While writing my review of Piccadilly Jim—and comparing it to P G Wodehouse’s book—I was struck by the fact that most of the time, when I watch a film based on a novel I’ve read, I end up feeling let down. What is it, after all, that makes it difficult to recreate the magic of a book onscreen?
No, I’m certainly not saying all cinematic adaptations of books are bad; some are very good, as you’ll see in my list of ‘Goodies’, below. But there are Baddies too, and they, to my mind, far outnumber the Goodies.
When I began thinking about this topic, the first thing that came to mind was: I’m a purist. I like my books to be retained as is even on screen.
But when I began giving that idea some more thought, I had to admit that it’s well-nigh impossible to retain a book as is, when transferring it to the silver screen. The written word and cinema are two distinct forms of ‘storytelling’. In a book, for example, you have much more time and space: hundreds, even thousands, of pages in which to let the plot unfold and in which to provide as much description, as much insight into the minds of characters, as you want. (Or your editors will let you).
Let’s look at each one of these limiting factors one at a time. First, time.
In contrast to books, cinema can (note: not necessarily is) be restrictive, especially as far as time is concerned. While the writer has the luxury of slowly unfolding a plot or describing something, a film maker gets only a couple of hours in which to do that.
[Note on the side: This is perhaps why televised versions of books, especially in the form of miniseries, can often do more justice to a book than a feature film can. For me, the 1995 BBC version of Pride and Prejudice—starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle—far outshines the film versions of the book. Similarly, other television series, like the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes, or Jeeves and Wooster, or the Mystery! Cadfael series—based on Ellis Peters’s classic historical whodunits about a medieval monk—manage to recreate the magic of the corresponding books or stories, in part because there’s more time over which to spread the story.]
Back to where we were.
The second important point—as I see it—is that of description. That can work both for and against a film maker vis-à-vis an author. For example, if you’re an author describing the landscape of the Sierra Nevada or the clothing of a 17th century Mughal princess, you’d probably have to go into lots of detail to help your reader conjure up the image effectively in his/her mind.
As a filmmaker, things are far easier: you show it, rather than tell it.
On the other hand, it can take away one of the major joys of reading a book: that of revelling in the literary skill of description. Here’s a short, simple example from the P G Wodehouse book I mentioned in my last post: Piccadilly Jim. Near the end of the book, this is how Wodehouse describes someone:
“… then [came] a heavily bearded individual with round spectacles, who looked like an automobile coming through a haystack…”
Yes, the heavily bearded individual with round spectacles isn’t a problem; you simply show him onscreen. But the simile? An automobile coming through a haystack? Not just difficult, but probably impossible (unless you have a bystander tell another something like “Oh, lord. He looks like an automobile coming through a haystack!”—which, in my opinion, is cheesy enough to merit being gratinated to ash).
And it’s not just in humour, but in other situations as well. What about suspense? It makes for good films (some of the best I’ve seen), but can also make for some difficult film making. A writer can describe the actions of people—including people who’ll be suspects, criminals, whatever—without giving faces to them.
You can do that to some extent in cinema too (the classic ‘dark shadow silhouetted against an open door/window’ shot), or a mysterious voice on a phone, etc—but how far? In a book, this facelessness or lack of identity can be gripping. In cinema, dragged on for too long and too ineptly, it can be lethal—for the viewer.
The third aspect where books have the edge over cinema: offering insights, or the opportunity to show the reader what’s going on in someone’s head. Guilt, anguish, fear, loathing, passion, whatever emotion you can think of, an author can talk about. Either literally—by telling you how a character’s feeling—or laterally, through a character’s actions or words.
In cinema, that depiction of emotion is where actors come into the picture (and directors too). And God help you if, as a director, you have someone of the likes of Vimmi as one of your leads.
Which brings me to my main point: it’s very tough to translate a good literary work into good cinema. The scriptwriting has to be excellent, the direction and acting good—and, depending upon what the film is all about, otherwise true to the book as well. (1940 Pride and Prejudice, I’m looking at you! This film, for those who don’t know, reused dresses made for Gone With the Wind, when Jane Austen’s novel was set in Regency England—completely disregarding the change in fashions over about 50 years and across the Atlantic).
This is what Elizabeth Bennett’s costumes should’ve looked like:
Example over. I move back to what I was talking about: the elements of a good adaptation. I can actually begin listing them down now. (And, please note, these are my opinions. You may certainly settle for less—or more).
I am willing to accept the following changes being made to a book that I like, when it’s made into a film:
(a) The removal (or shortening) of scenes, events, etc that do not add to the plot or to character development.
(b) Very judicious changes when it comes to characters—a minor one who doesn’t really contribute to the plot, and I’m fine with them being removed from the script or their role being shortened. When it comes to characters who do contribute to the plot, I like them to remain as is, thank you. (That was one of the things I didn’t like about Piccadilly Jim).
(c) Changes in locale, cultural background, etc, as long as they’re in keeping with the original story. So, while I’m not happy with Regency-era women being clothed in Civil War dresses (I have a lot of grudges against Pride and Prejudice!)… I don’t mind translated versions, where the entire milieu changes to one that’s familiar—as happened in Inkaar, a Hindi adaptation of Kurosawa’s Tengoku to Jigoku, itself based on Ed McBain’s book, King’s Ransom.
(d) Valid reasons for script changes. One of my perpetual grouses against bad adaptations is that they changed something that didn’t need changing. I can understand that constraints of time, space, budgets, etc can require changes in script. But why would you change a very good storyline just for the sake of it? (More on this in the ‘Baddies’ section, below).
So, that’s about it. Now, to move on to a quick listing of some cinematic adaptations that I like, and some that I don’t. And why. Needless to say, these are all based on books that I’ve read.
1. Don Camillo (1952): Based on the books by Giovanni Guareschi. A classic example of a great adaptation, because—while not staying exactly true to the story (in any case, the Don Camillo books are more a series of vignettes)—it manages to capture perfectly the spirit of the Don Camillo books.
2. A Tale of Two Cities (1958): Based on the book by Charles Dickens. While changed in places, still a good and mostly pretty faithful copy of Dickens’s classic novel.
3. Far From the Madding Crowd (1967): Based on Thomas Hardy’s book—one I know pretty well, because I studied the entire (unwatered-down!) version in my final year at school. And yes, this adaptation’s a good one. Very good.
4. And Then There Were None (1945): Based on a play adapted, by the author, from Agatha Christie’s book. While there are a few changes (one important one is at the end), it’s otherwise a fairly decent adaptation.
5. Ben Hur (1959): Based on the book by Lew Wallace. The film, at 212 minutes, had ample time to recreate the novel—but then, Wallace’s novel itself is a long one (it actually consists of eight books). You can read it online here, if you wish.
There are changes in the film; for example, an Arab princess who is a fairly prominent character in the book is missing from the movie. But, on the whole, this epic film manages to bring to the screen the spectacle, adventure, emotion, and religious nature of the book very well.
These include TV series, new films, etc: Sherlock Holmes (1984; TV series); Pride and Prejudice (1995; TV series); Pride and Prejudice (2005); Mystery!: Cadfael (1994-96; TV series); Jeeves and Wooster (1990-93; TV series); The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (2009; TV series).
There are too many to list here! But still, the worst disappointments:
1. Von Ryan’s Express (1965): Based on the book by David Westheimer. This little-known novel is a fantastic World War II escape story in which an American colonel, leading hundreds of Allied POWs, has to somehow stop the Nazis taking all the POWs into Germany from a recently-capitulated Italy. It’s a brilliant book, fast-paced, funny, and well-plotted. The film is so-so; it leaves out much of the humour in the book, and cuts down on the adventure too.
Worst of all—it changes a perfect ending to an utterly infuriating one, for no rhyme or reason other than to make Frank Sinatra look good.
2. Pride and Prejudice (1940): Based on the book by Jane Austen, this superbly witty love story about the headstrong Elizabeth Bennett and the proud Mr Darcy is obviously very popular with film makers—I’ve seen three films and three TV series based on it. The 1940 version is among the worst adaptations, not just because it mangled the story, leaving out important sections and characters, but also because it made one absolutely unforgiveable change: it turned the end topsy-turvy. And why, I cannot fathom.
3. Quo Vadis (1951): Based on the book by Henryk Sienkiewicz, about the love between a Roman warrior and a young Christian girl, set against the backdrop of a Rome ruled by the mad Nero. It’s a sprawling book, of almost epic proportions that weave together various threads: the love of Marcus and Lygia; Petronius’s growing disgust with Nero; the political situation in Rome; the plight of the early Christians; and other plot elements. The film, while good on its own, concentrates on the Marcus-Lygia romance and leaves out a lot of the subplots, including some important characters that appear only in the book.
4. A Damsel in Distress (1937): Like Piccadilly Jim, based on a Wodehouse novel. And, even worse than Piccadilly Jim, this one doesn’t just distort the plot, it deprives it of almost all humour (unless slapstick appeals to you). The book’s a delightful one, with good dollops of mistaken identity and romance and whatnot thrown in. The film’s main draw is that you get to see Fred Astaire dance. If you watch it for Wodehouse (as I did), you might be very disappointed.
5. The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939): Based on Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic Sherlock Holmes novel. Like Quo Vadis, a good film on its own—but not as well-plotted as the novel. One thing I don’t understand: why do people writing screenplays for films based on detective novels meddle so much with the plot? While Dr Doyle’s novel is pretty watertight, the film version has plenty of holes.
And some more:
The 39 Steps (1935; a great film, but bearing only the most fleeting of resemblances to John Buchan’s novel); The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934); Thank you, Jeeves! (1936)… and more that I prefer to forget I ever saw.
Which are your favourite (or worst) adaptations? What are you willing to forgive, and what would you like from a good adaptation? Tell us!