Friday, June 27, 2008

Film adaptations of books

I'm sure we've all had those times when some ignorant film maker slaughters our favourite book, then turns around and expects us to enjoy it - all while revelling in the fame of a box-office success. How is this fair? Why does the rest of the world have no taste? I would really like to know the answers. I have spent many an unsatisfying film session pondering what exactly it is that makes a film a good adaptation, and can even provide pertinent examples.

Some people have hard-and-fast rules: 'The book version is always better.' 'The movie version is always better.' 'Movie versions of action films are always better because they have more impact.' and so on. Some people refuse (as a general rule) to see the movie of a book or read the book of a movie, saying it will 'spoil it'.

I find it difficult to be so black and white. For one thing, despite my many unsatisfying cinema-going experiences, I am usually too curious to resist (with a few notable exceptions). Also I am not stubborn enough to resist an invitation from someone I want to go out with. (Hence why I saw Sex and the City the other day, and - surprisingly enough - enjoyed it!) But also I don't watch a great deal of film or television. Books will always hold the first place in my heart. I think this is because they offer so much more scope for the imagination. Also it's less bother. Borrowing books from the library or buying them second-hand has become second nature to me (I love my yearly pilgrimages to Borders to spend my birthday book vouchers too), but hiring a movie or going to the cinema or even setting up the video to record something on TV takes so much more effort.

My two favourite adaptations would have to be Atonement and The Virgin Suicides, both based on excellent books that I should really reread. In my mind they both captured the atmosphere which was so strong in both those books - the soporific heat of summer in Atonement and the cloying humidity of The Virgin Suicides. Even Keira Knightley didn't stuff things up, which was RATHER impressive.

I also like Lord of the Rings and The Golden Compass was quite good too. Lord of the Rings captured the epic quest spirit of the book and The Golden Compass was pretty good - though I can't now remember why. I think I was mainly just glad it wasn't another Harry Potter. Oh yes, I also liked The Da Vinci Code. It was much less annoying than the book. And Audrey Tautou was in it (speaking English with an adorable accent no less).

The ultimate of really bad adaptations, for me, is Harry Potter. Nothing matched the way I had imagined it, which pissed me off, but usually doesn't bother me as long as the alternative is good. In this case, however, the alternative was a piece of crap. Very few of the actors could act or were well-cast (Alan Rickman and the Hagrid guy being notable exceptions). In the third movie especially (I think that's the last one I've seen, though I seem to recall falling asleep during a later one), the characters seemed to slip frequently into lord-of-the-typical-medieval-traditional-fantasy-style syntax and vocabulary. This is NOT Harry Potter. Part of HP's genius and success is that it's about ordinary teenagers being placed in an extraordinary situation. Very few situations are extraordinary enough to make a fourteen-year-old speak like a Shakespeare wannabe.

Some films, though, are patently better than the book. I read The Notebook before I saw the film and thought it was the biggest piece of shit I'd ever laid eyes on. I didn't think the movie was great shakes either, but it was far, far better than the book.

Some films leave me feeling like I don't particularly want to read the book. The Bourne Ultimatum had enough for me, as did The Constant Gardener. And so you see that the extent of my film-watching experience is rather limited.

What makes a good adaptation, in my opinion, is a production that is true to the spirit of the book. Making a film that does that is easier said than done, I'm sure, but I know it's possible because I've seen it.

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