(c) George Allen & Unwin Ltd
(c) New Line Cinema / MGM / Wingnut Films
Although I’m someone who loves both books and films, I’m wary when these two art-forms overlap. If a film appears that’s based on a book I’ve read and liked, I feel reluctant to go and see it. Or if there’s a new film that’s based on a book that I haven’t read but I hear is good, I usually try to read the book before I watch the film. And if I enjoy that book, I may not even bother with the film. This is because I find that the majority of films based on books are – regardless of their quality as self-contained entities – disappointing compared to their source material.
Obviously, a film, even a very long film, will never have enough time to represent all the incidents, details, characters and ideas that give a book its richness. You either end up with a film whose scriptwriter has hacked away chunks of the book – like the 1983 film adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel The Honorary Consul, which deletes one of the book’s main (and unfortunately for the film, most memorable) characters, the machismo-obsessed Argentinian writer Julio Saavedra – or with a film that becomes cluttered in its efforts to stay faithful to the book. For film adaptations that try to recreate every twist and turn in the books’ plots, to the point where they become incomprehensible, you need look no further than the Harry Potter movies.
Television adaptations of books suffer from this problem too – although in theory TV programme-makers have more time at their disposal to cover everything. I remember back in 1977 being narked by the BBC’s nearly-three-hour-long Count Dracula, which starred the late Louis Jourdan as Bram Stoker’s vampire count and which supposedly was the most faithful version ever of Stoker’s novel. However, my twelve-year-old self, already a Bram Stoker purist, was not impressed that two of the characters, Arthur Holmwood and Quincey Morris, were for the sake of narrative simplicity compressed into one character called ‘Quincey Holmwood’.
A similar thing happened 23 years later, when the BBC unveiled its four-hour adaptation of Titus Groan and Gormenghast, the first two books in Mervyn Peake’s Titus trilogy. Here, the fearsome father-and-son team of Sourdust and Barquentine, the officials who enforce the observation of endless, numbing ritual at Gormenghast Castle, were combined into one character played by Warren Mitchell.
Even when a film or TV production manages to reproduce a book’s plot and characters and doesn’t tie itself in knots doing so, it’s still liable to miss something that’s crucial to one’s enjoyment of the book – the author’s voice. John Schlesinger’s Far from the Madding Crowd (1967) and Roman Polanski’s Tess (1979) both stick closely to the Thomas Hardy novels on which they’re based, and both are undeniably good films; but inevitably they lack that flavour that’s uniquely and enjoyably Hardy-esque. For instance, I like Alan Bates’ portrayal of Farmer Gabriel Oak in Madding Crowd; but his performance didn’t, alas, give me the impression that Oak was capable of smiling so that “the corners of his mouth spread till they were an unimportant distance of his ears, his eyes were reduced to chinks, and diverging wrinkles appeared around them, extending upon his countenance like the rays in a rudimentary sketch of the sun.”
Unsurprising, one book that translated smoothly into a film, losing little of its substance in the process, was Bernard MacLaverty’s Cal. An account of a doomed romance during the Northern Irish Troubles, it was filmed in 1984. The novel is short and straightforward in plot, so it isn’t diminished when its story is retold in a 100-minute film. Also, MacLaverty is an author who firmly believes in showing rather than telling – he writes both simply and visually. Thus, there isn’t a marked literary style that the film misses out on, either.
That’s not to say that I haven’t encountered the odd film, based on a book, which does a better job of telling the story than the book does. This is usually because writers, typing out hundreds of pages without having anyone to tell them when to stop, can fall into the trap of waffling; whereas filmmakers are usually under pressure to tell a story with a beginning, middle and an end within a time limit. For that reason, I thought that John Sturges’ 1968 adaptation of Alistair MacLean’s Arctic / submarine thriller Ice Station Zebra was better paced and structured than its literary predecessor. MacLean’s novel is basically an espionage whodunit where the characters potter about in a submarine, surface at the North Pole, and then potter about in the submarine again. The filmmakers wisely confine the submarine stuff to the film’s build-up and use the North Pole for the climax, which they also beef up by bringing in some Soviet paratroopers.
Another film-adaptation that I preferred because it cut the flab from its source novel was Steven Spielberg’s shark-epic, Jaws (1976). Happily, that film abandoned the sub-plots in Peter Benchley’s original book about the Mafia exerting pressure on the local town mayor to keep the beaches open in spite of the shark attacks; and about the affair that develops between the ichthyologist Matt Hooper and Police Chief Brody’s wife, Ellen. This left more time in the film for proper shark action which, needless to say, my eleven-year-old self was delighted about.
More often, though, a film adaptation of a book is successful not because it manages to be better than the book – but because it uses the book as a starting point and then goes off and does something different. The cinematic result isn’t necessarily better than the book, but it works in its own right. A classic example of this is Ridley Scott’s transformation of Philip K. Dick’s eccentric, mind-screwing novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep into the 1982 movie Blade Runner, which uses Dick’s basic story to create a new cinematic aesthetic with the use of astonishing set-design, cinematography and special effects.
However, perhaps the most exuberant instance of a book being incarnated in a new, different-but-equally-valid cinematic form is Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting (1996). It takes Irvine Welsh’s ultra-dark and very-Scottish source novel and reinvents it a way that captured the mid-1990s zeitgeist in Britain (as opposed to just Scotland). The film retains enough of the book’s darkness to make it feel edgy, daring and anti-establishment, though Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge leave out incidents that would have been near-unwatchable on screen, such as when a revenge-seeking character mocks up the buggering of a child with a Black-and-Decker power drill; or when psycho-villain Begbie kicks his pregnant girlfriend in the belly to make her miscarry. At the same time, the film is awash with then-fashionable young British actors (Ewan McGregor, Robert Carlyle, Kelly Macdonald) and then-fashionable Brit-pop music (Blur, Sleeper, Pulp). It becomes a mission statement, telling the world that British cinema is back (temporarily at least) with a punky new attitude and shed-loads of young directing, writing, acting and musical talent.
(c) Channel 4 Films / Poly Gram Filmed Entertainment
It’s fascinating how Boyle’s version of Trainspotting has to a large extent supplanted Welsh’s version of it – so that by the time Welsh got around to writing a sequel, Porno, in 2002, he seemed to be writing for two audiences, those who’d read the original book and those who’d seen the film. There are references to things that’d happened in the book, which didn’t happen in the film, but they’re confined to vignettes – for example, there’s a couple of pages where the hero, Renton, tracks down Second Prize, a member of his old gang in the book who was deleted from the movie. It’s almost as if those vignettes are there so that book-followers can read them and movie-followers can skip them, leaving everyone happy with the continuity.
Finally, over the last few years, we’ve seen a new phenomenon, that of the lavish movie series and the lavish TV series, which invariably end up as DVD box-sets that are as thick as sets of encyclopaedias. This has led to certain book-to-screen adaptations being criticised not for what they leave out, but for what they put in. The most famous, or notorious, example of this is Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit film trilogy, which took J.R.R. Tolkien’s moderate-sized source novel, a prequel to his Lord of the Rings books that’s about 300 pages long, and expanded it into three movies that had a total running time of 474 minutes. Jackson got flak from Tolkien fans for, basically, taking their beloved and scholarly old author and pumping him full of movie-steroids; for turning what’s essentially a mild-mannered children’s book into a long, loud, testosterone-fuelled, CGI-laden series of blockbusters.
Jackson, who’d filmed the three Lord of the Rings novels in the early noughties, argued that he’d merely padded out The Hobbit’s storyline with material from the appendices that Tolkien placed at the back of the third and final Lord of the Rings novel, The Return of the King. These appendices gave extra information about the history, mythology and culture of the books’ setting, Middle Earth. Sneakily, though, Jackson also added some characters who’d appeared in his earlier Rings movies who, to be honest, didn’t have any business being in The Hobbit movies – unless it was to please fans of the Rings movies who wanted to see some fond old faces again. I suppose I didn’t mind the unnecessary presence in The Hobbit trilogy of the likes of Lady Galadriel or Saruman the White, but I could certainly have done without Legolas-the-elf. Played by the doleful Orlando Bloom, Legolas is surely the most boring elf in Middle Earth.
And it’s not just The Hobbit that’s been pumped up during the transition from page to screen. Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon, the first of Harris’s books about suave, cannibalistic serial killer Dr Hannibal Lecter, had already been filmed twice; excellently by Michael Mann in 1986 and less excellently by Brett Ratner in 2003. Now, however, it’s also become the basis for seasons 1, 2 and 3 of the NBC television series Hannibal, whose show-runner is the screenwriter and producer Bryan Fuller.
Although Fuller introduced the book’s main characters – serial-killer profiler Will Graham (Hugh D’Arcy), senior FBI agent Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) and the charming, intellectual and suspiciously-culinary Dr Lecter himself (Mads Mikkelsen) – in the first episode, it’s only now, some 30 episodes later, that the show is getting around to the actual meat of Harris’s novel, which is the hunt for the family-murdering, William Blake-inspired serial killer Francis Dolarhyde. Coincidentally, the actor playing Dolarhyde is none other than Richard Armitage, who in the Hobbit movies essayed the role of the royal dwarf, Thorin Oakenshield, “son of Thrór, King under the Mountain” – or as my girlfriend likes to call him, ‘The Hot Dwarf’.
One way in which Fuller has extended the story of Red Dragon to almost unimaginable lengths has been to throw in chunks of the third of Harris’s Lecter novels, which is also called Hannibal. These chunks include the character of Mason Verger, the repulsive meat-packing mogul who plans to feed Lecter to his collection of prize pigs; and Lecter’s escape to the city of Florence at the end of season 2. Actually, Fuller has described Hannibal as a ‘mash-up’ of Harris’s novels rather than a linear series of adaptations of them, which makes sense. And I have to say that of Harris’s novels, Hannibal-the-book is the one that most suits the grotesque, baroque and gothic aesthetic of Hannibal-the-show. (It’s a pity that NBC has just announced the cancellation of Hannibal, as it would have been interesting to see, after another season or two, what Fuller would do when he finally got around to filming the second and most famous of Harris’s Lecter novels, The Silence of the Lambs.)
Anyway, I wonder which literary work will be next to be subjected to the pumping-up, as opposed to the trimming-down, treatment. Perhaps Peter Jackson or Bryan Fuller will treat us to a nine-hour film trilogy or TV adaptation of Ernest Hemmingway’s hundred-page novella The Old Man and the Sea. With, hopefully, the big fish played by Richard Armitage.