So the big release this week is The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug where Peter Jackson manages to cram a 310-page novel into almost nine hours of cinematic endurance over three films. But fear not – the inevitable extended editions will soon be on their way, for those endings that you just couldn’t do without.
Regardless of Jackson’s desire to reverse the maxim so that every word has a thousand accompanying pictures in the case of his seemingly neverending Tolkien affair, adaptations are an interesting and controversial beast at the best of times.
And since we recently covered remakes in the one-but-last Film Club (Oldboy has since absolutely bombed in both the UK and USA by the way) which prompted some behind-the-scenes discussions over remake vs. adaptation territories, it seemed a natural place to visit next.
The book versus film debate is one which will forever rage on, and so here we recognise adaptations from the page to the big screen. Next year we will focus on theatre, games and comics taking the dreaded leap into cinema territory, but for now we focus on novels only. These are the responses:
Jaws – Steven Spielberg’s 1975 shark thriller stands as one of those rare adaptations which is superior to its source material. Peter Benchley’s novel is a rather grim and pulpy affair; considerably darker than Spielberg’s movie, with frankly unlikable characters and some questionable ideas – Ellen Brody’s affair for example, which is just superfluous and nasty.
The film adapts the plot fairly literally (albeit adding a more explosive climax) but rewrites most of the characters to make them feel like fully-formed and justified individuals – the film strips the novel’s padding and its more unpleasant elements (cat murder) to turn the story into a more realistic and more engaging tale of a small town reacting to an impossible threat.
The quality of the cast, combined with Spielberg’s Hitchcockian suspense and John Williams’ iconic score, turn the movie into a superior product to the novel, which feels rather lightweight and forgettable in comparison; an average book adapted into a great movie. It says a lot that most people aren’t even aware Jaws was a novel.
Some people take their guidance from the Bible, others from the Qur’an. Not me though; I take mine from Bret Easton Ellis’ The Rules of Attraction.
It is therefore surprising that I love Roger Avary’s adaptation of Ellis’ novel quite so much. Some of the film’s characters are unrecognisable to the ones in the novel and there is a noticeable absence of the numerous subtleties that grant the book its timelessness and its complexity.
Nevertheless, for me an adaptation doesn’t have to take a book word-for-word in order to be considered good. What it does have to do is capture the themes of the book upon which it is based; in this case, those of broken youth, hedonism and insecurity.
Though James van der Beek is the film’s main attraction (his performance as Sean Bateman is phenomenal), it is the directorial quirks that really grab your attention. The somewhat indulgent use of split-screen, flashbacks, broken narrative and the occasional “rewind” help to capture the frenetic, unpredictable nature of Ellis’ novel, whilst a cameo appearance from Faye Dunaway grants the film a real kitsch quality.
Ellis’ novel and Avery’s film are quite different, yet this is a rare example of an adaptation that I love almost as much as the source material.
I choose you!, The Lovely Bones, not because you’re a terrific film but because you’re a decent adaptation which gets a lot of stick.
Alice Sebold’s novel had the scope to do something more adventurous by focusing on ideas over plot in the first-person, but it soon turns into an existential chore. The prose is wishy-washy and needs grounding which is exactly what Peter Jackson (of all people) does, to an extent.
The nuts-and-bolts mystery-thriller is sometimes the right choice – as it was here – turning an irritating read into a semi-decent (if overlong) suspense film. And it plays its ace with the Stanley Tucci’s terrifying/terrific performance which is unrivalled on the page.
Secondly comes the interesting case of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, self-adapted by its author Stephen Chbosky. It’s an adaptation which showcases the ability of a really loveable book to not only survive a transfer to the screen, but to be equally cherished as a separate entity.
What’s great about Perks, quite clearly understood no better by than its creator himself, is that it can work in different ways in these separate mediums, whilst still retaining a connection between the two.
Chbosky intelligently uses the strengths of both platforms (including brilliant casting) – cutting and adding where necessary for the recent adaptation – to create two different versions of the same overarching work, both of which have been rightly lauded for their qualities as modern gems in the coming-of-age subgenre.
I have chosen Andrea Arnold’s 2011 film adaptation of the novel Wuthering Heights. This film differs from other adaptations of the novel by having a black Heathcliff, which heightens his alieness and otherness, raising it to a new level. Given what was happening in the slave trade at the time, Hindley’s cruel and brutal treatment of Heathcliff spoke to me powerfully and resonated in a way in which it had not done previously.
Two actors play Heathcliff and two actors play Cathy, and both sets of actors conveyed the lifelong passion between these two characters; their deep and undying love for each other, and the searing pain, grief and torment their love brought them.
The isolation and remoteness of living out on the moors was powerfully conveyed, and the landscape was a character in its own right. The cinematography was beautiful and breathtaking. And I loved the juxtaposition between the past and the present at key moments, conveying exactly how the human mind, and specifically memory, works.
The film is a masterclass in how you can take a well-worn classic that has had countless adaptations, add in a new and unusual twist, and yet remain true to the heart and soul of the original novel.