The more I watch movies and read books, the more I see the two as totally different art forms. They evoke different kinds of pleasure and enjoyment. A direct translation just may not work. I used to seek for how ‘faithful’ a movie is compared to its literary source, but more and more, I’m looking for how good it stands alone as a production in terms of cinematic elements.
A film adaptation can make an apt homage to the original literary work. It is not merely an ‘illustrated book’, but a new creation, if you will, one that offers a different experience from reading. In telling the story from a visual and sound perspective, it offers a multidimensional take on the original work. By so doing, it may need to alter the source material. But then again, how do you know the images on-screen are not those already conjured up in some readers’ minds as they interact with the text… or, theirs are not even more far-fetched?
While a film is the artistic expression of the filmmaker’s interpretation, it is also a collaboration of talents and perspectives, as cast and crew contribute their expertise, in cinematography, set design, costume, writing, sound, music, editing… all under the artistic direction and insight of the auteur. It is an alchemy of sights and sounds. On top of that, there are the key agents of delivery, the actors. An intelligent and nuanced performance can bring out the literary essence, unfurling the thematic matter, characters and conflicts, and above all, the humanity embedded in the text.
In his article entitled “Snobbery”, Ta-Nehisi Coates, senior editor for The Atlantic, says that as he reads Pride and Prejudice, Austen’s brilliant literary depiction has formed some vivid images in his mind.
I like the pictures in my head, and would not see them overthrown.
Yes, that’s usually the case with many readers who guard the ownership of their imagination as sacred territory, hence, the refusal to step out to explore other grounds of artistic expressions. So, despite hearing how splendid the BBC version of Pride & Prejudice is, Ta-Nehisi Coates has this to say:
I don’t doubt it–but I think mine is better. For right now, I’m just a snob that way. I reserve the right to change.
I’ve been mulling over this ‘snobbery’ idea after reading his article back in March, and feel that another word might be more apt to describe such a condition: “hegemony”… the claim of the literary being supreme, over other forms of artistic expression. On a personal level, it is also the hegemony of subjectivity… valuing one’s own mental images exclusively. It’s about sharing, isn’t it, seeing and experiencing what others’ imaginary worlds are like in response to a piece of literary work? I believe we are richer when we share, especially, our vision and imagination.
As a literature lover and a Janeite myself, I’m only glad to hear another high praise of Austen’s ingenuity, not that her works need any more approval to be of value. However, as a film lover I don’t want to wage war by dichotomizing the literary and the visual. They are two different art forms, two distinct vehicles of storytelling. Even though the story comes from the same source, it could be told from different perspectives, filtered through different lenses, structured in different styles, and ultimately
received by interacts with the reader and the viewer in a very individual and personal way.
I’ve appreciated Kazuo Ishiguro’s openness regarding the creative process during the film adaptation of his book Never Let Me Go. According to a TIME magazine article, Ishiguro said to Alex Garland, the screenwriter:
Your only duty is to write a really good screenplay with the same title as my book.
What ended up was both the author and the screenwriter share a very similar vision. Here is what director Romanek has done to bring out the literary:
… he imparts a mood so subtle, with so many emotional cataclysms conveyed through a glance or a few tears, that the film might have been made by the Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu. The nuance is both emotional and visual… Romanek also researched the Japanese notion of wabi-sabi, ‘which is the beauty of things that are broken and worn and rusted and imperfect. So production designer Mark Digby and I, we just wabi-sabied everything. The dried flowers are an example of that. There’s nothing new in the film. Everything shows the wear of time.
Watching a film then is like listening to another language, the language of the visual, and appreciating the significance of mise-en-scène.
As a language and literature lover as well as a movie buff, I’m always on the lookout for the perfect fusion. To those who insist that a film version will never be as good as the book, allow me to suggest the following sampler. No, they are not perfect, but some are close to it. They are all worthy of and have done justice to their source material. Just from memory I’ve made the following list. All I’ve read and watched, some several times. (click on the link to read my review). I’m sure there are many more:
Great Expectations (1946)
Novel by Charles Dickens, directed and screenplay co-written by the legendary David Lean.
Diary of a Country Priest (1951)
Novel by Georges Bernanos, screenplay and directed by Robert Bresson
To Kill A Mockingbird (1962)
Novel by Harper Lee, Robert Mulligan director, Gregory Peck IS Atticus Finch
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1968)
Novel by Carson McCullers, Memorable performance by Alan Arkin
A Room With A View (1985)
Novel by E. M. Forster, a Merchant Ivory film. Helena Bonham Carter emerged.
Howards End (1992)
Another E. M. Forster/Merchant Ivory film. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala won Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, Emma Thompson Best Actress. Beautiful rendition of sight and sound. Helena Bonham Carter, Vanessa Redgrave, Anthony Hopkins and many more made up the talented cast.
The Music of Chance (1993)
Paul Auster’s absurdist/existential novel is hauntingly adapted into film (How can you show philosophical concepts? Here it is) perfectly interpreted by James Spader and Mandy Patinkin. Excellent cast and superbly directed by Philip Haas.
The Remains of the Day (1993)
Kazuo Ishiguro’s Booker Prize winning novel, another Merchant Ivory film. Poignant performance by Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins.
Pride and Prejudice (1995, BBC)
In my opinion, the definitive version of Jane Austen’s film adaptation. BBC production, Andrew Davis screenplay. Colin Firth remains the inimitable Mr. Darcy to this day.
Sense and Sensibility (1995)
Emma Thompson did justice to Jane Austen with her Oscar winning screenplay. Ang Lee directs Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, Alan Rickman, Hugh Grant. Still my favorite version of S & S.
The English Patient (1996)
Booker Prize winning novel by Michael Ondaatje, directed and screenplay written by Anthony Minghella. Ralph Fiennes, Kristin Scott Thomas, Juliette Binoche.
Girl With A Pearl Earring (2003)
Novel by Tracy Chevalier, Peter Webber directs Colin Firth as Johannes Vermeer, Scarlett Johansson as the servant girl Griet. An artistic, nuanced production.
Bleak House (2005, BBC)
The TV mini-series that prompted me to read the 1,000 page book by Charles Dickens. Gillian Anderson, Anna Maxwell Martin, Denise Lawson, and a cast of talented actors delivered a most enjoyable and exceptional rendition.
Away From Her (2006)
Short story by Alice Munro, the young Canadian talent Sarah Polley wrote the screenplay and directed veteran actors Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent. A moving portrait of the destruction of a marriage by Alzheimer.
3:10 to Yuma (2007)
Short story by Elmore Lenard, James Mangold directs Christian Bale and Russell Crowe. Movie captures the psychological conflicts marvellously.
Novel by Ian McEwan, Joe Wright directs Keira Knightly and James McAvoy. Saoirse Ronan’s breakout performance.
When Did You Last See Your Father? (2007)
Memoir by Blake Morrison, David Nicholls screenplay. Anand Tucker directs Colin Firth, Jim Broadbent, Juliet Stevenson and the young rising stars Carey Mulligan and Matthew Beard.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007)
Jean-Dominique Bauby ‘wrote’ the book by blinking one eye. Julian Schnabel director. Mathieu Amalric plays Bauby, the true story of a stroke survivor who was left paralyzed except the movement of his left eye.
Never Let Me Go (2010)
Novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, Alex Garland screenplay, Mark Romanek directs the talented British trio of Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightly, and Andrew Garfield.
True Grit (2010)
Book by Charles Portis. This is an updated movie version by the Coen brothers, Hailee Steinfeld’s breakout role, deservedly garnering her an Oscar nom. Jeff Bridges is better than John Wayne I feel. 10 Oscar nominations in total.
The Hours (2002)
Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Michael Cunningham, David Hare screenplay, Stephen Daldry directs. Homage to Virginia Woolf and Mrs. Dalloway. Nicole Kidman won Oscar Best Actress as V. Woolf. Moving performance also by Julianne Moore, Meryle Streep, and Ed Harris.
John Patrick Shanley wrote the play, later the screenplay as well as directed the film. Engaging performance by Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Viola Davis. (For this one, I’ve yet to read the play)
A Single Man (2009)
Novel by Christopher Isherwood, Tom Ford’s directorial debut. Colin Firth’s first Oscar nom. Julianne Moore, Matthew Goode, Nicholas Hoult. Heart- stirring music.
An Education (2009)
Memoir (essay) by Lynn Barber, screenplay by Nick Hornby, directed by Lone Scherfig. Carey Mulligan got her first Oscar nom. Peter Saarsgard, Dominic Cooper, Rosamund Pike, Olivia Williams.
UPDATE Feb. 25, 2013: This is prompted by the 85th Academy Awards last night. The movie definitely is worthy of its literary source. Click on the link to read my review:
Life of Pi (2012)
Update after the 2014 Academy Awards:
12 Years A Slave (2013)
45 Years (based on the short story “In Another Country” by David Constantine)
Love & Friendship
Lion: From Personal Memoir to the Big Screen
What are your favourite film adaptations of literary works?