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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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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