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Weekly Geeks: Movies and books

The Weekly Geeks blogging prompt is a juicy one this week:

“Do you have a best list? a worst list? Perhaps a why-oh-why list? Which movies (based on books) would you recommend most? Do you always compare the book and the movie? Or are you able to enjoy each separately? Does a film have to be faithful to the book to be good? Are there any films that you like better than the book? Has a movie ever inspired you to pick up the book? Are there any books that you'd love to see as a movie? Do you have a music playlist--soundtrack--for a book?”

I already did the “best” list as a Top Ten Tuesday meme, but this happens to be a subject I can talk about for hours, because it is part of my field of study (translation). As a matter of fact, I considered writing my thesis about book-to-film adaptations as translation.

Translation isn’t just the rendering of a text in one language into an equivalent text in another language. Translation studies also cover interpretation of the spoken word and the adaptation of one form of communication into another. This includes the adaptation of a written text – a novel, for example – into an audiovisual form, e.g. a play or a film or a TV mini-series. There are so many things that one has to keep in mind when adapting a text into audiovisual form and, just like in text-to-text translations, there are different approaches:

  • Do you stay faithful to the story and risk irritating the audience with stuff that works on paper but not on film?
  • Do you tweak the story and prune the plot for the sake of making it look better on the screen?
  • Do you take the tweaking and pruning further and just use the basic premise or central plot of the book and discard the rest, and risk the anger of the book’s fans?

I have seen all of these approaches used, and I have seen them both succeed and fail, but as a general rule, the second method is usually the most successful one. Even the most ardent reader/fan has to agree that some stuff that looks marvellous on paper or affects us deeply when we read about it simply cannot be reproduced audiovisually with the same effect. This is partly because technology hasn’t yet caught up with the special effects we are able to produce in our imaginations, and partly because by its very nature the audiovisual form can not adequately make us feel certain things in the same way as we do when we read about them. One of the reasons is that in audiovisual form some things happen faster than they do on the written page, so we don’t have time for the slower processing that is needed to produce certain feelings. Another is that the audiovisual form is ill-equipped to take us right into the thoughts and feelings of the characters like a text can. Writers can show you how a person feels by going straight into their mind and reproducing their thoughts while also showing their reactions from the outside, but in audiovisual form it must be shown more or less completely externally and perhaps in spoken words, which simply doesn’t affect us as deeply.

I think that whichever approach is used, the key to success will always be respect. Respect for the material and story, respect for the author’s intention, and/or respect for the prospective audience. For example, Stanley Kubrick took Stephen King’s novel, The Shining, stripped it down and twisted it around so much that the author loudly objected, and had a hit. Hardly anyone liked the author-approved version that was made years later, but that might be because Kubrick hit upon the right kind of respect out of the three: that for the audience. The latter version may have followed the story and respected the author, but it just didn’t respect the audience, which was expecting something spectacular and didn’t get it.

Dear Reader, what are your thoughts on this subject? 


Trish said…
What a great topic! I find books and films to be two related but completely different mediums. So, yes, you do have to tweak the book to make it look better on the screen because, no matter how hard you try, words can't always be reliably translated into pictures. Sure, there has to be respect for the author, but the author also has to get out of the way of the movie process.

I almost always prefer books to movies because a book really gets inside me, whereas a movie is just something I watch for 2 hours of entertainment. I try to treat books-to-movies and movies-to-books as separate stories anyway.
George said…
I always try to read the novel or short story or play that a movie is based on before I see it. I've just finished reading JANE EYRE (for the fourth time) before I go to see the latest movie version that's opening here this weekend. I'm interested to see what the director takes out, leaves in, or changes completely.
Audra said…
Great post -- really thought provoking. I'm now meditating on the movie adaptations I liked and why they resonated for me. I completely appreciate your observation that respect for the audience is key -- I think of the disaster that was A.S. Byatt's Possession.
Bibliophile said…
George, I'm the opposite: I prefer to let some time pass between book and film, so that the memory has become fuzzy enough to allow me to enjoy the other without making automatic comparisons.

I do occasionally do a critical comparison viewing of a film, and in that case I read the book and watch the film soon afterwards. It can be interesting, but sometimes I just get annoyed because something from the book I know would have worked in the movie is left out.

In the case of Jane Eyre, I think it could be a good theses subject to study the many film adaptations and look at how the portrayals of the characters have changed through the years and what scenes film-makers tend to cut or alter more than others.

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