Adaptation: The Joys and Perils of Adapting Novels into Films

It can be tough beans adapting a novel or short story into a film, however this hasn't stopped directors.

In 1962, director Robert Mulligan directed a film adaptation of Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird, and as close readers will recognize, while although not totally faithful to the source material, the adaptation is nevertheless a loving one. Gregory Peck was a fitting Atticus Finch and Mary Badham was perfect as the precocious, Scout. To this day, Mulligan's "To Kill A Mockingbird" is invaluable to cinema.

However, not all adaptations have been so lucky. Tom Wolfe's yuppie extravaganza, Bonfire of the Vanities was turned into a garish  film in 1990 by Brian DePalma starring Bruce Willis, Melanie Griffith and Tom Hanks. The film was panned by critics, in part due to the wooden acting by the actors and the inability to keep the subtle nuances of the book in check. DePalma traded substance for shock, and the film would go on to notoriety before being forgotten.

Most recently Hollywood adapted Pete Dexter's 1995 novel, The Paperboy. The film adaptation, directed by Lee Daniels and starring Nicole Kidman and John Cusack, divided critics. The art house cinematheque crowd adored it, while the average viewer found it maudlin and crass. It is important to know that Dexter's novel was deemed "eerie and beautiful..." by The New York Times upon it's release, and not every viewer prepares themselves for such an experience.

It can be a challenge adapting a book to a screenplay. One of my favorite stories in regards to this subject is how angry Ian Fleming was at Roald Dahl when he wrote the screenplay for, "You Only Live Twice". To Dahl's credit, he wrote a much more fascinating screenplay than the book (which was a sleeper hit, I might add).

Audrey Niffenegger, author of Her Fearful Symmetry and, most famously, The Time Traveler's Wife,  expressed her ire to me at the 2009 Robin Schwentke film adaptation of the latter novel. It's true: the film adaptation was diluted and all the vivid details were faded. The large-scale epic she wrote was reduced to the sum of its parts in the sticky hands of screenwriter, Bruce Joel Rubin and McAdams and Bana showed no chemistry as Clare and Henry.

Galt Niederhoffer avoided this route when it came to the adaptation of her 2008 novel, The Romantics. Niederhoffer was familiar with the Hollywood landscape, having worked several years as a producer prior to digging her claws into the literary world, she wrote, directed and produced the 2010 sleeper hit (and one of my favorites) "The Romantics". The film and the novel share similarities, but also disparate differences, making each experience a unique and sumptuous one.

How many authors have tried their hand at screenwriting? A lot. Let me rattle off a few: Michael Chabon (author of The Wonder Boys) wrote the screenplay for "Spider-Man 2". Dave Eggers, author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, adapted "Where The Wild Things Are" for Spike Jonze's 2009 film. Mario Puzo (come on, you know who he is, The Godfather ring a bell?) wrote the screenplay for the original "Superman" movie. Most famously however, is F. Scott Fitzgerald, who ventured into cinema for a brief sojourn in the late 20s and early 30s (stupidly leaving Zelda behind, humph!) only to come back to New York a few years later with egg all over his face.

When news broke of Walter Salles directing a film adaptation of On The Road  faithful readers of the beat movement cried out "Sacrilege!" Whilst beating their chests in protest and pain. However, what these readers didn't realize is that Kerouac had great dreams of a director cutting his/her teeth into the book. It's a stark contrast to the readers of today, who look forward to the film adaptations of such serial novels as Harry Potter and The Hunger Games. One must admit: it is fun seeing the characters you know and love living and breathing on the silver screen; I can't wait to see Joe Wright's adaptation of Anna Karenina. Unlike in the past where I've seen film adaptations of books, I know well enough now not to expect certain details will resurface as I munch on my popcorn in a darkened theatre.

This though, is one of the joys in a landscape fraught with peril: the gift of transcendence. It can be one thing to grow attached to the imagery we weave in our mind, but quite another to shift our perception to that of the director or screenwriter. One thing can be sure, though, that as long as writers keep writing, Hollywood will continue to adapt their stories into large-scale epics and indie gems.

 

 

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