The Pitfalls in the Pendulum: Swinging between Script and Screen

The perils of adaptation are endless. Ashvin Devasundaram explores what does and doesn’t make a successful leap from page to screen.


Some film adaptations triumph through the mash-up process of transforming a book into film. Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, based on Yann Martel’s bestseller was a shining example. This film captures the essence of the book’s protagonist’s (Pi) philosophical musings about life and humanity. Retaining the book’s metaphysical meanderings meant evading the trappings of bowdlerising or simplifying the book in the film. Life of Pi also accomplishes the impossible and impeccably imagines Pi’s magical world, tastefully using technological wizardry to most memorably bring the book’s putative hero, tiger Richard Parker, roaring to life. Promoted as the latest offering from Pi’s producers, The Book Thief’s attempt to ride the wave of its sister film’s success, sadly sinks into the depths of what it could have achieved, if only it had been truer to its literary source – Markus Zusak’s much loved novel of the same name.

The peril of adaptation is framed by a dilemma – what elements in a book, should a filmmaker either incorporate or eliminate? Consider the following key question – what are the vivid, memorable, visceral or cathartic moments in your favourite novels; ones you fervently wish filmmakers had retained or faithfully replicated in film versions? Unfortunately, there are no definitive answers to this conundrum. A modicum of mystery will always enshroud the process of adaptation from book to film; a compelling example of the complexity in this process is the aptly titled Charlie Kaufman film, Adaptation. That said, I venture with caution onto this hallowed ground and aim to eviscerate some of the bare bones that may provide clues to some of the pitfalls involved in swinging between script and screen.

The Book Thief tells the poignant tale of Liesel Meminger, who is nine years old when we are introduced to her, at a time when the miasma of Hitler’s National Socialism is catapulting Nazi Germany down the path of aggression. Liesel is travelling with her little brother and their mother coping with her Communist husband’s “disappearance” by the Nazis. The little family is on a train, racing across the hibernal Bavarian landscape, when the story’s narrator, Death, proceeds to gently disengage the boy’s soul and tiptoe away with it. At her brother’s burial, Liesel acquires The Gravedigger’s Handbook, dropped by the young lad digging her brother’s grave, which starts her lifelong affinity to books. This single act foreshadows her future penchant for pilfering any book she can lay her hands on and indeed sets the precedent for her becoming The Book Thief. Liesel experiences the pain of separation from her mother, as she is entrusted into the care of her new foster parents, the benevolent, paternal Hans Hubermann and his wife, Rosa, a Bavarian battleaxe of a woman with a heart of gold. In the process of her new life with the Hubermanns, the plot thickens when a young Jew, Max, takes refuge in the family home. Hidden in the basement, Liesel and Max develop a deep friendship, punctuated by their love for words and their hatred for Hitler.

The above synopsis is vividly elaborated in Markus Zusak’s book. French philosopher Roland Barthes made a landmark observation relating to hitherto conventional modes of writing where the book’s author retained the privileged position of narrating the story and hence, to a degree “talking down” to the subservient reader. Barthes called his theory the “death of the author”, which meant the empowerment of the narrator and the elevation of the reader to co-conspirator with the author in the process of making meaning of a story. Markus Zusak in his novel The Book Thief turns the very notion of the death of the author on its head. Instead, he enthrones Death as the author! We have the ever-present Death as a central character, giving us a first-hand account of Liesel and all the colourful characters of Himmel Street in Molching, a nondescript fictional Munich suburb, in 1939, as the clouds of war congregate over a troubled German landscape.

How would a filmmaker transfer a character as real and imminent as the Grim Reaper from page to screen? Could the film adaptation emulate a Meet Joe Black style human personification, with Brad Pitt standing in for the Grim Reaper, or instead fall back on the often overused but reliable device, the voice of God or in this case Death, via voiceover narration? In the film version of The Book Thief the latter option was used. The novel cast Death in centre stage, so that by the end, the reader has warmed to Death, like an old friend, lulled by his anecdotes and witticisms. The filmic adaptation cheats Death of his profound and wonderfully ironic turns of phrase. For example, Death introduces the reader to the Hubermanns’ son and daughter:  “Hans Junior worked in the centre of Munich and Trudy held a job as a housemaid and childminder. Soon they would both be in the war. One would be making bullets. The other would be shooting them.” Death’s Parthian shot at the end of the novel, although replicated in the film seems eroded of the monumental cathartic impact it has in the novel – Death confesses “I am haunted by human beings”. This may well be attributable to the film’s hasty cobbling together, its squeezing together of snippets voiced by Death in the novel. By denying him the range and development that he commands in the book, the filmic Death is a pale shadow by comparison. The mismatch in terms of time for story, plot and character development will return to haunt failed filmic adaptations.

The constraint of time or “screen duration” can prompt film adaptations into compromising not only on key plot points but also nuanced character development, both given the oxygen of time and space in novels. The filmic Book Thief excludes a motley assortment of vivid and idiosyncratic characters that festoon Zusak’s novel’s narrative with their presence. They include the Hubermann’s two grown up children, Frau Diller the staunch Nazi shop owner, Pfiffikus, the town’s old reprobate, the Hubermann’s neighbour Frau Holtzapfel and her damaged son, traumatised by his experiences in Stalingrad. With such omissions, the film fails to imagine the book’s vibrant spectrum of ordinary human lives unfolding against the brutal backdrop of fascism.

The “look” of a film must as closely as possible coincide with the reader’s imagined world – the visual aesthetic. The sombre, forbidding Benedictine abbey, with its lethal labyrinth, was wonderfully transposed from Umberto Eco’s eponymous novel The Name of the Rose to the filmic version. It bears testimony to the importance of aesthetically capturing the built-environment conjured up in the mind’s eye of the reader. Life of Pi performed the inconceivable and magically conjured Pi’s world from Yann Martel’s book description, in arguably the most creative use of 3D in a film. In contrast, filmic The Book Thief’s airbrushed and therefore the unbelievable visualisation of ‘Nazi Germany’ is more reminiscent of the setting for a Grimms’ Brothers fairy tale. It is unfortunate that the film did not take a leaf out of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas – a successful transformation of John Boyne’s powerful and heartbreaking novel into film. Why was the very essence of Zusak’s novel, “the banality of evil”, through its mundane presence in daily life, not as aesthetically and compellingly rendered in the film, particularly in comparison with the The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas? This may be partly due to The Boy’s minimalistic, realist approach and the film’s incorporation of the book’s subtle nuances; ultimately the most tragic, devastating moments in the film. This understatement afforded the viewer greater leeway, to participate and collaborate with the author, to identify and fit in the missing pieces of information provided by the author/filmmaker.

Another sparkling example of understatement and strong use of backstory is in the successful film adaptation of Bernhard Schlink’s compelling novel The Reader. The film opts to highlight the book’s pivotal courtroom scene, resisting the temptation to fashion an overt reconstruction of the tragic reason behind the courtroom sequence – an incident during WWII where Jewish women were locked in a church by Nazi SS guards and then burned alive when the church catches fire. These horrors are left to the viewer’s imagination, rendering them all the more disturbing. The film also displays a masterful use of flashback to manipulate screen duration without compromising on plot duration (the story spans several years), thereby preserving character and narrative development. Revolutionary Road, Richard Yates’s melancholy tale about a young couple’s fleeting dreams and desires in 1950s suburban America, is another good example of ratcheting up the drama by assiduously developing nuances of plot and character, as they appear in the book. Particularly noteworthy, is Director Sam Mendes’s use of Thomas Newman’s haunting and wistful musical score to convey the story’s overall sense of loss. Music and sound design is a powerful tool in this regard, as epitomised by Brokeback Mountain’s evocation of the bleakness of its characters’ lives, through the sad strains of a solitary guitar, rustling wind and flowing water, the sound design accentuates the wide-open spaces; metaphorical of the pervasive human emptiness so vividly imagined in Annie Proulx’s short story.

One of the areas of adaptation that is fraught with peril and indeed presents a potential pitfall is attempting to capitalise on beloved classics. A fairly disastrous recent example of film adaptation is The Hobbit trilogy’s attempt to cash in on a classic. When one of J. R. R. Tolkien’s more concise novels is put through the wringer and then ripped into shreds, three to be precise, perhaps to focus on the franchise potential of a story is to lose the plot. What’s left of The Hobbit trilogy seems unrecognisable to the book’s aficionados and a downright dog’s dinner, even to viewers unfamiliar with the book. This was another lost opportunity to stay true to the taut narrative of the original book. Instead the films’ viewers, like the adaptation’s characters, are abandoned to wander aimlessly through the film’s labyrinth.

Casting characters for a film is another crucial factor in successful adaptation. The splendour of book characters is that we all paint our own pictures of people that would closely resemble. So we engage in a process of mental casting as we plough through the pages of a book. It is imperative for a filmmaker to get this right. The Book Thief is vindicated in its excellent casting of actors, as closely aligned as possible to the characters described and imagined in the novel. Gentle and loving Hans Hubermann, Liesel’s foster father, whose caring bond with Liesel establishes a bona fide father-daughter relationship, is flawlessly portrayed by Geoffrey Rush. An able foil to Rush’s Hans is Emily Watson, playing the cantankerous, commanding matriarch Rosa, whose outwardly magisterial mien conceals a warm and caring soul. The children in the central roles, Sophie Nélisse as Liesel along with friend and co-conspirator in her book thieving ventures, Rudy Steiner played by Nico Liersch are a revelation, exhibiting a dynamic range in their performances that almost outshines their elders. Their performances to some extent revive the film from its formulaic stupor.

To sum up, film adaptations must involve a partnership with the viewer. This could be undertaken through a thorough examination of the nuances of a book – its subtle underpinnings, key plot points, colourful characters. It calls for astuteness in selecting those paradigmatic building blocks, whilst disregarding the ones that do not fit, separating the wheat from the chaff, hewing out those definitive frames, shots and scenes.

Ashvin Devasundaram

About Ashvin Devasundaram

Dr. Ashvin I. Devasundaram is Lecturer in World Cinema at Queen Mary, University of London and author of India’s New Independent Cinema: Rise of the Hybrid (Routledge, 2016) – the world’s first book on new Indian Indie cinema. He is Programming Adviser to the London Asian Film Festival (LAFF), Creative Director of the Edinburgh Asian Film Festival (EAFF), and a BBC Academy Expert Voice in Cultural Studies and Visual Arts. Apart from several international presentations and guest lectures, Ashvin has delivered the prestigious Annual Dadasaheb Phalke Memorial Lecture 2015 at the Indian High Commission’s Nehru Centre in London. Ashvin's research profile and contact details can be found here:

Dr. Ashvin I. Devasundaram is Lecturer in World Cinema at Queen Mary, University of London and author of India’s New Independent Cinema: Rise of the Hybrid (Routledge, 2016) – the world’s first book on new Indian Indie cinema. He is Programming Adviser to the London Asian Film Festival (LAFF), Creative Director of the Edinburgh Asian Film Festival (EAFF), and a BBC Academy Expert Voice in Cultural Studies and Visual Arts. Apart from several international presentations and guest lectures, Ashvin has delivered the prestigious Annual Dadasaheb Phalke Memorial Lecture 2015 at the Indian High Commission’s Nehru Centre in London. Ashvin's research profile and contact details can be found here:

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