The film > the novel: the great debate

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The films:

Where the Wild Things Are

I would never deny the original work’s brilliance. It’s a book that everyone loves, and has become, along with The Hungry Caterpillar, an indispensable part of every child’s bedtime. However, the gradual loss of my childhood imagination means that I can now only appreciate it on a nostalgic level; I see the wonderful illustration, I remember how it used to make me feel, but I’m no longer stirred. Spike Jonze’s adaptation, coupled with Karen O’s soundtrack, makes for a picture by turns epic and playful, and tips me headfirst back into Max’s mad world. The Wild Things are exactly as I remember them, but a feature length film allows for far greater depth of characterisation and closer exploration into Max’s home life which is welcome to the child in every grown up.

Hannah Riley

Gone With the Wind

Vivian Leigh and Clark Gable’s performances in Gone With the Wind bring Margaret Mitchell’s uninspiring Civil War translation of Vanity Fair to another level; as a novel it’s a tediously dull and decidedly unadventurous attempt at creating a classic, but as a film it’s an eviscerating portrait of the slow death of a relationship and the dangers of romantic illusion. Scarlett’s obsession with the milquetoast Ashley ossifies her, and Rhett attempts to buy her heart and fails. The film imparts a skepticism toward fairy-tale romance that makes the famous ending far more final – and affecting – than Mitchell intended. Gable and Leigh take the characters further in four hours than Mitchell does in 1,000 pages, proving that images often do speak louder than words.

Jenny Glennon

Harry Potter

This week, Harry Potter comes to an end. Well, not quite. So enormous and important is every detail of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows that the filmmakers have made the financially savvy decision to split the film into two parts. So, what we get is a rather truncated experience, mostly consisting of the three friends wandering around the countryside for two and a half hours. Critics’ reactions have been, on the whole, fairly underwhelmed, but even if the newest instalment of the series is a disappointment, it must still be acknowledged what an incredible achievement these seven (or eight) films have been. It may be an occasionally ungainly leviathan, but the gargantuan Potter franchise has done a huge amount of good.

The British film industry has had a huge boost from these home-grown films, while you’re unlikely to see such a prestigious cast elsewhere outside the Oscar ceremony. It’s also provided a launchpad for Alfonso Cuarón, director of Azkaban (still the high point of the series), to go on to great things – without Potter, we wouldn’t have Children of Men, one of the great dystopian visions of the new century. Purists may cry treason if one were to suggest that the films surpass the books in quality, but even if this is not the case, this is a franchise has undoubtedly had a hugely positive effect on the British film industry. You’ll miss it when it’s gone.

Ben Kirby

The books:

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin

De Bernières’s is a decent book. Its characters are credible, its plot successfully interweaves the life of a small Greek island with the larger narrative of war, and moments of violence and beauty are brought together through the motif of a mandolin. Sadly, John Madden’s 2001 film adaptation attacks the novel like the cinematic equivalent of an evil jellyfish.

Oh, the tragedy of Penelope Cruz’s life. She’s clearly too pretty to die in the German siege, and she pouts far too much to stay un-rescued for long. And why – why – would you make Nicholas Cage pretend to be a dashingly amorous Italian? The result is a frankly embarrassing display of Mr. Cage’s ability to look doe-eyed, and little else.

Worst of all, after a second or two of separation by war, Penelope and Nicholas are reunited in a stunningly truncated version of the book’s ending – still young, still beautiful and practically wearing the same clothes.

Gone is the rather sweet, stumbling conclusion to the book in which a crusty old Pelagia finally meets her wry Italian musician again. The whole point is surely that Corelli and Pelagia’s love must develop over decades of enforced distance from one another, so that it contrasts with the other types of love on show in the novel. Their romance in the film has barely more weight than Mandras’s initial lust for Pelagia.
Of course, no two-hour film can attempt to include every nuance of plot and description in a 500-pager (in Madden’s version the Greek, German and Italian characters understand each other with remarkable ease). But that means the film should concentrate on a few things and do them well, not just wash over the whole beautiful lot with a depressingly bland Hollywood patina.

Annabel James

The Iliad/Troy

My old Latin teacher used to love Troy. He’d get fed up of trying to explain the finer points of the deponent verb, throw his hands up in the air and fast forward the opening scene of Troy through to the bit where Achilles takes a running jump and plunges his sword up to the hilt in an eight-foot-tall man’s aorta.

Then I went to university, and instead of deponent verbs they made us handle 18 books of the Iliad in the original Greek. It was boring. It was really really boring. And then, quite suddenly, it was amazing. Homer builds up subtle structures of repetition and variation which look like a lack of imagination to the naked eye, but if you concentrate really hard you begin to notice just how the slightest difference in description or action can change an entire character.

And the violence – my God, the violence! One warrior gets hit by an arrow, and his head is said to bow like the head of a poppy weighed down by the rains. Another time, the Trojans are right up against the barricades of the Greek camp, and the Greeks are so desperate that they begin hurling stones from the walls, and Homer writes that the rocks fall like gusts of snow. Achilles’ artery-busting acrobatics seem a bit tame by comparison.

I went back to watch Troy again after Mods. To my astonishment, I couldn’t hate it. It’s crass, it’s reductive, it’s overacted and underscripted, but I felt a patronising affection for the film that is the real mark of the superiority of the book. It’s the kind of attitude where you think, ‘yeah, I see why an American would do that…’ I begin to see why my teacher used to play the film to 13-year-olds who couldn’t handle deponent verbs.

Oliver Moody

Northern Lights/The Golden Compass

While there were many worthy contenders for the coveted final slot and perhaps more ‘literary’ ones, it seemed churlish not to include one of the big fantasy films of the last ten years. We’ll cede that the Lord of the Rings adaptations are pretty good and that Harry Potter doesn’t completely destroy the magic of the film, but the film of Northern Lights is just dreadful. Pullman has generally been supportive of it, even saying that, ‘every film has to make changes to the story that the original book tells’ but it is difficult to suppose that he wouldn’t have been disappointed by the outcome.

The casting and look of the film are actually quite good. Dakota Blue Richards does a good job depicting the stormy heroine and the film won both the BAFTA Award and Academy Award for special effects, beating off the robots of Transformers. It is in the nuances of the book that the film falls so disappointingly short. In order to create family friendly fare it takes Pullman’s skyscrapers of thought, detail and imagination and replaces them with bungalows of boringness.

The film loses a lot of the structure, tension and violence of the original. It has been completely covered with sanitizing hand gel, any excitement spotted and painstakingly removed with tweezers. This is most obvious in the arena of religion, where it shies from portraying the strong anti-religious opinions put forward by Pullman in the books so as not to offend the key demographic of angry Christians. The Golden Compass shows that however much CGI and however many top quality actors you throw at a film, it just can’t beat the magic of a book.

Jamie Randall

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