A novel idea

Jenni Reid 3 July 2012

From page to screen: Jenni Reid wonders whether film adaptations can stand up to their literary counterparts

Once we have waded through the standard slew of summer blockbusters, the remainder of 2012 is set to take off in a different direction – prominently featuring adaptations of classic novels. The book-to-film transition is, of course, nothing new. Indeed, it can seem as if every other film released these days originates from a novel, whether well-known or more obscure. But with cult classic On the Road and Tom Hooper’s take on Les Miserables (albeit less Victor Hugo, more ubiquitously popular musical) on the horizon, this year will test more than ever cinema’s ability to translate book to film – and how successfully it can please a pre-existing fan base.

Among the upcoming swarm of adaptations is Baz Luhrmann’s makeover of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s American classic The Great Gatsby. The recently released trailer sheds light on his surprising choice of filming in 3D, as it sends the audience flying through a bright and bustling CG replica of 1920s-Manhattan and places us right in the heart of Jay Gatsby’s infamous jazz parties. We will have to wait until December to see whether Luhrmann’s style can enhance the symbolism of the novel or simply override it. Herein lies the perennial problem of adaptations – retaining the heart of a book is no easy feat for cinema.

Perhaps television is better equipped to overcome these difficulties. Granada Television’s 1981 series of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited was a near-perfect tribute to the book, taking a medium-length novel and allowing it to slowly play out over eleven episodes. Almost every line was a direct quotation, no vital plot points were missed, and characters were given the time to become fully developed. The 2008 film of the same novel fell into exactly the opposite camp. Characters and plot lines were over-simplified and altered, and the richer themes of the novel completely lost.

Of course, there is no definite line to be drawn between TV and film adaptations. The much-loved 1979 BBC series of John Le Carre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy might have seemed destined to a Brideshead-esque chopping block when it was released as a feature film in 2011, yet the movie was praised by fans of the book and programme alike. It seems that Tomas Alfredson’s intense but understated direction, and a script which retained the complexities and dynamic of the original story, have made it an exemplar of how films can do it right. And it’s not alone – many of the best films from the last few decades originated in book form, from The Silence of the Lambs, Schindler’s List, Apocalypse Now and Trainspotting. Such films have all established themselves as great works in their own right.

Translating a book to the big screen is no simple task of chopping and changing. A film need not be a slavish adaptation, but it must be a careful one. It will be interesting to see how the many fans of Steven Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower react to the film adaptation later this year, since Chbosky himself has written and directed. Will the adaptation be a faithful one, or will lovers of the book still find the changed medium unsatisfactory? Perhaps films can never fully capture the nuances and complexities of certain novels. Even so, these filmmakers are determined to give it their best shot.

Jenni Reid