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?


Charley said...

I typically prefer books to movies, but I actually enjoyed the film versions of Nick Hornby's About a Boy and High Fidelity to the books.

Rebecca said...

I loved the book versions of A Walk to Remember and PS, I love You but both films were a disappointment, when compared to the books. I just don't think either film captured the original plot of the books.

I loved the Notebook movie though and keep meaning to read the book because the same author wrote A Walk to Remember and a couple of others that I've really enjoyed.

D'Arcy said...

Definitely have loved the Nick Hornby adaptations. They were both successful transitions... really successful, Cusack and Grant simply WERE those characters. I agree about "Atonement", Wright did something just amazing with this film, that long, uncut scene on the beach alone made my mouth drop open in film wonder.

Having received my BA in literature and my MA in film, I find beauty in both art forms. I really loved Wright's adaptation of "Pride and Prejudice", though I am sure most would shun that for the Colin Firth A & E version. I also liked the movie version of "Posession," but the version of "Love in the Time of Cholera" was hard to even get through..and I tried because I love Javier Bardem!

Gustav said...

Dear Paula

My view is that the written word and film are two independent art forms and that the pleasure the novel gave us will rarely translate into a film of the same title.

The written word and the intimate thoughts of the characters in a novel are nearly impossible to replicate with film. Hence I usually love the novel over the movie.

However there are many great films based on excellent stories and perhaps my favourites are "One Who Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and "Great Gatsby".

Charley said...

I tagged you for an author meme, if you are interested.

Alea said...

I really liked the movie version of Atonement, it actually helped me understand the book in some places a little bit better. And that score was just killer! I thought the Devil Wears Prada played out better as a movie compared to the book version.

If I hear a book that i'm interested in reading is being made into a movie i ususally try my hardest to read it beforehand. It's harder to read a book after watching the movie i feel.

the ink-stained toe-poker said...

Magnus Mills' Beasts of Restraint is being turned into a movie, it's an amazing book, like just brilliant so read it before you see it, Peter Jackson is making or has made Lovely Bones and The Damned United (whether you like football or not) is another amazing book to read before the film hits the big screen.

I agree about both 'Gatsby' and 'Cuckoo', when I watched 'Cuckoo' I thought I'd be thinking about Nicholson when I read the book, but he's nothing like the character and yet he owned the movie. Best film adaptation ever!

Silence of the lambs was pretty good and let's be honest Jackson saved most people so much time and trouble by making the Lord of the Rings movies. Talking about cutting all the rubbish out.

awesome post Westie - great discussion material.

Paula Weston said...

Thank you everyone for your excellent comments.

(I agree that Cuckoo is one of the best adaptations!)

Charley, I'll definitely check out the meme. Bit pressed for time tonight, but will check it out tomorrow night.