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David Porter » Articles at Suite 101 » ‘Good Books Make Bad Movies and Vice Versa’: Discuss

‘Good Books Make Bad Movies and Vice Versa’: Discuss

A perennial Media Studies question: do good books make bad films or do bad books make good films? However, perhaps the bigger question is: does it matter?

Filmmakers take most material from adaptations, recycling and re-envisioning. They’re rarely bothered about whether it’s a ‘good’ book they’re using, as long as the movie makes money. Books (good and bad) make films (good and bad), that’s the bottom line. Critical and artistic acclaim are bonuses.

Tim Robey, Sunday Telegraph’s Film Editor mused (21 Aug 2011) that autumn 2011 would bring a ‘slew of high-profile literary adaptations’ to the screen. Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, We Need to Talk About Kevin and The Help to discuss good/bad books.

He said that One Day had enjoyed box office success retelling the big seller book by David Nicholls (2009), with screenplay by the novelist himself. Robey called D-I-Y adapting a ‘famously brutal process’, but other authors have to let the writing of others rebuild their books.

He wondered if the Harry Potter films (most viewers having read the novels first) work as films pure and simple? He thought about half did. Hollywood plunders literary sources ‘not just to secure a built-in audience, but for an aura of weight and pedigree’.

Producer David O Selznich employed revolving writing teams to rework books into movies, and about Gone With the Wind (1939) and Rebecca (1940) was at pains to say no expense was spared to keep faithful to the originals. In fact, ‘crafty liberties’ were taken to make them work as movies, according to Robey.

No Golden Rules

He felt that there’re no hard and fast rules about why one book makes a great movie, another doesn’t. Nor why the same book in different hands doesn’t work. Hitchcock’s directing achieved success with Rebecca, but Jamaica Inn (1939) was a ‘loss making shambles’.

Robey singled from Dickens’ catalogue only David Lean’s Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948), which worked with slashed dialogue and plot. He said that great films don’t merely reproduce the originals, but must ‘lift them into another dimension’. On that definition, Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice (2005) felt modernish, while his Atonement (2007) took text more ‘reverentially’. For Tim Robey, the process is ‘alchemy not fidelity’.

Good Books Make Bad Films

Gut Dammann wrote on the Guardian Film Blog (Nov 2007): ‘the better the novel, the worse its screen version’. However, he excepted Joseph Conrad novels. Lord Jim (novel 1899-1900; film 1965) inspired him as a youngster, pages of description/character matching the screen.

Conrad-inspired cinema included Hitchcock’s Sabotage (1936) from The Secret Agent and Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) after Heart of Darkness. Orson Welles was a Conrad fan: ‘every Conrad story is a movie’, until he failed to turn his own scripts from Conrad into film.

Also in November 2007, Donna Bowman and others compiled for A.V.Club, twenty not-so-good movies from good books, under the heading Lost in Translation. They started with Slapstick (1982) from the novel that Kurt Vonnegut considered his best, because the cast (including Jerry Lewis, Madeline Kahn and Marty Feldman) reduced it to ‘poor slapstick’.

Bonfire of the Vanities (1990) was an ‘unfilmable book’, even with Bruce Willis. Asimov’s novella, Bicentennial Man (1999), ‘subtly examined what it means to be human’. But the authors reckoned Hollywood doesn’t do subtle, especially with Chris Columbus directing and Robin Williams starring.

They slammed the gap between what works in a comic book and what Hollywood puts in a movie in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003). The ‘grizzled, tortured figures’ disappeared, replaced by generic punchers and shooters. The Scarlet Letter (1995) was ‘freely adapted’ with a happy ending from a book without one; in short, a ‘recipe for disaster’.

Actors Can’t Save Bad Movies

Signs were promising for All the King’s Men (2006) – Sean Penn, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Mark Ruffalo, James Gandolfini and director-writer Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List). Bowman said the film was a leaden adaptation, ‘like a dead fish’. The Human Stain (2003) was a ‘perversely miscast’ adaptation of Philip Roth’s fiery novel about identity politics and The Hours (2002) ‘pounded the novel’s care to powder’.

The team panned yawning chasms between books and movies: Stardust (2007) as ‘flabby and plodding’; Dr Seuss’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas (2000) as ‘garish nightmare’; Portnoy’s Complaint (1972) for ‘crudity but little wit’ from the original; Tropic of Cancer (1970) as ‘self-indulgent and rambling’, and Bee Season (2005) as film draining life out of a book.

Stuart Little (1999) was belittled as standard computer-animated, celebrity-voiced; Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1993) ditched the tale that made the book interesting; The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (2005) was bad because Douglas Adams’ book needed narrative diversions into past, present and future, and The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising (2007) was a ‘loud, clumsy insult’ to the author.

The Black Cauldron (1985) ‘Disneyfied’ characters; Breakfast At Tiffany’s (1961) butchered the ending and The Shining (1997), despite ‘scariest film of all time’, King never liked Jack Nicholson’s early madness, proving for Donna Bowman and co, that movies aren’t marriages.

Bad Books Make Good Films

Anna Mardoll (April 2011) comprehensively analysed Twilight book and film (2008). For her, editing and rewriting source material was crucial as ‘one of the ways a good movie outshines the novel’, as the heart of the tale is boiled into a two hour viewing experience.

She quoted Mark Twain’s 13th Rule of Writing: ‘use the right word, not its second cousin’ as she unpacked text to show how the movie builds, honed with short lines and character traits revealed on screen, describing one improvement as ‘pure poetry’, which the novel was not.

It’s a matter of taste whether $1 billion grossing movies from Philip K Dick masterpieces, were better than their originals. So far: Blade Runner (1982) based on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?; Screamers (1995) based on Second Variety; Total Recall (1990) based on We Can Remember It For You Wholesale; Confessions d’un Barjo (1992) based on Confessions of a Crap Artist; Imposter (2001); Minority Report (2002); Paycheck (2003); A Scanner Darkly (2006); Next (2007), based on The Golden Man and The Adjustment Bureau (2011) based on The Adjustment Team with King of the Elves coming in 2012.

Some quality movies from excellent stories. But the point is, surely, the definition of both good book and good film is entirely subjective. In the right hands, good and/or bad books make good and/or bad films.

First published on Suite 101, 6 September 2011

Image: Harry Potter: Good Books and Good Movies? – Heathyr

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