This month sees the debut of screen adaptations of popular books including The Handmaid’s Tale and American Gods. It can be exciting when a much-loved book gets translated onto the big or small screen. Who will be cast as the main character? How will they film a pivotal scene?
However, the initial buzz is often replaced by dread. There’s a fear that any screen adaptation will not respect the original story.
The list of complaints can be long. They didn’t capture the essential quality of the story. The film cut out the best bits. That’s how not I imagined that character. The script changed the ending.
So, is it possible to do justice to a novel in movie form?
Hugely successful books have always been likely to make the jump from the page to the big screen. The fans represent a ready-made audience for a film, play or TV series. The works of William Shakespeare, Jane Austen and Charles Dickens have been adapted numerous times. Harry Potter, The Hunger Games and Gone Girl are more recent examples of successful books that have been financially lucrative on the big screen.
Yet, familiarity doesn’t guarantee success. Audience reaction is impossible to predict with certainty. Just because the books were popular, it doesn’t mean that the film will be a runaway success at the box office. For every Harry Potter, there is The Golden Compass.
The existing fan base can often be a disadvantage. Readers can become protective of their favourite books and characters. This devotion can manifest itself as a sense of ownership over the work. They might be unhappy with the director, the location or casting choices. Any adaptation has to try to strike a balance between pleasing the fans and making the material accessible to a new audience. In recent years, we’ve been watching this play out in the movie franchises based on the Marvel and DC characters.
The page and the screen represent distinct story-telling mediums. Each form has its own conventions and practices. A book can take us to places that are harder to conjure onscreen. Admittedly, the use of CGI has made it possible to create creatures and landscapes that would once have been impossible. Developments in CGI helped Peter Jackson to conjure Tolkien’s Middle-Earth onto the big screen in the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films.
Then there’s also the question whether a film adaptation is the best vehicle to capture a given novel. The story might be accommodated better by the longer arcs of TV series. It’s difficult to imagine Game of Thrones as a three hour film without flattening all of its complexity. The plans to adapt Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy for TV may be more successful than the movie adaptation.
And here’s the problem. It’s no good doing the justice to a book if the result is a dreadful film. The story cannot appear on screen as it was on the page. Decisions have to be made about how the source material will be interpreted. Characters might have to be amalgamated and subplots cut to fit the demands of the medium. The choices might not work. Still, if the changes are made sensitively, the film adaptation can find something new in the original story.
Consider Clueless, the modern update of Jane Austen’s Emma. The location moves from England to mid 90s LA. It shouldn’t work. And yet, it remains a faithful screen adaptation of Jane Austen’s work. It is possible to respect the source material and make a great movie. It happens more than we book lovers might be willing to admit. Stanley Kubrick’s loose adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining resulted in one of the best horror movies of all time. What about The Godfather, Sense and Sensibility or No Country for Old Men?
The film might struggle when compared with the book, but screen adaptations do work. And Hollywood is unlikely to stop adapting books. Us book lovers might have to give the film a chance. You never know, it might be fantastic.