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Can a film adaptation of a beloved read ever live up to its source material?
After putting down Book One in the series out of boredom, I’d avoided anything to do with Harry Potter for years. No matter how many of my friends loved and raved about it – one tried to appeal to my taste for tragedy by likening it to The Oresteia, and I almost fell for it – I simply wasn’t interested. My refusal to take part in the phenomenon had nothing to do with its popularity, even if the fervour of its fans, some of whom literally tattooed a wizard on their backs, was enough to scare me into the arms of Scientology. My reticence was more to do with a seven-book commitment to wands and Quidditch.
‘I’ll just watch the movies,’ I’d say, prompting several wizard-tattooed Pottermaniacs to hurl themselves off the nearest tower.
This was a faux-pas. Because although the film adaptations pleased fans enough to gross about $10 billion worldwide, and likely birthed hundreds more ink-based dedications, I should have hung my head in shame by preferring to experience those over the novels. Rule number one of film adaptations: the book is always better. Always. As a fervent reader myself, I’ve found this to be true on many occasions. Don’t even mention Baz Luhrmann’s ‘The Great Gatsby’ to me (but feel free to mention ‘Romeo + Juliet’). And no, I won’t ever subject myself to ‘I, Frankenstein’.
Ultimately, however, I know that literature and cinema are separate art forms. Yes, you can ‘read’ a film just as easily as you can ‘see’ a book. But if Annie Proulx’s short story ‘Brokeback Mountain’ could turn into a two-hour film, you can see where the problems might lie in adapting a seven-book series, roughly 1,084,170 words long.
As a screenwriter, the first thing you’d do is strip the text down to its underwear and, in some cases, ask why it was wearing six layers on a sunny day. Say goodbye to that seventeenth Quidditch match. Is it more important than Voldemort? Would J. K. Rowling’s narrative puzzle really suffer for its loss? Of course not. Cut, cut, cut. I once watched a stage version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ’The Great Gatsby’ (‘Gatz’) which played out the entire book, word for word, over seven hours. Unforgettable as the experience was, I was exhausted by the end of it (probably also because I went to bed at 3am the night before). And that was only 47,094 words long.
Is it worth leaving in every single plot point of a book, simply because its fans expect to see it there?
One of the most admirably bare-bones adaptations of late was Jonathan Glazer’s masterful ‘Under The Skin’ (2013), which reduced Michel Faber’s 2000 sci-fi novel to something resembling abstract art. It dispensed with any kind of literal approach to the story (including key plot elements) by distilling its source material’s theme of alienation through innovative techniques; secret cameras filmed people in shopping centres and on the road, from Scarlett Johansson’s perspective. It evoked the protagonist’s need and desires through sensual imagery, and her foreignness through Mika Levi’s complex, otherworldly soundtrack. By embracing its medium, the film turned out an entirely different beast to the book it was based on, and yet it remains an extraordinary adaptation.
I’m almost gleeful in my desire for a film to differ from the book. Turn it into a sculpture! Have twelve actors play the lead character! Make everyone female! And black! And gay!
What matters is preserving the source material’s essence. There’s no point turning ‘1984’ into a film if you’re going to change the ending, because that’s the crux of it. You can’t adapt ‘The Great Gatsby’ into a shallow (and, in Luhrmann’s case, frenetic) love story, because that isn’t its point. A good adaptation sifts through the book / short story / play to find its meaning, and translate its ways of telling it for the cinema.
My very first short film was an adaptation of a passage in Patricia Highsmith’s ‘The Cry of the Owl’. I was young and death scenes appealed to me (I’m sure my tutor, who made dresses out of human hair, felt the same, but her arched eyebrows left her true feelings forever ambiguous). In this passage, as a character is dying, there’s an almost cinematic description of those final moments, where reality starts to shift and consciousness appears to transcend the body. What better way to illustrate this than having someone lie down in a field and hallucinate a flight of stairs? I was a GENIUS. Patricia Highsmith would be proud.
I haven’t seen the short since, and I hope nobody ever finds it. Same goes for my docudrama adaptation of Sylvia Plath’s ‘Daddy’. Despite my embarrassment at these early pieces, I like to think that, for better or worse, I was doing my best to tell the story of whatever text inspired me. Perfume that smells like a rose isn’t a rose, but it is derived from its essence. It’s not a replica, but it’s close. Books and films of the same story can never result in the same product, but as long as one has captured the other, what’s the big deal?
Now excuse me while I watch Jon Favreau’s ‘The Jungle Book’. I’m sure it’ll be as far from the original as Mowgli is from being Baloo.