Is the Screen Always Worse Than the Page?

Rachel Deahl -- August 26th, 2011

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?

6 thoughts on “Is the Screen Always Worse Than the Page?

  1. Anita

    Hollywood is increasingly turning to books in public domain for material: in the next eight months alone we have film renditions of The Three Musketeers, Sherlock Holmes, Verne’s The Mysterious Island, Poe’s tales, and A Princess of Mars (retitled John Carter.)

    One recent novel I would like to see onscreen: Deep Creek, a terrific (and neglected) racial-justice tale with, for once, attractive middle-aged leads.

  2. Mike

    I’m not sure I heard this right, but I believe that it was Kubrick who said that to adapt a book to the screen you had to, essentially, ignore the intentions of the writer. You couldn’t worry about the book; the book is the book, the movie is something else. In order to be true to the movie, you have to be untrue to the book, otherwise you’re compromising too much all around. I find that good, but not great books (like much of Dick), can make great movies, whereas great books (Lolita and Revolutionary Road come to mind) will never make great movies, even if Kubrick’s at the helm.

  3. Elias J. McClellan

    New to the site and this discussion but I love it. I think PKD’s work was subject to great (and mediocre) adaptation for his semi-lucid depictions which gave screen writers and directors a great deal of latitude. Conversely Thomas Harris’s “Silence of the Lambs” benefited greatly from pruning. Finally, I found “LA Confidential,” practically unreadable after seeing the excellent film. Wonderful topic Ms. Deahl, I look forward to reading more.

  4. Gabe Habash

    What about graphic novels? I liked “A History of Violence” far more as a movie than as a book. The movie worked largely because of subtext, fraught silences and the unknown, whereas the book went deep into Tom’s background. I thought the same principle that horror uses–what works best is what the audience DOESN’T see–applied for the movie, and it utilized that idea to wonderful results.

  5. Dennis Johnson

    Director John Huston had a very long career of doing justice to an amazing variety of great, great books, including Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, Dashiell Hammett’s Maltese Falcon, James Joyce’s The Dead, B. Traven’s Treasure of the Sierra Madre, C.S. Forester’s African Queen, Rudyard Kipling’s Man Who Would Be King, and Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage. Also, the big one — yes, the Bible.

    With the possible exception of that last title, there’s isn’t a film on the list that people who loved the book wouldn’t have also loved.

    Perhaps the best case in point as to how wonderfully faithful to the books Huston was is his version of Moby Dick — a two hour movie in which he astonishingly conveys the full sense of the story, not to mention most of the plot detail. It’s a lesson in adaptation, not to mention a truly great film that will prompt in viewers a deepening in appreciation of the book.

    I only wish he’d lived long enough to get to Tolstoy and Chekhov!

    1. Mike

      Heya Dennis,
      I’m not sure I agree. I love Huston and have enjoyed his movies for decades. But Wise Blood pales in comparison the novel, despite the great central performance. I would say the same about Treasure and Man Who Would Be King. Maltest Falcon, however, is and always will be a perfect classic, to me. It would have been something to see him translate Chekhov…

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