Sunday, January 29, 2012

An Invisible Alliance: Films, Books and Book Selling

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?


  1. One of the books I read because I loved the film was Vicente Blasco Ibáñez's 'The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.' I'm referring to the 1921 original with Rudy Valentino, not that beyond-terrible 1962 "remake" that has almost nothing in common with the book or original film. Reading the book helped me understand and appreciate the film even more when I saw it afterwards, knowing about things that were only hinted at in the film or left out in certain spots. It gave me a fuller, more complete understanding of the characters and the story. I've tried to find some of Ibáñez's other books which were made into films in the silent era, but they're not available at my local libraries.

  2. Thank you carrieanne for being the first to comment my post, but talk about synchronicity! I was just going over the 4 Horsemen because my next post, G-d willing, will be about foreign bestsellers in the USA. No, that Glenn Ford thing was an embarrassment. I never had the chance to see the Valentino version entirely, but I´ve seen clips in film courses (the infamous tango, of course) and it was very, very close to the book. Blasco is now known and remembered in Spain for his political activism that reflected in several of his works, but his “international novels” are played down. I think those novels merit a revival, and since Downton Abbey and Spielberg’s The War Horse are making WWI fashionable again, maybe Hollywood should give The Horsemen a try. I did see Blood and Sand (The Valentino and The Tyrone Power version. I even glanced through the Sharon Stone embarrassing version) I saw the Temptress with Greta Garbo and a Spanish version of Mare Nostrum (It´s called Alba de Sangre)made in 1948 and set in WWII, but I do want to see the Alice Terry and Antonio Moreno silent film. I checked Amazon it carries the Four Horsemen (even in Kindle!) Entre Naranjos in English (that was made as The Torrent with Greta Garbo) and Mare Nostrum (in English) at an expensive price of $34. The Gutenberg Project has them all but in Spanish. Wow! I thought I was the only person in the 21 ct interested in silent films.

  3. A wonderful subject, Violante. Unfortunately as a youth, I saw few films, even though entry ranged from a dime to a quarter. You really were fortunate. It has been some time since I read 'A Room With a View'. I remember a lot, but no nude parties in the woods, even hinted at. This must be the OSS (obligatory sex scene) needed nowadays to draw audiences. Thanks for putting it together. Regis

  4. "What books have you read just because you adored the film?"

    This rarely happens to me. Once I know the ending of a story, I'm not inclined to go and read the book (as you know well, I HATE spoilers.) The opposite always happens, though. If I read a book and there's a movie, I always want to see it (even if I didn't like the book that much.) In fact, sometimes I've been happily surprised because I've enjoyed the movie version better than the book ("The Painted Veil" and "How to make an American quilt" come to mind.) I can't imagine Mary Pickford as Ramona! As you know I adored the telenovela version. How does the film compare? I would love to see the film version of "The Shadow of the Wind," but the author said in a book signing I attended that he would never sell the film rights to his books (I don't know if he's changed his mind since). I think "A Reliable Wife" also has potential to make a good film (probably better than the book).

    Great post!

  5. Dear Regis, when I saw that bathing scene in "A Room with a View" I thought it racy, compared to what we have to see nowadays, it is quite innocent, I read a Passage to India and Howard's end, but I never read a Room with a view. The bathing scene was not in the book?

    1. Violante, In 'A passage to India' there is a thinly veiled sexual attack of some sort on the MC by an Indian guide at a Hindu religious cave site. How did they handle that in the movie? Forster was known to be homosexual by all of the English literati. Someone has, no doubt, gone thru his work, paragraph by paragraph, and written a treatise on how it affected his writing. Maugham considered Forster third rate--homosexual jealousy? Regis

    2. E.M. Forster was not only homosexual, but he wrote about it in his novel “Maurice” that was also turned into a movie, quite descriptive for the times. Lean’s Passage beautifully handles Adela’s hallucination in the Malabar Caves. She thinks that Dr. Azzis is going to make an advance to her in the darkness inside the cave, and she flees in hysterics provoking the scandal and subsequent trial. It is detailed in the movie that since her arrival in India, Adela has been in an inexplicable state of sexual arousal, probably due to the cultural shock caused by a clash between her Puritan upbringing and the free manner in which Hindus view and portray sexuality.

  6. Sister Lorena, why is Ruiz Zafon so adamant about not selling his novels to movie producers? Lucy Orozco rewrote the novel completely. The real Ramona is very dull. The Pickford film is not even a film. They were called "shorts" in those days, and were less than half an hour.

  7. Sister Violante, Ruiz Zafon has been a screenwriter and if I'm not mistaken, has worked in Hollywood. I think he doesn't like the treatment writers get there and how they're basically shoved aside. When a film is made, the author's original vision is shut down and it becomes the intellectual property of the director. So unless he becomes a film director, I don't think we'll see his work on the big screen.

    1. Let's home Zafón's thematic sense is better than his musical sense. He wrote the music for the audiobook version, and its a) awful and b) distracting. I think the story would make a good film, but I understand his concern about movie adaptation.

  8. Like Lorena, I go from book to movie, but rarely from movie to book. One exception is if I plan to read a difficult novel, sometimes I want to see the movie first so I have the overall story and characters set up: it makes the book easier to follow. Like George Elliot's Middlemarch: this is such a complex story, you can easily get confused and lost. It was more enjoyable for me to see the miniseries first, get a grip on things, then turn to the book. (The miniseries has Rufus Sewell in it, too -- I'll see anything with that man. Swoon.)

    But if I've read a book and loved it, I definitely want to see the movie adaptation. I am on pins and needles to see the Hunger Games, for instance. I just finished the Game of Thrones and am now planning a "watching party" with a friend who also just finished: we're going to have a small crew of fans over to watch when the DVD is released (March 6! Not that I'm counting). We're even going to make food from the book. :) It feels like a real celebration to watch a (good) adaptation of a beloved book. Of course, a crappy adaptation is such a letdown. The Golden Compass adaptation was one of those. The Bleak House 2005 miniseries, with Gillian Anderson, was unwatchable.

    Great post, Sistah!

  9. I meant to add: I couldn't tolerate The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (the book), but I really want to see the movie. I feel sort of left out of the cultural chatter around the story, so watching the movie is a cheater-pants way of being clued in. I confess I've done this on more than one occasion.

  10. Sisters, In view of the flood of poor adaptations (I hated that Bleak House too) I can understand Ruiz Zafon’s qualms, but why would other writers not share his posture? Are they more mercenary than RZ or is he being a bit arrogant?
    I have seen the Swedish version of The Girl, Sister Stephanie, and I found it dark, sordid and unappealing. I a hoping the American version has a bit more glamour.
    I don´t like George Elliot. I was forced to read her in high school. But I loved The BBC adaptation of The Mill on the Floss, and I do want to see Daniel Deronda.
    I am terribly curious. What sort of food are you having based on Game of Thrones? Aside from a good cup of Dornish wine, I would fear to taste their victuals.

  11. Hey, Sister Steph, I'll go watch "The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo" with you!! The book is collecting dust in my closet after I gave up on it after chapter two (or three?) But I also want to be part of the "cultural chatter"! Ha ha! (Especially because my brother has been recommending those books for years!)

    Talking about popular books made into films, as part of the cultural chatter "requirements", we should probably talk about the Twilight Saga... Here's my take on the books vs film versions.

    Twilight: In my opinion the book was better. For one, the protagonist had a little more substance since she *at least* had a strong cooking interest and was always trying new recipes for her dad. In the movie, they sat her in a diner with a hamburger in front of her 24/7. Also, in the book you got a little more story about Carlisle and Edward's pasts and conversion to "vampirewood". Dare I mention the crappy makeup job in the film? (Not sure I want to open THAT can of worms, ha ha! All I can say is "powder.") Plus, Rosalie (in the book) is short of a fashion queen, but in the movie all she wears are sweats.

    New Moon: The movie wins here. For one the production and special effects are better, but also they managed to accelerate those painful (for the reader) months of catatonic Bella after Edward leaves her.

    Eclipse: Mmm... I would say these two are equal. I should add that by now I was hating what they did to Edward's character in both film and book versions. :p

    Breaking Dawn: One of the many strange things about this book was that it seemed to have "changed genres." Not only was it not YA anymore, but it also turned into a weird fantasy novel. Instead of paranormal, where strange creatures inhabit the earth, this book only had ONE human left! (Bella's dad). Everyone else was either a vampire, a werewolf or a strange mixture of human and something else. Haven't seen the movie, but I have to say that the whole part one and part two idea is a total turn off for me, so I'll probably wait for both films to be out on video (in the library) to see them, ha ha! (And I won't be placing them on hold either!)

    1. "All I can say is 'powder.'"

      How about saying "glitter." I think that about sums up Edwards makeup job!

    2. Oh, yes, how could I forget the glitter that makes Edward so beautiful? ;)

  12. All I can say is, God bless the BBC! I don't think I would have been introduced to so many "forgotten" authors if it hadn't been for the BBC adaptations. And they do such a good job with them. One of my all time favorites is JANE EYRE and I'd also have to add a couple of Dickens' stories to that as well. I remember in high school we were forced to read A TALE OF TWO CITIES and it was an absolute snooze. I don't think I actually made it all the way through the book. Flash forward fifteen years later and I can't get enough of the adaptations like OUR MUTUAL FRIEND, LITTLE DORRIT, and THE OLD CURIOSITY SHOP. Like you said, Sister Violante, I think film and books go hand in hand. And I fall either way. I'll watch the movie then read the book, or vice versa. I guess I'm not too picky!

  13. Sister Mary, Mary, adding my hoorays for the BBC. What makes the difference between its adaptations and Hollywood’s, is that they keep to the book, they respect the spirit of the times that it was written and their modifications usually enhance rather than diminish the story,

  14. Sister Lorena, despite the Pattinson-Stewart worldwide craze, I resent those films with a passion.

  15. I think that films have helped writers and writers have helped films. I love it when movie makers make the classics in to movies, especially when they are well done. Great look into films and classics. Room with a View is one of my favourites.

  16. Hi Clarissa, I love the Merchant-Ivory film so much, I refuse to watch the new version of A Room with a View.


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