Tuesday, 13 September 2011

I Preferred The Book: What Makes for a Good Adaptation?

Can an adaptation ever match the original?
Right, so on Sunday night I saw the 1939 version of Wuthering Heights, starring Laurence Olivier and directed by William Wyler. I saw it at the Star and Shadow cinema in Byker as part of their Great British Romance season, which you should definitely check out here. The immediate murmurs amongst I and my companions was that it was very good, but lacked the intensity of the novel and watered down Heathcliff and Cathy's overall nastiness. However, I wonder if this necessarily makes the film a poor adaptation. Sure, the movie lacks the thematic complexity of the novel, but does that make it a bad film? Similarly, should we demand that adaptations remain doggedly faithful to their source material? Can we judge adaptations simply as standalone films in their own right, or should they always be evaluated against the shadow of their literary source material?

These are tricky questions, but in short, I think the answers are ‘no’, ‘of course not’, and ‘it depends’. Plenty of great films are relatively simple in theme, and the nature of the medium demands a narrative economy and efficiency not usually necessary in literature. David Lean’s epic masterpiece Lawrence of Arabia, for all its near four-hour running time, and grand, sweeping visuals, has a remarkably single-minded and linear plot. Because of their relative brevity, the stories that films tell usually need to be clear, short, and to the point. Even mainstream films that challenge linear storytelling, such as Pulp Fiction or Memento, or that baffle us with interminable plot twists, like Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep, still follow relatively basic stories. Literary novels have the advantage of being able to be as long as they need to be, as opposed to the lengths of feature films, which are determined by convention, the expectations of audiences, and the economic demands of cinemas. Where authors can fully explore their characters over dozens or even hundreds of pages of description and development, directors must point to character motivation and depth in just a few key scenes. The best directors do this throughout the entirety of a film, but even the longest films are restrictive in comparison to the resources of time available to authors. This inevitably creates conflict when long novels are re-formatted into the relative constraints of filmed story-telling. A simple story, however, is not necessarily a poor one. For the record, the novel Wuthering Heights is definitely better than the film. The novel, I think, has more cultural value as a vital component in the Victorian Gothic tradition, and as a moment in the history of women’s writing, than the film does as a very respectable Hollywood romance. But, crucially, the novel isn’t better because it has a more complicated story.

This leads me on to faithfulness. Almost without exception, how faithful a film is to its source material is the benchmark by which adaptations are uniformly judged. Given the rather glaring differences between film and literature, this doesn’t make a great deal of sense, yet people will crow at the slightest deviation from the original material. My favourite example of this is in the transposition of High Fidelity’s setting from London to Chicago, which elicits howls of derision from the novel’s (invariably British) admirers. Why this is such a betrayal of the novel’s central theme of commitment and neuroses continues to elude me. I want to know why audiences frequently demand that the exact same story be re-told in a different medium, when some of the least successful adaptations in cinema are the most faithful to their sources. 

The Golden Disappointment
Chris Weitz’s severely disappointing  2007 The Golden Compass, remains doggedly close to the plot of its source, the lauded children’s novel Northern Lights. Practically every scene in the book found its way to the screen, the special effects did justice to Pullman’s descriptions of daemons and warrior-Polar bears (yes, that is as awesome as it sounds. If you haven’t read Northern Lights and its sequels yet, crawl out from under your rock and get them read, they’re fucking class), and yet somehow, the heart and soul of the novel was utterly and completely absent from the film. There is an impatience to The Golden Compass’ narrative, hurriedly rushing towards each scene in a vain attempt to keep up with every plot point in the novel, instead of focussing on a few of its central themes and relationships. In contrast, Thomas Alfredson’s dark, disturbing and heart-breakingly excellent Let the Right One In excises not one, but two very substantial sub-plots from its source, allowing the film to focus squarely on the central romance between Eli and Oskar. In contrast to the novel, the film is intentionally ambiguous about the origins and motivations of two of its characters, which further complicates the future of a third, and all because it tells us less, not more, of the story. This is an example of an adaptation bettering its original through narrative economy. Where The Golden Compass simply tries to retell the same story that Philip Pullman already had, Let the Right One takes the novel as a starting point to tell its own story. There are numerous examples of this approach to adaptation. Ghost World does a fine job of taking a very minor character from the graphic novel and uses him as the basis for an entirely new story. Furthermore, Dune, whilst clearly an unmitigated failure, fails as a bad film and not as a bad adaptation; no one could accuse David Lynch of a lack of original vision.

So should we judge films based on other works as standalone movies or as adaptations? As with the above example, it’s certainly difficult not to view the American remake Let Me In as a poor man’s (or idiot’s) Let the Right One In. Moreover, it’s impossible not to watch film adaptations of Hamlet as part of a tradition of adaptation, rather than a singular work in its own right. These, however, I believe are the exceptions that prove the rule. The film Wuthering Heights does not reflect either the thematic complexity of the novel, and it does not explore the historical and social context in which the novel was written, but nor should we expect it to. We watch, for example, James Whale’s 1931 version of Frankenstein as part of a series of horror pictures that Universal Studios produced in the 1930s and 40s, and so should we watch Wuthering Heights not as an adaptation of a gothic Victorian novel, but as an example of Golden Age Hollywood romance. It is only on their own terms, and in their own contexts, that adaptations can be very successful, important and beautiful films.


  1. My initial thought on this is that a wildly popular film must be very difficult to transpose into a wildly popular film.

    How the events of a novel play out to an individual in their mind's eye is entirely personal, as is what that individual takes away from it in terms of the themes most important to them. Therefore, a wildly popular novel may be lauded by its readers for many different reasons and a filmaker (or studio) wanting to tap into that popularity has no real chance of pleasing everyone in that target audience. To compound the folly, people often have naive expectations that what they're going to see will match the experience they had in their mind's eye and they are bound to be disappointed.

    Therefore, this naive disappointment, on a grand scale, can hang rather unfairly on an adaptation that may actually have quite a few merits that go unnoticed. Conversely, people who had never read the book in the first place may enjoy it more, but how often is the cinema marketing of a novel adaption geared towards the people who HAVEN'T read it?

    In conclusion then, trying to turn a wildly popular novel into a wildly popular film may be a fool's errand. You probably have more chance either starting from, or aiming for, obscurity!

  2. Duh! A wildly popular NOVEL must be very difficult to transpose into a wildly popular film.

  3. Elaine has countered my above ideas with the Harry Potter series of films and indeed they have been extremely popular in print and film. The bits I've seen of the films looked shit though...

  4. Interesting review and some excellent points made but I feel it is not as informative as the one from the review section of Amazon below:

    By Ms. K. A. Russell (UK)

    "It arrived very qucikly and in very good condition. I recommend this seller."

    5.0 out of 5 stars Wuthering Heights, 18 Oct 2010

    I think she missed the point so I have repoted it as abuse.

  5. Any examples of films that you think are better than the book? I'm going to start with Fight Club.

  6. I think Let The Right One In is a better film. The Godfather is reputedly not a great novel, but I haven't read it. I'm also inclined to say High Fidelity, but it's quite a close call. Ooh, Double Indemnity's a mint adaptation, too.