Pump up the volumes


(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.


(c) Collins

(c) Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer


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) Minerva

(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.


(c) Berkley

(c) NBC


Hobbit hatred


(c) New Line Cinema / MGM / Wingnut Films


Wow.  These days a lot of people hate hobbits.  I base this statement on the comments posted below a movie review on the Guardian website yesterday.  The review was of the third and final instalment of director Peter Jackson’s trilogy based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s book The Hobbit, which is set in Tolkien’s imaginary realm of Middle Earth and is about to be released under the title of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies.


“Jackson’s just Tolkien the piss!” exclaimed one poster, inventively.  “That’s right, Jackson,” cried another, “your films are of lesser creative merit than a computer game.  How do you sleep, multi-quadrillionaire Peter Jackson, how do you sleep?”  A third lamented, “How does anyone sit through these awful, awful films?”  A fourth, concerned about the fact that there’s still one major item in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth oeuvre that hasn’t yet received the Jackson treatment, pleaded, “Please no Silmarillion, enough is enough!  I can’t stand any more hobbits, elves or orcs.”




All right, I suspect that at least some of those critics of Peter Jackson and his Hobbit movies do actually like hobbits.  In fact, they probably love hobbits – at least, they love the way Tolkien portrayed the hairy-footed little fellows in his book and in its follow-ups, the three volumes that make up the Lord of the Rings saga.  However, they hate what Jackson has done to Tolkien’s books while translating them from page to screen: first with his three Lord of the Rings adaptations, released in 2001, 2002 and 2003; and then with The Hobbit, which he managed somehow to transform from a slim children’s book into three lengthy films that’ve appeared in 2012, 2013 and – just in time for Christmas! – 2014.


The disdain that many fans of Tolkien’s fiction feel for the films was summed up by the author’s son Christopher, who in 2012 informed Le Monde of his low opinion of the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy: “They gutted the book, making an action movie for 15-to-25-year-olds.”


Well, I have to say that I was never a fan of Tolkien’s work.  Even when I tackled Lord of the Rings as a teenager I found his prose turgid and his goody-two-shoes characters deeply uninteresting.  His books had nothing that compared with the moral complexity, imaginative detail and genuine out-and-out weirdness of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast books, a fantasy series published around the same era.


And I find it ironic that Tolkien Junior accuses Jackson of cheapening the stories by aiming them at ’15-to-25-year-olds’.  I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who raved about how good the Lord of the Rings books were who wasn’t older than 15.  Indeed, the only period of my life when I regularly bumped into Lord of the Rings enthusiasts was when I was attending Peebles High School.  Okay, I do remember talking to a thirty-something science teacher one day and he suddenly started gushing too about the greatness of Tolkien.  But you could argue that, being a teacher, he was also still at school.  And mentally, that particular teacher didn’t seem to be older than 15 anyway.


However, I consider literature to be a more complicated and more profound medium than cinema.  And although a story may seem shallow and perfunctory when it’s told in written language, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll be ineffective when it’s retold in the less demanding medium of sound and images that greets you every time you enter a cinema or sit down in front of a DVD.  And for me, Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit work perfectly well as movies.  They’re no more works of art than the books on which they’re based, but they’re quite palatable as two-to-three-hour viewing experiences where you can enjoy the performances of some great actors and actresses, the stunning New Zealand scenery and the obvious flair Peter Jackson has for orchestrating action and spectacle.  There’s too much CGI in them, of course, but that goes without saying these days.


New Line Cinema / MGM / Wingnut Films 


That said, I wasn’t a big fan of the third Lord of the Rings movie, The Return of the King – mainly because it was ruined by a tedious final half-hour that consisted of a parade of characters saying farewell to one another or marrying one another.  When Aragorn tied the knot with Arwen, and Arwen appeared in her bridal costume, somebody sitting close to me in the cinema exclaimed, “Liv Tyler looks just like a gerbil!”  And do you know what?  She did.


The Hobbit movies in particular have had brickbats hurled at them because of the accusation that Jackson has unnecessarily padded out a short book to make three big, and presumably money-spinning, movies out of it.  No doubt this is true – The Hobbit trilogy could easily have been condensed into two films, or even into one – but I’m not particularly bothered.  I find the films entertaining and I’m not going to condemn something for having the temerity to entertain me.


As I said above, I particularly like the films’ casts.  Tolkien’s characters may seem leaden on the page but distinguished performers like Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Ian Holm, Andy Serkis, Benedict Cumberbatch and Christopher Lee have managed to breathe some proper life into them.  It’s particularly gratifying to see the 92-year-old Lee get another opportunity to display his acting chops – even if he was too frail to make the journey to the film-shoot in New Zealand and had to be filmed in Britain instead, with his image being digitally woven into the action later on.


One thing I find interesting about the Hobbit movies is the hierarchy of accents that the filmmakers have bestowed upon the inhabitants of Middle Earth.  The more superior beings in Tolkien’s milieu – i.e. the wizards and the elves – seem to make their proclamations in an imperious Received Pronunciation.  The hobbits sound less posh but they communicate in a reasonably well-spoken Standard English.  That doesn’t surprise me really, as the Shire has always struck me as a ghastly, nicey-nice middle-class ghetto in the suburbs of Middle Earth where the main reading matter is probably the Daily Mail and the Daily Express.


New Line Cinema / MGM / Wingnut Films 

 New Line Cinema / MGM / Wingnut Films 


However, the dwarves – at least, the more prominent ones – seem to be mostly Scottish or Irish, with actors from north of the border and from across the Irish Sea like Ken Stott, Graham McTavish, James Nesbitt and Aidan Turner talking in the films in the way they’d talk in real life.  I’m told that Billy Connolly will pop up in The Battle of the Five Armies playing, yes, another dwarf.  (On the other hand, the dwarf king, Thorin Oakenshield – or as he’s described by my girlfriend, ‘the hot dwarf’ – is played by Richard Armitage, who’s from Leicester in England.)


Now is this not a little prejudiced?  Isn’t it a little off to assume that if you’re a dwarf, a non-royal dwarf anyway, with a big nose, a gi-normous beard and a fondness for working deep down in the mines, you ought to sound Celtic?  I admit that one of the wizards, Radogast the Brown, is played by another Scottish actor, Sylvester McCoy.  But it was made plain in the first Hobbit movie that Radogast eats magic mushrooms and is permanently covered in bird-shit.


Having lived for many years in Ireland and Scotland, I can safely say that I’ve met hardly anyone in either country who has a big nose, a gi-normus beard, an appetite for magic mushrooms and a disdain for personal hygiene that makes them neglect to rub bird-shit off themselves.  Well, I’ve met a few people like that, but not many.  Well, not that many.


On the other hand, while Jackson seems happy to let Stott, McTavish, Nesbitt and co. blether away in their native accents, I think it’s sad that he won’t let the leading elf actors – i.e. Cate Blanchett as Galadriel and Hugo Weaving as Elrond – speak in their native accent, which is Australian.  Maybe Jackson does this out of spite.  I know how New Zealanders feel about Australians.


Frankly, I’d love it if, in the midst of some Middle-Earth excitement, Cate Blanchett turned around to Ian McKellen and exclaimed: “Strewth, Gandalf, you ol’ baaastard!  Those blaady orc bogans from beyond the back stump are givin’ us a gobful.  Do we bail out or stay ‘n’ give ’em a rip-snorter of a battle?”


(c) New Line Cinema / MGM / Wingnut Films


I’ve started so I’ll (probably) finish


When I start reading a book, I’m usually able to soldier on and finish it, no matter how structurally complex, linguistically dense or just plain long the book might be.  In fact, I pride myself on this ability.  It’s served me well.  There may have been moments when I thought I was floundering in the middle of George Eliot’s Middlemarch, or Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer, or Yukio Mishima’s Sea of Fertility quartet, or pretty much anything by Malcolm Lowry, but I felt intellectually and spiritually enhanced after I’d knuckled down and made it to the end.


There are, however, books out there that’ve defeated even me.  There aren’t many of them, only a handful, but they exist – books that, sooner or later, made me throw up my hands in despair and exclaim, “What’s the f**king point?”  Just before I went off and spent my time more profitably reading something by Alastair Maclean.


Here are four titles that I especially remember in this category – four allegedly great books that I had to leave unfinished.


(c) Jonathan Cape


Daniel Martin by John Fowles (1977).  I’m generally a big fan of Fowles’ work.  I really like The Collector, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, The Ebony Tower and A Maggot, and even though I found The Magus a bit iffy, it was still interesting enough for me to read it through.  But with Daniel Martin, the most autobiographical of his books, I threw in the towel at about page 600, with a hundred more pages to go.  I’d had enough.  I couldn’t take any more.


Actually, the scenes from Daniel’s youth, set against the backdrop of the English countryside during World War II, are engrossing.  But the contemporary stuff – an unengaging soap opera where posh Oxford-educated people try to sort out their relationships, involving a mishmash of themes that include art, politics and Egyptian archaeology – slowly ground me down with its contrived-ness and tedium.  In an obituary for Fowles published in the Observer in 2005, Robert McCrum noted that “(i)t was the American literary press that saluted Daniel Martin; the English critics who murdered it.”  I’m afraid I’m firmly in agreement with those on the European side of the Atlantic.


(c) George Allen & Unwin


The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien (1954-55).  When I was a teenager I had The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King contained within the covers of one weighty volume that ran to 1000-odd pages.  I stumbled through about 800 pages of it.  Sometimes I left it aside for months on end and when I returned I had to reread long tracts of it to remind myself what was going on.  Eventually, I abandoned it forever at the bit where Frodo and Sam blunder into the lair of Shelob, the giant spider.  I think I persevered with the Lord of the Rings trilogy for so long because a lot of people I knew at school kept telling me how good it was – though in hindsight, most of them were people who didn’t seem to have read any other books in their lives.


What defeated me was a combination of Tolkien’s plodding writing style and the dullness of many of the characters, especially the Hobbits of the Shire.  In fact, those Hobbits seemed annoyingly bland in a nicey-nicey, respectable middle-class, doff-your-hat-to-your-betters-and-keep-your-head-down way that suggested that if the Shire had had its own newspapers, the Daily Mail and the Daily Express would have dominated the market.


No wonder the fantasy author Michael Moorcock has written sourly of Lord of the Rings: “If the Shire is a suburban garden, Sauron and his henchmen are that old bourgeois bugaboo, the Mob – mindless football supporters throwing their beer bottles over the fence, the worst aspects of modern urban society represented as the whole by a fearful, backward-yearning class for whom ‘good taste’ is synonymous with ‘restraint’… and ‘civilised’ behaviour means ‘conventional behaviour in all circumstances’.”  Here’s a link to the full essay by Moorcock:




So I’m afraid, Frodo, for me you never got to complete your quest.  You only got as far as Shelob’s lair, where you ended up as giant-spider-food.  Sorry!


(c) Viking Press


The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie (1988).  I didn’t get far into this one.  I thought the opening episode, in which the two protagonists Farishta and Chamcha are thrown out of an airplane as it explodes over the English Channel, was so pretentious and poorly-written that it gave me an aversion to the reading the rest of the book.  I remember seeing the phrase ‘like titbits of cigar’ used to describe how the two men fell from the fragmenting fuselage and thinking how bad it was.  If the manuscript hadn’t borne Rushdie’s already-prestigious name, I’m sure it would never have escaped from the publishing company’s slush pile.


I read a little more of The Satanic Verses and admittedly it got better – the description of Bollywood was quite engaging.  But my interest had been fatally weakened by that shit opening.  I was preparing to move to another country at the time and, unfinished, the book got stashed away in a box with some things I wasn’t taking with me.  I’ve never felt the urge to dig it out since.


Actually, with hindsight, I suppose Rushdie’s life afterwards might have been easier if everyone else in the world had read only the first 50 pages of The Satanic Verses, as I had.


(c) Penguin


Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne (1759-1767).  Or to give it its full rambling title, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.  And ramble it does, although of course that’s the whole joke of the book.  Tristram himself doesn’t actually emerge from his mother’s womb until Volume III, but by that point I’d already abandoned ship.  I know I was meant to be enjoying the eccentricities and buffoonery of Uncle Toby, Trim, Doctor Slop, Parson Yorick and co. and revelling in how the narrative flew off on a wild tangent every couple of pages, but I wasn’t.  The humour missed my wavelength entirely.


That said, I do think 2006’s A Cock and Bull Story, the metatextually-playful film adaptation adaption of Tristram Shandy directed by Michael Winterbottom and starring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, is pretty good.


Here’s a link to another article by Robert McCrum, in which he suggests ten titles that are the world’s hardest books to finish: