Adaptating our perception of film adaptations

Jack Allsopp questions whether film adaptations can ever match or even supersede their literary predecessor

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Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby Source: Vimeo

It is common knowledge amongst those culturally ‘in the know’, so to speak, that the on-screen version of a book is always worse than the original. Just look at The Hobbit, where Peter Jackson’s greed got the better of him, and whilst huge takings were gathered at the box office, purists and critics were generally sceptical of the quality of the trilogy. By contrast, Tolkien’s Hobbit is a universally loved tale, a book cherished across generations.

Similarly, Baz Lurhmann’s The Great Gatsby was widely, and rightly, derided for failing to capture the essence and the ethereal brilliance of Fitzgerald’s novel, which is a firm favourite in the English Literature A-level classroom. Fitzgerald, during his life, was of the opinion that none of the film adaptations of his novel would ever be good enough. In fact, he was known to walk out of screenings or on occasion would not even bother turning up.

Nonetheless, the assumption that a screen retelling of a book will inherently be inferior should be challenged. One of the strongest cases for this argument is that of Casino Royale. Rightly praised as an excellent film–Daniel Craig, Mads Mikkelsen, and Eva Green play out their roles with consummate ease. Bond is at his heart-stopping heroic best whilst Le Chiffre is sublimely sinister as the antagonist and Vesper Lynd is the ultimate femme fatale. However, those who have read Ian Fleming’s novel are almost always disappointed. Written in an arrogant and laddish style, the misogyny of the work is an unpleasant surprise. Not only this, but Bond car chases are bigger, better, and more visually breath-taking on the big screen than in the imagination.

Therefore, in some scenarios the opportunity presented to a screenwriter to rewrite and rework a story is one which opens up the original to the possibility of improvement. The same can also be said of The Night Manager, where Le Carre’s excessive focus on the bureaucratic elements of espionage and his smarmy tone, which at times borders on xenophobia, means that his novel is a boring, dated read. By contrast, the BBC TV adaptation shed these elements and produced a critically acclaimed mini-series.

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Further, the screen adaptation can also be successful and useful even when the quality of the original is not increased. Take Game of Thrones, which has become a global phenomenon over the course of the last seven years, as an example of this. George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is undoubtedly an excellent read and the plot of the written series has nuance, depth, and power that is impossible to squeeze into 60 minute weekly instalments over the course of a season. Whilst it would be wrong to diminish Martin’s achievements, the world of Westeros would not have reached such a large audience were it not for Benioff and Weiss who truncated Martin’s sprawling tomes down into something more digestible for the mass market.

To take a few more extreme examples, films like The Godfather, Fight Club, Goodfellas, and The Shining have all risen to become far more well-known than their respective literary ancestor, thereby raising the profile of the original book itself too. In some instances, films have turned written stories upside-down to create something more vibrant for a new audience. Westside Story is the classic case: a brilliant retelling of Romeo and Juliet where the Montagues and Capulets become the Jets and the Sharks thus turned Shakespeare’s play into a musical with greater contemporary appeal and acute social commentary. Also worth mentioning is the transformation of Heart of Darkness into Apocalypse Now, making the paranoid commentary on the horrors of imperialism relevant for a new generation.

Nevertheless, adaptations do not always go so smoothly. Gatsby teaches us that there are some books, which leave too much to the imagination so that any on-screen version will always fall short. Indeed, The Hobbit shows how Hollywood’s greed can sully the quality of great literature. But beyond this, adaptations have the potential to be eminently successful in creating something better and more relevant. This is not a judgment on whether one storytelling medium is superior to the other, but an observation on the relative merits of the visual versus the written. There are benefits that can sometimes be gained from reworking, re-crafting, and remaking stories to be watched rather than read.