Friday, December 11, 2009

The age old debate on adaptation

by Rachel

Lauren touched on the subject of film adaptations in her post-Oscars blog entry, but with The Lovely Bones opening in theatres this weekend, and with films such as Alice In Wonderland and Sherlock Holmes also coming to us on the big screen, I thought I’d throw in my two cents on the ongoing book vs. film adaptation debate.

Today’s NY Times review of The Lovely Bones was mixed. A.O. Scott writes that while Alice Sebold's novel showed audacity and effective art, the film shows less audacity and too much art. The film, he says, “skitters and lurches from set piece to the next” and never achieves the “delicate emotional coherence that would bring the story alive.” He then goes on to say that one of the problems with the film is that there are hard decisions to be made when trying to put Sebold’s work into a motion picture: What should be highlighted? What should be left out?

I’d like to know how filmmakers make such decisions. Obviously you can’t transfer every minute detail from a book to the screen--an audience doesn’t really want to stick around for more than a couple of hours to catch every last event that occurred in a book, but by having to be so selective in film adaptations, are we missing out on details that only reading books can bring us?

The film Adaptation comes to mind when I think about the great book vs. film adaptation debate. What was meant to be a film adaptation of Susan Orlean’s The Orchard Thief, turned into a film about how to adapt a book into a screenplay--better yet, I think the film poses the question of whether or not it’s possible for a book to be adapted for film at all. The movie certainly makes you think whether or not this is possible. Sure, Adaptation is a wonderful film, but it’s a film about a man having writer’s block while trying to adapt the book to the big screen.

So, I wonder, are there some books that just can’t be made into films? Or, do you believe films ‘give life’ to books?


  1. It's a spectrum. The Shawshank Redemption was infinitely better as a film than a novella. Apt Pupil (from the very same Stephen King collection) was a terrible film. There's nothing inherently good or bad about adaptation, but just like original screenplays, some movies are good and some movies suck.

  2. A movie is a blend of structure and visceral moment. Some books will adapt better than others - they'll already have the right structure, and lend themselves to those moments of drama that don't need words other than dialog.

    But in the end, a movie is never really a version of a book. It's a whole new thing inspired by a book. Sometimes the best "adaptations" are almost nothing like the book.

  3. A perfect example of what The Daring Novelist said: The Princess Bride. Both the book and the film are excellent, though the movie is significantly different from the movie in parts. That doesn't lessen the effect of the movie at all, but the adaptation absolutely works. Of course, Goldman did the screenplay for his own book, so maybe that had some influence...

  4. Cormac McCarthy's All The Pretty Horses, as an example,is not all that great a story. It is the writing that elevates it to art. The movie, stripped necessarily to just the story, not so much. I would have to say that if a writer is 'literary' then a book translated to the screen will be poorer for the inability to adequately convey the language and style to the screen. If it is good story, then chances are much better that it can make a good transition to the screen. An example of a book written by a journeyman writer that had a good story been when brought to the screen became art is The Godfather. The book is fine as a crime story. But Coppola took it and made it something special.

  5. Re: "I would have to say that if a writer is 'literary' then a book translated to the screen will be poorer for the inability to adequately convey the language and style to the screen."

    But it could also be true, depending on the filmmaker, that the "unadaptable" literary work will spark something inside them, some inner obsession perhaps they've had since childhood, some "vibe" they've never been able to capture with a camera, and they'll end up creating an emotionally engaging film based on (however loosely) that novel. An alchemical process between novelist and filmmaker.