Video killed the bookmark
The thinking seems to be with a lot of book-to-film adaptations that a popular book will make a popular film. I suppose it must be true that if you have a guaranteed pool of fans who will turn up to watch the film just out of interest because they loved the book, then you’re probably some way to covering your costs. Predictably, this often leads to disappointment, and the frequent claims that a film has in some way despoiled the original text. This is interesting for a number of reasons, but primarily because of the implicit assumption by the reader of the book that because the film is guaranteed a decent narrative (the one it stole from the book), most of the hard work is done for it, the only further ingredient required being a heavy dose of cinematic embellishment, probably in the form of CGI – see Life of Pi and The Hobbit as contemporary examples.
Graphic novel adaptations are the best examples of this because they don’t just lift the narrative; in some cases they deliver a frame-by-frame rendering of the entire book. This is supposed to be extremely clever, and directors will talk proudly of how they feel they have captured the essence of the original and should therefore be exempt from the criticism of die-hard readers. In fact, it seems to be the case that a lot of film productions these days enlist the services of the book’s author to help with this process. This sort of attitude almost always ends in disaster. Take the Watchmen film – I have yet to meet a reader (not even necessarily fan) of the original who enjoyed the film, and with good reason, because the film is terrible, despite being a literal adaptation of the graphic novel, both visually and audibly (the soundtrack is chosen to match specific lines from the book).
Although the copy-cat approach is most obviously flawed in the case of graphic novels, I would argue that a large proportion of all book-to-film adaptations fail because of overly literal interpretations of the original. This was certainly the case with the first film rendition of John Fowles’ The Magus, which earned itself this scathing put-down from Woody Allen:
“If I had my life to live over again, I would want everything exactly the same with the exception of seeing the film version of The Magus.”
However, I would argue that The Magus was successfully re-adapted to make The Game several decades later. Although this connection is not made explicit and the setting and even plot is different in each, the themes are almost identical, as is the central narrative of jaded-bachelor-made-good. Apparently John Fowles even considered suing the makers of The Game for plagiarism. For the purpose of this post, though, it serves as evidence of the premise that the more distinct and original the interpretation of the book, the more likely it is for the film to be any good. Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet is a great re-imagining of Shakespeare, as is Hook of Peter Pan. It seems obvious to say but this makes sense given that a work of art, be it film, book or anything else, requires a degree of creativity, and signs that the artist has put something of himself into his work. Slavishly tracing a book into a screen may make sense from a box-office perspective, but it will almost never lead to anything worth seeing.