Can a movie adaptation ever be as good as the book?

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.

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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.

Atonement (2007)
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.

Still more…

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.

Doubt (2008)
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)

2015 UPDATES:

45 Years (based on the short story “In Another Country” by David Constantine)

Room 

2016 UPDATES:

Love & Friendship

Arrival

Silence

2017

Lion: From Personal Memoir to the Big Screen

Certain Women

Mudbound

2018

Wildlife

2019

Little Women

2021

Nomadland

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What are your favourite film adaptations of literary works?

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Never Let Me Go: Book and Movie

(Update Oct. 5, 2017: Kazuo Ishiguro has just won the Nobel Prize for Literature)

I must first declare this Spoiler Alert: It is impossible to write about the book and the movie clearly without stating the crux of the story. It is this key ingredient in the plot that instills meaning to the novel and now the film. While Never Let Me Go is a story of slow revealing, author Kazuo Ishiguro, in a Time magazine interview, admits that:

” … in a funny sort of way, I almost wanted the mystery aspect to be taken away so that people could conentrate on other aspects of the book.”

So there, even the author himself condones spoilers, for he knows there are much more to be pondered upon once the veil is removed.

Never Let Me Go (2005): The Book

Born in Nagasaki, Japan, in 1954, Kazuo Ishiguro‘s family moved to England when he was six. He is one of the most acclaimed English language writers today, listed by The Times as one of the 50 greatest British writers since 1945. Never Let Me Go is Ishiguro’s fourth nomination short-listed for the Booker Prize, which he won in 1989 with The Remains of the Day.

Based on a scientific premise, Never Let Me Go is a beautiful love story told with aching poignancy. Children of the exclusive boarding school Hailsham are told they are special from a very young age. They are to keep their bodies healthy and strong for that’s the purpose of their lives. They are told and yet not told, for theirs is a vague notion of who they really are or what is in store for them in the future. Knowing no other worlds, the children grow up in the sheltered, fenced-in compound of Hailsham, accepting their predetermined fate with docility.

Scientific advancement has made it possible. The children of Hailsham are clones, copied from an original, raised to have their organs harvested once they reach the prime stage of adulthood. While sports keep their bodies strong, they are particularly encouraged to pursue art and poetry. A mysterious figure they called Madame comes by regularly to collect their art work to keep in her Gallery.

The story focuses on three students, Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy. Their friendship on the outset matches the idyllic backdrop of the school in the 1960’s English countryside. Kathy is kind, caring and gentle, always watching out for Tommy, who is inept and temperamental. Seeing the bond forming between the two, Ruth slyly moves in and silently snatches Tommy to her side.

After reaching their eighteenth year, the three are transferred to the Cottages to live. There are just two roads ahead of them, donation of their organs and after 3 or 4 times, meets completion, death. Or they could apply to become carers of donors, but only temporarily until they too must fulfill their purpose. Living with other grown-ups who fall into the same destiny, the undercurrents of their love triangle begin to expose. For the first time in their lives, they hear about ‘deferrals’. If genuine love is evident between a couple, they could apply to have their donations deferred for a few years. When you are in love, just another day is precious enough. But what is love, and how do you prove it? There might also be another way out, and art could be the key. Ishiguro has masterfully handled layers of thematic complexity in a shroud of suspense.

While the story is based on an imaginary scientific scenario, the book is not a debate on the medical ethics of cloning. The events that take place which ultimately lead to their determined end explore, ironically, what it means to be human. Using the intricate relationships of the threesome, Ishiguro goes deep into issues of love and loss, dreams and reality, wrongs and their amends, and the ultimate search for the source of being, the very purpose of existence.

Using a first person narrative from Kathy, now a carer at 31 looking back at her past experiences, Ishiguro presents his story with detailed internal depictions and nuanced dialogues. Kathy’s voice is innocent and gracious, and all the more moving when it comes to the end when the story is fully unfurled. The three friends have since parted after the Cottages, but now after years have gone by, they meet again as carer and donors. On the canvas of imminent destiny, against the overwhelming tone of grey, we see three brisk strokes of colours, three lives, however temporal, serving their purpose, and above all, having tasted what it means to be human.

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

Never Let Me Go (2010): The Movie

Update Dec. 6: Carey Mulligan won Best Actress for Never Let Me Go at the British Independent Film Awards last night. This is her second BIFA win after An Education.



Directed by Mark Romanek (One Hour Photo, 2002), screenplay by Alex Garland (28 Days Later, 2002), the film was screened at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival in September, and chosen to open the 54th London Film Festival on October 13th.

The mood is nostalgic, shot in greyish greens and blues, effectively capturing the general atmosphere of the book. When the future looks dim, the best one can do is to look back and savour what has been. Screenwriter Alex Garland has done an admirable job in being loyal to the source material, visualizing the key events and pertinent scenes, bringing to life the haunting memories of Kathy’s, whose narratives are taken straight out of the book.

Corresponding to the novel, the film is structured in three parts. It follows Kathy (Carey Mulligan, An Education, 2009), Ruth (Keira Knightly, Pride & Prejudice, 2005) and Tommy (Andrew Garfield, The Social Network, 2010) through Hailsham in the 1960’s, young adulthood at the Cottages in the 1970’s, and lastly in the 1990’s where we see the final destination of their lives in completion. While the beginning part is the weakest, lacking the depth and details of the book, such a shortfall is compensated by the excellent performances of the three child actors as the young counterparts, Izzy Meikle-Small (Kathy), Charlie Rowe (Tommy) and Ella Purnell (Ruth). The congruence of young Kathy with her adult role played by Mulligan is particularly impressive.

As the story moves along, almost to midpoint, the unfurling of facts and feelings becomes more pronounced, calling forth some intricate and nuanced performance from Mulligan, Garfield, and Knightly. The three actors are the pillars of the production. While the original music by Rachel Portman (Academy Award Best Music, Emma, 1996) is affective and heart-wrenching, and the cinematography by Adam Kimmel (Capote, 2005) captivating, it is the performance of the threesome that makes the film so real and stirring.

Mulligan’s portrayal of Kathy and Garfield’s Tommy are particularly riveting. The hidden love Kathy has been holding for years is given a channel for expression only briefly at the end. All through Mulligan has carried her role with admirable restraint. Garfield’s portrayal of Tommy is achingly real, especially when he ultimately realizes the finality of his fate, the cry in the dark is haunting and powerful. And kudos to Knightly for accepting a role that puts her in a less than glamorous light. Her change at the end too is moving, giving depth to the exploration of what makes one human… other than love, there is also the courage to admit wrong, seek forgiveness, and the attempt to make amends.

Is it melodramatic or is it evoking deep emotions? Within context here, emotional sentiments or even a few tears at the end of the film might well be a healthy response, nothing to shy away from. Should the scenario arise some day in the future when we need to prove that we are human, and that we have a soul, what better ways to demonstrate but by our capacity to emote love, empathy, compassion, pathos, and the fear of facing such a scenario. May this all remain as science fiction for our enlightenment only.

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

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