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Over the past few weeks, being bombarded (via magazines, newspapers, online/ offline platforms) with promos for The Girl on the Train – the movie adaptation of Paula Hawkins’ bestselling novel – got me thinking about the tricky leap the printed word makes to the silver screen. Not all works of fiction become motion pictures. Nor do they aspire to do so. But those that get to have a movie avatar can’t avoid strict scrutiny because everyone has an opinion on their favourite book’s celluloid version. Readers are not easy to please. When they wear a film critic’s hat, they tend to become more exacting.
How many times have you heard someone complaining about a director butchering their favourite novel or short story? Some common refrains: “The director didn’t really get the book.” “The novel is fantastic but the film was mediocre at best.” “Why mess with perfection? They should have left the story alone.”
We often tend to forget that the printed book and the silver screen make different demands on their creators. Cinema, essentially being a visual medium, places a premium on images. Often a single image is expected to pull off the work of a page full of words. Of course, writers too follow the “show, don’t tell” maxim in their work. But the page allows more room for description and many a paragraph can be devoted to describing a particular setting or a character’s state of mind. If the description blends seamlessly into the story, nobody would complain. If an interior monologue takes up several pages, readers wouldn’t protest as long as it is well written and holds their attention.
To hold the viewer’s attention while translating the nuances of a book to the screen is an uphill task. The script has to be faithful to the original but not blindly so. The trick is to take the existing material and shape it to suit the cinematic medium without losing out on nuance and complexity. Often, the transition ends in disaster. But when it’s done right, it’s a joy to watch your favourite book come alive onscreen.
In no particular order, here are a few of my favourite book-to-film avatars:
Gone With the Wind: Margaret Mitchell’s novel paints a riveting portrait of lives upturned by the American civil war. The book, beloved to millions, made a superb transition to the screen. Directed by Victor Fleming, the film (1939) recreates the drama, romance, and emotional upheaval that Mitchell’s readers savour when they turned the pages. Thanks to a talented cast, the characters come alive onscreen, playing out their individual battles while a country goes to war with itself.
The Quiet American: Bristling with subtext and weighed down by brooding philosophical inquiry, a Graham Greene novel is not the easiest material to film. Luckily, Phillip Noyce proved himself equal to the challenge. Directed by Noyce, The Quiet American (2002) dissects the inherent self-interest that guides America’s foreign policy as expertly as it explores the map of the human heart and the anatomy of desire. The film never once makes the mistake of watering down the novel’s complexity or offers simplistic explanations for life’s eternal mysteries.
The English Patient: The film (1996), directed by Anthony Minghella, is a brilliant cinematic version of Michael Ondaatje’s novel. Staying true to the novel’s tone, the film explores the inner lives of the characters with a gentle, delicate touch. The doomed love story at the heart of the narrative, set against the backdrop of WWII, plays out onscreen like a beautiful sonata. The camera skilfully captures the starkness of the desert landscape and the violent churnings of war. Nothing is lost in translation here. Watching the film is as rewarding and intense an experience as reading the novel.
The Shipping News: Annie Proulx shone the spotlight on New Foundland in her bestselling novel, The Shipping News. The story of a broken man who returns to his home town in search of refuge struck a chord in readers across the world – even if many of them would confess having trouble locating New Foundland on the map. The film of the same name (2001), directed by Lasse Hollstrom, captures the bleakness and beauty of the landscape with as much finesse as the novel, giving it a pivotal role in the grand scheme of the narrative. Hollstrom’s non-intrusive directorial style lets the camera trace the trajectory of the characters’ lives without resorting to emotional voyeurism. As in the novel, grief and heartbreak and trauma remain integral to the story, but the darkness is tempered by a merciful absence of sensationalism.