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Pictures and Words

From the heights of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo to the lows of Eat Pray Love, the cinema of 2010 proves that successful books don't always make great films. Denis Welch investigates an uneasy relationship

How often, engrossed in a novel, do we think, ‘This would make a great film’? In a sense, reading a book we enjoy, we’re already making that movie in our minds. Reading is inseparable from mental image-making: the words suggest pictures that form in our imagination – pictures that may persist all our lives. I’m sure I am not alone in retaining in my head, from childhood, completely detailed versions of scenes from much-loved books. Enid Blyton’s The Enchanted Wood, for instance: the way from the house across the fields and through the woods to the Faraway Tree is undiminished in my mind. Others will have their own version: in these matters, we are all our own set designer and director.

Perhaps the integrity of that particular imaginary world remains unchallenged because I’ve never seen a film of The Enchanted Wood. If I had, its imagery might have supplanted my own. Once we see a movie based on a book we know well, it tends to give permanent faces to the characters and scenes – particularly when there’s a definitive adaptation. It would be hard now, say, for anyone reading Once Were Warriors not to picture Temuera Morrison as Jake. On the other hand, there have been so many film and television versions of, say, Pride and Prejudice that no single actor – with the possible exception of Colin Firth as D’Arcy – has stamped their face indelibly on one of Jane Austen’s characters.

Films, then, can play a powerful if not irresistible part in defining the exterior appearances of the fictional worlds called into being by novelists. In that sense, they capture our imaginations. But they will always struggle to capture the true interiority of the novel – the thought processes of the characters as conveyed to us by the writer, and indeed the writer’s own thinking, immanent in every paragraph, every page. By definition a film, if it’s not to be 15 hours long, must find visual ways of doing that, at the same time as distilling the thousands of words narrated or spoken as dialogue on the printed page.

Is there any point, then, in comparing these two different genres when the source work is the same? One school of thought would say no: a film’s a film, whatever its inspiration, and must be judged as a film, not as a screen version of something else. Besides (so this argument runs), every idea gets recycled one way or another, and the book on which a film draws is itself a mish-mash of borrowings from other books, other films and indeed the whole second-hand op-shop of life itself – i.e. nothing’s truly original anyway.

A good example of this artistic recycling scheme is Jane Smiley’s 1992 novel A Thousand Acres, which was adapted for the cinema five years later but which itself was a modern reworking of King Lear, the idea for which Shakespeare got from the Holinshed Chronicles, which in turn drew on Celtic legend, and so we go back into the mists of time.

A key difference, I guess, is that King Lear was well and truly out of copyright by 1992, leaving anyone free to rework or even totally re-conceive it (as a New Zealand theatre group did a few years ago with a female Lear). Smiley, on the other hand, got royalties, a major credit and full acknowledgment in the movie’s advertising; the very fact that the title wasn’t changed made it clear that this was The Film of The Book.

It would seem legitimate, then, to judge a film by its fidelity to the book from which it’s adapted when the film-makers themselves (however insincerely) make a selling point out of the adaptation. When we go to see a movie not only based on a literary work but promoting itself on that very basis – be it The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo or the latest Harry Potter – we probably have the right to see something true to the spirit of the book at least. An unwritten contract between film-maker and audience calls out to be honoured.

The extent to which it is honoured tends to be a matter of subjective judgment. My idea of a faithful adaptation is probably your idea of a howling flop. Having never thought, for instance, that any film-maker could do justice to E M Forster’s highly nuanced Howards End, I found the Merchant-Ivory film faultless – yet it didn’t even make the list of top 50 adaptations compiled by an expert panel for the Guardian. Conversely, I loved Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement but felt the movie missed the bus. By about three stops.

What, though, of the actual contract between film-maker and writer? The general rule for writers is that, when signing away the movie rights, you give the director carte blanche. Like, you’ve done the best you could with the material you had; now it’s their turn, and good luck to them. Anything less and you’d be considered precious and clingy. As John le Carre has generously said, ‘The job of the movie … is to take the minimum intention of the novel and illustrate it with the maximum of freedom in movie language.’

Even if dissatisfied with the finished film, most writers are so grateful to see their book get another life – and, if the movie’s a hit, a more lucrative life – that they try not to be publicly picky. The usual strategy is to take the money and run. Sometimes, however, you take the money and weep. Elizabeth Knox famously cried for days after seeing Niki Caro’s film of The Vintner’s Luck, lamenting that, ‘She took out what the book was actually about.’

Knox, by her own account, had little to do with the making of the movie. ‘I believe in letting people get on with their jobs,’ she said, in the time-honoured tradition of writers not wanting to appear as though they’reanxiously nannying their darlings, ‘and I also trusted [Niki] and had respect for her as an artist.’

There is a third way, however, of considering the fidelity/infidelity question and that is to take it out of the equation altogether. In the ever-growing discipline of adaptation studies (now part of many a university media course), some theorists say we need to get over the notion that first there is The Book, decontextualised, pure, the work of a single inspired individual, and then there is The Film, degraded, compromised, the work of a corporate commercial industry. The Australian theorist Simone Murray, for instance, argues persuasively that they’re both on the same continuum, both subject to the same transactions and trade-offs. To put it more brutally, anyone out to earn a living by making things up is, essentially, hustling product.

Murray attributes the ideological supremacy of The Book to the lingering influence of the 19th-century literary canon,which elevated literature to a moral art forms like film could not hope to reach. While not going so far as to say that literature’s a virgin and the movie industry a whore, she notes the tendency of critics to use sexually loaded words like ‘unfaithful’ and ‘betrayed’ when faulting an adaptation.

In short, Murray wants The Book – particularly The Novel – brought down off its pedestal and into the heave and shove of the marketplace. In practice, of course, that happens already; her challenge, rather, is to the way we think about the process. As she says, ‘The processes by which contemporary literary fiction is created, published, marketed, evaluated for literary prizes and adapted for screen are still to receive sustained and detailed academic attention.’

Regarding adaptation specifically, she says we need a broader definition of it and a ‘sociology that takes into account the commercial apparatus, the audience, and the academic culture industry.’

What is fidelity anyway? How faithful is faithful? The 2002 film Adaptation satirises these questions, with Nicolas Cage playing a tortured screenwriter tying himself in knots over how to be true to the (non-fiction) book he’s adapting. In the end, he realises – through a concatenation of improbable events – that the original book wasn’t exactly faithful to the ‘truth,’ it was just another subjective take on it and that he doesn’t have to sacrifice his own imagination on the altar of his source material. Ye shall know the relativity of the truth and the relativity of the truth will set you free.

Not much comfort for Elizabeth Knox perhaps – though it’s tempting to say that, had Caro’s film been a hit, she might not have felt so bad. The core criticism of Caro, judging by the colossal box-office failure of The Vintner’s Luck, is not that she took liberties with the book but that she did it so badly.

Adaptation has always been with us. Shakespeare and his contemporaries adapted all over the shop, to the point of outright plagiarism. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, when live theatre was dominant, novels were constantly being converted into plays, invariably in a crudely reductive way. In his book Inventing the Victorians, Matthew Sweet notes that between 1896 and 1915 alone there were 56 stage adaptations of Dickens’ novels, six Jane Eyres, 10 East Lynnes, nine Dr Jekyll and Mr Hydes and so on. And when film came along, novelists were quick to appreciate its possibilities (mainly as a way of boosting book sales): Thomas Hardy cheerfully sold the rights to Tess of the d’Urbervilles for 10 per cent of the gross turnover and watched The Mayor of Casterbridge being shot on location.

Generally, however, filmmakers and novel-makers are considered worlds apart. This may be because film is perceived as such a radically different genre – all those cables, all that equipment, so many people on the set! But that’s a false comparison: the apparently lone writer at the keyboard is also very much part of a corporate endeavour underpinned by elaborate technological resources. Nor are film’s tricksy contractions of time and space so very different from what a novelist does. Art, one might say, is collective and indivisible.

Too much more of this and we’ll be getting into Barthesian ‘death of the author’ territory. In that respect, we might note that more than 50 years ago the French film critic Andre Bazin said that it was possible to imagine a ‘reign of the adaptation in which the notion of the unity of the work of art, if not the very notion of the author himself, will be destroyed.’ But if that’s too much to swallow, then at least we might agree with Bazin when he asks why, just because the book came first, that should be an aesthetic criterion ‘any more than the chronological precedence of one twin over the other is a genealogical one.’

Denis Welch is a freelance journalist and writer who lives in Wellington. He was formerly deputy editor and arts & books editor of the Listener. His book Helen Clark: A Political Life was published in 2009.

Top five film adaptations:

1. To Kill a Mocking Bird
2. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
3. Blade Runner
4. The Godfather
5. The Remains of the Day
as voted by Guardian readers in 2006 from a judged selection.

Top five film adaptations of New Zealand books:

1. Once Were Warriors
2. Whale Rider
3. In My Father’s Den
4. An Angel at My Table
5. Rain
as judged by the Booknotes editorial team.


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