A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.
You would imagine that a great literary work would be treated with the utmost respect when being adapted for cinema. Animal Farm by George Orwell, for instance. To play fast and loose with this would be sacrilege surely? Of course you have to edit and simplify so everything sits comfortably in an hour and forty minutes but the basic ideas and story would remain, yes?
Well, no actually. The 1955 British made animation boldly (or stupidly) changed Orwell’s ending to one more palatable to its financial backers. In the film, instead of the famous humans and pigs scene, we get the animals overthrowing Napoleon’s brutal regime. In this cinema version, Snowball is a fanatical lunatic and It was important to the backers that Napoleon’s farm should be shown as ‘vastly worse’ than that of Jones before him. You see, it was the height of the Cold War and capitalism must not be shown in too bad a light.
To turn an expansive and many layered novel into a film script, a lot of butchery has to happen. Minor characters must disappear. Events and locations have to merge or go completely. Things that are discussed at length in the book will get little attention in the movie. There just isn’t the time. The skill in writing a screenplay is in reducing something without it feeling reduced. To lose detail without seeming to lose complexity. You have to make sure the film says what the book says – even though the book has a lot more time to say it in.
It’s no wonder then that the transfer from novel to movie is rarely successful.
Some writers just don’t make the transition at all. Martin Amis is a case in point. A recent BBC version of Money was painful to watch. I suspect ‘let’s do something with Nick Frost in it’ was the original thought. You can imagine a room of people shouting out names of fat cheeky characters from literature. To be fair though, it is hard to do Amis on the screen. Even his first novel, The Rachel Papers, the easiest to adapt I would have thought, manages to be one of the worst films
I’ve ever seen.
A contemporary of Amis’s, Ian McEwan, has had more luck on the big screen. One of my favourite film adaptations is of his book the Cement Garden. It was brilliantly adapted by Andrew Birkin with the help of McEwan himself. It was amazing that the director had created a world which was neither wholly the 1970s (when the book written) nor the 1990s (when the film was made). He managed to capture the spirit of the story perfectly.
The Cement Garden
Many of Ian McEwan’s books have transferred to cinema successfully. So why does McEwan’s writing adapt well and Martin Amis’s doesn’t? I think it’s because Amis uses his characters to explore ideas and McEwan uses ideas to explore character. So when most of the descriptive passages and inner dialogues are lost in the crossover to screenplay, what’s left are the words the characters say to each other, their actions and emotions.
F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is one of the most perfect novels ever written. It was first published ninety years ago but still feels fresh and always relevant. It’s main character is a man who uses his vast wealth for the sole purpose of recapturing a lost love. Its themes are money, class, greed. Old values and innocence battling vainly against new corporate forces. Gatsby holds big parties in the hope that, one night, his old flame will turn up. I’m convinced the only thing that attracted Baz Luhrmann to making a film of the Great Gatsby was the big party scenes. He puts everything into these sequences, including his tired old idea of having modern music instead of tunes contemporary to the setting. He seems to be less sure about the other parts of the story and this is fatal because if you get this adaptation wrong, it just comes across as a tedious love story with a bit of intrigue.
Again, it’s a book of ideas and if you don’t have the depth to put those ideas across then your film won’t work. Baz Luhrmann’s work ironically is all about surface and visuals – the last man who should be directing The Great Gatsby. But nobody has done it well. The closest was Jack Clayton’s version with Robert Redford as Gatsby but still it’s a pretty dull movie.
The real Jane Austen
One of the most annoying things a filmmaker can do is try and change a character to fit the Hollywood idea of who an audience will sympathise with. A good example of this is Fanny Price, the heroine of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. I love this book. It’s partly a study of shyness. Fanny is a quiet and reserved girl but she’s clever and opinionated. Her shyness makes her life difficult and Austen shows all this in such a beautifully observed way that you wonder if she was drawing
from her own experiences.
Patricia Rozema’s 1999 film of Mansfield Park pretty much does away with all this. Fanny becomes a feisty, spirited, even mischievous girl. Because quiet people are soooo boring yeah? Why make a film if you don’t actually like the main character? By changing Fanny’s personality, the story becomes confusing because so much depends upon the contrast between her and the people around her.
Interestingly Austen herself got this same treatment in 2007’s Becoming Jane. In which Jane Austen is transformed by Anne Hathaway into a beautiful and vivacious tearaway. Bestowing good looks posthumously on those didn’t have them always seems an odd thing to me. Let Nelson keep his arm and his eye! Let’s lose Mr Roosevelt’s wheelchair! Of course you wouldn’t. Yet film makers give characters physical beauty as if this wouldn’t have a big effect in real life.
The not real Jane Austen
Harper Lee loved the film version of To Kill A Mockingbird. I imagine this doesn’t happen very often. She remained a lifelong friend of Gregory Peck who played the lawyer Atticus Finch. There is nothing about that movie that isn’t right. It’s so faithful to the spirit of the book. Amazingly, there where few takers for the movie rights at the time of the book’s publication because it was thought there was no love interest or triumphant ending. I haven’t mentioned music so far but Elmer Bernstein’s score for this film is perfect. One of my favourite pieces music ever. Music can really help in an adaptation.
EM Forster books always seem to work on screen. I think this is because, like Ian McEwan, he’s interested in how people cope with extraordinary events – how characters change for the better or for the worse. Forster had a great talent for writing believable people and the relationships between them.
And this I think is the secret of successful film adaptations. Make sure you have characters that can stand on their own without the support of an author’s descriptions and explanations. If motivations are discussed at length on the page, a screenwriter and a director will have a task translating this into a movie. Or you could just change the characters, the story, the ending…
Transferring from book to screen – 5 good, 5 bad:
1. Oliver Twist (1948)
David Lean directs the Dickens’ classic.
2. The Go Between (1970)
Joseph Losey and Harold Pinter do a sterling job bringing the L P Hartley novel to the screen.
3. Sense And Sensibility (1995)
This is how you do Jane Austen! Ang Lee directs.
4. One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
Just brilliant mainly because of the cast but very true to the spirit of the book.
5. The Green Mile (1999)
Stephen King’s is an author who’s work is made for the screen. Frank Darabont directs.
1. Casino Royale (1966)
The amount of talent involved in this Bond film- Peter Sellers, Woody Allen, Orson Welles, John Huston! But it bewilders rather than entertains. It was a case of too many cooks. Burt Bacharach’s music is the only saving grace.
2. Absolute Beginners (1986)
A legendary disaster. It bears little resemblance to the Colin Macinnes novel of 1958. Mainly because Julien Temple decides to turn it into a big, bright, terrible musical. Baz Luhrmann probably liked it. And casting David Bowie usually turns out to be a rash move.
3. Bonfire Of The Vanities (1990)
I couldn’t finish the whole film due to its badness but everyone seems to agree that this is an awful adaptation of the Tom Wolfe novel.
4. Charlie And The Chocolate Factory (2005)
Tim Burton directs and manages to squeeze the warmth and soul out Roald Dahl’s much loved story. No mean feat. I love Johnny Depp but he just is not Willy Wonka. Gene Wilder is. Wes Anderson should have directed this.
5. One Day (2011)
Poor adaptation of the David Nicholls book. The author actually wrote the screenplay for this so no excuses there then. I don’t want to seem like I’ve got it in for Anne Hathaway but her bizarre accent is the green icing on a horrible cake.
Ged Adamson is a children’s writer and illustrator. His cartoons have been published in magazines, in books and appeared on film and TV. He’s been a storyboard artist and a caricaturist. Big influences on his work are Quentin Blake, Ronald Searle and James Gillray. He also works as a music composer.
He’s a London history enthusiast. He lives in Greenwich with his partner Helen and their son Rex. His first picture book, Elsie Clarke And The Vampire Hairdresser is published by Sky Pony Press. His second, Meet The McKaws, is out in 2014.