From Page to Picture: The Dilemmas of Adaptation

By Paul Millward,

As someone who has always been hopelessly in love with both the printed word and the moving image, I have over the years, watched with varying degrees of discomfort, many dearly cherished novels materialise before my eyes on celluloid in sometimes shockingly distorted ways. I have often been left wondering if it is even possible to successfully and comprehensively condense a deep and complex novel into a commercially viable film. Can the movie ever be much more than just a glorified trailer for the book?

But why is the film industry so dependent upon books? It may seem a strange notion, given how old and established the film industry is, but I have for many years now felt that cinema has yet to fulfill its true potential as an art form. I believe this is in large part due to its continued reliance upon books and literature for its source material. Film is a visual medium and should be originally conceived in the form of images rather than words.

Novelists make food for thought, Hollywood sells candyfloss. It’s such an incongruous partnership. But if film makers will insist on using highly acclaimed serious novels for their material, then the least they can do is offer a glimmer of respect to the author’s work.There are moments when I sit in movie theaters wondering what on earth the film maker’s motives were for purchasing the rights to a novel they had no intention of depicting, choosing instead to take from the book the title alone and then create a different story entirely. Is it a purely cynical business ploy to take the brand value of a well-known novel in order to raise the finance to make another film altogether?

One such memorable occasion was my disastrous decision to buy a ticket to see Steven Spielberg’s version of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Color Purple. This book is one of the most emotionally powerful books I have ever had the experience of reading, yet right from the opening credits, I knew I was in a world quite alien to the one which Alice Walker had created in her seminal book.

What was unfolding before my eyes on screen in those opening minutes was an evocation of childhood innocence. Yet this film was supposedly based on a novel that unflinchingly and honestly deals with child sex abuse and the sexual and physical abuse of women in general. The film seemed to largely ignore the graphic, painful incidents described in the book—the very events which make the story so powerful. It seemed like a whitewash, as if the film makers were in denial of the book’s true content.

Its not as if Spielberg is afraid to deal with unpleasant subject matter. His 1993 masterpiece Schindler’s List, based on the novel Schindler’s Ark by Thomas Keneally, deals admirably with the Holocaust in a way which honors the men and women who suffered in the Nazi death camps, unlike The Color Purple which seems more a betrayal of Alice Walker’s characters. I’m sure this is not at all what Steven Spielberg intended to do with The Color Purple, but it does show how easily such adaptations can go wildly astray.

Sadly, cinema history is littered with films which, even when they succeed as films in their own right, are absolute travesties of the books they are purporting to represent. Sometimes such books have been repeatedly adapted for the cinema without any version successfully rendering the truth of the works they are based on. One such book is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, the real essence of which seems to elude film makers. The lavish 1974 screen version staring Robert Redford as Gatsby, was already the film industry’s third attempt at grappling with this American classic. Yet despite looking fabulous (the out door party scenes are enchanting) Redford gives a strangely flat performance which fails to convey the character’s complexity.

Baz Luhrmann’s recent 2013 version though, makes the 1974 version look positively minimalist. It is a ludicrously overblown film, so in love with 1920’s glamour that, like its predecessors, it fails to notice that the story is essentially about the shallow emptiness of the world it is depicting.

Another book which has been repeatedly abused is Emily Brontë’s 1847 classic of English literature, Wuthering Heights. This is one of my very favorite novels, one which was already firmly held as a precious work of genius in my mind when the opportunity arose for me to view the celebrated 1939 film version. I was thrilled at the prospect: Laurence Olivier, the greatest classical actor of his generation, was playing Heathcliff. The film had won the 1939 New York Film Critics Award and had received eight Oscar nominations. What could possibly go wrong?

Quite a lot as it turned out. The film proved to be a monumental disappointment on the scale of The Color Purple. Hollywood had managed to transform my beloved Wuthering Heights into a simpering, wet romance, more akin to a mediocre Mills and Boon saga than Emily Brontë’s wild and passionate story of transcendental love. And then, most bizarre and baffling of all, the film suddenly ends half way through the story, an unforgivable omission to me, but one which seemed to act as a precedent for nearly all subsequent versions.

This is a novel which film makers just cannot resist mauling. There have been numerous film adaptations since the 1939 Olivier fiasco, yet they almost invariably end with Cathy’s physical death, the very moment the story gets really interesting. The 1970 version, directed by Robert Fuest, initially looked like a more promising proposition. It starred another great classical actor, Timothy Dalton, a man who seemed tailor made to play the brooding, intense Heathcliff. But like the 1939 version, the film only covers the first 16 chapters of the 34 chapters available, and again ends with Cathy’s death, completely ignoring the story of her children. The film was a failure at the box office, and after completing my own viewing of it, I was left wondering whether any film would ever be able to capture the real Cathy, or would she forever roam about the wild moors of my imagination alone and formless.

The 1992 version, staring Ralph Fiennes as Heathcliff and the normally wonderful Juliette Binoche as Cathy, was another mediocre anti-climax. The film was poorly received by the critics but unlike most of its cousins, it did at least attempt to portray the whole story which included Cathy’s offspring, the second generation of characters. More recently there has been Andrea Arnold’s 2011 adaptation, a much starker, more elemental version, one clearly determined to reflect the more brutalist aspects of the novel. But yet again, the second half of the book is entirely omitted, just like the 1939 version.

I still await a genuinely authentic filmed dramatization of Wuthering Heights. Maybe I am expecting too much. Maybe it’s just not possible to transfer onto celluloid the peculiar essence of Emily Brontë’s prose. Can Kathy and Heathcliff’s unique spiritual bond of all consuming love and longing exist outside of our imaginations? For the joy of reading is the world we create in our minds from the words on the pages before our eyes. Can the Cathy and Heathcliff who exist in our hearts and minds ever be manifested in physical form by mere human actors outside the pages of a book dreamed up by a young girl, all those many years ago, in some remote region of the untamed Yorkshire moors?

I’m not really sure of the answers to these difficult questions, but the kind of cinematic disasters described above have convinced me of one thing: it is nearly always better to try to see the film first before reading the book. A classic book is almost certain to be superior to its movie version, no matter how well made. Novels by their very nature are generally more substantial than films. How can a two hour film compete with the full depth of a writer’s ideas explored over hundreds of pages of words?

Novelists have an unfair advantage over movie makers: they can directly describe and communicate to the reader absolutely anything they wish. Writers can describe at great length the deepest thoughts and feelings of all their characters. They can communicate to the reader the ideas and themes which underpin their stories as subtly or as obviously as they choose. They have complete control over the world they are creating. It’s one of the most exciting aspects of novel writing: complete freedom.

The film maker is more restricted: everything which he wishes to communicate to his audience has to be conveyed either visually or through the dialogue of the characters. Little wonder that some film makers resort to the contrivance of the “voice over” in an attempt to subvert these limitations.

These difficulties do not apply to serious books alone. Comedy writing can be equally thwart with problems for the film maker, as exemplified by the 2005 screen version of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The true genius of Adams’ comedic writing lie in his meandering, mind bogglingly imaginative diversions from the main story line. The film chose to ignore much of Adams’ side splittingly hilarious lines in favor of dumbed down, visual humor which proved leaden and tedious.

But of all the great writers, it has often struck me that DH Lawrence must be one of the most difficult to to translate to the screen. So much of his writing is about the deep, subconscious psychological and emotional dynamics which exists between his characters. And then there are all the beautiful passages of poetic prose, the cornerstone of his greatness, which cannot be filmed:

Here the stone leapt up from the plain of earth, leapt up in a manifold, clustered desire each time, up, away from the horizontal earth, through twilight and dusk and the whole range of desire, through the swerving, the declination, ah, to the ecstasy, the touch, to the meeting and the consumamation, the meeting, the clasp, the close embrace, the neautrality, the perfect, swooning consummation, the timeless ecstasy. There his soul remained, at the apex of the arch, clinched in the timeless escstasy, consummated. (Extract from The Rainbow by DH Lawrence)

As a youth I was besotted with DH Lawrence and obsessed with Women in Love, a book I repeatedly reread as if hypnotised by the potency of Lawrence’s prose. It was therefore with some trepidation that I settled down late one evening to watch Ken Russell’s 1969 Oscar winning screen version for the first time: was I setting myself up for another colossal let- down?

On the contrary, I was absolutely swept away by Russell’s exhilarating and dazzling interpretation of the story and it remains one of my favorite films to this day. Many movie and TV versions of Lawrence’s books are almost too reverential to the text and attempt to film the unfilmable, relegating them to the “worthy but dull” category. Russell somehow seems to effortlessly sidestep all these potential pitfalls in Women in Love. The maverick film director has used the full extent of his wild and vivid imagination to conjure up from the pages of the book a vibrant, colorful world brimming with energy, wit and style, without ever giving short thrift to Lawrence’s visionary intelligence.

Women in Love proved to me that it is possible to make a great movie from a classic work of literature when the project is placed in the hands of a daring genius. Ken Russell’s adaptation of this great novel is a film genuinely worthy of its source, full of powerful, striking scenes which dramatically capture Lawrence’s intensity. It is teeming with unforgettable visual set pieces: the newly wed drowned lovers forever caught embracing at the bottom of the drained lake, the extraordinarily visceral naked male wrestling contest, an inspired Glenda Jackson as the bohemian Gudren dancing amongst cattle in a meadow, the beautiful lyrically choreographed courtship movement leading to Birkin’s and Ursula’s first kiss. The film is a veritable feast of visual delights which reflect Lawrence’s passion, sensuality and desire to connect with the primal forces of nature.

Then there are wonderfully successful films which are clearly, and quite deliberately, different to the classic books they are supposedly based upon, whereby both film and book can continue to be equally admired despite their disparities. Hollywood’s take on Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, is a feel- good romance with a happy ending, totally at odds with the book, but who could ever resist Audrey Hepbern as Holly Golightly singing Moon River?

Which begs the question: should we not be judging a film entirely on its own merits, regardless of the quality or nature of its source material? After all, Shakespeare based his plays on source material which he transformed out of all recognition, and not too many people are complaining about that. Can we really justify criticizing an enormously popular film, enjoyed by millions of people around the world, simply because it does not exactly replicate the book, or satisfy our own personal vision of it?

The James Bond Franchise is an example of a remarkably successful film series which has veered away considerably from its source material, the original Ian Fleming novels. Yet both the novels and the films remain hugely enjoyable in their own right. The first Bond movie, Dr No, was made in 1962 on a relatively restricted budget, but was successful largely because of its authentic adherence to much of the book’s characterization and plot.

But of course it was the sexual charisma of Sean Connery and Ursula Andress which has endeared that particular film to the general public, and by the mid-sixties, with blockbusters like Goldfinger and Thunderball, the films were already forming their own separate identity, far away from Fleming’s original creations. The Bond movies were becoming increasingly dominated by girls, gadgets and glamour, yet their appeal is irresistible and a perfect match for the swinging sixties.

Since the appointment of Daniel Craig as 007 in 2005, the Franchise has re-invented itself. Casino Royale, The first movie starring Craig, was a surprisingly serious film and the best Bond movie for many years. I believe its success owes a great deal to the decision to take Bond back to his roots. The film is much closer to Ian Fleming’s original book, giving it an authenticity and credibility which the previous lighter, fantasy based films lacked, however enjoyable they were to watch. Authenticity is important in all artistic endeavors and when films distant themselves too far from their source, the characters begin to lose their soul.

But one of the greatest movies I have ever seen is The Deer Hunter, an epic movie which is not based on a book, but on original ideas developed purely for the cinema. Superior original screen play movies like this suggest to me that the best approach is for a film to be initially conceived as a film, not as a book which then has to be translated to the very different medium of cinema. The Deer Hunter is artistically successful because it makes its points incredibly well through the use of visual imagery, without having to deal with the difficulties of trying to transform lengthy word descriptions into succinct photo images.

Great writers are great because they can write. Therefore the true greatness of such literary giants as a Proust or a Flaubert for example, (whose genius lies in the beauty and poetry of their words) cannot be transferred onto film. But film directors can also be great poets, great visual poets, if only they were willing to relinquish their reliance on literature. I still believe cinema has yet to truly find itself as an art form because not enough film directors are focused on the purely visual potential that cinema has. They need to be looking to Fellini for their inspiration, not delving into the pages of Victorian novels.


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  1. This is a really wonderful, knowledgable article. As someone who has spent equal amounts of time with books and film and come down on the side of the latter, I find your accusations that books are inherently more substantial than films and that film has yet to find itself as an art form infuriatingly naive, but then you redeem yourself with your great analysis of the way film truly comes into its own when it diverges from its source material or when it doesn’t restrict itself to the confines of a novel in the first place. If you think film is less substantial than literature then you’re not weighing it on its own scale, and in many ways the enhanced ambiguity of cinema can be more thought-provoking than the concrete confines of the written word. If you think film has yet to find itself you simply haven’t seen enough movies; the problem is that lesser filmmakers are constantly unlearning the lessons of the past, the same way poor novelists publish poor novels despite the wealth of literary history. But I’m glad there are films and even adaptations you’ve come to love, and I’m glad you’ve come to the realization that film is at its best when not trying to reproduce the work of other writers. I hope your love of film and of literature continues to drive your search for knowledge, and that you continue to write interesting and thoughtful articles like this one!