We all know the impact a book can have and how influential it can be, raising complex emotions that mark our lives forever. The default position (or cliché) is that the book is superior to the movie and consequently we often get caught in never-ending chats about how much the adaptation missed, ignored or misrepresented the original.
Literature and cinema have long been rivals and often literature was considered superior since it was the only art capable of highlighting infinite details and going inside the character’s mind, developing complex non-linear stories that could happen simultaneously in multiple locations. Nevertheless, with the invention of cinema such a privilege ceased to be literature’s monopoly. Transitioning from words to visual representation is not as simple as it seems, particularly when you’re dealing with a book that has endless inner dialogue, or that gives the reader long insights into a character’s mind. And, even though a movie is afforded the power of visual stimulation (who doesn’t remember Being John Malkovich (1999), one of the best examples of depicting the inner workings of a character’s mind, taken to such a creative and intelligent extreme), it can be at times limited in terms of having to tell a story primarily through dialogue.
In the early ages of cinema history, attempts to adapt novels literally became absolute disasters: Greed, Erich von Stroheim’s adaptation of Frank Norris’s novel McTeague in 1924, resulted in a film nine hours long, which, after being cut into a two hour movie, resulted in a largely incoherent film. It became the proverbial “cautionary tale” and since that time, few directors have attempted to put everything in a novel into a film.
Since movies have limited storytelling time, change in cinema adaptation is essential and most of the time required by the nature of the plot. In movies; visual composition, camera movement, editing, and sound make the narrative. The story elements such as plot, dialogue, character, and theme come together with production elements such as camera angles, lighting, costumes, and acting. Even though filmmakers are left to perceive the author’s writing and spin it into their own take, decisions have to be made in accordance to the very specific nature of cinema, which is meant to “show” rather than merely “tell”. Questions such as: “how does lighting set an atmosphere? How does a director create a sense of intimacy in a scene? How is a character’s temper conveyed visually? How is a character—even a villain—made understandable or kindhearted? How can the image replace dialogue? How should point of view be directed? How can sound intensify emotion or increase suspense?” become the guidelines of the filmmaker’s job. And here is where we actually have to start facing them as distinct arts and consider the relationship between literature and film, not just in terms of adaptation, but conversion of literary language into film language. Baz Luhrmann’s film adaptation of Romeo and Juliet presents a captivating modern interpretation of the 16th century drama, where the original Shakespearian text contrasts with the highly modernized costumes and the modern metropolis called Verona Beach (reminding today’s Miami) is the stage for the ongoing quarrel between Capulet and Montague.
The technological nature of the film raises the question: is cinema an art or a technique? Should it be seized as a means of reproduction and diffusion, or as an artistic medium? Cinema forced other arts to rethink their mutual relations and questioning the foundations of their own artistic field. Some argue that a director should be completely indifferent to the source, as a book is a book, while a movie is a movie, and the two must be seen as distinct works of art. Since a transcription of a novel into film is impossible, even holding up a goal of “accuracy” is absurd. There are millions of different interpretations of a book and subjectivity will always be an issue. Back in 1998, Peter Jackson spoke with the site Ain’t It Cool News. Trying to dissipate the fears of reactionary Tolkienites over eventual changes, the director said, “You shouldn’t think of these movies as being ‘The Lord of the Rings.’ ‘The Lord of the Rings’ is, and always will be … one of the greatest (stories) ever written. Any films will only ever be an interpretation of the book. In this case my interpretation.”
Adaptation (2002), by Spike Jonze, is a good example of the struggle to adapt a novel into a film. Coming as an intentional parody and commentary on the process of film adaptation itself, the film is billed as a self-reflective process of the adaptation of Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief. Charlie Kaufman, playing himself, struggles with the screenplay, while dramatizing the events of the book in parallel.
On the other hand, others claim that a film adaptation has to adapt literally, keeping the movie as close to the source as possible. The film must be truthful to both the effect (aesthetics) of a novel or the theme of the novel or the message of the novel and the director should only introduce changes where necessary to fit the demands of time. While this is possible in Game of Thrones due to the very “cinematographic” style of the novel (and note that we are talking about a format – TV series – that allows a lot more of “movie time”) it is hard to achieve when we think about Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World or George Orwell’s 1984, where the directors have to focus on making the story work, first and foremost, as a film.
In Reading the Movies, William Costanzo notes that it has been estimated that a third of all films ever made were adapted from novels. So the possibility of getting thrilled to see what a filmmaker might do with our favorite book (and, consequently, the chance that the movie will disappoint us) is a very real one. So while “bad movie adaptations are irredeemable pieces of sacrilege and blasphemy by definition” as someone said, films just can’t compare to novels from which they derived. And this is the very heart of the matter. We can have endless stimulating chats over a coffee cup about how good or bad the adaptation is, but never say that the book is better than the movie.