A recent thread on Woman in the Dunes got me thinking – is the book better or the film? I thought both were very good, but prefer the book, because it got into more of the allegory than the film. However, other posters preferred the film, for their own good reasons. Sometimes it is a toss up, other times we can readily favour one or the other. Here a some other examples to think about:
Remains of the Day – book definitely better, because film was too literal and missed the irony and humour.
The Dead – film version better or on par – film captured all the nuances and brought them to life.
Ulysses – film version could not possibly capture richness of book.
Under the Volcano – book superior in every way to rather static film.
Room with a View – film brought the novel to life and superior.
Passage to India – dead heat – film version captured the nuance of the cave scene and film version of trial brought that section to life
Unbearable Lightness of Being – film slightly superior because it got at esence of story in such a wonderful way.
Maltese Falcon – film really brought the novel to life, so superior.
Dune – movie was a failure – did not capture the complex plot of film.
When a good book inspires a film adaptation, when do you think the book is superior to the film or vice versa or when is it too close to call? What are your examples?
I think that a schematic book works more often than not. It’s a kind of touchy thing to say, but a novel only half-conceived and half-executed (that is, the very opposite of e.g. Ulysses, Gatsby, Moby Dick, Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu and so on) is the most reliable source material for film adaptation. Many a potboiler or pulp novel has seeded a great work of film art; and, even more interestingly, many a great film is stocked with pulp devices. The standard length of a feature film is also not amenable to deep literary adaptation.
I can’t agree with you re Passage To India: I think the movie made very clear what profound differences lay between E.M. Forster, on one hand, and David Lean, on the other. It seems peculiar, even hubris, for literal-minded Lean to have taken up the Forster. It was more understandable when John Huston took up Under the Volcano, even though Lowry’s best qualities are purely literary.
There’s more virtue in, say, many a movie adaptation of Michael Critchton potboilers than in forgettable films based on truly great novels. Puzo’s The Godfather isn’t a novel for the ages; but what Coppola & Puzo made of it will still be watched avidly a century from now. Coppola as screenwriter alone couldn’t however distill what’s great in Gatsby (the result is forgettable).
It’d be interesting to tally what must be the great number of respectable-but-weak-and-forgettable movie adaptations of great novels…
Witkacy: You are right, let’s lower the bar here, and not limit the discussion to so-called “literary masterpieces”. Certainly, many bad books have made great films – the films are inherently better than the source material. I think you have it right, too, that a well-written book is very difficult to adapt and retain its nuances because of its length, literary technique, use of such forms as symbol and nuance that might be difficult to capture in a film. I think you are right, too, that a list of attempts that failed to adapt a great book would be much larger than a list of successful, or watchable, adaptations.
Perhaps the best literary adaptions for good books are the TV serial type, where the length alone allows a format that can really get into the plot and characters in a way a feature film cannot. Very successful serial adaptations include: Brideshead Revisited, Berlin Alexanderplatz, and the innumerable Austen TV serials.
Though I think you are right that Lean was usually a rather literal-minded.filmmaker, his adaptation of Passage to India worked surprisingly well for me. Sure, it could not convey all the hidden layers in the original, but I thought it a brilliant adaptation, nonetheless, and a fitting end to Lean’s career. I think it would be very easy to argue that his version of Dr. Zhivago is no match for the original story, and his version of it is literal-minded, indeed. Huston, who was so good at capturing the essence and mystery of Joyce’s short story, The Dead, seemed hopelessly over-extended in adapting Under the Volcano. Another book Huston never should have attempted was Moby Dick. Perhaps, that is a novel that defies filmming, as it is too literary.
Anyone else like to explore this topic or why Witkacy could well be on to something by sugesting pulp novels are maybe a better vehicle for filmmakers than highly literate works? When you have the best of both worlds, like Maltese Falcon (again directed by Huston), where Hammett was writing a superior type of ‘pulp novel’, then it can work very well when translated to film. Another example of a writer who was more pulp than literary would be Daphne du Maurier, whose stories translated into great films, like Rebecca. Charlotte Bronte has not fared so well, perhaps, with adaptations of Jane Eyre. Again, its very literary quality means, perhaps, that something is lost in translation, although I dearly love the Welles/Fontaine version of her novel.
one of the problems seems to be that as the era of the cinema progressed, fewer and fewer “great” novels have been produced as if the medium of film totally hijacked the process of storytelling. instead of writing the “next great american novel,” it seems that guys like charlie kaufman decided to look toward the image as a way to convey their written words.
it is a plight similar to that of poetry and popular music, in that, over the last half century, all the great poets wanted to be bob dylan, not dylan thomas.
the erudition on this thread is impressive.
i’m just here to say i’ve always thought peter brooks’ “lord of the flies” was an excellent transfer from book to film.
Some books suffer just because of length. You just can’t do justice to War and Peace or The Sot Weed Factor in an 2 hour format. Some novels are also written in a more visual style. I love Cormac McCarthy and thought No Country For Old Men was a very faithful adaption-but the book was written in a stripped down style that allows that. On the other hand Blood Meridian which is his masterpiece will probably disappoint as a film. Altho some novels which should be filmable always end up as lousy movies-Huckleberry Finn for one.