For the last thirty years, I´ve been hearing that “books are dead,” “Hollywood is out,” “reading is out,” and that movie theaters should shut down since “nobody goes to movies anymore.” As of January 2012, movie theaters, Hollywood and virtual and physical bookstores are in extremely good health. Every year, new bestsellers hit the market; Hollywood buys the rights to such gems, turns them into films and convinces the public to buy the book. It’s an almost circular ritual that shows that, despite rumormonger warnings, written and audiovisual fiction have forged an invisible alliance that brings benefits to both.
Every time I glance through the New York Times Bestseller List (Hardcover Fiction) I wonder how many of those books will hit the screen in the years to come. An educated guess would be that The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet Nest, after meriting a Swedish screen adaptation, would follow her sisters in the Larsen’s trilogy and become a Hollywood smash hit. A similar fate will befall upon A Dance with Dragons, the latest entry of George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire. It would be part of the blockbusting series that HBO has dramatized under the title of Game of Thrones.
A different story comes from scanning the Bestseller List for Trade Fiction. There you find several books that triggered off movies currently in theaters or DVD format such as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Help, and Sarah’s Key. To illustrate my point, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close carries a caption following the title that says “a movie tie-in.” Shrewd businesspeople at Amazon know that the public needs both the written and the audiovisual version.
In New York in the 80’s, my adoptive sister and I would go to the movies every Sunday, come rain or come shine. If the film was based on a novel, we would walk to the nearest bookstore (there was always a Dalton´s around the corner) and buy the book version. It was the only way (even in those early video days) to preserve the adventure we had just witnessed and bring it home to us. As a former librarian, I remember thousands of clients hurrying towards my reference desk to pop the question: “I have just watched X. Do you have the book?” It didn’t surprise me. It’s human necessity to combine all senses in order to appreciate a good tale.
For two millenniums, everybody from kings to the hoi-polloi enjoyed the theater as much as we enjoy television today. But after the advent of the printing press, the rich began to collect those plays in their private libraries. Everybody could watch a public performance of Romeo and Juliet or Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, but only the Duke of Something or Other could own them, bound in fine Moroccan leather, to be read at leisure.
The Twentieth Century was the Era of the Novel, but it did not diminish the public’s need to see their stories reenacted. Throughout the century, many bestselling novels such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula were adapted for the stage. Even Uncle Tom´s Cabin was turned into a play, aiding to spread abolitionist ideas.
The early moving pictures industry soon found plenty of script material on bookshelves. Even before Hollywood, even before the four-reel films were invented, books found their way to screens. The first version of The Count of Montecristo was made in Italy in 1908. The first version of Far From the Madding Crowd was made in America in 1909. And in 1910, Mary Pickford played Ramona in the first film version of the Helen Hunt Jackson’s novel. As feature films became longer and more sophisticated, audiences flocked to theaters to watch their favorite stories come to life on the silver screen.
|Mary Pickford as the first Ramona Moreno.|
For the last hundred years, classics as well as current bestsellers have merited movie versions. In a way, the cinema has kept alive stories that would have faded in time. The arrival of television created another milieu for the recreation of popular fiction. The BBC’s vigorous efforts have prevented Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century British fiction from falling into oblivion.
Recently, I had the chance to watch Lark Rise to Candleford. Based on Flora Thompson´s trilogy, this miniseries describes the author´s experiences growing up in the English countryside in the early 1900’s. It´s a nice story, but I can understand why it would be forgotten for decades until the BBC adapted it in 2008. Now, you may find it in different guises at Amazon: hardcover, paperback, illustrated, audio cassette, DVD, and the Kindle version came out just last week. Flora Thompson´s descendants must be elated with the arrival of royalties from all those formats.
But not only has the BBC had a hand in resurrecting authors. E.M. Forster is considered to be one of the best British writers of the Twentieth Century, but by the 1980’s, he was only known in academic circles. Sir David Lean’s A Passage to India made everyone familiar with Forster's writing. Soon after, Merchant and Ivory would turn out delicate adaptations of Forster’s A Room with a View, Howard’s End, and Where Angels Fear to Tread. They became classics; they turned Helena Bonham Carter into a star, and made the public aware of the existence of books behind those breathtaking films.
A Room with a View's trailer
The next decade would also mark the birth of a new bestseller novelist, all thanks to award-winning versions of her work. Curiously, this writer, who would compete in sales with J.K. Rowling and Stephen King, had been dead for over a century and her novels were written in the days of Napoleon. Nowadays, we all know who Jane Austen is. Her books have prompted the creation of sequel novels, tons of biographies, parodies and a whole cultural movement whose followers are known as ”Janeites,” not to mention film and TV series inspired by her fertile fiction.
Pride and Prejudice's trailer (1995)
Not as thunderous as the Jane Austen Revival, but equally important, was the rebirth of Edith Wharton. Again it was linked to adaptations. Since her demise, Miss Wharton had been forgotten by Hollywood and bookstores. In 1993, the film industry remembered her in a double ration. The British adapted Ethan Frome with Liam Neeson and Patricia Arquette in the leading roles. But it was Martin Scorsese who would truly revive Wharton´s genius. That same year, he left his gangsters aside, and brought out the most beautiful rendition of The Age of Innocence.
Two years later, the BBC adapted Wharton´s unfinished roman-a-clef, The Buccaneers with Mira Sorvino and Carla Gugino in the leading roles, Finally, in 2000, Gillian Anderson made us forget she was Agent Scully as she went into Edwardian costume to play Lily Bart in The House of Mirth. For a full decade, Edith Wharton became again a bestselling author.
I would have never read Edith Wharton if it hadn’t been for all those wonderful adaptations. I would have never discovered Carson McCullers’ perfect prose if I hadn’t seen The Member of the Wedding (1956.) If I ever dared to read those cumbersome Eighteen Century novels, Tom Jones and Clarissa Harlow, is because I fell in love with their heroes… And that with a little help from Albert Finney´s portrayal of Tom in the 1963 film and Sean Bean’s depiction of wicked Lovelace in the “Masterpiece Theater’s” version of Richardson´s epistolary novel. So, I am grateful for this invisible alliance between screen and novels.
What books have you read just because you adored the film? What authors do you think deserve an audiovisual resurrection? Do you experience the urgency, after reading a good book, to see it come alive on a screen?