The critics have been rather unkind towards One Day (unfairly so, if you ask me), but all the hullabaloo about the tepidly-received adaptation of David Nicholls’s novel has made a favorite parlor game bubble to the surface: can movie versions of books ever compare to the original? (At NyMag.com many fans are talking about books that Hollywood shouldn’t touch; The Atlantic took One Day as an opportunity to discuss some of the eternal problems with romance on screen.)
As Slate critic Dana Stevens noted in her (mostly positive reviews) of the current Graham Greene adaptation, Brighton Rock, there is “some pretty robust evidence” proving great literature does not usually become great films. Of course, as Stevens then goes onto explain, Graham Greene, and this thriller in particular, has proven unusually fertile ground for many filmmakers.
For awhile I had a theory that literary novels were the toughest to translate to film. Genre works—a dicey and tricky description in and of itself—were the way to go. This, I assumed, accounted for the fact that so many of my favorite science fiction films are based on Phillip K. Dick novels (Blade Runner, Minority Report, Total Recall); that a few of my favorite Hitchcock novels are based on Daphne Du Maurier works (Rebecca and The Birds); and that Anthony Minghella, a director who is no stranger to turning popular, bestselling literary works into films, was at his best working off of a Patricia Highsmith novel, with The Talented Mr. Ripley. (I should note, though, that anyone who watches Hollywood science fiction films has probably enjoyed something from Phillip K. Dick, given his all-over-the-map-ness in this area—the dude has well over 100 film credits to his name!)
Hitchcock once said he owed much of his success to his “ruthlessness in adapting stories for the screen.” Known for taking from a book what he wanted, more than adapting it, I think there’s no question that films based on books usually work better when the kernel of the story is taken and turned into something else.
But rules are tricky to make and, over time, I’ve realized that while genre books do often make for better films, the thing that works best is dealing with source material your audience doesn’t intimately know…and love. When it comes down to it, fans of “literary” novels tend to take these books as art you shouldn’t mess with, instead of a good story you can muck up. I assume that when you screw up The Talented Mr. Ripley, fewer people will cry foul than if you defame Holden Caulfield.
It’s ridiculous to say movies don’t make for good books. But we all have our tales of heartbreak. (For me, oddly enough, one of my saddest book-to-movie-going experiences is The Feast of Love. I wasn’t particularly excited about the film when I heard about it, since I adored Charles Baxter’s novel, but I thought, maybe naively, that a decent adaptation might get more people to read Baxter, or at least that book. The film, though, more than being bad, drained its source material of all heart and nuance. Baxter’s novel is that most rare of things—a touching, sentimental, but never sappy, book about love. The movie is all sentiment and sap.)
Even if great books fail as movies more often than they succeed, don’t most readers have a secret urge to see their favorite books on the screen? I know I do. I think making The Catcher In the Rye is a terrible idea, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to see what someone might do with it. I know, deep down, that a screen version of Holden Caulfield will be reductive and disappointing and miss the mark—his facial expressions won’t match, his prep school scarf will look too much like something stolen off the set of Harry Potter, his repeated use of the word ‘phony’ will make me cringe—but I’ve already started thinking about who should be cast. Ditto for the planned Baz Luhrumann update of The Great Gatsby. It’s horrible, it’s despicable, it’s destined to be off-base AND he’s supposedly going to shoot in 3-d! Then again, who in their right mind doesn’t want to see what a director like Luhrmann will do with those West Egg bacchanalias…in 3-d?