Greta Garbo and Vivien Leigh as Anna Karenina
I’m on my way to developing a very large soap box regarding this issue, but it absolutely fascinates me! It should, however, be my final post on this subject, barring some kind of further epiphany.
One of the biggest issues regarding how we enjoy a movie based on a book is our expectations and the nature of disappointment. But before I talk about that, I want to talk about the difference between a good movie and a good adaptation. A good adaptation, as I’m using the term, is a movie that has seriously attempted and succeeded in putting the author’s vision from the book on screen. A good movie is simply that, a good movie, and it has nothing to do with whether or not the movie is close to the book. A good adaptation is not, of necessity, a good movie and a good movie does not have to be, of necessity, a good adaptation.
One of my favorite examples of this phenomena is the difference between the 1935 Anna Karenina with Greta Garbo and the 1948 Anna Karenina with Vivien Leigh. The movie with Vivien Leigh is closer to the book, but it is a curiously lifeless movie. In the Greta Garbo version, the movie has helped to further the notion that the book is about how Anna Karenina was wronged by society and driven to suicide by those wrongs, which is not true to Tolstoy’s vision; but the movie is still better, flows better, is more interesting than the version with Vivien Leigh.
The Nature of Disappointment – But whether we can handle a movie version of a book is directly linked to our expectations…and whether we’ve read the book or not. When we expect something and do not get it, we are disappointed. This is why we tend to like the version of a song that we hear first. It sets up expectations for how the song ought to be sung and when certain notes or musical riffs are not heard, notes and riffs we hear in our head, we feel let down. It has nothing to do with the right way to sing the song; it’s a matter of taste and also very much a matter of what our experience tells us is right. If we love a book and we are looking for the same things we loved in the book to be in the movie and we don’t get them, then we won’t like the movie. The problem is that everyone likes different things about a book.
As my cousin pointed out, if he and I were each to make a movie version of the same book we both like, chances are that we would both leave out something or underplay some aspect that the other loved in the book, perhaps the very thing that made the other love the book. I am not a huge fan of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, but it’s really not that bad an adaptation and when you listen to Jackson and the screenwriters talk about the movie, they felt that they were being true to the book. But we have different perceptions of the book.
There is also a difference between adapting a known work of literature that has stood the test of time and adapting a popular, contemporary work such as The Hunger Games. I do not know whether people will still be reading it a hundred years later, but because the book is popular now, whoever made the movie – however much people may disagree whether or not the adaptation was done skillfully – the movie did not radically change the story. But this is an issue of skill in adaptation: casting choices, dialogue choices, the inevitable cutting of scenes from the book.
Adapting a book into a movie is difficult, even when people intend to be true to the book. The tone of the narrator goes a long way in providing the flavor of a book and when that narrator is gone and all that is left is the story and dialogue, the movie can have a different feeling than the book. But the people who love the book intensely are bound to feel disappointment because they are only watching the movie because it is based on the book. They might not have watched it otherwise.
And this brings up another point I have heard people mention and I think is a legitimate concern: that people will develop an erroneous idea of the book from the movie. However, I believe that argument shifts the responsibility of finding out about a book from ourselves to the movie. We blame the movie for giving us wrong ideas when we never took the time to read the book. It’s the same with history. You can’t blame a movie for giving you bad history when you haven’t cared enough to find out the truth. Movies are entertainment and cannot be expected to be otherwise, though they can be a wonderful bouncing board to many interests, historical and fictional. I’ve read about Queen Victoria, James J. Corbett, The Edwardian Period, WWI, all because a movie or TV show made me curious. And I have found many authors because of the movie versions of the book.
I’ve actually almost talked myself into the notion that we should watch the movie before reading the book. I’ve done it so many times accidentally and it never hurt my enjoyment of either medium: The Lord of the Rings, Mary Poppins, all of Jane Austen’s books, most of Charles Dickens’ books, some of Anthony Trollope’s, The Maltese Falcon…. But because a movie is usually a simplification of a book, I am rarely disappointed when I try the book next, whereas I am frequently disappointed with the movie if I start with the book.
And it seems that truly classic and enduring books can handle multiple interpretations by moviemakers, just as they can handle multiple interpretations by literary critics. An essay is no less an interpretation than a movie and just as directors and screenwriters bring their own vision and try to fix what they consider to be weaknesses in the plot, so do critics attempt to show where an author erred or how the author’s character ran away from the author and is alive apart from the book.
However, I would like to say that I love a movie that is close to the book…even when I haven’t read the book when I saw the movie. You can’t change a well-constructed story without peril and good books (and plays) do deserve to be skillfully adapted. Many of my favorite movies are skillful adaptations and not just loosey-goosey ones – Double Indemnity, The Maltese Falcon, Pride and Prejudice (1995), Pygmalion (1938), He Knew He Was Right. I love to see what I read come to life on screen. I think the point is that it is not easy to adapt a book, even when you want to. And the multiple movie and TV adaptations of Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, Anna Karenina, Frankenstein, The Three Musketeers, Sherlock Holmes and any of Shakespeare’s plays show just how enduring these stories (and characters) are, how many perspectives people have of them, and how difficult it can be to do them justice.