Book adaptations: TV versus film

Theo Howe 23 November 2016

There are plenty of good things to be said for Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.  But for me, its lasting legacy is not the sweeping New Zealand scenery or the epic battles, but the irritating transformation of Frodo Baggins. Tolkien’s Frodo is a heroic and courageous Hobbit. So how was he twisted into the mincing, pathetic, and faintly ridiculous creature we see on screen? The worst of it is that I can now never imagine Frodo as anything but dewy-eyed and falsetto-voiced.

Making a film adaption of a novel is fraught with difficulties. It’s tricky to capture the many nuances of a novel within the form of a film: the subtleties of plot, beauty of description, and complexity of character are often lost – or sacrificed – to time constraints. But that doesn’t stop them being entertaining, or from making the classics accessible and relevant to the public:

Pride and Prejudice

Everyone seems to have had a go at adapting Pride and Prejudice for the big screen – there have been no less than eight film and TV adaptions of Austen’s novel, and that’s not including the incredible Bollywood version: Bride and Prejudice. Pride and Prejudice translates easily to the screen because it’s all about the plot – and the plot is unfurled through dialogue and letters rather than dense descriptive passages. In terms of the most successful of these film adaptions, for me it’s a toss-up between Joe Wright’s 2005 version featuring the wild and untamed beauty of the Derbyshire countryside and Keira Knightley’s pristine collarbones, and the 1995 TV series starring Colin ‘look-at-me-in-my-wet-shirt’ Firth. Perhaps the Ideal Pride and Prejudice adaption would be a combination of the two: A 327-minute-long extravaganza with a bit of Bollywood dancing thrown in for good measure. You heard it here first.

The Great Gatsby

Baz Luhrmann’s adaption of The Great Gatsby is a bit like watching an uncomfortably long music video – but this works for Fitzgerald’s classic. As everyone who studied GCSE English will remember, The Great Gatsby is a very visual novel, intricately constructed and patterned with colourful imagery and sensuous, lavish descriptive passages – the essence of which are captured in Luhrmann’s intoxicating screenplay. And then there's Leonardo DiCaprio. He’s got the ‘Gatsby Smile’ sorted: “He had one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it”. A throwback to Year 11.

War and Peace

A TV adaption of a book is sometimes able to do what a film cannot: devote running time and screen space to character development. And when said book has nearly 600 characters, this definitely becomes a priority. War and Peace is problematic to adapt, simply because of its vast scale and Tolstoy’s love of devoting entire chapters to his slightly mad philosophising. Nevertheless, the BBCs most recent adaption – starring Lily James, James Norton, and Paul Dano – managed to capture the historical sweep and caressing intricacy of the novel through beautiful screenplay and Countryfile style shots of pastoral Russia. But it did fall victim to the inevitable sexing-up of historical drama – perhaps TV adaptions of novels are only palatable to the British public if they include at least three bottoms?

TV and film adaptions may be at best the shadow of a good book, but we have much to thank them for. I, for one, know that my English A level would have gone very differently without the 1998 Wuthering Heights film adaption.