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Film adaptations: Mike Harris

People who go on to read a novel after first seeing the screen adaptation frequently complain that the original (especially if it's a classic) is slower and ‘heavier’ than the film it inspired, and it usually is. Someone who first made acquaintance with Shakespeare through Luhrmann's excellent, action-packed, streetwise but distinctly slimline version of William Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet (1996) will most certainly find the Bard's script both wordier and slower-paced.

Conversely, people who read and love novels are wont to complain that screen adaptations (especially of classics) are superficial because they change or miss out key story-lines or visualize characters and locations differently. How could they not? Tolstoy's great novel War and Peace (1863–9) ran for nearly eight hours in Sergei Bondarchuk's brilliant 1968 adaptation. But the 1,500 pages of the book itself would take a fast reader at least 50 hours to get through. Even allowing for the greater visual economy of their medium, film adapters just have to make cuts.

So why bother making adaptations at all? And why should we watch them? And if we like watching them, why we should we bother with the book afterwards? Beginning to answer all that involves taking a quick glance at a 100-year-old relationship between film and prose fiction that is both complicated and symbiotic.

Many of the great nineteenth-century novels were serialized in magazines before they appeared as books. These novels are frequently adapted for screen. That's not a coincidence. If these writers wanted their readers to keep coming back they had to capture their interest at the beginning of every episode and leave them in suspense at the end. To do this they resorted to attention-grabbing tricks as old as story-telling, but developed them into a sophisticated narrative form that used the actions of protagonists in extreme or sensational situations not only to sustain interest, excite emotion, and create suspense but to explore character, social values, and moral choices.

A few decades later the first silent movie producers had to maintain a similarly massive output whilst inventing a medium from scratch, and they looked to earlier forms (principally stage melodramas, short stories, and novels) for lots of cheap, off-the-peg content. Between 1896 and 1915 for example, there were at least 56 adaptations of Dickens, 6 Jane Eyres, 10 Uncle Tom's Cabins, 9 Dr Jekylls and umpteen Thomas Hardys. As films got longer and audiences more sophisticated, film companies began buying in writers. These were not infrequently novelists soaked in the conventions of nineteenth-century classics. None more so than Thomas Hardy himself, who was employed to edit story-captions for several of the many silent adaptations of his books. These writers naturally took the narrative form of the novel and—whether adapting existing texts or inventing entirely new screenplays—developed it for a visual medium that could communicate action, emotion, and character more economically. They then used that medium, just as the novel did, to explore character, social values, and moral choices, but for a world-wide audience of exploited urban workers who didn't have the leisure time for reading books.

At the same time cameramen and directors were remembering the great descriptive passages of prose fiction—for example that wonderful moving crane shot over the whole of London at the start of Dickens's Bleak House (1853), or the fast intercutting between two story-lines that adds pace and tension to the climax of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina (1873–7) or the tracking, panning, close–ups, flashbacks, and chaotic crowd scenes to be found in Thackeray, Zola, Hugo, and hundreds of lesser writers—and steadily transformed these into the basic vocabulary and grammar of film.

Then, as films became more culturally acceptable, and novelists employed as screenwriters used their ill-gotten gains to subsidize further novel writing, the techniques originally borrowed from the novel by film (but in it given greater pace and visual emphasis) were re-absorbed into prose fiction. So successfully and completely was this done that when (to take two examples more or less at random) Jean-Paul Sartre cuts rapidly back and forth between half-a-dozen developing narratives in The Reprieve (1945), or Roddy Doyle writes The Commitments (1988) almost entirely in racy idiomatic dialogue interspersed with the briefest of scene-setting, it is possible that neither is fully aware of the debt they owe to film, but no surprise that both books were remade into successful screen dramas. Conversely, when Hollywood guts classic novels on the grounds of slow pace or a lack of narrative hooks, they are obliviously (and ironically) applying rules derived ultimately from their authors.

None of this means, of course, that there aren't plenty of bad films made from great books. Fortunately, there are just as many great films made from bad books. David Lean's Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) takes a nasty xenophobic novel by Pierre Boulle and turns it into a visually stunning, moving satire on military honour and imperial pretensions. It would be impossible to even begin to list here the number of dime novels made into film westerns that have both moral dignity and visual grandeur, but start with John Ford's Stagecoach (1939). The same goes for the pulp detective stories transformed by Hollywood into brooding masterpieces of 1940s' film noir. The best of these writers—for example Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett—wrote screenplays as well, and put the lessons they learnt into great books that were in turn transformed back into great films like The Big Sleep (1946) and The Maltese Falcon (1941).

Occasionally, a good book is turned into an even better film. C. S. Forester's prose original of John Huston's The African Queen (1951) is a good enough page-turner but it unfortunately lacks the on-screen chemistry of Humphrey Bogart, playing the drunken tug-captain, and Katharine Hepburn's teetotal, sexually repressed missionary, learning to love each other whilst running the rapids and torpedoing a German warship.

Then again, good books often turn into equally good films. Visconti's Death in Venice (1971) captures exactly the mood of Thomas Mann's limpid, poignant novella about an ageing homosexual (played magnificently by Dirk Bogarde) obsessed with an angelically beautiful boy. And David Lean's Great Expectations (1946) might have cut a lot of the plot and half the characters from Dickens but it matched the original's brooding atmosphere, affecting sentimentality, and imaginative energy, and played it in public images twenty foot high.

This sheer scale, in combination with the shared immediacy of the cinema experience, can give a film adaptation a powerful edge, no matter how good the prose original. The violence in Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (1971) is no worse than in Anthony Burgess's dystopian novel, and the amoral pleasure taken in it by the teenage protagonist no less. But it was Kubrick's version that provoked the moral panic that caused Kubrick to withdraw his film in this country during his lifetime, and it is his images that stay in the mind, not Burgess's prose.

A film adaptation doesn't have to include a single word of dialogue, scene, or location from the original but can still gain from and illuminate it. Coppola's great film Apocalypse Now (1979) shares only the names of two characters and its theme with Joseph Conrad's equally great novel Heart of Darkness (1899). One is set in Vietnam during the 1970s, the other in the Belgian Congo before the First World War. Conrad's protagonist goes up river into the jungle to rescue Kurtz. Coppola's CIA assassin travels to kill him. Both works of art create an atmosphere that is simultaneously dangerous and surreal. Both delve deep into the heart of chaos and evil. To suggest that one was better or worse than the other would be absurd.

At the other end of the spectrum, a romantic college movie like Ten Things I Hate about You (1999) demonstrates how to breathe life into a stale and entirely trivial film-genre with an intelligent script that wittily acknowledges its debt to a greater literary original, in this case Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew. The debt can go the other way too. Choderlos de Laclos's wonderful but little-read eighteenth-century epistolary novel Les Liaisons dangereuses (1782), was brought to the top of the bookshop piles by Stephen Frears's wickedly faithful 1988 film adaptation, Dangerous Liaisons, in which Glenn Close plays the tragic procurer to John Malkovich's doomed seducer of Michelle Pfeiffer's tantalizing virtue.

Finally, there is the interesting case of films that do cheapen and simplify, that excise virtually all the ideas from their literary source, add hokey tunes, stupid dancing animals, and sentimentalize everything beyond all recognition, and are so different from the original book you wouldn't recognize it, but still produce wonderful popular art. The Disney cartoon version of Kipling's The Jungle Book (1967) is my example of this strange phenomenon. You will no doubt have your own …

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Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionAuthors on Fiction