Monday, 25 February 2013

Film Adaptations Of Novels

I see that a film adaptation of David Mitchell's "Cloud Atlas" opens this weekend. Recently we had all the excited pother around Yann Martel's "Life of Pi" being committed to screen. Two seriously literary heavyweight books I've read, but have no inclination to see either on the big screen. I rarely, if ever do.

Both these novels make demands of the reader's imagination. "Pi" has three changes of tone, starting with a light, charming tale of a boy's exotic upbringing in Pondicherry, moving into the fabulist and gripping shipwreck where he has a man-eating tiger as his onboard companion in the lifeboat, to the ending that turns the whole book on its head and makes the reader question everything that has come before. "Atlas" has six completely different stories, set in different times, written in different genres and linked thematically. The work that the author is asking of the reader in order to engage with these shifts throughout the novels, occurs within the reader's personal imagination. Because film is a visual medium and the visual is, for better or for worse, mankind's dominant sense, visualising what formerly only existed in the reader's imagination does I think, diminish the artistry of what the books achieve.

The remote relationship between a reader and an absent author, takes place through the words on the page. That's why there is such latitude for the reader's own interpretation to occur. The reader only has the words and his or her own interpretation of them. A film closes off too many of the options, bringing the director's interpretation to the script. Of course it is still perfectly possible for a film to leave much to the viewer's imagination. But faithful adaptations tend not to. The director and scriptwriters have each already played the role of reader, stamped their own interpretations of the book on the shooting script, so it enshrines an additional singularity of interpretation before the cinema audience sit down to watch the movie.

There is a question of when does a film stop being an adaptation and become 'based' on a particular book. The entire spectrum from faithful adaptations, through loose adaptations to inspired by a book exists. I cannot see the point of faithful adaptions. I don't believe that a film can bring the book to life any more than the book itself has done. Loose adaptations and 'based on' or 'inspired by' can do so, as they make a genuinely new work of art from that of the original book. That is the book may serve as a launch pad for a whole new artistic work. "Apocalypse Now" I believe is an example of just this. It's not merely Joseph Conrad's "Heart Of Darkness" updated and transferred from colonial Africa to the Vietnam War. It is wholly a vibrant, creative piece of art in its own right and one that acknowledges its literary sources of Conrad and TS Eliot in what is actually rather a literary film.

This differs from when say Shakespeare plays are given modern or historical settings other than those of Shakespeare's originals. Taking Macbeth, setting it in 1920s Prohibition Chicago, or the Politburo battling for power on Lenin's death, actually limit Shakespeare's art rather than expand it. For the words remain the same, as Shakespeare wrote them, so this is not genuinely a new art work. And though there may be some resonances with the power mongering of an Al Capone or a Josef Stalin, that history is already either known or sufficiently mythical to us, that again it closes too many interpretative options for its audience than it would when set in its vaguer and less well known times of 11th Century Scotland. The supernatural and prophetic element of Macbeth makes more sense in that setting than twentieth century Chicago or Soviet Russia.

Then there are the movies of books that are supposedly "unfilmable". William Burroughs' "Naked Lunch" and Laurence Sterne's "Tristram Shandy" being two such. To me a film director's assault on these great texts smack of hubris; they've been told that they are unfilmable, but they're going to try and rise to the challenge and make their movie anyway. The film versions of both sought framing devices to try and navigate a way through these difficult texts; "Naked Lunch" had the author Burroughs himself as character in the film, which kept jolting the action of the film out of the fiction it was supposed to be portraying. "A Cock And Bull Story" used the device of actors playing a movie director and actors trying to film "Tristram Shandy" as some sort of comment about the layers of distancing the narrative that was already opaque (the book itself prefigures post modern literary techniques, of unreliable narrator- who doesn't even get born until Book 3; of insertion and rearranging another writer's text- a technique Burroughs also used; parody and literary and philosophical allusion). In my opinion, both films failed lamentably and only boosted the notion that these novels are indeed unfilmmable and accordingly ought to remain unfilmed.

While some authors may well have the film version in mind as they write, literary novels that are written qua novels ought to remain unsullied by celluloid in terms of adaptations. Firstly I think it's lazy of scriptwriters, or more likely film executives, in their relentless casting around for fresh celluloid 'meat', to settle on a novel to bump up their quota of ideas to pitch. In the same way that novels are written for the artistic medium and narrative form of literature, films really should develop their own inhouse filmic language right down to the level of an original script. Film does so many things better than novels, particularly in telling a certain type of story, that it should stick to ploughing that rich furrow. The one area of a novel they can't really replicate is its interiority. Yes an actor and some mis en scene imagery can highlight and illuminate key interior moments of a film, but a cinema audience outside of an arthouse crowd are unlikely to stand for, or rather sit through, an entire film of interiority conveyed in just such a way. The worst example of a book being mutilated by a film I experienced, was David Peace's stupendous novel "The Damned United" which is set entirely inside the tortured mind of a real life professional sports' team coach, but its sheer artistry renders it clearly as a work of fiction. The film version was a limp trotting out of the real life events that the book refers to, but was completely unable to convey the interiority of the man which made the book such a triumph of writing.

I may be a Puritan when I say literature is literature and film is film. And I'm sure I'm in a very small minority when I say this. But there is a difference between literary fiction  and commercial fiction, which mainly revolves around the latter's centre-staging of telling a story, which makes it have much in common with the art of film making and the two can be perfectly suited to one another. Equally, to base a film on a literary book as its start point, but to then proceed to make the film as a wholly different and fresh piece of art, such as "Apocalypse Now", is entirely a legitimate endeavour. I grant that sometimes the line between the two is hardly distinct, but it does seem to be the difference between an 'adaptation' and 'based on' or 'inspired by'.

So no, I won't be seeing the film version of "Life of Pi" or "Cloud Atlas" anytime soon.

My post on why "Apocalypse Now" Is My favourite film of all time and its literary roots.


Virginia Moffatt said...

Interesting post Marc. I love both books and am in two minds about seeing the films (missed Pi now but might see Cloud Atlas this week). I know what you mean but sometimes filmmakers can bring a book to live that makes you want to see it afresh.

Having said that I rarely like film adaptations of my favourite books - The English Patient works I think, and A Woman in Black, because they focus on the sense and not the exact novel.

In terms of TV, Dickens usually works well - maybe that's because he is very episodic? I also think Brideshead (which is very faithful to the book) is brilliant and made me want to read the book and Oranges are not the only Fruit likewise (though it misses the intellectual riffs of the novel). Maybe it's better to see a film first and THEN enjoy the book?

Oh yes and sometimes adaptations are better, Morse for example!

Sulci Collective said...

I was going to say something about TV dramatisations of Classic novels. I think they work because there's a long and developed tradition of them where they are nothing other than they purport to be, TV dramas to bring the Classics to new audiences who may not have heard of them let alone read the books. This is different from one off films of the same, where the emphasis is necessarily more on box office, unlike the BBC (although they undoubtedly have an eye on box set sales and exporting to the USA). I don't have any problem with this cottage industry in the Classics, because it kind of does exactly what it says on the tin. Nor do i have a problem with adapting books like Morse or even Wire In the Blood - it's the higher concept literary books that leave a lot more for the reader's imagination I think ought to be left alone.

Katherine Hajer said...

Interesting points. Have you ever seen the documentary The Kid Stays in the Picture? It includes a promo clip from the 1960s where Paramount product discusses (tangentially) acquiring books to be made into movies.

The thing is, books and stories have been made into films for as long as films have existed. To be honest, I preferred the film version of Cloud Atlas to the book -- the book seemed to get in the way of its own themes too much.