It's doubtful author Raymond Chandler had actor Humphrey Bogart in mind when he
envisaged the character of gumshoe Philip Marlowe. If he had, Chandler would have
described the private dick as a short, funny looking guy with stilted delivery and a
toupee. As it was, Chandler wrote of his sleuth hero in novels such as The Big Sleep, as a
tall, slender, potentially menacing presence.
Nevertheless, when asked what he thought Hollywood had done to his novels, Chandler
replied that Hollywood had done nothing to his novels. "Look, they're sitting right
over there on the shelf."
"We persist in comparing.."
In language as precise and economical as dialogue he placed in the mouth of his
characters (assuming the story isn't apocryphal), Chandler managed to convey what should
be a simple message: novels and film are different media. We negotiate and interpret them
differently. They offer different pleasures, require the use of different senses, affect
us in different ways.
And yet we persist in comparing and contrasting the adaptation of a book into film,
We rate how faithful has been the rendering of the tome, list the important episodes
that are absent in the big screen version and whether the actors are worthy or appropriate
to deliver the lines that were originally written for paper, not multiplex. Writing in the
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, William Arnold clearly considered the film version of Snow
Falling On Cedars inferior to the novel.
"The book's poetically precise prose, bold structural devices, riveting
delineation of character and heartbreaking tale of anti-Japanese prejudice in 1940s
Washington state established (David) Guterson as a major novelist. "The film version
... goes after these qualities. (It) is visually poetic, non-linear in structure and
relatively uncompromising. Even though it's a big budget studio release, it's very much an
'art' film. At the same time, it has - perhaps inevitably - lost much of the novel's drive
and originality, and its characters have, to a large extent, been reduced to movie
stereotypes. As good as it is many ways, the film is not as emotionally gripping as it
should be, and comes off as rather a predictable liberal statement."
Not content to view a film adapted from a novel as a text in and of itself, we feel
compelled to contrast it with the book with which it shares its name, even though the
reading of each renders its own, separate rewards. Consider the example of the most recent
version of Great Expectations. In Alfonso Cuaron's film, starring Ethan Hawke, Gwyneth
Paltrow and Robert De Niro, the story had been shifted from 19th century England to
modern-day Florida and New York. Several of the characters' names had been changed,
including that of the main protagonist from Pip to Finn. In fact, it could be argued that
so little did some elements resemble the 19th century novel, including the ending, that
Charles Dickens would have a tough time connecting the film with his work.
John Updike has written of experiencing just that when he struggled to recognise any
similarity between the film called The Witches of Eastwick and the novel he wrote of the
"Readers of books are going to make a connection"
Similarly, were Philip K. Dick still alive, he might have marvelled at the spectacular
visuals of the movie Bladerunner, but apart from a few characters whose names he created,
would have struggled to connect it to the novel he wrote called Do Androids Dream of
Obviously readers of books are going to make a connection when a film is made of a
particular work, which might explain why John Irving insisted the adaptation of his book,
A Prayer For Owen Meaney alter its name after the makers of the movie departed radically
from the plot in his novel.
Consequently Simon Birch was released, almost without fanfare in Australia.
Irving subsequently wrote the screenplay for the recently released film version of his
novel The Cider House Rules himself.
US-based film reviewer Paul Tatara says films based on Irving's books "often feel
like two or three different stories sewn together like Frankenstein's monster,"
regardless of who writes the screenplay. Which is not to say that Irving lacks talent, but
is a phenomenon that is more a reflection on the nature of his writing, which often weaves
wildly disparate parts into a cohesive whole. In his novels, and other books, such a style
doesn't seem out of place. When we're reading books, we expect them to be meandering,
descriptive and elliptical, but in film, story is all and things that often work on the
page now seem incongruous or unnecessary.
So what makes a film a commendable adaptation and is such an occurrence desirable, or
even possible? Perhaps the adaptation of The Name of the Rose gives us the most helpful
example of a way to understand the relationship between book and film.
"How anyone could contemplate filming it"
The writer of the novel, historian and academic Umberto Eco, said there was no
relationship at all. None. One was a book, one was a movie that happened to share the same
name. Indeed, the two texts are rather different and after an attempt at Eco's dense,
labyrinthine work, one might wonder how anyone could contemplate filming it. Of course no
such attempt was made. Rather, director Jean-Jacques Annaud made what he called a
palimpsest of Eco's book. Kind of like a medieval etch-o-sketch, a palimpsest was a piece
of parchment used over and over again.
What Annaud meant was his film offered resonance, lines, traces, characters and plot
elements of the novel, but was by no means an attempt to film exactly what Eco had
written. Given the scope of Eco's novel, the sophisticated ideas and language, such an
exercise would simply have been impossible.
In the case of Dickens, one of the complications in an adaptation for modern audiences
is the episodic nature and arch style of the writing. Dickens was writing for an audience
that was bereft of television, radio and internet. His novels were originally penned in
serial form for newspapers, with intricate plots and characterisations. And while Dickens
was a prodigious writer and prolific in the extreme, his style, like that of many 18th and
19th century novelists, is not readily converted to big screen dialogue.
For example, in once describing a character grinning from ear to ear in The Pickwick
Papers, Dickens wrote he "exhibited a grin that agitated his countenance from one
auricular organ to the other."
Like Irving, the very nature of Dickens' writing, its "writerliness" and its
convoluted, episodic form makes conversion to film problematic.
"Relevant to contemporary audiences"
Jane Campion was criticised for her film version of Henry James' Portrait of a Lady for
the most part, it seemed, because she dared, like Cuaron, to attempt (not altogether
successfully) to make a film that was relevant to contemporary audiences. Reading James
can provide a rewarding experience but it's not easy-going. He uses long sentences,
contrived plots and dense passages replete with internal dialogue. In short, like Eco,
he's a writer who wouldn't appear to be a natural for film.
Like Annaud, Campion didn't even try to "adapt" James for the screen.
Instead, she presented something of a palimpsest of her own, featuring elements such as
contemporary Australian schoolgirls talking about relationships at the start of the film.
It was if to say, right from the beginning, "This is not a faithful adaptation."
And where James was notoriously circumspect when writing about his characters' sexual
exploits (he refrained from writing about the topic altogether), Campion shows Isabel
Archer's (Nicole Kidman) inabilty to choose between two lovers by having her sharing a bed
with both of them.
The best indication of whether a film adaptation has succeeded might therefore be if
the film contains something of the spirit of the novel and whether it has entertained,
engaged or provoked rather than how closely it resembles its source material.
Decent films have been made of relatively ordinary books (Gone With the Wind) and vice
versa (Catch 22, and many more). Also, adaptations of some novels, Mario Puzo's The
Godfather and James Ellroy's LA Confidential, for instance, have made excellent films only
partly because they were based on decent books. Mostly they appeared to work because
excellent directors (Francis Ford Coppola and Curtis Hanson) worked with fine writers,
actors, cinematographers, technicians, editors and so on to produce excellent movies.
"A decidedly collaborative process"
What Puzo, and Irving and others must have discovered preparing novels for the screen
is the vastly different roles writers of novels and scripts have. In penning a book, the
novelist is screenwriter, cameraman, director, costumier and musician. But in writing a
script the writer is but one contributor in what is a decidedly collaborative process.
Further, a scriptwriter provides just enough for actors and directors to work with, not an
elaborate set of instructions. And when scriptwriters consider a novel something of a holy
text that must be adhered to as much as possible, the final product often doesn't work.
Speaking at the Melbourne Film Festival last year following a screening of his film
Brown's Requiem, director Jamie Freeman described the process of turning James Ellroy's
considerably flawed debut novel into a film script. The first step was to go through book
and highlight all the parts (passages, characters, plot devices, dialogue) that initially
appealed to him. As he fashioned these elements into a workable film script, he cut out
the pieces, part by unwieldy part, that couldn't, or wouldn't be made to fit in.
Characters were lost, plot modified, chunks of dialogue discarded.
Then as the financial constraints really started to kick in (probably about the time he
decided to use a significant portion of the budget on an early 60s convertible), Freeland
decided he'd ditch one of lead character Fritz Brown's defining characteristics; his love
of classical music. But in attempting to include too many scenes and characters, Freeland
made a movie that was both sluggish and confusing. Sure the lowly budget can't have
helped, but ultimately the result of Freeland's approach was a film that didn't come
across as particularly Ellroy-esque, nor engaging.
It's to be expected some fans of certain novelists are going to have their noses put
out of joint by films that don't live up to their expectations of how so-called great
literary works should be represented. When Canadian director Patricia Rozena's film
version of Mansfield Park was recently criticised by fans of the Jane Austen book for
making the heroine Fanny Price (Frances O'Connor) somewhat raunchier, Rozena responded
thus: "I enjoy Jane Austen very much as an author, but it all felt vaguely twee to
"A film is something else"
It's the flipside to Chandler's comment. What Rozena is basically saying is, if you
want to read Austen's novels, they're sitting over there on the shelf. A film is something
else altogether. Deal with it.