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December 27, 2012 at 3:04 PMComments: 3 Faves: 0

From Book to Film: The Struggle To Adapt

By Kyle McCarthy from SLN More Blogs by This Author

"Man is a creature that can get used to anything, and I think that is the best definition of him." -Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Human beings are capable of adjusting to nearly any scenario; our innovation and ingenuity have secured our position atop the food chain for tens of thousands of years. We got sick of the cold, so we invented insulation and radiators. We got sick of adding on our fingers, so we invented the calculator. We got sick of walking, so we invented the internal combustion engine. We got sick of feeling lonely, so we invented telecommunication. Given enough time, it seems like we're able to adapt to nearly every challenge, but sometimes we just don't want to.

Regardless of our aptitude for adaptation, we are absurdly resistant to it. One of our greatest flaws as a species is our obstinate adherence to convention. The "if it ain't broke don't fix it" attitude has led to a collective hubris that occasionally leaves us blinded to new ways of experiencing the world. One need travel no further than the local theater for proof. 

Literary Ownership

If man is so adaptable, why can't we adapt to film adaptations? Many of the greatest films ever produced are based on books, yet, when book-to-film projects are announced, avid readers immediately get defensive. There have been some not-so-great mutations in the past (The Scarlet Letter and The Great Gatsby immediately come to mind), but there have also been some really transcendent works. Silence of the Lambs, Gone with the Wind, No Country for Old Men, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Vertigo: this list is just a drop in the ocean of the hundreds of amazing films that have been adapted from equally amazing books.

Yet, often times, when the trailer for a film based on a book is released, passionate readers (i.e. book snobs) tend to gasp, cringe, and panic. Once the initial shock subsides, feelings of righteous indignation begin to sprout and manifest themselves with phrases like, "How do they expect to transfer such an imaginative story onto the silver screen?" or "Why can't they just leave that one alone?" or "Here we go again, time to ruin another fantastic read!" These laments are valid, but they expose a deeper degree of snobbery.

Shamefully, I usually sympathize with these sort of complaints, at least at first. I love reading, and I struggle with the idea of corrupting the wondrous adventure of a book by condensing its vast contents to 100 minutes of one individual's interpretation of the story. I fancy myself an afficionado of the written word, and I become possessive of my favorite novels.

There's a strange transference of ownership that occurs during the course of any good book. As we read, we begin to actively participate in the prose, and the literary dominion is reassigned from the author to the reader. So, when that ownership is usurped by a movie studio or director, there's a tendency to be mistrustful of the new proprietor. We don't want Hollywood to cheapen the transformative experience of a great read.

Lost in Transference

Probably the most common argument against film adaptations of our favorite books is that, by creating a tangible, visual experience of what was originally meant to be purely conceptual, something in the imaginative adventure of the story will be lost. Of their very nature, movies effectively rob the viewer of constructing a unique vision of setting and characterization. The basic plot of these adaptations usually follows the predecessor, but the heightened sense of conflict and underlying themes can be lost by the pace of the film, script revision, or the director's artistic license with the source material. 

It takes years to develop and sharpen the skills needed to even begin writing a novel (plot, setting, character, theme, and conflict), and it usually takes several more years to actually complete the task. So, when the fruits of such a labor-intensive process are handed over to a separate auteur to create and demolish an established story at their own will, anxiety is bound to reverberate throughout the literary community. But 9 times out of 10, after actually seeing the movie version, I walk out of the cinema completely satisfied with my experience. In some cases, the film even trumps the book in a lot of ways, or, at the least, it helps me gain some new insight or perspective into the many elements of a given story. Unfortunately, this isn't always the case.

Tolkien's Vision Corrupted

The fist installment of The Hobbit was recently released to less-than-stellar reviews. One critic, Simon Miraudo, had this to say about the film: "Peter Jackson didn't particularly want to direct The Hobbit, and I didn't particularly want to be bored to tears, but there we both were, fulfilling what could only be described as some sort of cinematic murder-suicide pact." Miraudo's remarks might be a bit intense, but these sorts of comments permeate the various online film review sites and are in stark contrast to the praise heaped upon Jackson for his Lord of the Rings saga. I haven't seen the movie yet, but, nevertheless, I have a theory for this.

Tolkien intended his magnum opus to be released as  a single novel, but due to the length of the book, as well as its dense language and subject matter, the book was published as three separate installments. As a consequence, we now view the book as a trilogy rather than a stand-alone novel, which is how Jackson appropriately presented it when he directed the three films. This strategy not only produced massive profits, but it was in sync with the readership of the series. All three movies were embraced because they allowed for the massive story to be told in its proper length with only ancillary events being ignored.

With The Hobbit, the opposite is true. Of course Miraudo thought the movie was boring! Jackson is trying to create a trilogy out of a novel consisting of only 300 pages. The Hobbit was meant as a children's story, and is thus more concise than the Lord of the Rings. It contains a more linear plot structure and a less wordy/complicated telling of events. Not that this trivializes the novel; it's a remarkable work, but it feels like Jackson is deliberately extending the narrative to generate box office buzz and capitalize on a rabid fan base.

In short, he's committed the principle sin of book-to-film adaptations: he's hijacked the original work in order to advance his own interests. It's one thing to take stylistic liberties with a novel, indeed the impetus is on the director to do just that! But when those liberties corrupt the essence of the original material, inevitably, a backlash will follow.

Honoring Burgess' Creation

Stanley Kubrick adapted several books into movies during his legendary career as a filmmaker. Working within the aesthetic of Realism, he always stayed true to the novel with which he was working, taking very few liberties with his adaptations. In order to establish a unique feel with the source material, Kubrick used innovative camera strategies, strict attention to detail, and subtle, yet booming musical scores. Of his several adaptations, probably the most effective was A Clockwork Orange.

In the film, Kubrick faithfully adhered to the content of Anthony Burgess' masterpiece of the same name, only altering scenes where the violence was so pervasive as to threaten the release of the film. Despite these minor alterations, Burgess' primary themes remain intact and are actually enhanced by Kubrick's work. The film remains a graphically violent depiction of government control and freewill set against the English urban landscape in an undefined future.


Clockwork gained notoriety for the gratuitous violence and sexual deviancy it presented, but the crowning achievement of both the book and the film was the incorporation of Nadsat, a fictional language consisting primarily of cockney slang and tracing its roots to Russian variations on English. Burgess developed the language to clearly distinguish the youth subculture which used it from the civility of British society. In the book, the use of Nadsat can be a bit disorienting at times, but that's precisely the point. It keeps readers off balance while inviting them to participate in the savagery carried out by Alex (the story's protagonist) and his group of thugs. Slang makes us feel at home, even when that home is furnished with murder and rape.

It would have been easy for Kubrick to ignore Burgess' linguistic achievement in order to ensure that his audience was able to follow the storyline effortlessly, but he recognized the vitality of Nadsat and didn't shy away from its complexities. Forty years after the film's release, it still maintains a massive cult following, and Nadsat phrases continue to pervade Western dialects and contemporary pop culture.

Directing Our Dreams

There will always be dissent when a treasured book is green-lit for the silver screen. This is because the act of reading is contradictory. It is, at once, both an act of submission and an act of autonomy. Reading creates a partnership between author and reader that transcends the words on the page. When we read a truly great book, we enter the landscape, befriend the characters, and struggle against various injustices and oppressors. All of this occurs perfectly, because all of this occurs within the limitless confines of our imagination. The reader is the architect of fictional space, while the author is merely the narrator of our dreams. Once the proverbial torch is passed to a film director, their principle task becomes maintaining the author's objective, while orchestrating the reader's ambitions. The good ones accomplish this and are celebrated for making our imaginings tangible; the bad ones are merely forgotten... no harm, no foul.

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3 Comments

  • Well written Kyle, as usual, but I can't help feeling we may be a little too harsh on the auteur. I say this not in disagreement with any point you made, but with the musical cover in mind. When an artist or band covers a song, we usually expect that they put their stamp on the song. Many times we scoff at this in the same manner we scoff at film adaptations, but when the cover is done well, it is occasionally hailed as "better than the original."

    My point being that our initial reaction to a film adaptation is two fold. First, we expect the auteur not to royally mess it up. Second, we expect that it should somehow make the novel better for us. I don't know it this is what Jackson is intending by making The Hobbit a trilogy, but I wish the man luck and I will surely give him to the end of said trilogy before I nail him to a cross.

  • I'm not saying that a film can't be better than the book, on the contrary, I think this happens all the time. My favorite movie is "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." Kesey's novel is beautifully written, but Nicholson's performance far exceeded what my imagination was capable of developing for MacMurphy in the book.

    What I'm really getting at here (or trying to), is that there exists a very special connection between the author and the reader that the director must be careful not to contaminate.

    I give Jackson a lot of credit, I think he did a fantastic job with LOTR, but I think it will be difficult to justify expanding The Hobbit. Only time will tell I guess.

  • I really enjoyed The Hobbit myself. I never read the books, but it didn't feel as if they had packed a bunch of new content into it. I thought that they were really skimming because I had assumed the book was larger. Interesting to see the books only 300 pages (which to me is a lot).

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