Projecting pages: When books become films

Taking books to the screen has long made up much of the film industry's output. We look at the creative issues involved in the process, and then on to some of the most interesting recent and upcoming literary adaptations.

Article by Alan Bett | 06 Jan 2016
  • Projecting Pages

It could be argued that The Shining’s most terrifying moment came 32 years after its original release, in Room 237, a 2012 documentary which pondered conspiracy theories in relation to Kubrick’s film – these range from accusations of moon-landing fakery, to war, genocide and holocaust. When Kubrick’s wife Christiane denied the Apollo theory she was informed that this decision was no longer the filmmaker's to make.

The ownership of meaning is fleeting; once a creative work exists within the public domain it becomes whatever the consumer wishes it to be. “That is the nature of the tragedy,” suggests Harlan Ellison, the legendary curmudgeon of genre fiction, in his introduction to the classic short story collection Strange Wine. “The work is mine only when it is being done. Thereafter it must be remanded to the custody of the readers.”

Imagine when that custodian is the film industry, transforming the printed word into a whole new technicolor format. It’s a situation all the more common in an increasingly risk-averse Hollywood, where most of our multiplex offerings originate. It is a film industry obsessed with sequels, adaptations and their ready-made audiences.

Taking literature to the screen historically makes up around a third of Hollywood’s output, a fraction that looks set to increase. These adaptations encompass everything from old classics (Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd) to more modern classics (Patricia Highsmith’s Carol), and some, well, less-than-classic (Fifty Shades and its planned 2017 sequel). Browse a list of movies released in 2015 or scheduled for 2016 and you’ll find that entirely original works have become almost a curio in mainstream cinema.

Author Stephen King rejected Kubrick’s Shining, seeming to understand before any other that the filmmaker simply used his work as a frame to hang techniques of subliminal messaging, gleaned from the wonderful world of advertising.

Blurred vision: directors versus authors

On this subject of mistreated authors, a few years back The Filmhouse in Edinburgh hosted an embarrassingly empty screening of Clockers, with its author, Richard Price, moonlighting from the Edinburgh International Book Festival for a post-film Q&A. He explained, rather bitterly, that the on-screen interpretation of his grand work was a bastard child. Loyalty to the text proved impossible with the performers instructed by filmmaker Spike Lee not to read Price's book. It is solely Lee’s vision on screen, his tics and foibles, his mastery and verve, his glaring errors and blind arrogance.

How can a character born on the page be fully interpreted when the actor has no link to its source or is used simply as a visual prop – moved around the set like a piece on a chessboard, as lead performer Donatas Banionis begrudged in Solaris, Tarkovsky’s (admittedly masterful) adaptation of the work of Soviet sci-fi supremo Stanislaw Lem. To flip this argument from the tragedy of Price’s mutilated masterpiece, many wonderful works of cinema have come from the most indifferent, or at least unassuming, literature. Harry Grey’s 1952 pulp potboiler The Hoods was adapted into Sergio Leone’s beautifully operatic Once Upon a Time in America. There Will be Blood was the butterfly to emerge from the middling 1927 novel Oil!.

Andrea Mullaney is a journalist who also tackles literary adaptations in her Now Read the Book course at the University of Glasgow. Following an appearance on BBC Radio Scotland's Culture Café (as it was known at the time), Mullaney suggested in conversation: “It used to be accepted critical wisdom that it was easier to make a great film of a second-rate book than a masterpiece. I guess because it's hard to improve upon a classic and the paring away necessary to condense it into a film means you're losing important stuff.”

Further successes come from novels of bold and simple visuals rather than abstracts or mental interiors – perhaps why graphic novels generally translate well (Neil Gaiman’s hugely anticipated The Sandman may present the greatest challenge, when it finally, finally released). With the recent adaptation of Andy Weir’s debut novel The Martian – a narrative almost solely confined to the thoughts inside an astronaut’s helmet-clad head – director Ridley Scott was forced to expand upon secondary characters and add broader melo- to the taut personal drama of the book.

He has now turned his producer's hand to television for the serialised adaptation of the Philip K Dick classic, The Man in the High Castle. Game of Thrones further supports the argument that TV is now considered the grander canvas. “A movie has more in common with a short story than a novel,” Nigerian director Biyi Bandele told The Skinny last year, while screening his adaptation of the epic novel Half of a Yellow Sun. “If you’re going to make a completely literally faithful adaptation of a novel you shouldn’t make a movie, you should make a TV series.”

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The 'literary' end of literature throws up its own specific problems. Poetry of language must be represented through poetry of image rather than simple recitation of words – which is perhaps why John Fante’s lyrical masterpiece Ask the Dust failed (tellingly it was directed by ace wordsmith Bob Towne – the creative force behind the Chinatown script), and why, hopefully, Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon will not. “The big thing about the book is that we get to be in [central character] Anaïs’ head,” Fagan suggested to The Skinny last year, considering the challenge. “How do I get to translate that to the film without consistently relying on voiceover or some device like that? It’s trying to find the poetry in the images.”

Adaptations often achieve success (signposted perhaps by the linguistic parallel) when author meets auteur. French New Wave master Francois Truffaut believed certain film directors to be the author of what appears on screen. He provided evidence for this theory with his own personal Fahrenheit 451 adaptation in 1966.

There are many examples to show that when visionary meets visionary things often go well. Darren Aronofsky’s technical experimentation matches Hubert Selby Jr’s hip prose in Requiem for a Dream – a contest which must be declared a draw. As is The Tin Drum, Volker Schlondorff’s Palme d’Or-winning reinterpretation of the sadly departed master fabulist Günter Grass. When, with Dr Zhivago, Pasternak and Lean go head to head like cultural sumos, we are left with two colossal and immovable works of art.

What sets these apart is that they are re-imaginings rather than moving replications. (Further evidence – as ironic as it appears to be – is that Blade Runner, a work re-released in 2015 and rooted in themes of replication, is significantly distinct from Philip K. Dick’s source novel). A sequel of sorts is currently in the works with encouraging names attached, including Denis Villeneuve, director of the awesome Sicario.

An adaptation need not draw its own audience, it inherits one and often squanders that inheritance – occasionally more than once. Hollywood struck out after three feeble swipes at Richard Matheson’s dystopian classic I Am Legend (Will Smith proving the nadir), prompting the author to ponder, “I don’t know why Hollywood is fascinated by my book when they never care to film it as I wrote it.”

Unfilmable novels and new technology

In a reversal, the cinematic works often lead viewers back to the source novel.  Hopefully this proves the case for Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song, adapted with beautiful strokes by Terence Davies, and also for Frankenstein – not a book you would imagine needs a promotional boost, but remember, it is not Shelley’s creature that inspires Halloween costumes each year; it is Karloff in the 1931 screen original.

The written word is open to glorious interpretation while film provides us with a shared representation. 2015 witnessed the mostly derided Victor Frankenstein, an adaptation of sorts starring James McAvoy and Daniel Radcliffe and featuring a main character not even present in Shelley’s work – Igor, the hunchback servant of mixed origins (Fritz in the 31 original, Bela Lugosi’s Ygor in the sequels). In this era of image, film rules the cultural landscape, in this case eclipsing the literary origin.

All that (depending upon opinion) saves or impedes certain novels from on-screen interpretation is the term ‘unfilmable’, although filmmakers occasionally test this maxim. David  Cronenberg is one great director who has followed this road to failure (in adapting JG Ballard’s Crash), admirable failure (William Burroughs' The Naked Lunch) and abject failure (Don DeLillo's Cosmopolis). Ben Wheatley has also tackled Ballard – already used to dividing opinion, it seems Wheatley will do so once again with the general release of High-Rise in March.

The film – snubbed by Cannes – has received wildly varying treatment from reviewers. Yet the term ‘unfilmable’ is less relevant now, and Andrea Mullaney suggests, “We've seen film technology and sophistication increase so that almost anything that can be written about can be translated into film.” Life of Pi could hardly have been considered merely a decade ago. So, for those who are precious, think of your favourite literary work, and – to borrow the famous tagline of a film, remade from a previous film, inspired by a short story – be afraid. Be very afraid.