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?