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Adaptations – A Thing Apart!

When I was chatting to a fellow writer the other day, she confessed to playing one of those games that regularly does the rounds on social media: she was ‘casting’ her novel. If you haven’t done this, it involves choosing the ideal actor to play the protagonist of your story.
I can never bring myself to do this. Apart from the sheer futility of it – I’m sure David Tennant is not looking for work at this time – there’s something fundamentally wrong with the idea. Although my characters’ personalities are well-known to me, their faces are something of a blur. Putting a real person’s face to them would somehow limit them and what I can do with them.
This may be just one reason why I rarely find a screen adaptation of a book that makes me happy – the actor is never how I imagined the character. The other frequent problem, a worse crime than poor casting, is the loss of the depth of the writing. I’m not alone: the internet abounds with lists of the worst adaptations of books ever made. A recent article on the ShortList website quoted a range of authors’ responses to the screen versions of their work – P.L. Travers is said to have cried when she saw Walt Disney’s version of Mary Poppins and not in the sentimental way suggested in the recent movie Saving Mr Banks.
I thought I would ask some of the OCA’s scriptwriting students for some of their nominations for best and worst adaptations and I got some interesting responses. Deborah said ‘I was hugely disappointed in the film version of The Time Traveler’s Wife – mainly the casting of Eric Bana as Henry.  In my head, Henry was all kinds of strong against his odds but Bana came across as pathetic and weak.’ See – it’s that casting problem again.

Time 2

On the other hand, Deborah did like the ‘lighter and easier’ ending, which is really interesting because imposing a different ending is often one of the tricks that most offends a book lover.
There’s a lot of interest in the forthcoming Gone Girl film because author Gillian Flynn has admitted to changing the ending. Given that the strength of the story is in its breathtaking plot twists, though, this seems sensible. It means the millions of us who’ve read the book still don’t know how the screen version will turn out.
And here is some excellent advice from student Eleanor: ‘Before I started the Scriptwriting course I would lament, ‘It’s not like the book!’ I would never say that now. I feel that a screen adaptation should be treated as a piece of work entirely separate from the original.
‘If you really love a book and become involved in it, you almost have a film in your head. Someone else’s interpretation can be disconcerting and disappointing, so best to view them separately.’
What are the best screen adaptations of a book? And the worst? Let me know!  

Posted by author: Barbara Henderson
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7 thoughts on “Adaptations – A Thing Apart!

  • I read ‘Phantom of the Opera’ (Le fantome de l’Opera) by Gaston Leroux years ago, then saw the film and finally saw the play in London. I enjoyed them all. However, I was fascinated by the book (literally loved it and have vivid memories of it), appreciated the play (rather good singers, but I am not a big fan of the theater’s installations for some reason) and funniest of all, I cannot recall the film much except that it was a big blockbuster (I have nothing against that though) and that the actors did a rather good job although I had never heard of them before. But the book… was the best experience for me.
    I went to see the film ‘Dracula’ (the one with Gary Oldman, my favourite actor) and enjoyed it. I read Bram Stoker’s book a few years later, and… still preferred the book, which to me seemed so well written and current, which again left me with vivid memories.
    I read Frank McCourt’s biography, ‘Angela’s ashes’ and absolutely loved it. Then I saw the film and I can say they did a good job again, but I was sad they did not include the scene related to his time as a postman and his first love then, a girl affected with consumption, who later died. This postman job and this love story where a good part of his life that missed in the film, I thought.
    I read the first Harry Potter book, enjoyed it and enjoyed the film too. However, I did not keep up with the successive films nor the books… at some point I got lazy and stopped reading these altogether because the next film had just got out…
    I read Dan Brown’s Da Vinci code, really enjoyed it… saw the film… did not think much of it because, well, it was no great, was it – rushed, bad acting…
    All in all I think it is dangerous to compare films and books… you are going to be disappointed.
    A brilliant book stays unbeatable in anyway because it touches you personally. Job is done. What sort of adaptation can top that?

  • It’s quite a complicated subject. People who are ‘readers’ usually agree that books are better – but not everyone is a reader.
    Someone who just wouldn’t open a book can at least get some idea of the story from a film, even if it isn’t quite the same story. This is especially important I think for the classics – ideal is of course to read the book and if you want to, watch the film. But for a non-reader it’s better to only watch the film rather than have no idea at all about whole chunks of our literary heritage.

  • ‘Howards End’ – really rate the book, but came out of the film adaptation with different insights into some of the characters. I ended up feeling the two had been a good complementary experience.

  • Frank Darabonts films of the King novels Shawshank Redemption; The Green Mile and The Mist have all been excellent in my view with the latter having an extraordinary twist the source material didn’t have.

  • Under the Skin has to stand as one of my biggest turkeys. I thought the book by Michael Faber was a subtle consideration of issues as wide ranging as body image and factory farming. The film was a dumbed down sexed up star vehicle. Terrible.

  • I think as a genre, films based on science fiction books don’t fare well, with 2001 being an honourable exception. I am thinking especially of Phillip K Dick adaptions – Total Recall; Minority Report; Paycheck and even Blade Runner (although the “directors cut” version makes more sense) and the proposed film of “The Man in the High Castle” is, I suspect, unlikely to buck the trend.

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