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The International Writers Magazine: Adapt or Die at the box office

From Page to Screen: a few vexed issues to ponder upon while chewing your popcorn
Chris Mills
I have wanted to have a go at writing something about film and television adaptations of books for a while, but the subject is quite large and unwieldy to get to grips with easily and to do justice. In the meantime this piece consists of my personal musings resulting from various occasional jottings on the subject. I was reminded of my scribbles while chatting to a customer in the bookshop recently, hence this article.

True Grit

A woman asked for a copy of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (Louis de Bernières) remarking that she had been meaning to read it for ages and was now finally going to get around to doing so. While completing the transaction I asked her if she had perhaps seen the film version (starring Nicholas Cage) already and had been inspired to read the novel. The customer replied that she hadn’t, and we then talked briefly about books, adaptations and whether the ones we had seen were successful or not. My customer felt that the film always left bits of the book out and so was often unsatisfying by comparison. I did cautiously (not wanting to be a spoiler of either book or film) mention to her that the film version of Captain Corelli was a case in point. We agreed that the film might be a good piece of work judged on its own merits, but it often simply wasn’t the same as reading the book and that you probably shouldn’t expect it to be. The customer concluded by saying that on balance she would much rather read the book than see the film and went off happily to get stuck into reading her new book.

But which do you do first, read the book or watch the film or television series? Assuming that you don’t attempt to do both at the same time (this could be tricky when the lights go down in the cinema) you have to make a choice that could have serious implications.  At this point I’ll put both hands up and come clean. My personal view is that I would rather read the book before seeing the adaptation. The great problem with this course of action though of course is that I often feel so attached to the book that I am unwilling to watch the film at all because I have my own celluloid version tucked away inside my head. No actor stands a chance when I already have my own characterisations breathing life into the book. I’m sure I’m not the only reader who has imagined a cast (using real actors or imaginary faces) and can bear no other actors in the roles. Thus there is a whole raft of film versions of books that I have spent years carefully avoiding so that my mental images remain intact. For instance I was always convinced that Philip Madoc would make a great Brother Cadfael on the small screen (as far as I know Madoc only played him on radio) and I could never come to terms with the fact of Derek Jacobi playing the role. This has more to do with the fact that I read every single one of Cadfael’s adventures and felt I that knew him personally than any reservations about Jacobi’s talents.

Of course I have often found it works the other way and I have certainly been inspired to read a book after seeing a film or television series version. Many years ago the Sunday evening television classic novel adaptation was a regular feature of the cultural landscape (well, it was at least in our house). Without the dear old BBC I might not have got around to reading the various classics that I have subsequently enjoyed. In the case of Charles Dickens it probably did no harm at all to have had an introduction to his novels in the form of a six part costume dramatisation by some very fine actors. I am in no doubt at all that I would never have tackled Our Mutual Friend without the aid of the superbly atmospheric television series starring John McEnery, Leo McKern, Jane Seymour and Polly James in 1976. So much so, that I could never bring myself to watch the more recent television version in case I spoilt both the book and the earlier series in my memory. Sometimes there has been a bit of a time lag between watching the film and reading the book, as for example when I saw The English Patient on its initial release, bought the book on the strength of it and then finally read the book fully ten years later. That also says much about my To Be Read Pile, but that’s another story.

When the adaptation makes a strong impression, every time you read the book the images and voices in your mind are those of the actors in the film version. The cast is permanently on call and I find that no amount of attempting a re- casting in my imagination makes the slightest bit of difference. The actor playing the part on screen becomes, for better or worse the character on the page for ever and anon. In other words, Leo McKern is, was and always will be Horace Rumpole for me no matter how many times I read and re-read the stories. In fact he probably becomes further embedded in my psyche every time I return to the barrister’s chambers. Everyone will have their own favourite interpretation of roles though it is often the case that one particular actor may come along who is widely considered to be the definitive Sherlock Holmes/ Hercule Poirot/ Jane Marple etc. Of course each generation will have its own favourite and that’s as it should be. For the record, I’d vote for Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes; David Suchet as Hercule Poirot and as Miss Marple, Joan Hickson any day. And no, I’m not forgetting the immortal, incomparable Margaret Rutherford, but for me she will always be Madame Arcati from Blithe Spirit and so quite obviously cannot possibly be Miss Marple as well. I hope that’s cleared that one up.

While I’m thinking about vexing page to film issues, there is also the film maker’s irritating habit of altering the title of a film from that of the original book. Why? Is someone trying to confuse people on purpose? Are producers in league with publishers to persuade the unwary reader/film goer into buying the book again? Sometimes there may be a reasonable explanation I suppose, due to the need to have a film title that easily adapts to a global market. Words that have a quite innocent meaning in one culture may have quite another (possibly unfortunate one) in another. I suppose also that if a book doesn’t have a particularly snappy title it might benefit from an alteration.  Not that Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe (as the film was released in the UK) can be said to exactly trip off the tongue but it’s such a wonderful title as to be worth a little effort.

Sometimes though it seems more like plain contrariness to make changes; change for changes sake rather than for any real improvement as a result. As though the author’s book title wasn’t good enough to use; why change Q and A to Slumdog Millionaire? especially as it meant renaming the film jacketed edition of the book too?  Cue much explaining at the counter. And going back a few years, I never understood why Schindler’s Ark the book became Schindler’s List the film/tie-in edition. It only really makes sense to have new title when the film version is so different from the original that it bears very little relation to it. It is particularly irritating from a book sellers point of view to have to explain to customers that it is absolutely, definitely the right book, it’s just a different title. Oh, and the plot has been changed round a bit too (just joking).  And don’t get me started on the special film edition book jacket that only has a limited life span and which many customers don’t want anyway.

I was going to close by listing my favourite/ least favourite novel adaptations but was in danger of taking such a long time to do so that I’ve decided to save that for another time. It’s a good excuse to read more books and watch more films....

© Chris Mills Feb 2011

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