the result of perverting the religion’s original narrative.

He notes that while Eastern nations are – generally – deeply proud and protective of their religious heritage (be it Islamic, Hindu, Jewish or Buddhist), Christian nations in the West tend not to be.

Rohr believes the reason is that the narrative at the heart of Christianity has been turned into a bad novel: the good guys win, the bad guys lose. When instead, he says the narrative of the New Testament is about sacrifice, suffering, transformation, and redemption. It’s not about “us” and “them”. It’s not about who’s right and who’s wrong. It’s not even about getting it right. Quite the opposite.

I agree with Wood that effective narrative has the power to move people in ways that are essentially spiritual.

It’s a shame so many of our spiritual leaders have forgotten that lesson, and turned Christianity into a narrative devoid of its original revelation and power.

(Image: Daniel Marsula/Post-Gazette)

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Another thought on "literature"

There’s been much blogging in recent weeks about the definition of “literary”, so here’s another idea to throw into the mix.

My good friend the Ink-stained Toe-poker recently recommended (nay, insisted) I read The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, as a great example of what he deems literature to represent.

For him, literary fiction involves the most important parts of the story occurring between the lines. Having now read The Remains of the Day, I fully understand what he means – and agree that the “between the lines” concept is a good way to define quality literature.

For those who haven’t read this Booker Prize-winning novel, the story is told in the first person by Mr Stevens, an esteemed butler of a once renowned house, now in the latter stages of his career.

In this sad and moving story about repression and self sacrifice, it is what’s not said in the narrative voice that has the most power.

During a rare cross-country journey, Mr Stevens begins to recall important moments in his life, which more and more centre around his relationship with Darlington Hall’s house keeper, Miss Kenton – the very person he is on his way to visit.

The more he reminisces about the past, the more painfully obvious it becomes that Mr Stevens has lived a life denial. He spends an inordinate amount of energy justifying his choices in life as being the epitome of dignity and service, as befitting his station his life. But in fact, he has robbed himself of a chance to experience life, not just view it from the periphery.

At face value, Mr Stevens is proud man who has faithfully served his lord and household with a level of dignity to be admired by all who aspire to "domestic service".

In between the lines, lie the regrets and longings of a man whose true feelings are hidden even from himself, under layer upon layer of discipline, reasoning and “dignity”.

And it’s discovering those poignant truths – which even the narrator seems oblivious to - that make The Remains of the Day such a remarkable and memorable novel.

Of course, not every novel offering itself as “literature” provides the same experience, but The Remains of the Day has given me a new way to approach books in that often ambiguous category.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

BTT: Manual labor

It's Booking Through Thursday time again.

This week's question:

Writing guides, grammar books, punctuation how-tos . . . do you read them? Not read them? How many writing books, grammar books, dictionaries–if any–do you have in your library?

I am a big fan of these types of books, and use them a lot professionally for my day job. My favourites are:
- Macquarie Dictionary
- Fowler's Use of Modern English
- Thesaurus (Rogets is still the best)
- Australian Government Style Guide (which has excellent simple explanations of grammatical rules, along with all the official style guff).

As for writing guides, a US editor many years ago recommended to me Self-editing for fiction writers by Renni Browne and Dave King (available on Amazon), and it taught me an enormous amount about the mechanics of storytelling.

It's not a "how to write" book, but rather an editing checklist, covering topics including point of view, proportion, characterisation and exposition etc. It's a fantastic tool for anyone writing fiction (and is pretty much the sort of thing manuscript assessors and editors focus on).

Friday, May 2, 2008

BTT: Mayday!

I'm a couple of days late, but thought I'd play along with the latest Booking Through Thursday challenge:

Quick! It’s an emergency! You just got an urgent call about a family emergency and had to rush to the airport with barely time to grab your wallet and your passport. But now, you’re stuck at the airport with nothing to read. What do you do??
And, no, you did NOT have time to grab your bookbag, or the book next to your bed. You were grocery shopping when you got the call and have nothing with you but your wallet and your passport (which you fortuitously brought with you in case they asked for ID in the ethnic food aisle). This is hypothetical, remember….

(Having read other BTT posts, I realise I may have somewhat missed the point of the question, but I've written this now, so ... I'll leave the response as it stands).

This is actually a no-brainer for me. I would head to the airport bookstore and go for any Peter Temple novel I haven't read. In the last few months I've read a couple of his excellent literary crime novels on flights and found them a perfect way to pass the time.

They are well written, entertaining, and - with multiple plot strands unfolding - actually benefit from being read in a single sitting if possible.

If there were no Temples available, my next choice might be Book 6 in John Marsden's Tomorrow series (because they are very quick and easy to read, and that's the one I'm up to!) or I might even grab a Jodi Piccoult.

I definitely wouldn't start experimenting with authors I was unfamiliar with for fear of a bad decision and a long, bookless flight! Nothing worse from a reader's perspective than a trip with a book you don't want to read.