Page to Screen: The tricky business of adapting a novel into a film

In Adaptation (2002) Charlie Kaufman wrote a brilliant script about just how hard it is to bring a  novel to life.

One day not so long ago I went over to my friend Vanessa’s house, where we’d planned a day right up my alley; cooking a big meal together and then sitting around and watching a bunch of films. Vanessa was eager to show me the BBC miniseries adaptation of one of our mutual favourite novels, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Most of all Vanessa was eager to prove to me that this version, absolutely faithful to Austen’s original novel, was far superior to the 2005 Keira Knightley version. I watched the entire miniseries with my friend that day, and while there’s no way I could possibly say I hated it (I mean common, really, how can you ever say you hate anything with Colin Firth in it?) I stuck to my guns that I preferred the Knightley version.

I know. There’s a lot of you out there who find this to be one of the worst comments that one could possibly utter; maybe you’ve grown up loving the BBC version,  maybe you just plain hate Keira Knightley. Let me make it clear; I love to read.  As much as I’m a film geek, I’m definitely not one of those people who would rather just watch the film.

But what you have to understand is writing a novel and making films are two different kinds of art. A novel is all about the words; a film is all about the visual. I like the Keira Knightley version of Pride and Prejudice better because for me its way more visually interesting- the colors, shot composition and camera movement keep me way more engaged as a viewer…and in my humble opinion, the chemistry between the actors much more intriguing. I really don’t care if it’s not historically accurate that women didn’t wear their hair down or that the Bennett sister would ever be in the same room alone with the opposite sex. The film was pretty looking, and it was hot.

Come on really, tell me which one looks more interesting to you…..

Since as a reader it’s your imagination that creates the visuals of a story, I have a feeling its why a lot of people aren’t satisfied with adaptations of their favourite novels. It’s a pretty harsh expectation from us that filmmakers perfectly capture a world we create in our own minds, but I know we can’t help it. But while the spirit of the original story must be there for me, I almost prefer that the filmmaker give me his or her own take on the story and come up with visuals I never would have expected. Otherwise, it almost feels like they’re just making a cheap remake.

I find most of the time when a film isn’t successfully adapted the script is at fault. It strays too much from the original story or not enough, or just tries too hard to please everyone and ends up failing. My all time favourite example of an adapted novel is Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, which was made into a film in 2002. The plot is not exactly a simple one; it weaves in and out of a single day in the lives of three women who are all in their own way affected by the novel Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. Basically, it’s one of my favourite scripts of all time not only because its beautifully written, but its the way it manages to make a complicated story seem simple and effortless. Screenwriter David Hare changes plot points both big, and small and adds many lines of dialogue never seen in the novel. And most importantly while he does that he’s taking the spirit of an amazing novel, and giving his own voice to it.

As a person who likes to create art with other people, one of the things I love most about filmmaking is that while a novel is a single person’s vision, a film is always a collaborative project. Screenwriter, David Hare may be the key ingredient this world never would have successfully come to life without a director like Stephen Daldry, or actors like Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman and Julianne Moore. Watching a project that these brilliant people have put together you know that your preconceived notions of how The Hours should have been adapted don’t mean crap…this is exactly the way it should be. It’s just unfortunate it doesn’t happen more often.

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