I’m a book snob. One manifestation of my snobbery is that I never buy books with an image of the corresponding film on the front. I realise what’s on the cover has no bearing on the content. But I’m a snob! I read books because they’re books, not because they’ve been endorsed by Fox or Universal.
I’ve been reading Game of Thrones over the Christmas break. These are the books that I’d written off as a lost cause because the TV show got to me first. Now that I’m wading through the political machinations of Westeros on the page, instead of screen, I have to admit the TV shows are one of the most faithful novel adaptations I’ve known. George R R Martin is one of the producers, I suppose.
With The Book Thief out in cinemas now I had to drag myself in to see it. What if it was terrible? What if it ruined the novel? Luckily it’s been a really long time since I read the book, so I braved it last night. The film was simply wonderful. It perhaps didn’t have the depth of the novel, but it really remained true to the spirit and the sheer love of descriptive language. I was inspired to pick up the book again for a re-read. One of my favourite novels as a child was The Neverending Story. It’s a huge expansive epic, perfectly suited to nerdy bookish types prone to escapism like me. But, despite having read it several times, all I can can feel from the novel is the film. The book was an epic and the film only covered half of it. But what in the spirit of one trick acts the film industry depends on, what it did do it did well.
It takes a very firm vision for a novel to ring true on the screen, to not lose its heart. Life of Pi lost so much in its translation to screen, beautiful as it was visually. It felt like a crassness, a shallowness, crept into the story. It felt like a glossy franchise version of something that was once a character filled, slightly disheveled family store. Am I expecting too much?
I realised recently that I have very little recollection of reading The English Patient. I know I have, but the film was just so artfully wrought, it’s all that I have in my head. I was too frightened to see The Time Traveller’s Wife until it was on TV recently. It was actually a pretty good film. Yeah, it cut out some scenes and the ending was different and it lacked a little nuance but I thought it captured the novel. But then, I didn’t especially love the novel. I wanted it to be bolder, I found it too hesitant on the whole time travel thing and frankly I was more interested in that than the romance.
Beloved novels aren’t just books, they’re personal relationships. Movie makers will no doubt get it wrong. All the deft words, light and shade, sense of place and proportion in a novel won’t stand up to Hollywood’s harsh lights nor its screenwriters’ scissors. The pacing tends to be off in a film. A novel is a much longer relationship than a feature length movie. The eye needs time to pass across each line. The pause for pages turned, the gradual plot reveal, the engagement with characters. A novel is a marriage, to a film’s one night stand. Is there a recipe for making it work? Would we rather it just wasn’t attempted? What are your favourite novel to film conversions?