Saturday 21 April 2018

Page-turners to box-office flops

The big-screen version of The Secret Scripture hits cinemas this weekend, but it looks unlikely to have the same success as Sebastian Barry's award-winning novel, as he looks back at some hits and misses from the adaptation archives
Subtlety lost: Rooney Mara and Jack Raynor in the Secret Scripture
Subtlety lost: Rooney Mara and Jack Raynor in the Secret Scripture

Paul Whitington

Jim Sheridan's movie adaptation of Sebastian Barry's book The Secret Scripture was released yesterday. It stars Rooney Mara as Roseanne McNulty, a beautiful young woman who falls foul of an obsessive parish priest in 1940s Sligo and is institutionalised after falling pregnant. Vanessa Redgrave plays the older Rose, and Eric Bana is a young psychiatrist who becomes interested in her story.

Barry's novel won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and a Costa Award and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, but the big-screen version is unlikely to trouble film judges any time soon. While not exactly terrible, Secret Scripture strays early and often into stale national clichés, has a muddled narrative and includes coincidences so bizarre Charles Dickens himself would have hesitated to use them. Not all of these plot implausibilities were present in the novel, and much of its subtlety has been lost.

In fairness to Sheridan, adapting great novels for the screen is an incredibly tricky business, so much so that as a general rule, the better a book is, the worse the resulting film is likely to be. And as we'll see, bad books often make better films.

We mentioned Charles Dickens a moment ago, and the great man has posthumously endured some pretty dodgy adaptations, like the hopelessly dreary 1998 version of Great Expectations which starred a badly miscast Ethan Hawke as Pip and featured a ghastly turn from Robert De Niro as Magwitch.

But in 1946 a young David Lean used the same source material to create possibly the greatest literary adaptation of all time. His Great Expectations was a masterpiece of lyrical movie-making which translated Dickens' gift for scene-setting into some truly memorable set pieces, particularly the magnificently creepy opening sequence in which a young Pip is cornered by the escaped convict Magwitch in a lonely cemetery.

Lean proved that great literature can be transformed into classic cinema, and he did so again in 1947 with Oliver Twist. But it could be argued that Dickens' novels are more visual and film-friendly than most, and his work has been plundered by TV and movie-makers ever since.

Graham Greene is also popular with film-makers, and a good half-dozen of his novels have been turned into movies. The most famous film inspired by Greene's work is The Third Man, but the novella of the same name was a kind of first draft of Greene's own screenplay rather than a book in its own right.

The best Greene adaptation, therefore, has to be Brighton Rock - not the dull and derivative 2010 version, but the Boulting brothers' 1947 film. This gritty, stylish, riveting drama captured perfectly the seedy paranoia of Greene's novel, and starred 24-year-old Richard Attenborough as Pinkie Brown, a minor cog in a Brighton criminal gang who goes into a psychotic tailspin when his boss is killed in a knife fight. When Pinkie murders the killer, his crime is witnessed by an innocent young girl called Rose. Pinkie begins courting her in order to keep her quiet, but as he ponders a more permanent solution to his problem, his Catholic upbringing rears up to haunt him.

Brighton Rock was made less than a decade after Greene had written the novel, but when Alfred Hitchcock's 1940 film Rebecca went into production, the ink was barely dry on the Daphne du Maurier story that inspired it. It was Hitchcock's first American film, made under contract with David O Selznick, and the great director would later complain about how much control Selznick exerted over the film's final cut.

But Hitch did manage to retain du Maurier's wonderfully gothic atmosphere and sneak in some trademark flourishes of his own while Selznick was distracted by the release of his great pet project, Gone with the Wind.

Tens of millions of people have read To Kill a Mockingbird, Nelle Harper Lee's much loved rite-of-passage novel told through the eyes of the daughter of a small-town Southern American lawyer. Making a film of such a sensitively told story could easily have gone horribly wrong, but Robert Mulligan's 1962 movie was a sort of masterpiece. Gregory Peck is perfectly cast as Atticus Finch, the 1930s Alabama lawyer who risks everything defending a black man wrongly accused of rape.

But some great books seem impossible to turn into decent films. Critics are sentimental about the 1939 Hollywood film Wuthering Heights, but not me, because William Wyler and his writers reduced Emily Brontë's gothic tragedy to a slight melodrama by cutting out the second half of the novel and casting Laurence Olivier as a wishy-washy Heathcliff. Subsequent adaptations haven't been much better.

Sometimes book adaptations can please everyone except their author. Most people would consider Milos Forman's 1975 Oscar-winner One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest a near-masterpiece, but the original novel's author, Ken Kesey, hated it. The Beat author never tired of expressing his contempt for the production, and would later sue the producers.

Stanley Kubrick's The Shining often appears in lists of the top 10 horror films ever made, but author Stephen King described it as the only adaptation of his novels he could "remember hating". He objected to the casting of Jack Nicholson, and to Kubrick's diminishing of his novel's supernatural themes. He may also have objected to crazed late-night calls from the director asking him if he believed in God. I think The Shining is a great adaptation, but not exactly a faithful one.

Francis Ford Coppola used extraordinary imagination to transpose Joseph Conrad's 1899 novella Heart of Darkness to the 1970s, and the Vietnam War. Making Apocalypse Now almost killed Coppola, who had to cope with tropical storms, constant money problems, and the nightmare of working with Marlon Brando, but the result made all the suffering worthwhile.

Sam Mendes was unlucky not to earn more acclaim for Revolutionary Road, his impeccable 2008 adaptation of Richard Yates' 1961 novel exploring the antiseptic nightmare of 1950s suburbia. But good as it was, the film was so faithfully miserable that no one went to see it.

The Coen brothers' 2007 No Country for Old Men did rather better at the box office, but some cinema-goers were horrified by its faithfully bleak ending in which Javier Bardem's maniac contract killer walked away scot-free.

All in all, if you're going to adapt a book, you're safer sticking with pulp.

Peter Benchley's 1974 novel Jaws was an unsophisticated pot-boiler, and when Steven Spielberg read it, he disliked the human characters so much he wanted the shark to win. But the novel's ordinariness would give him free rein to make a splendid, career-making horror film.

Similarly, Mario Puzo's Godfather was purest pulp in terms of style, and contained none of the grand themes Coppola would explore in his 1972 film. He blew Puzo's tale of a vengeful mob dynasty into a pointed critique of ­America's obsession with monetary success.

Sometimes, though, a book is just so bad that any adaptation of it is doomed. The Da Vinci Code was always going to be irredeemably dumb, and one wonders why Tom Hanks and Ron Howard have persisted with the franchise. Money, perhaps?

Dingle international film festival

Today and tomorrow, various venues, Dingle, Co Kerry

The 17th Dingle International Film Festival takes place this weekend, and among the films featured will be the award-winning animations The Red Turtle and My Life as a Courgette, as well as a special showing of The Secret Scripture with director Jim Sheridan in attendance. The festival has always championed the work of Irish filmmakers, and tomorrow, a special event will celebrate the work of four female directors who all live in Dingle. Three of the four short films being screened are debuts, and include Colleen Grace Herlihy's Life is Short, Aine Ne Chiobhain's Tragoid I gCiarrai, Brenda Ne Shuilleabhain's Do Mharagadh Deanta and Elaine Kennedy's Uisce Beatha.

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