The saying goes that badly written novels make
great films and great novels make lousy films. True? Let’s put it to the test. Bringing
up Baby: OK story, great movie (I think this had something to do with Cary
Grant). Silence of the Lambs: OK book, great movie. Memoirs of a
Geisha: great book, good movie. Children of Men: great book, amazing
movie. I could go on, and I am sure you could as well, so add your own list to
this one and see where the plot points lie, (no pun intended).
In making these comparisons though, it occurs
to me that so much of what we watch and what we read is subjective. Much like
visual art, what one person thinks is a great painting someone else might think
it is a mere scribble. A book that some might struggle to get through, others
can’t put it down, and the same holds true for movies. The question becomes not
whether a book can make a good movie but rather, does the book contain a good story, because in the
end, that is what translates to film.
Films like Ben Hur, Silence of the
Lambs, Out of Africa, and Dances with Wolves all won Academy
Awards for best picture, not because they were adapted from great and amazing
books, but because they told great stories, with interesting characters that
were visual and three dimensional.
Stories are what Hollywood is looking for and if the story happens to be
in the middle of a novel, surrounded by detailed information that doesn’t move
the story visually, it will be extracted and told on film without the nuances
of the novel.
What is the formula for adaptation, and is
Hollywood just being lazy and not trusting in original scripts and original
subject matter? The thing is, movie adaptations are often completely different
products than the books they come from. The films are infused with new
characters, new scenes, miscast actors, and misguided interpretations. So, who
should be held accountable to the source material from which these films are
made? Directors and producers? And should adaptations always remain faithful to
their source material?
I recently attended the Grub
Street event, “Adaptations
II: Novels Into Film” at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline,
MA with authors Arthur Golden (author of Memoirs
of a Geisha),
Russell Banks (The Sweet Hereafter),
Alice Hoffman (Practical Magic),
and Scott Heim (Mysterious Skin).
They read short excerpts from their novels and showed the corresponding scenes
from the film versions and discussed the “translation” from page to screen. It
was amazing to watch the differences. The book Practical Magic was
wonderful, but the adaptation of it was empty and lacking depth. In The
Sweet Hereafter, the filmmaker made the incestuous relationship between a
father and daughter somewhat romantic and glamorous when it was heinous and
vile in the novel. These changes, these adaptations, completely alter the text
in search of a cinematic moment.
Sometimes it works and other
times (more often than not) it doesn’t. Russell Banks likened adaptations to
the making of a stained glass windows, the blowing of hand made glass is done
by one artisan with the help of a few others who hold the pipe and smooth out
the glass (the novel) and then the glass is shattered, another artist selects a
few pieces for the window, and a craftsman is brought in to glue the pieces
together and a framer is brought in to square up the window and a carpenter is
brought in to hang the window (the movie). The adaptation of a novel is not the
voice of one, but the voice of many.
So what are a writer and a
filmmaker to do? There are so many good novels and there is so much material. I
am actually wondering if writers today are writing with the silver screen in
mind. I don’t remember the last movie I saw that was an original screenplay.
Look what’s coming up: Atonement, Silk, Sleuth, Lust,
Caution, Reservation Road, Kite Runner, No Country for
Old Men, Golden Compass, and Charlie Wilson's War all before
December 25th. Perhaps for
the readers in the room it would be better for the tag line to read: “inspired
by the novel” instead of “based on the novel.”
--Lisa Simmons, President of
Color of Film