Tag Archives: successful

Adapting good and successful novels: One Day, A Very Private Gentleman (The American) and Room


I’ve discussed the business of adapting books into films before on this blog, and indeed the increasing phenomenon of the adaptation as opposed to original screenplays. I’ve bemoaned the lack of creativity in the film industry, leading to such a focus on both true stories and transformations of already existing fiction dominating this year’s Oscars, for example. But for all my ranting and raving there’s something irresistible about a good adaptation, because if your source material’s good there’s a good chance your interpretation of it will be. It’s like a kind of quality guarantee.

Then again it’s a treacherous tightrope to walk, especially when you’re bringing not only a good novel but a commercially successful one to the screen. Films based on novels with a huge and devoted following will benefit from the diversity and commitment of that fan base at the box office, but perhaps also suffer critically if they don’t capture the brilliance of the book.

After mingling the words in your mind and arranging them on the page, watching their finely tuned order blossom into a bestseller and basking in the praise and revenue, it must be hard for an author to relinquish control of his characters, no matter what the financial compensations. This is presumably why many decide to remain attached to the cinematic versions of their creations as writer or producer or something, even with the risk of their original being tarnished and overshadowed.

David Nicholls did just this for the adaptation of his immensely successful One Day, choosing to write the screenplay himself. There is now a trailer online for the film, which can be seen over at Empire Magazine via this link: http://www.empireonline.com/news/story.asp?NID=30843

I was absolutely absorbed in One Day when I read it and funnily enough I think I read it in roughly one day. It’s one of those books that you have to try really hard not to call a “page turner” because of how limp and cliché that sounds. It really is difficult to put down though. It became an ever present feature of the landscape of bookshops for a long, long time and still lurks prominently in the shadows. No doubt it will enjoy a revival with the release of the film. It was not the usual sort of addictive trash either. There was an organic originality to the concept, a humour and truth to the writing. The two main characters, Dexter and Emma, were fabulously realised. It was at once epic and emotional, experimental and accessible.

It did divide critical opinion, but the overwhelming consensus was that it was a cracking read, a verdict echoed at tills across the country. It’s the story of Dexter and Emma, who meet and sleep together one day at the end of their time at Edinburgh University. In bed they discuss the future, their hopes, fears and dreams for it. The novel follows them on the same date of the year, whatever they’re doing, for every year that follows their meeting. It mostly focuses on their relationship as friends but also charts their development as people, journeying through alternative aspects of British history like dodgy 90s TV along the way.

It was quite a few months ago now that I read One Day but I am still excited about seeing its rebirth in cinemas. It will be difficult to bottle up the simultaneously intimate and epic feel of the book for the audience, but as I’ve said before what really matters is capturing the spirit, the essence and sentiment of a story. The trailer certainly seems to strike some of the right emotional chords, as One Day really was enormously touching and moving as well as gripping. It may simply be that my age, one of transition between worlds, allowed me to inhabit Dexter and Emma’s shoes perfectly and marvel at the rollercoaster of their lives, grounded in those student beginnings. But then again, One Day shows snapshots of its key characters at a variety of ages, so anyone should be able to jump right in and live their human journeys. Perhaps that is part of the secret to its appeal.

Three Cs are very important for a good adaptation: cutting, casting and creativity. Nicholls would certainly have had to ruthlessly cut chunks of his already lovingly crafted and edited novel for the screen, as well as find the right leads. Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess are the chosen ones, and they seem to fit the bill in the trailer, in spite of wavering accents on occasion, as Empire point out in their commentary on the footage. I’ve also recently seen and reviewed The American, starring George Clooney, which was based on the novel A Very Private Gentleman by Martin Booth. Screenwriter Rowan Joffe changed aspects of the story rather dramatically, including its conclusion, for a modern and cinematic update to the book. Despite my gripes about the increasing frequency of adaptations, it is possible to be really creative and bold with them, with the added benefit of a proven base material to work with. Joffe was certainly creative, as was Clooney, who needed to exhibit the right physical mannerisms to convey the book’s character in miniscule brush strokes, compared to Booth’s first person narration.

Having now both read the book and watched the film, Joffe appears to have done a good job in creating The American. And as I’ve said, perhaps what is most admirable is that he has created something, not merely transplanted the book to the screen, which can be the worst mistake when adapting something that’s already celebrated art. The original novel, written in the first person about a gun maker nearing retirement, was impossible to adapt as it was. It needed more drama and would lack the charismatic voice of the page. It needed new sources of charisma.

The film does drop key themes of the novel. Interestingly as a student of history, Booth’s recluse (known as Signor Farfalla or Mr Butterfly, as his cover is painting them) is outwardly repulsed by the idea of history and progress, unless it is the history of ordinary men. And yet his narration repeatedly comes back to the idea through imagery, symbolism and anecdotes. Mr Butterfly claims that he is truly influencing history by providing the weapons for assassination with deft craftsmanship behind the scenes. But what the novel hints at, which a film couldn’t do in the same way, is that the narrator is struggling with the idea that after his retirement no one will remember his life’s work. If he has altered history it is unnoticeably so. He never says as much but the light implications are there and extremely fascinating.

Booth was also a constant traveller, as well as a writer of history, which might explain Mr Butterfly’s anecdotes of the world and some of his eye for detail, along with his warped fascination with the past. One of the ways the film captures the incredibly vivid and visual style of the book is through director Anton Corbijn’s direction. Corbijn used to be a photographer, and in the film this becomes Clooney’s character’s cover and he never gains the nickname Signor Farfalla, only The American. This somewhat spoils Booth’s unassuming character blending into any background, but the essence of him remains the same and the parallels with the striking visuals of the film and the descriptions of the book are appropriate.

The American is a very minimalist and restrained production. You get more from the book in terms of the character, but still not a great deal, so Joffe reflects this with the dialogue. This is still a man in isolation with a unique existence, who forms meagre relationships that are still too much for a man of his profession. He is growing too susceptible to these ties with age. What I liked particularly about The American is that it stands alone from the book and one can be enjoyed without the other, just as well as the two together. They are distinctive and different but enjoyable entities of subtlety.

Of course some books should simply never be adapted. Something about them cannot be replicated and without this something any adaptation becomes a pointless exercise. A bad adaptation of such a book is painful and a great shame. I think that Room by Emma Donghue, shortlisted for last year’s Booker Prize, is such an un-adaptable book.

It’s been a while since I finished reading Room, and in any case my observations and insights would not compare to fellow blogger Tom Cat’s: http://tomcatintheredroom.wordpress.com/2010/08/12/room-emma-donoghue/

I will briefly say why I think any adaptation would fail however. Room is reliant on the first person narration of Jack, a five year old who has been imprisoned since birth in a small room with his mother. This is the controversial novel inspired by the Fritzl case. I was sceptical about reading it and presumed it to be an exercise in creative writing drawing rather shamefully off of ghastly deeds in the media.

After I read the first pages of Room however I was hooked enough to buy it. And Jack himself is never abused. The novel is bleak and harrowing at times, but usually because of what Jack doesn’t say. The obvious implications, for example when Jack counts the creaks in his mother’s bed from his hiding place of the wardrobe, are the chilling thing for the reader.

What Room is really about is a unique five year old, nurtured with extremely intimate and confined love from his mother. As Tom Cat points out in his review, the philosophical points potentially there to be explored are many. Instead of really delving these depths however Room is more intriguing for its characterisation of Jack and the original voice Donoghue gives him. He makes incredibly perceptive observations about the modern world through both his innocence and ignorance. Occasionally his impressive vocabulary doesn’t quite sit right and convince, despite it mostly being explained away by his intense education from an early age; sometimes Jack obviously uses Donoghue’s word or phrase rather than his own. But the fact that this only happens now and then is a remarkable achievement.

For the most part Room is a heartbreaking, funny and thrilling story that takes a fresh view of modern life and culture. Everything good about this story derives from Jack’s completely original and skilfully executed narrative voice though. Many of the reviews of Room call its concept unique, but it really isn’t that astounding, simply ripped from extensive news coverage. It’s the clever angle from which Donoghue approaches her story that’s so wonderful and this couldn’t be transformed into film, no matter how they attempted to do it. Voiceover would not work; we are witnessing the thoughts tumbling through Jack’s head not a commentary of events. Jack’s innocence wouldn’t transfer to the screen, so neither would the appeal and success of the novel.

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GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra – yes you read that correctly


I’ll start with a revelation; I paid actual money to own this on DVD. It was cheap, it was on offer, but nevertheless I handed over real currency. Why not just burn a wad of cash instead? The answer is that these days I am so enjoying wearing my critic’s hat that I actively sought out a film on the shelves of HMV that would prove the perfect target for a volley of vitriol on a day of frustration. Yes bad films can be painful to endure, but take a tip from me; write derisively about them afterwards and the whole experience is transformed into the best kind of therapy.

I also thought that given the hordes of superhero blockbusters soon set for release, a great many of which based on cinematically underused characters, it would be interesting to examine a film trying to establish a franchise. And more than likely point out all the areas it fails in, thus advising the big cheeses at Marvel and DC and the like, who all hang on my every word.

Having said this despite day after day of dismalness since I purchased GI Joe, days in which I could have done with a cleansing rant, I could not bring myself to sit down to watch it, knowing that watching the film itself would probably shovel manure onto my already foul smelling mood.

Now though the deed is done. All of GI Joe’s 113 minutes rammed down my eyeballs and willingly into the vaults of memory. My verdict will be far from surprising. As usual it’s simultaneously comforting and disheartening to have my own views almost precisely tally with the summary on Rotten Tomatoes:

While fans of the Hasbro toy franchise may revel in a bit of nostalgia, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra is largely a cartoonish, over-the-top action fest propelled by silly writing, inconsistent visual effects, and merely passable performances”

Yes I might be getting it right, but what’s the point in me if I don’t say anything new?

With this in mind then, here are some things that were surprising about GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra:

1)      It’s got a really impressive cast! People pop up from all over the world of film and TV, for even the slightest of roles, and in particular from places kids will love. There’s a Doctor Who being bad (a suitably evil and decent performance from Christopher Eccleston), the Mummy from The Mummy, the villain from Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies as the President, the guy who stops the Mummy in The Mummy, that cool street dance kid, her from Stardust, the serious one from Inception (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who’s soon to be in Batman too!) and that shouty scientist who saves the world from the inevitability of global warming in The Day After Tomorrow. I can only assume that all the American stars in this loved the toys and all the Brits were paid treasure chests full of booty for their unavoidably sinister accents.

2)      Talking of booty GI Joe has an awful lot of it for a family friendly action story. Dennis Quaid struts around as a General with a stunning beautiful assistant always to hand. Sienna Miller’s cleavage deserved its own recognition on the billboards. Red headed, blonde and brunette beauties are showcased in everything from skin tight “accelerator” suits, to tiny jogging tops or outfits made from 100% leather. Obviously to enjoy GI Joe at all you leave plausibility and realism at home. But there’s something disturbing about all this flesh for a potential franchise based on toys and a film with a 12 rating. It’s like the Playboy bunnies broke into Toys R Us and are teasing you before an orgy.

3)      I enjoyed (some of) it. Maybe it was just Sienna’s constant pouting. But the extended action set piece in Paris was quite creative at times; over the top and overflowing with visual effects for sure, but enjoyable compared to the other numerous grandstand battles.

The most annoying thing about GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra was its endless focus on the back-story of various characters. This is saying something. Most of its irritating faults are obvious; the wooden and unwatchable Channing Tatum, the relentless pointless noise, the other mechanical actors playing cartoon cut outs, the fact that the whole thing is a lifeless mess. Perhaps what was really annoying about the continual flashbacks and diversions to show how the characters all had past grudges against each other, was that it made GI Joe have ambitions that went beyond making noise. Almost as if they thought they were telling a narrative that could be called “engaging” or kick-starting a franchise that could be “successful”.

The very opening scene, with absolutely atrocious French and Scottish accents in the 17th century, tried far too hard to give the characters meaning and seemed redundant in reality. Studio chiefs take note: don’t fuck with history or flit through the past lives of your characters. Even if you’re trying to sell the toys they’re based on.