Sunday, August 14, 2011

From Book to Screen. Film Adaptation or Plain Distortion?

Most published authors share an ambition: getting Hollywood to take an interest in her/his novel. It’s a terrific way to raise sales, find more readers and climb to immortality. However, as many disappointed readers (and some authors) have found out, film adaptations might end up butchering the book.

In days pre-TMC and DVD or video versions of GWTW, I had to wait for my local movie house to bring a revival of Gone with the Wind. While waiting in line to buy my ticket, I could feel butterflies fluttering in my gut. I was ten years old, and Peggy Mitchell´s opus magnum was my favorite book in the world. I still remember the thrill of those four hours in the dark, sitting on the edge of my seat, absolutely spellbound.

The fact that the movie was not entirely true to the book did not bother me a bit. I didn’t miss Scarlett´s other children, although the absence of a formidable character like Grandma Fontaine saddened me, but there was so much to compensate for those little flaws. Alas! It is a rare occasion when we can be contented with both the print and the film version of a beloved novel.

I always look forward to the translation of my preferred novels to movies, but I seldom feel happy with the results. There are films that I like better than the book that inspired them (Arthur Haley´s Airport comes to mind) . Others have become odious precisely because the producers massacred an entertaining yarn (Leon Uris’ Exodus, and all the unfortunate adaptations of Jacqueline Susann’s novels).

Dean Martin and Jacqueline Bisset's romance was warmer in the film version of Airport than in the book

I have noticed that classics fare better in the hands of producers than commercial bestsellers. Valley of the Dolls, Peyton Place and anything by Harold Robbins that ever went to Hollywood only kept the title from the original text. The stories were rewritten, characters changed completely, and the final product bore no resemblance to the book.

Classics are treated with much more respect. Since new film or television adaptations tend to appear every decade, chances are that one of them will remain faithful to the original. As it is, in my mind Jane Eyre will forever look like Joan Fontaine, Jo March will always be Winona Ryder, and Heathclieff can only be the incomparable Ralph Fiennes. Yet, I am sorry to say, despite its many versions, made all over the world, no screen adaptation of Henryk Sienkiewicz’Quo Vadis has pleased me.
Joan Fontaine as Jane Eyre

Several reasons account for the failure to adapt a book properly. Length limits, audience’s sensibilities, fads, and censorship are some of the culprits. The Hays Office that controlled Hollywood production for almost four decades, besides barring explicit sex from moving pictures, also demanded moral endings. In 1947, Mildred Pierce, based in the James Cain's novel, had wicked Veda (Ann Blyth) going to jail. This ending that was not in the book, but upheld the belief that all evil should go punished, at least in Hollywood fables.

Recently, I watched the HBO adaptation of Mildred Pierce. It is excellently made—Kate Winslet might get an Emmy for her performance—and is as true to the book as it gets. Despite its graphic sex galore (with plenty of shots of Guy Pearce´s bare rump) it left me with a bad taste in the mouth. I missed Joan Crawford’s tearful execution of the protagonist. This Mildred was mean, vulgar and hard-as-nails.Her obsession with her eldest daughter came across as a girlish crush instead of motherly devotion.

Having said so, I still prefer books-into-miniseries. That format allows for more time and space to develop story and characters, so the end result is much closer to the novel than a hurried film version. With miniseries, every so often, the author might get involved in the adaptation improving the plot while controlling the amount of damaging changes. George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War and Stephen King’s The Stand illustrate my point. Authors worked hand by hand with the scriptwriters, advancing and sometimes rewriting the content so it could appeal to massive audiences.

The best example of how a book does better on a miniseries format than a film is Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. In 1981, Granada Television adapted Waugh’s saga of an aristocratic British family caught between sin and religion. In its day, Brideshead broke television taboos, implanted fads and turned Jeremy Irons into a star. Today, this miniseries is considered a classic piece of television.
Anthony Andrews and Jeremy Irons in Brideshead Revisited (1981)

Most importantly, the script managed to convey the inner layers of a story that combined nostalgia for an Oxford of yesteryear with an iconic view of homoerotic friendships and the disturbing pressures of faith in modern life. I loved it from the start. I still cry buckets when I watch it, and it brought me to read and love Evelyn Waugh’s sarcastic and yet graceful prose.

In 2008, some misguided demon convinced British producers to make a film adaptation of Brideshead Revisited. It simply reeked! The casting was preposterous and the script made shameful use of Waugh’s milieu and characters to create some ridiculous mishmash of tortuous love affairs among the rich and the eccentric. My only comfort is that those who love Brideshead Revisited can still enjoy the marvelous and true-to-the book miniseries in DVD format.

Have you gone through a similar experience? Is there an adaptation that turned your stomach and a film version that did justice to the print version? Would you like to see your novel turned into a Hollywood blockbuster or a cozy miniseries?


  1. I agree with you 100% on Brideshead Revisited. I've watched both versions and that 2008 train wreck just didn't stand a chance when placed next to the original version with Irons. I too enjoy a good miniseries. One of my all time favorites is the John Jakes North and South series. The books are definitely different in some ways (like the way Orry Main dies and the actual handicap he gets), but there are many aspects of it that I enjoy. You're right in saying that many book adaptations get cut to pieces by the time they hit a theater, but there are a few that closely mirror the books. Like Cold Mountain, the Timothy Dalton centered Jane Eyre, or even, like you mentioned, the Ralph Fiennes version of Wuthering Heights which includes the often omitted final act. There are a few good ones out there.

    And heck yeah! I'd love to see my book become a movie!

  2. Movie or miniseries?
    Aside from the fact that Evelyn Waugh probably turned somersaults in his grave at the way that Andrew Davies and Jeremy Brock butchered his novel, what gave me goose bumps was Emma Thompson playing Lady Marchmain. She sounded so vulgar, like a Pimlico pub owner or an EastEnders character.
    There are films that are said to be "unfilmable" (Atonement, Perfume and John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman) and yet they always find a way to shoot them even if the results are far from admirable.
    I enjoyed the North and South miniseries, though I must admit I always had a softer spot for the James Reid character. Everybody else was much into Orrin. I never read the books. I had enough Jakes with the Kent Family Chronicles which I loved , but I thought too dark.

  3. Great topic, Sister Violante!

    I don't know some of the books/films you mention (like Brideshead Revisited or Mildred Pierce, but you've made me curious about both.) I also loved the film version of GWTW and didn't miss Scarlett's older kids at all. In fact, I have a confession to make... I started reading the book, got impatient with it because it was so long (hey, I was somewhere between 11 and 12 and not as precocious as you were!) so I rented the movie and NEVER finished the book! (I only read the ending because I couldn't believe *that* was the way it really ended...)

    I think the norm is that the book is better than the film, so I'll just mention the rare cases where I've preferred the movie version:

    1. The Painted Veil (recently discussed at great length in an earlier post:; and at Sister Mary's book review blog: BTW, check out her cool new design.

    2. How to Make an American Quilt: The book consisted of several stories of women who were brought together by the making of a particular quilt, but the main character only served as a vehicle to learn about these women. In the film version with Winona Ryder, the protagonist actually had a struggle of her own which unified all the other stories.

    3. Kramer vs. Kramer: The book goes into great detail about the time before the Kramers were married and while they were together. Though it gives us an insight of why she left, it became tedious at times. The film, on the other hand, starts when Johanna (Meryl Streep) leaves Ted (Dustin Hoffman), so it goes right into the conflict.

    4. New Moon: The second book of Twilight had pages and pages of Bella feeling sorry for herself after Edward leaves her. In the movie, this process is less painfully dreadful (for the reader) and I enjoyed the visuals (especially the whole section in Italy with the Volturi and the wolves--Jacob in particular :))

    Since you mentioned mini-series, I'll go ahead and mention LACE. I loved these mini-series when I saw it in the 80s. (Everyone in my class was obsessed with it.) But years later, when I read the book I was extremely dissapointed with it. The structure in the miniseries works a lot better, IMO, (I think it was more suspenseful/interesting) They also mingled two characters from the book and gave Lily three possible mothers instead of four (which I think was a good decision). Finally, the book seemed to have a lot of gratuitous sex and backstory.

    Sister Mary, I had no idea Orry dies in the end of the book! Didn't he end up happily married to Madeline (whom my girlfriend and I HATED, ha!) in the series?

    I was also more interested in the James Reid character. Maybe because I hated the Medeline subplot so much!

  4. Love the movie The Painted Veil (so disappointed by the book), I never read Kramer Vs. Kramer, but the film is great and, yeah, Lorena, Orry dies during the war at the end of Book II. He doesn't even get killed off by Elkanah, which, in my opinion, comes across much better in the movies. It pulls all the rivalries together and makes it all come to a head in the third installment. So, yes, there are times when the films can be better than the books. Has anyone seen The Help yet? If so, does it stand up on it's own or does it totally ruin a great story?

  5. Wait, Sister Mary, Mary! I got all muddled up. Yes, Elkanah didn´t kill Orry, but does Madeline (Oohh I loved Lesley Anne) get involved with Reid’s character? They had a great sex scene in the miniseries.

    Sister Lorena, I advise you to watch the Brideshead miniseries first. It is so luscious, so eye-catching, it is a pleasure reading the book (the series pretty much stick to the text) while having the visual prop behind it to enhance the story. Moreover, Waugh starts his novel with one of the moat dreadfully dull chapters I have ever read. Talk about unhooking the reader! Reading it before knowing what is going to happen might make you put it away before getting to the beefier parts.

    I was also obsessed with Lace miniseries (I loved Pagan’s character), and so I rushed to the library to get the book. I was not disappointed. I was disturbed. It was a very sordid, very sad story. Horrible tragedies happened to everyone and the multiple rapes and the incest plot was too much for my naïve mind, but I understand why television in those days would shy away from such subjects.

    I am waiting to see The Help before reading the book.

  6. Great post! The most recent miniseries adaptation I've seen is Pillars of the Earth, from the Ken Follett novel that everyone loves. (I know I loved it, and pretty much everyone I know who's read it has listed it as one of their Top Ten of All Time.) The miniseries was really good, really gripping, and we were glued to the TV while it played out, but it had flaws and didn't measure up to the book. The cast was excellent, though, and features some of my fave BBC actors like Rufus "Oh My God Those Eyes" Sewell and Matthew "Oh My God That Voice" Macfadyen. :)

    I'll add Little Dorrit to the list, though I haven't read the book. I loved the miniseries. I've been looking for it to own on DVD, actually.

    Now I want to read AND watch Brideshead Revisited!

  7. I forgot to mention: for absolute stinkers (must avoid!), we have the Great Gatsby adaptation with Paul Rudd. Mira Sorvino is truly horrible in this film, and though Rudd does his best, the script is wretched. The cheesy score dominates the film, making matters worse. I was disappointed in Toby Stephens, a BBC actor who was so good as Mr. Rochester in the 2006 Jane Eyre miniseries.

  8. I'll definitely agree to The Great Gatsby! I saw that before reading the book, and then when I did read the book, I thought, "Wow! This is not how these characters came across in the film!" Little Dorrit was great! (And, yeah, I haven't read the book either.) I haven't seen Pillars of the Earth, but I read that book back in high school and had totally envisioned how the whole thing could play out. Now, I want to see it!

    I don't know if there are any Jane Austen fans out there, but I'm going to say just about any movie made beats the books. She's so trying to read! I have a tough time getting through any of her novels.

  9. I'm the opposite, guys. I read Little Dorrit years ago but never saw the series. I need to add The Great Gatsby and Pillars of the Earth to my book/film list.

    For me, the best Jane Austen adaptation is the BBC's Pride & Prejudice miniseries with Colin Firth (what a surprise...) After watching this one, I absolutely hated the Keira Knightley version :p

    Violante, my favorite character in Lace was Lily (I became a Phoebe Cates' fan after that series.) I'm so glad they took all that yucky stuff from the mini-series. I was so disturbed after reading the book that I never read Lace II (even though I have it and I had watched and liked the second part.)

    Have you guys seen the latest version of Jane Eyre? (I bought it but haven't seen it yet).

  10. I actually thought that the film adaptation of Toni Morrison's Beloved was pretty great. The Kite Runner movie was a big disappointment.

  11. I have to confess, Sister Stephanie, that I look down on poor Follett. It´s the stigma that bestselling authors have to endure, but I am looking forward to the miniseries. If it’s good, I might become another fan. Oohh! Rufus Sewell, so wicked as the Crown Prince in The Illusionist, and McFyden broke my heart in both Pride and Prejudice (The Keira version) and Little Dorrit. I can’t wait to see him as Athos (my favorite Musketeer) in The Three Musketeers.

  12. Addendum. Sister S. You must watch and read Brideshead (never, never touch the movie) Yess, there is only one versiin that does Scott Fitzgerald justice, and that is the Robert Redford-Mia Farrow adaptation. It was such a classic that it had us wearing "Gatsby costumes" for a year.
    Toby Stephens was very good as Rochester, he added humor to a somber character.

  13. Sister Mary, Mary,
    at the risk of sounding philistine, Jane Austen is unreadable, but those great adaptations have turned her into a beloved writer in the XXI century. So there is something to be said about books-into-film.

  14. Sister Lorena,
    I loved the Firth and Keira versions. They were just different, but equally good.
    Yes, Phoebe was lovely in Lace, in the book both she and her mother were too victimized to be loveable.
    Mm, I am not up to another version of Jane Eyre, there are some (William Hurt's version) that were pitiful

  15. Missed Periods,
    Beloved was what the author had intended, somber, disturbing and yet it was not sordid (an expected pitfall), and Oprah, as Sethe, was beyond words.

  16. I did my honors thesis on Beloved, so I was nervous about the film adaptation. But I loved it. Thandie Newton was amazing.

    I can't stand Jane Austen in book form (glad to know I'm not the only one!) but tend to enjoy the movies. I like every version of P&P I've seen, so I must not be picky.

    I'm a pretty big fan of the Bronte sisters -- totally different writing styles than Austen -- and you might expect me to be fussier about the film adaptations but I've enjoyed them all. Although the latest Jane Eyre, with Mia Wasikowska, wasn't as good as the 2006 miniseries, I thought.

    My first introduction to Matthew Macfadyen was in the 1998 adaptation of Wuthering Heights. Oh. My. Gosh: that man is completely captivating as Hareton Earnshaw. He doesn't have a lot of screen time, but I developed a mad celebrity crush on him anyway. The Heathcliff in that version is a bit on the old and stiff side, I prefer Tom Hardy (he really brings forth Heathcliff's madness), but it's worth watching the '98 version for Macfadyen alone. It's interesting to watch the different versions and see how they tell the story: some follow the book, which is chronologically jumbled, and some choose a more linear path.

  17. I had seen Thandie in Jefferson in Paris, but she was frighteningly good as Beloved.
    Austen was the first modern English writer, she was Victorian before Victoria became queen, so she stands together with some of the most dull Victorian writers (Trollope and George Eliot) that came from that period.
    How many versions of Wuthering Heights can they make? I hear a new one is coming this year. I din't know Tom Hardy had been Heathclieff. He is in a lot of things now. I have a vague recollection of him in Colditz and Band of Brothers.
    So, Sister Stephanie, apparently we are both fans of BBC miniseries?

  18. Who doesn't love the BBc miniseries? Anyone? They're the best!

    By the way -- I didn't like the movie Beloved (I've not read the book), but I have read the slave narrative Morrison based it off of. Very chilling what slaves were willing to do to keep their children away from white slaveowners. And very sad.

  19. I know, finally they are bringing Downton Abbey to my country! Can’t wait to see it!
    One thing to say in favor of BBC . It got me to read books otherwise I would have never touched. Those adaptations either enhance the original text or make it more palatable. Why can't Hollywood follow their example?

  20. Id like to invite you folks to come to Amish Stories for a recipe for "Famous Pennsylvania Dutch Sticky Cinnamon Buns" along with a book signing schedule for Amish fiction writer Wanda Brunstetter for Pennsylvania and Ohio as well as a contest to meet her. I hope everyone so far is having a great weekend. Thanks everyone. Richard from Amish Stories.

  21. Thanks for the invitation and the yummy recipe!

  22. Hi Violante,
    I've awarded you the Liebster Blog Award. Enjoy!


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