Can a story survive the screen?

Keira Knightley in Anna Karenina

Keira Knightley in Anna Karenina

As you may have noticed, Just A Little Whim has been on a bit of a hiatus. I’m still settling back to real life after my holidays and suddenly there aren’t enough hours in the day.  But enough of my excuses.

Today I’m thinking about all the book-film adaptations that are hitting our screens.  Life of Pi, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Hunger Games, The Hobbit, Great Expectations, The Host, The Great Gatsby, Beautiful Creatures, Silver Linings Playbook  . . .

And of course, Anna Karenina my current reading project.

I’m looking forward to finishing Anna Karenina for a few reasons.  First and foremost, it’s a door stop and I’ll feel an immense sense of personal accomplishment when it’s all done. And of course, another reason is that I’ll finally be able to watch the screen version, directed by Joe Wright.  He also directed Pride and Prejudice (2005) and Atonement (2007), two of my very favourite movies.

But before I let my inner fan girl carry me away, I’ll skip the tearful declarations of love for Joe Wright and get to the actual point of this post.  Can book-film adaptations work? Or perhaps more accurately, will people ever be satisfied with them?

It’s a familiar question I know.  Book lovers watch their favourite stories tumble onto the red carpet with a queasy blend of excitement and dread.  These new appropriations inevitably signal an bloody clash.

BOOK FANS v MOVIE FANS (run for cover)

Book fans

The purists.  The original fans.  The real fans.

These people know the book in question back to back.  In fact, the only person who knows it better is the author.


In their opinion, a film version is a quasi-religious undertaking.  And most of the time Hollywood stomps all over it.  Casting is always a problem. Physical human beings are watery, mildly offensive shadows of the characters they adore.  The script is a clumsy butchery of the original literary genius.  Why can’t they just get the actors to read out the novel dialogue word for word? It wouldn’t even take that long.

They can’t believe that scene was left out.  They can’t believe they changed the protagonist’s cousin’s great-uncle’s middle name.  And what the hell is with that actress’s hair?

The ‘movie fans’

(or the one thing book fans despise more than the movie itself)

These people loved the film adaptation.  What’s not to like? It was great.  But what’s the point in reading the book now? They know everything that’s going to happen.

They buy the DVD the day it’s released so they can spend hours watching the ‘making of’ documentaries.  They’ve watched the movie with the director’s commentary switched on. More than once.

Within this group, we have the fans who might consider reading the sequel, but only so they know what happens next. Then again, they don’t really, like, read stuff.

Alternatively, you have people who immediately devour the books after seeing the movie. Once they’ve read everything, they foolishly try to get cosy with the book fans.  It’s sort of like wandering into a stranger’s house, eating their porridge and plonking yourself down in their bed.  Goldilocks learnt the hard way – it’s just not done.

So obviously I’m having a little fun here.  But I do have a somewhat serious point to make.

I understand that it can be distressing to see a story that you love misrepresented and oversimplified.  Sometimes this really does happen and well, it sucks.  In fact, it’s maddening.  Many fans feel a certain degree of ownership for the books they love.  When you’ve invested so much time and emotion it’s easy to feel that way.  But in many ways, enjoying (or tolerating) a book-film adaptation involves letting go.

A new medium creates new challenges.  Films, by their nature, are simpler than novels.  That’s actually important because the audience needs to absorb all the important details immediately.  If you’re confused you don’t usually re-watch the same scene three times.  And if you have to re-watch scenes and read synopsises on the internet to understand the story, then something has gone very wrong.  Yes, many films are complex and require you to concentrate.  But honestly people, if I can’t understand what I’m watching I don’t want to watch it.  It’s really that simple.

On that point, translating a story for film makes it necessary to leave bits out.  It’s very important that filmmakers and screenwriters make good choices about the parts they cut.  But you can never please everyone.  Personally, I hate long films.  My concentration isn’t always fabulous. Okay, so maybe I have the attention span of a small child.  But if a filmmaker expects me to sit still for three hours – I expect cinematic brilliance.  And rightfully so.  I’m paying to be entertained, not to support some obscure director’s alternative artistic adventures.  This rule also applies to a film series.  If you’re going to take years to tell me a story, it must be really good.  Case in point, the Twilight Saga – it got so tired that by Breaking Dawn: Part 2, even the most dedicated fans weren’t watching anymore.

It’s also important to remember that most films need to reach a wide audience to break even.  If hundreds of millions of dollars are poured into production, filmmakers obviously need to create something that lots and lots of people will want to watch.  Paradoxically, I think movies stumble when they try too hard to please the fangirls (and fanboys).  Normally, you would never expect an audience to research your story before you tell it.  Book-film adaptations are made to attract a new (and ignorant) audience and to create new fans.   This can be highly irritating for the original fans but honestly, if more people are appreciating the book you love – that has to be a good thing.

All things considered, if a movie is able to capture the spirit of your favourite book and translate that onto the screen – they’ve succeeded.  For example, the Harry Potter films really did that for me.  Yes, they made changes.  Yes, they left out scenes or lines that I loved.  But they also captured the essence of the story and my childhood in such a satisfying way.  When everything is said and done, that’s the only thing that really matters.

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