Tag Archives: parallel

Page and Screen: Are our favourite characters more alive in books or movies?


The idea of character is more complicated than we allow ourselves to realise. Of course put simply they are made up, fictional people in stories. But there are those who wish to challenge such a casual assumption. Some say they are merely bundles of words. Others question their independence, as we can never really know anything certainly about anyone besides ourselves. Therefore are characters simply versions of their creators? Are authors, screenwriters and actors getting it completely wrong when they try to imagine what it’s like to be someone who isn’t them? Should all characters be developed to a certain point? Some crop up as mere extras in a scene of a movie or a chapter of a novel but nevertheless leave an impression on us. Do they count as true characters even when we know next to nothing about them? Do we need to know anything about a character? Can we know a character at all?

Of course it’s sensible not to get bogged down in such questions. It’s pedantic, futile and stupid to waste energy debating whether any character can have true meaning beyond an author’s words. Often characters are simply a fact to be accepted, a vital part of the suspension of disbelief required to enjoy any genre of fiction. But it can also be healthy to think about the limitations of characterisation as well its possibilities. Characters are vehicles that carry us through any story, doors onto worlds of escapism. Writing believable and engaging characters is the most difficult part of creating novels or films. Anyone can have a half decent plot idea or conjure adequate passages of dialogue but very few can mould the perfect characters with which to tell their story.

On the page the biggest challenge is getting a character moving because, as I said, characters are vehicles. Uninteresting, average or amateur writing can start by telling us about motionless characters. Great writers can establish iconic figures with very little information, which is seamlessly part of the narrative. On the screen it can sometimes be easier to get a character “in”, as the motion comes from the medium itself and the viewer can be convinced by things like setting, costume or the glance of a talented actor.

Having said this it is often difficult to transform the subtleties of the written word when it comes to character depth. For example, fictional figures like Jay Gatsby and Jean Brodie make very brief appearances in novels named after them. However the books can still be predominantly about their distant personalities. The Great Gatsby is about the potential rather than the actual, with the central message that “a dream realised is a dream destroyed” according to Sarah Churchwell in The Guardian. She argues that Baz Luhrmann’s forthcoming adaptation, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby, is doomed to failure because by its nature the film will try to visually realise the dream of Gatsby and his grand home. DiCaprio will inevitably be more prominent than Gatsby was in the book.

Jean Brodie too is a similarly enigmatic character, observed only from the viewpoint of others. She has her image like Gatsby and she is only ever seen putting on her front. She is remembered for a bunch of catchphrases, such as “you are the crème de la crème” and “I am in my prime”. In Muriel Spark’s novel (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie) the perspective jumps around between Brodie’s pupils but we never get to know her, just her influence on the lives of her protégés.

This doesn’t make her flat or two dimensional but it probably means she is not rounded either. This does not make her a bad example of characterisation. We are made to think about the people we know; do we really only know their public performances? And we imagine more than we are told or shown about Jean Brodie. Spark throws in glimpses of her pupils in the future, of their deaths and careers, prompting further questions about the novelist’s power and Brodie’s desire to manipulate. So we know aspects of her behaviour.

The narrative blends of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Great Gatsby are difficult to imagine on screen in quite the same way. Their stories would undoubtedly lose something or become narrowed on a particular aspect. There are narrative techniques that have no cinematic equivalent.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s Booker Prize winning The Remains of the Day was adapted for the screen by Merchant Ivory in 1993. It centres on one of the most fascinating characters of modern fiction, Stevens the butler, played by Anthony Hopkins in the film. It might be that the role of a butler is the perfect lens for a multi layered story about class, identity, personality, culture and repressed emotion. Or it might be the talents of Ishiguro and Hopkins. But on the page and the screen Stevens is incredibly lifelike.

Subtleties and methods employed in the novel cannot be replicated on screen. For example the parallel narratives are largely lost and most of all Stevens’ unreliable narration. He is looking back on his career with nostalgia and it doesn’t take long for you to realise in the book that Stevens is deceiving himself about the past, holding back things and regularly revising his retelling. But Ishiguro pulls of the style masterfully. The half truths Stevens tells and the things he claims to forget or confuse reveal greater truths about him to the reader.

On screen Hopkins has none of these advantages to introduce Stevens to us as something more than a servant. But he does have the benefit of the visual. He can communicate with an expression or look in his eye the sort of doubt, regret and reserve it took Ishiguro dozens of pages to build. And whilst Ishiguro’s execution was pitch perfect in The Remains of the Day his preference for the unreliable narrator took some considerable practice to get right. In a previous of novel of his, An Artist of the Floating World, passages like this appear so often at times, almost on every page, that they become extremely cumbersome and annoying:

“These, of course, may not have been the precise words I used that afternoon at the Tamagawa temple; for I have had cause to recount this particular scene many times before, and it is inevitable that with repeated retelling, such accounts begin to take on a life of their own.”

Here Ishiguro is trying so hard to create a complex character that he is constantly alerting us to his efforts, shattering the reader’s immersion in the story. He is basically overwriting. So screen adaptations can often ditch bad writing to bring out the best elements of a believable character for a good story. But then there are also bad actors.

Anthony Hopkins is undoubtedly a fine actor. With roles like Stevens and Hannibal Lecter, he has established himself as a respected and acclaimed “character actor”. This term usually refers only to eccentric or developed individuals in a story. Our favourite characters can be just as alive on the page or the screen; they are simply represented in different ways. But they also need not be eccentric, developed or rounded to be alive and touching. They can come in all shapes and sizes.

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DVD Review: Sliding Doors


What if? It’s a big question in all of our lives. What if I’d told her? What if we’d stayed together? What if I’d got that promotion? What if I’d worked harder in school? What if I had had just one more day with her and the chance to say goodbye? If we’re not careful we can get snowed in by “what ifs”.

 We have to keep our heads down to escape drowning in never-meant-to-bes or choking on could-have-beens. The possibilities that we spotted passing by out of reach haunt us as regrets. The second chances we never even noticed are too numerous to contemplate and tease us occasionally in our dreams. Let the “what ifs” talk too loudly and their chatter overpowers the everyday routine. Let them grow too tall and even the little things are given dark significance in their shadow.

Sliding Doors is a film about the little “what ifs” bunching together in mundane ordinary life until they have enormous individual consequences. When it was released in 1998 it was greeted by a mixed critical reception but it has since gone on to gain a dedicated following. It stars Gwyneth Paltrow as fashionable young Londoner Helen, complete with believable English accent, who is fired from her job at a PR company. She heads for home via the tube. The film follows two separate paths through her life; one in which she gets the train and one where she fractionally misses it, unable to squeeze through the sliding doors of the title.

The actor Peter Howitt wrote the script and directs a very grounded take on the idea of parallel universes and an alternate reality. The concept could have been lifted straight from sci-fi but Sliding Doors watches more like a meditation on the nature of fate, albeit with an uplifting rom-com tinge. One Helen, the one that gets the train, finds her boyfriend shagging his ex in her bed, only to fall for a handsome stranger. The other is delayed again and again until she arrives home late and unaware of the affair. She therefore carries on her life as normal, working flat out to support him as he “writes a novel”.

The plot is not all that clever, despite the engaging concept of two storylines running in tandem, and the dialogue is not especially witty or sharp. The real strength of Sliding Doors lies with the overlapping lives of rounded, likeable characters, well realised with accomplished performances. Paltrow is accessible rather than whiny in the lead role. John Hannah is convincingly charming and funny because of the way he says things, rather than what he says. John Lynch is a great actor, as he proves in the upcoming Ghosted, and he doesn’t come off badly here despite playing the cheating Gerry, who is often just left to look bumbling and British on the end of a full on feminine bollocking. Jeanne Tripplehorn plays mistress Lydia as a caricature but she serves a purpose and Gerry’s mate Russell (Douglas McFerran) down the pub is hilarious as the sensible one.

None of it is sublime, even the characterisation is simply above average for the genre. The acting is very good but not career defining. That said I really liked Sliding Doors. Its commonplace tone makes it all feel like it could happen to you. There are some slightly surprising twists in the climax and I was a little moved and amused in places. Its parting message is somehow both more resonant and bearable than most romantic comedies. Some things are inevitable. And there’s always hope.