Lost in translation: Adapting from page to screen

Alice Mottram 11 May 2015

Can images capture the essence of words? Are film versions of your favourite book legitimate, or do they fail trying to do justice to their original source, the written word?

As an English student and obsessive bibliophile, the concept of a film’s power to adapt the original transcript of a novel, translating it to the ‘big screen’ is arrogant. How can you reduce the entirety of Pride and Prejudice into two hours? Or the whole series of Harry Potter into eight films? Inevitably, things are missed out, neglected, over-looked. Whilst the overall meaning of a novel can be deduced from watching its filmic equivalent, by no means can the wealth of detail intentionally included in the book be transferred to the screen. If you want to economise time and energy, yet gain a similar experience of reading fiction, films offer a condensed representation yet it is, at best, a glimpse at a novel's potential.

The multiple possible meanings, elements, themes, ideas, concepts, philosophies derived from an individual text is not only infinite but also subjective. How can a film capture the ambiguities books offer in a simple, 2D picture? Not only that, but films are famously unfaithful to their textual origins and often subvert the intended meaning, adapt the plot narrative and corrupt the original. The film adaptation of My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult changed the entire ending, thereby losing the moral dilemma and emotional introspection that the book evokes.

Yet, studying Shakespeare this term has opened up a whole world of questions as to how far films can capture the essence of a book – or rather, a play. Sitting down with a box of popcorn and bag of sweets, watching others interpret and perform meanings for you is far simpler and far less time-consuming than reading. When trying to gage an overview of as many plays as possible, a film is extremely enticing. Moreover, as a play, it must be asked how far Shakespeare intended his audience to watch, instead of reading, his texts.

Of course one can debate the politics of filming a play as opposed to a novel, arguing for the authorial intentions behind textual creation to be observed, one can insist upon either perspective: that a film updates, enhances, simplifies the reading process for the individual, or that it corrupts, denigrates and manipulates the origins of text. The possibilities are endless but, for me, the argument rests that, no matter how enjoyable it is to see Leonardo di Caprio star as the ultimate Romeo, the quintessence of the initial literary work is lost in its translation into film, as doubtless a film’s translation into a book would do likewise.