Claudia Dalby analyses the problems, and the cultural significance, of adapting a novel for cinema.
FILM today is considered one of the most influential entertainment mediums, contested only by the written word. When profit is concerned, then, it makes sense to collapse the two into each other. Every year more filmmakers have been profiting from the success of classic novels and popular franchises through blockbuster adaptations.
As Anthony Burgess said in 2004: “every best-selling novel has to be turned into a film, the assumption being that the book itself whets an appetite for the true fulfilment – the verbal shadow turned into light, the word made flesh.” Assumptions based, of course, on the supposed murkiness and impermanence of the written world. Yet a film adaption of a book is often merely a condensed version of the plot and ideas represented in a novel; sensationalised, truncated, and blunt-edged.
Is it in the best interest of both the novel and its visual counterpart to be so intertwined? Studios optimise sales by transforming an established property into branded content. However in reaching a wider audience, carefully crafted novels are diluted, their ideas often overshadowed, or lost.
As any author will tell you, novels take a major amount of time, research, and investment. In this sense, the brunt of work is done for the filmmakers already, and their job lies in figuring out how to project the essence of the story into a different medium. In this transition, not everything can carry through and some aspects simply must change in order for the story to be told in under roughly two hours.
“In the act of adaption, we sacrifice the intellectual challenge of intricate detail in favour of the aesthetic of the dramatic.”
The capacity for scope and depth reached through writing can never be directly transcribed visually; in the act of adaption, we sacrifice the intellectual challenge of intricate detail in favour of the aesthetic of the dramatic.
However, of course, there are many films which deal very well with complex issues. In turn, films triumph over novels in their accessibility – a two-hour movie can take you to impossible places with less immediate exertion, allowing deeper themes to be uncovered more easily. It’s no surprise that book to film adaptions are statistically far more successful than original screenplays.
In 1982, over 85% of Academy Award nominations were adapted screenplays. Fans are eager to see a beloved story turned to life, and even if it fails, talk over whether the adaption was “truthful” to the novel will ensnare curious customers regardless.
Staying “true” to the original text is a high bar to pass. Fans of novels tend to be unhappy with the adapted counterpart because they enjoy the imagery the novel has allowed them to conjure in their head, their own personal “adaption.” In truth, film adaptions are simply another reader’s personal experience, often too singular and insular to have broad appeal.
“What is more important – for history to be widely known, broadly, or for the truth to be immaculately preserved?”
This subjective interpretation is only amplified – and distorted – in the many-handed filmmaking process. Characters are moulded by the actor, but also the director and editor, and even by lighting and costume design. The collaborative element of film makes for a communal reading of the text, one that necessarily diverges from an individual’s experience.
Social experiences such as these can hold broad influence over mass culture. When a novel adaptation is faithful, it can be a revelatory experience, the original’s central message beamed out, forcefully, towards millions. But we should hesitate when Hollywood has control over such an apparatus, a corporate conglomerate with the interests of capital at its heart.
This role becomes crucial when stories from the past are revived for the big screen. Hidden Figures, which told the story of three black female mathematicians who worked for NASA during the Space Race, was adapted this December. Their story had been completely erased by time and prejudice, leaving gaps and vacuums only visible when someone digs for them.
Hidden Figures has seen immense success since, and one wonders if the story would have gained traction had it not been made into a film. However, the film also digresses from the context and exact historical facts of the book, distorted for the sake of entertainment. Is this doing justice to a crucial piece of history? What is more important – for history to be widely known, broadly, or for the truth to be immaculately preserved?
“Staying ‘true’ to the original text is a high bar to pass…. In truth, film adaptions are simply another reader’s personal experience, often too singular and insular to have broad appeal.”
It is critical to recall that the majority of screenplays are written and filmed in the interest of profit. What we choose to remember, then, is first and foremost guided by what is convenient to discuss in the present. Adaptations fail their audience invariably – even when approached with noble aspirations, they exist within a system which polices their content and drives them towards modern acceptability.
The unfortunate fact of the matter is that readership has greatly declined in recent years, and films are filling this vacuum. Knowing that art holds sway over our culture, can we trust that complex and important ideas are still getting out there? We cannot trust that they will give us what our society needs, even when it’s wrapped up in well-designed sets and pretty angles, as a million-dollar franchise has agendas of its own.