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Movie Adaptations of Books

23 Jul
"Having your book turned into a movie is like seeing your oxen turned 
into bouillon cubes" - John Le Carre
"Now An Epic Motion Picture Trilogy"

“Now An Epic Motion Picture Trilogy”

Ever since reading about Mary Poppins the movie and Mary Poppins the book and how there are a certain group of people who considers what Disney did to P.L. Travers’ book to be nothing short of artistic rape – that is the very phrase used – I have been curious. Being a person who likes both the book and the movie and who came to the book through the movie, it got me thinking. I used to be quite a snob about how movies absolutely had to follow the book exactly or else you would hear about it, but then I realized that I was only applying that standard to books I liked. Books I didn’t like or hadn’t read didn’t matter. Anyway, I’ve been thinking about it and here are some of by observations that I’d like to offer up and see what people think.

Observation OneA movie is not a book. Complaining that a movie does not stay true to the book is like complaining that a painting does not stay true to a character in a book. It can’t. A movie needs to make sense by itself and not assume that the audience has read the book. A movie is a different medium and often what reads well does not look good on screen. At the end of the book Double Indemnity, by James M. Cain, they are going to commit a double suicide by leaping into the water with sharks. This would have looked silly on screen and the ending they came up with for the movie was simply amazing. Even the author liked it.

Observation Two – When people say that they don’t like a movie because it is not like the book, this is mere dissimulation. When we like the movie, we forgive. Not staying true to a book does not mean the movie is bad. I recently watched two versions of Anna Karenina. The first version was with Greta Garbo from 1935 and the second is with Vivien Leigh in 1948. The one with Vivien Leigh is quite a bit more accurate, but somehow the direction is uninspired; it’s dull. The one with Greta Garbo takes quite a different interpretation of the book, but it is a more internally consistent movie and is more interesting to watch.

And I’ve finally had to come to grips with the fact that it is not because Peter Jackson is unfaithful to The Hobbit that I dislike his movies so much. It is because I really dislike how he directs. To me, his movies are bloated. That is not an issue of inaccuracy, it is an issue of editing.

Observation Three – A bad movie or inaccurate movie cannot really hurt a book. The book remains, no matter what, especially if it is a good book. If it’s a bad book or just a popular book, it will fade away no matter how good or bad the movie. But a movie can keep a book alive long after it has ceased to be popular. This has always been the case. How many people have heard of Olive Higgins Prouty or Edna Ferber, both very popular in their day. But I have discovered these authors through the movies. I’ve discovered many good authors like Sinclair Lewis, Graham Greene, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler.

Besides, a book should be able to stand on its own and I don’t think it’s fair to blame a movie for the memory or lack of memory of a book. Nor do I feel that it is fair to say that because of a movie, no one is reading the book. People who watch the movie might not watch it if it were more accurate, so you haven’t necessarily lost anything, anyway.

Observation FourThe best books, the classics, the books that endure, can handle multiple movie remakes. In fact, the best books do have multiple movie remakes: Pride and Prejudice, Sherlock Holmes, Anna Karenina, Oliver Twist, Jane Eyre, Moby Dick. Even classic comic books have multiple remakes. Some books, like Jane Eyre, have over ten remakes. The Maltese Falcon was made three times in ten years. Spider Man has been made into two series and five movies in the last twelve years. The books and characters are so vast and so vital that no movie can encompass them. There are two television series about Sherlock Holmes running right now: Sherlock, with Benedict Cumberbatch, and Elementary, with Johnny Lee Miller. Some versions are more accurate than others, but that’s okay. There’s so much richness in books, they can handle multiple interpretations.

Observation Five – Unless a book is a great classic, the further away the movie is made from its publication date, the less the movie has to try and follow the book. If a book is turned into a movie in order to capitalize on a book’s popularity, generally the filmmakers try to follow the book to a certain degree in order to please the fans. This was true even during the silent era. Scaramouche and The Sea Hawk, both adaptations of popular books written by Rafael Sabatini, were turned into movies only a few years after the books were published. They are also quite faithful. However, the remakes of The Sea Hawk and Scaramouche, made in 1940 and 1952 are not nearly as close. In fact, The Sea Hawk retains only the title and the time period. 

Sometimes, I’ve even watched old movies that were based on contemporary, popular novels and wished they had departed more from the books than they did. Examples of this are two Bette Davis movies, The Great Lie and Now, Voyager. I could so see the possibilities that these movies had, but they were oddly hampered by having to stay faithful to the story. This is what happens when a popular but flawed book is turned into a movie with excellent actors. The book is forgotten and the movie is remembered, but the movie could have been even better if they had departed more. Ironic.

None of this is to say that I think directors and producers shouldn’t try to follow the book. It is a wonderful thing when somebody who truly values the book makes an effort to capture what it is about the book that is so good and transfer it to the screen. I love those kinds of movies and they can enrich my appreciation of the book. I guess I’m really just saying that a movie isn’t bad just because it isn’t faithful.

Books and stories have always provided the inspiration of movies, operas, plays, musicals, poetry, paintings, songs. This is partially how stories are transmitted down the ages. I think the real question is not whether it is accurate, but whether it is well done.

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6 responses to “Movie Adaptations of Books

  1. JanuarysDreamer

    July 24, 2014 at 6:32 am

    I agree with your take on Jackson’s Hobbit movie. Definitely bloated, but I think we can all agree that the reasons are primarily commercial. It’s a franchise now. I remember Stephen King’s open dislike for Kubrick’s movie version of his book, The Shining, one of his best. I believe King even went on later to make his own movie version which was a massive fail. But Kubrick’s Shining was just that, Kubrick’s Shining, and a masterpiece. It was unlike the book in characterization as well as the ending but a the cinematic eye is so different than the authorial pen. It’s like comparing apples and oranges.

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    • christinawehner

      July 24, 2014 at 1:00 pm

      That’s a great example! When you mentioned the cinematic eye, I think you highlighted a good point; that it’s the visual, I think even more than sound, that is the greatest difference between movies and books.

      I wonder if an author is really worried about how their books are portrayed on screen they should just not allow their books to be turned into movies, since it seems like to allow a book to made into a movie is to tacitly say that you are okay with some else putting their own artistic stamp on it. I read once that after a movie adaptation of one of her books that she loathed, Willa Cather put it into her will that her books could not be turned into movies…though now her books are in the public domain.

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  2. jennifromrollamo

    July 24, 2014 at 10:15 am

    Watched Desolation of Smaug again last night with friends this time. Everyone had already seen it but wanted to view it again. Majority loved the silly barrel chase down the river scene, even that’s not how it was in the book, according to husband. We all also discussed the elf love triangle thing, and came to the conclusion that the producers wanted the film to appeal to female movie goers, so a romance was added.

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    • christinawehner

      July 24, 2014 at 1:15 pm

      I think you’re right about the female movie goers. I was originally slightly offended that they thought they had to do that until it occurred to me that Hollywood has been adding romances since they first started making movies. I guess that makes the Desolation of Smaug really typical Hollywood.

      The barrel chase was crazy wild! I wonder who thinks of these things, especially Legolas standing on the dwarves’s heads? It’s like it’s so crazy that you can’t help but laugh. 🙂

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  3. Christopher Peter

    October 23, 2014 at 11:51 am

    I agree with your points. You can’t expect a movie adaptation to be a carbon copy of the book, and the attempt to do so can backfire. However, to some extent it depends on the book – some lend themselves to faithful adaptation more than others. I also think there are probably cases when the movie makers have taken too many liberties and not for the best reasons.

    But I can certainly think of cases that back up your contention that movies need not, and probably shouldn’t, be too faithful to the book. Two examples spring to mind. First, the wonderful 1950 Alistair Sim version of A Christmas Carol – they even changed the name (‘Scrooge’), and when I finally came to read the original Dickens story I was disappointed that it lacked a couple of favourite scenes from the movie! Second, the timeless (1971?) Gene Wilder version of Charlie & the Chocolate Factory – again, they changed the name (to ‘Willy Wonka and …’) and made it a musical, which you obviously can’t do with a book (though with e-books now, who knows …) I heard that Roald Dahl hated it … but my kids love it, and so do I.

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    • christinawehner

      October 23, 2014 at 2:56 pm

      That’s a great point about how it depends on the book! Some books do seem to make better movies; I wonder why that is: if it’s the plot or the characters or how much of the story occurs in a character’s mind or just simply how much the movie makers care about the material they are adapting. Some books – like du Maurier’s Rebecca – I wouldn’t have thought would necessarily make a good movie (there’s a lot of the narrator’s thoughts and feelings in Rebecca) but Hitchcock really did a good, and surprisingly accurate, job in his movie.

      I definitely agree about Willy Wonka, though confess I have never seen Scrooge; I don’t know how, but somehow I hadn’t heard of it until you mentioned it. I just saw Sim as an inspector in the mystery “Green for Danger” and thought he was wonderful. I will have to look for this film!

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