Adapt this

This post was written by Friday blogger Annie Reid.

USA Today looks at four big screen adaptations (including War of the Worlds and Everything is Illuminated) coming to the ‘plex near you this summer, and asks, with seeming innocence, how different the book is from the movie. Which is all pretty fun, and only a bit spoilery, but when they say “Not much”, you know they’re just not being honest with us. The answer is, of course, always: completely and entirely different.

Readers are continually frustrated at filmed adaptations of their favorite books, and with good reason. It’s not that good books can’t make good movies, it’s that film is an utterly different medium from a novel and an entirely different paradigm comes into play when making them. Film may have a literary blueprint, but it is a visual medium and and in most cases, a vastly more commercial enterprise.

The reason that so many books get made into films has something to do with economics. Anything that has a track record, any track record with the public — including novels, memoirs, video games, comic books, other movies, old televisions shows and New Yorker articles– is seen as more of a sure thing in terms of getting audiences. But that’s about why they get made. In the whirl of development, most movies resemble the books they were made from about as much as Imelda Marcos’ shoe collection resembles her. That is, there may be indicators, there may be a relationship, but it’s a different animal.

For one thing, because there’s so much more room for content in a novel, that vast swaths of every book ever adapted must, by necessity, be scrapped. Complex interplays of time, space and subplot have to go, to be replaced by visual and aural experiences that the author or reader never imagined.

There’s also the interiority of the novel. A novel can tell us what a person is thinking while they’re doing, or indicate a gap in their perception of their own actions. It’s not that it’s impossible to do this with a film, but the mechanisms to show it can be ponderous. If you have a character who’s always talking to themselves, or, say, constantly spilling red wine onto their romantic rival’s white dresses, it can get a little forced. I admired the film adaptation of The Hours, but I hadn’t yet read the book when I did. But even I could see that you’re only allowed one scene of your main character breaking down while cooking eggs.

That’s why, like Maud, I don’t agree with Andrew O’Hagan’s view that it’s not so bad that television adaptations might be the only exposure some people have to certain books, because “that knowledge is better than no knowledge at all”. That seems cynical to me, like suggesting we get on with oil drilling in the Alaskan wilderness because we’re going to do it eventually, so we may as well start now.

I’m not here to argue that one medium is superior to another. It’s just that a movie is not a book, and vice versa. It seems like the best adaptations take the source material as an affectionate starting point, and don’t try to replicate the material so much as reinvent it.

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