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?