I just commented on a blog post that asked the age-old question: Can a film ever truly beat a good book?
However, I think that is asking the wrong question. It’s like asking whether a good cheese can ever beat a truly good chocolate truffle? Or a good wine. Perhaps they should simply complement each other.
A film can certainly beat a bad book – many people cite Robert Bloch’s Pscyho. Others have mentioned Fight Club, which I didn’t know WAS a book to begin with. Hemingway’s To Have and To Have Not is barely recognizeable once it became the Lauren Bacall-Humphrey Bogart masterpiece. And to be honest, I prefer the movies written by Faulkner over his books.
I don’t see this as good or bad, just that film and books are entirely different media. I think a mistake people make – including sometimes the film-makers themselves – is in trying to ‘translate’ one to the other and try to make the movie simply a ‘version’ of the book. Audiences often expect this as well.
Film needs to be efficient in a way that novels do not – indeed the better novels I’ve read aren’t so quick – conveying as little as whatever will drive the next plot point along in little snippets. Most sub-plots and minor characters need to go as well. Part of the reason I read novels is the way they can indulge in details about the characters’ backgrounds, or explore larger themes or abstract ideas.
I’ve been working on a project where I’ve been writing both – I wrote a screenplay, and am now working on a novel; which is turning out very differently. At first the ‘novel version’ was written in the present tense, and while I did like the immediacy, after about ninety pages I changed my mind. For that very reason – I wanted to explore concepts that could only be alluded to in film.
Part of the problem is the nature of the Industry – the book was a hit, let’s capitalize on it and make some money. While it’s still hot. They might haul in the original author, who might not know the first thing about writing screenplays, or put more thought into the casting of Police Officer #2, or try too hard to adapt a novel whose story simply isn’t conducive to film (like Slaughterhouse Five) .
Some book lovers complain that film leaves little to the imagination, since now we “know” what the characters look like, or that house that was central to the story… But at the same time, film leaves a lot to the imagination as well, that novels sometimes don’t. It’s only the actor’s gestures we have to go on, a few snippets of dialogue or how they react to circumstances that let us know who they really are. We have to guess what their childhood trauma may have been, or why they feel strongly about a particular place, person or object in a way that can be conveyed in great detail in a written narrative. So while the scenery may no longer be left to our imagination, a lot of aspects of the character still can be.
Film is a visual medium first but unfortunately there is plenty of lazy or bad film-making these days on top of lazy or bad writing. Film is about spectacle, but it is also about seeing into someone else’s imagination, not just our own, and seeing someone else’s vision. Film inspired me to write as much as any novel ever did. Although I had my own vision of Alice in Wonderland or Charlie and the Chocolate factory growing up, I loved seeing how Tim Burton realized it as well.
A good adaptation should be like a good cover song – the artist takes the basics of it, but makes it something their own.