Recent years have witnessed a variety of books turned into Hollywood films, many greeted with blockbuster success. Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games is the latest in a proud line of recent page-screen adaptations; Shakespeare’s Coriolanus and Stephanie Plum’s One for the Money, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are; Alice Sebold’s Lovely Bones- all have stolen headlines for their respective silver screen conversion.
Cinema’s inter-related history with the world of literature is of course nothing new. From James Bond to Harry Potter, many directors and producing companies have looked upon book adaptations as a ‘safe bet.’ But increasingly, modern cinema seems to be on a surge of ‘revisiting’ classic books; There Will Be Blood, I Am Legend, Atonement… and the results vary from the catastrophic to the sublime. So, now seems as good a time as any to re-spark the old debate of should books be turned into films at all?
Well, in the case of McCarthy’s The Road it seems some indeed should. The Road is an oppressive, poignant book about a father’s fight for his son’s survival in a post-apocalyptic America, it is superb, and I was sceptical when I heard it was to be adapted into a film. The books’ punchy, efficient language allows the reader to conjure up his or her own personal nightmare in a way I didn’t think a movie could aspire to. Books made into films always seem somehow different to the image you had stored away when reading them, but, and this is a big but, in the case of The Road, the film added and complimented the book’s skeletal imagery. That, I suppose, is the crux of people’s objections to book-film adaptations, that even those film adaptations they enjoy are still so monotone they spoil the movie in the head. But sometimes the effect is well worth it, and can catapult a flagging book back into the spotlight.
The success of such adaptations also depends on the extent of change the film has undergone. In the case of Harry Potter the film’s were totally loyal to the book. So, too, were the Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons ( ScotCampus readers; do not watch if you’re a fan of Ewan McGregor) and both met popular if not critical acclaim. Other adaptations have been more ingenious in their translation, such as Apocalypse Now, very loosely-based on the superb Heart of Darkness, or the Coen Brothers Where Art Thou Now, extremely loosely-based on Homer’s Odyssey. I prefer the film to pluck aspects of the book and gather its own momentum, for which its medium is better suited- but The Road has questioned that premise.
The art of storytelling has never had as many mediums of broadcast as it has today, and the sharing and lending of ideas between medium’s is on the increase. Where metaphor, narration, internal dialogue and language have once reigned supreme, film now has more instruments to compete with the solitary journey of a novel; setting, soundtrack, pace, and increasingly computer graphics; all these can take viewers into more and more complex places, even if it takes all viewers to the same place.
Of course I will always say that books are better than films, but I am entirely bias and this is a book column. What I am worried about is the trend of modern filmmakers increasingly returning to old books; are they running out of ideas or just recasting them in a new life?