Great novel, shame about the movie
'Slumdog Millionaire' excepted, why do so few literary classics translate well to the big screen, asks John Boland
Slumdog Millionaire was adapted from a book -- and a rather good book at that: Vikas Swarup's Q&A -- but it won the hearts of audiences worldwide, and of Academy Awards voters too, not because of its literary roots but because it's a real movie, pulsating with images and action, sound and movement. And though, courtesy of the source novel, it also has a really clever story to tell, it does so in exuberantly cinematic rather than in conventional literary terms.
Indeed, most of this year's cinematic nods to literature didn't fare too well at the Oscars. Yes, The Reader (based on Bernhard Schlink's novel) got Kate Winslet a Best Actress award, but two other heavy hitters got short shrift, though it must be said that the one virtue F Scott Fitzgerald's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button had over the film was brevity -- a few pages of whimsical silliness to be endured rather than almost three hours of growing older while watching Brad Pitt grow younger.
And Sam Mendes' bloodless version of Richard Yates's solemn (and, whisper it, overrated) Revolutionary Road came 10 years too late -- Mendes himself had covered the same landscape of suburban angst and ennui in American Beauty in 1999.
The Academy, in fact, has always been wary of movies based on acknowledged literary books. Look down the list of 81 Best Picture winners since 1929 and you'll find very few movies that took as their source material an accepted work of literature.
Yes, you'll encounter Olivier's Hamlet in 1948, Tony Richardson's Tom Jones in 1963 and (if you're being generous to Robert Bolt's play) Fred Zinnemann's A Man for All Seasons in 1966.
A decade later there's Milos Forman's version of Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest; in the '90s there was Schindler's List -- Steven Spielberg's adaptation of Thomas Keneally's Schindler's Ark -- and Anthony Minghella's film of Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient, while in the current decade only JRR Tolkien's The Lord Of The Rings and Cormac McCarthy's No Country For Old Men had their origins in literature.
This is odd. Books, after all, provide stories, without which no movie can be made, and good books provide characters that are so vividly and acutely realised you'd imagine they'd be a godsend to filmmakers.
But that's obviously not how it works, and part of the reason is that good books -- good novels, especially -- have a self-contained integrity to them that generally defies adaptation into another form: what works on the page only works on the page.
This is inseparable from the book's style, pulse and tone.
If the storyline is strong enough, brave adaptators may feel they can translate that to another medium, but how does anyone convincingly transfer the voice of the book? How do you take the wry, elegiac confidences of Nick Carraway's narrator in The Great Gatsby and make them work on screen?
You don't, as director Jack Clayton demonstrated in his funereally reverent 1974 version, with Robert Redford as a preening clothes horse rather than a figure of mystery. (In the 1949 version, Alan Ladd simply played him as a gangster, but at least the film was more fun.)
Scott Fitzgerald, though, is far from the only great American writer to prove himself utterly resistant to the best efforts of moviemakers.
Most of Ernest Hemingway's books have been filmed, though none with any artistic success (I'm thinking of The Snows of Kilimanjaro and The Old Man And The Sea), and the same is true for such predecessors as Hawthorne, Melville and Twain (can no one come up with a good Huck Finn?) and such revered successors as Saul Bellow, John Updike and Philip Roth -- the movie of the latter's masterly novel The Human Stain was a disaster, not least in its miscasting of Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman.
Classic books on this side of the Atlantic have shown themselves to be equally allergic to adaptation.
You would think that Dickens, with his extraordinary characters and his mastery of storytelling, would be manna to filmmakers, yet though television has sometimes done him proud, David Lean's 1946 Great Expectations has been the only truly notable movie. Trollope, meanwhile, has been entirely shunned by the studios, despite his memorable characters and intricate plots.
Jane Austen has fared better -- the 1940 Olivier-Greer Garson Pride and Prejudice is polished and witty, Ang Lee's 1995 Sense and Sensibility is alert and charming, and Roger Michell's 1995 Persuasion, with Amanda Root and Ciaran Hinds, is the real thing: an imaginatively realised transference of the book into satisfying visual and emotional terms. Even in these films, though, you miss the author's unmistakable and untranslatable voice.
In 1997 Iain Softley made an arresting film of Henry James's The Wings Of The Dove, but James has generally defeated filmmakers, who seem to think that old buildings and heiresses are all that he's on about. Mind you, money and tradition are also at the soul of Lampedusa's great novel, The Leopard, and Luchino Visconti made its cinematic version a masterpiece, too -- possibly because of his own aristocratic background. But where are the great films of such other classics as Madame Bovary, The Red And The Black, War And Peace, Anna Karenina or Crime and Punishment?
As for most 20th Century English writers, EM Forster has been reduced to National Heritage prettiness (with Helena Bonham Carter as his representative on earth); valiant attempts have been made to capture the essence of Graham Greene, though he continues to elude his cinematic disciples; while no moviemaker has had the remotest idea of what Evelyn Waugh's comic genius was about -- most of his books remain unadapted.
In our own time, there's been no persuasive version of Martin Amis or Ian McEwan, unless you count the much-praised but hollow movie of the latter's Atonement, which I certainly don't.
Irish literature has proved similarly intractable, with a couple of notable exceptions -- John Huston's 1987 film of The Dead, a poignantly imagined and beautifully played account of Joyce's great story, and Neil Jordan's 1997 version of Patrick McCabe's The Butcher Boy, which captures the nightmarish claustrophobia and the growing madness of the original.
Honorable mention should go, too, to Jack Clayton's 1987 film of Brian Moore's The Lonely Passion Of Judith Hearne and to Atom Egoyan's 1999 account of William Trevor's Felicia's Journey, neither of which disgraced their source material.
But the unavoidable fact remains: good books generally don't make for good movies. Bad books, on the other hand, often do. Mario Puzo's bestseller The Godfather wouldn't detain lovers of good prose but Francis Coppola found in it exactly what he wanted -- a terrific story. Steven Spielberg found the same in Peter Benchley's ill-written Jaws, and Alfred Hitchcock made a cinematic masterpiece from Robert Bloch's trashy shocker Psycho.
Thrillers, of course, are an obvious source for movies -- they have plot, they have clearly defined characters and their basic motor is violence.
Some thriller writers have been well served cinematically, though others have been oddly ignored: where are the movies from books by Ross McDonald, Ed McBain or even Patricia Cornwell? But Dashiell Hammett has transferred well to screen (The Maltese Falcon especially), as has Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye).
And in our own day, Elmore Leonard has been the source of some terrific movies -- not just the peerless Jackie Brown or the winning Out Of Sight, but the underrated Cat Chaser, too, made in 1989 by Abel Ferrara.
There have been some stinkers made from his books, too, but Leonard is wise enough to know that as a writer your best bet is to take the money and let the studio get on with whatever it's going to do to your masterpiece.
Just before he filmed Jackie Brown, director Quentin Tarantino phoned Leonard to tell him of his plans, among which were his wish to change the main character's name from Jackie Burke and to have her played by a black actress. So what did Leonard think of that? The author replied: "My book, Quentin; your movie."