What Makes a Great Adaptation?

I remember going to see the Merchant Ivory adaptation of Howards End at the cinema. I knew it had only just come out, so I was puzzled by the feeling that I’d seen it before. I realised it was simply that the film captured the image of the book that was in my head so absolutely that it was already familiar. That was a singular occurrence, most of the time I am one of those people who grumble that It Wasn’t As Good As The Book (for pretty much any instance of ‘it’). This being the season of watching cosy period dramas, I thought it would be a good time to reflect on exceptions to that rule, and give a little appreciation to what can be done with an adaptation.

When I feel dissatisfied with a screen adaptation I tell myself to think of it as an illustrated edition of the book, rather than expecting it to be the same story in a different medium. That is, I treat it as adding some images to certain moments. I expect there would be many filmmakers who would loathe that attitude, as it implies inherently that their version is less the real thing or an independent work of art. What can I say? I’m a book nerd.

Sometimes an adapted film can be a wonderful work in its own right, but is simply not the book. The Name of the Rose falls into this category, and so does Sally Potter’s Orlando, which is one of my favourite films of all time, criminally under-recognised in retrospectives of great achievements in cinema, but is saying very different things from Virginia Woolf’s novel.

Tilda Swinton and Quentin Crisp in Orlando

Part of the trouble is as simple as length. A short story is a more appropriate length for a movie than a full-blown novel (The Body becoming Stand By Me, for instance), demanding fewer sacrifices of detail.

Another problem is the one I have discussed previously of screenplays feeling an obligation to limit dialogue. Dialogue in books is much more intrinsic to establishing relationships, where it is not possible to cut between the lingering gazes of our protagonists, so the translation to screen often involves losing dialogue that was responsible for creating the characters in the original. Relatedly, conversely, a scene in a novel can be wittily described, but with little of that wit residing in the dialogue, which is why there are so many Jane Austen adaptations where it seems everyone is cursed to spend their days at really boring dinner parties.

This is probably why I like stage adaptations of novels. There is simply no way a theatrical performance can be a direct transposition of a written story, so it doesn’t try. Instead you are more likely to see imaginative modes of storytelling where things are distilled and indicated rather than presented literally. Theatre is also more comfortable with both dialogue and direct address. It’s hard for a movie to use a narration without giving the feeling that some other way of getting across the information could have been found, whereas an actor having a chat to the audience injects energy into a scene.

But I said I was going to praise film adaptations, not bury them, so let us look at some successes and what made them work.

There is really nothing like the pleasure of the Good British Series Adaptation when they’re really on their game, with little gems stretching back decades. I suspect that in the 1970s and 80s the BBC gave their people not just the money but the time to live with a book and its characters. This permitted for tiny masterpieces like Barchester Chronicles, where Thackery’s dry humour became a springboard for the entire ensemble to build individuated character quirks and taut, persuasive interactions (Alan Rickman’s Obadiah Slope was unforgettable), and in more lavish productions gave us performances like a luminous Nicola Pagett in Anna Karenina and an incandescent Rufus Sewell in Middlemarch. But too much has been forgotten about the similar work done for young people, bringing countless afternoon family-time series out of classic children’s novels, with no recognition for how clever the screenwriters and directors must have been to give so many well-read stories new lives: The Secret Garden, Carrie’s War, The Peppermint Pig, The Railway Chidren, Come Back Lucy, The Strange Affair of Adelaide Harris, Tom’s Midnight Garden, The Children of Green Knowe – they seemed endless when one is a child. All with impeccable production values, and such care given to respecting the stories. I would say that the reason these adaptations work, without becoming overly literary, is that the actors were given enough material to work with, and then enough space to invent themselves.

I can think of only two occasions when I believe a film adaptation actually improved on its source. One is Stardust, which is a charming novel but was an experiment for Neil Gaiman in setting up a fairytale-like scenario, but then deliberately not resolving the plot in a conventional way. The film both gave the piece a more robust structure and gave opportunities for many wonderful actors (including, oddly, most of the cast of Green Wing) to enrich the depiction of characters who are rather thinly sketched in the original.

The other is The Commitments, where Roddy Doyle’s novel is amusing, but lacks the sense communicated so viscerally in the film of why the Dubliners truly, urgently need the band to give them purpose and hope. The novel doesn’t really try to differentiate among the three female band members and draw them as individuals, nor does Jimmy have the passionate belief in what Soul means as a genre, the way he does in the film.

Then there are the magical convergences in which a sensitive screenwriter and a group of expressive, intelligent actors make the material sing. I regard I Capture the Castle as an example of masterful adapting. This perfect little book by Dodie Smith is shaped by its form as an ostensible journal written by Cassandra. An adaptation should have been tricky due to dominant perspective of the first person narrator, the small scale of the drama, and the proportion of the piece that takes place in the head of the heroine, as she unpicks everything that is happening around her. In an act of alchemy the screenwriter, Heidi Thomas, managed to take lengthy descriptive passages and distil them into brief moments that tell us in shorthand everything about the family dynamics, starting with the opening scene of Cassandra sitting on the edge of the kitchen sink, writing, while her flighty older sister, Rose, and Bohemian stepmother (not wicked), Topaz, have a blazing row followed by a tearful reconciliation. Changes from the book are judicious and make sense for purpose, for instance, making the little brother younger removed the sense that he should probably be doing something to help by now. In the book, the final conversation between Cassandra and the man she is in love with hinges on things they don’t say, but the writer understood that in a film we needed to hear them speak more openly with each other about why they shouldn’t be together. These tweaks are balanced with other scenes that play exactly as if the actors are living the book’s pages. So few filmmakers manage this wisdom in balancing what to change and what to keep.

Rose Byrne and Romola Garai in I Capture the Castle

To finish: a more recent success story. I have just watched Shadow and Bone, without advance knowledge of the novels, and have loved feeling that the worldbuilding has enough substance to really sink your teeth into. So many characters and a highly complex magic system to introduce, not to mention the class and politics, but the adaptors found an abundance of vivid visual signifiers and sharp verbal exchanges to bring us in. I fell so fast and so hard for the trio of Crows that I immediately tore through the two books that focus on their story, Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom. All the props in the world to these actors, they live as if they have bled right off the page onto the screen. It’s quite fascinating to read about a muscle in Kaz’s jaw tightening when he is unhappy about something but not going to speak of it – and then see the actor actually do that! There is so much to praise in the design and the cinematography, but I think in this instance the credit has to go to the actors, who clearly love their characters and have a burningly clear vision of who they are.

The Crows from Shadow and Bone

May you have plenty of lavish costume dramas to satiate you over the holiday period. Feel free to tell me of your favourites.

12 thoughts on “What Makes a Great Adaptation?

  1. Stardust is a criminally underrated film. MY CROWS! I love them so much. It’s so odd seeing Freddy Carter in interviews, as he is a sunshine child who just likes to takes pictures of everyone with his camera, as opposed to the brooding and occassionally terrifying characters he plays. May I also recommend Freddy’s horse show (also known as Free Rein)?

  2. The one and only time I’ve thought a film adaptation improved on the original novel was Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr Ripley. SPOILER ALERT Although I like Patricia Highsmith’s lean and clean writing style, I felt that the characters were wonderfully fleshed out in the film, making their sometimes extreme behaviour much more believeable and even relateable.
    And the three actors who portrayed the love triangle each gave us the performance of their careers imho. Jude Law’s Dickie was devastatingly charming and equally devastatingly cold and rejecting when he tired of Matt Damon’s Ripley, whose tragic adoration and obsession with Dickie simmered like a pot always just about to boil. And Gwyneth Paltrow (I’m not usually a fan), absolutely nailed her character’s despairing powerlessness and ironclad certainty that she knew the truth in the face of Ripley’s stunningly adroit deviousness. And I’ve just remembered Philip Seymour Hoffman’s odious Freddie who made us all sympathise with Ripley despite…well, everything really. I mean, what a psycho.

    • I haven’t read the book, but I think the movie is perfect for all the reasons you describe, so I’m happy to take that as another example of talented actors giving a full life to characters who might be thinner on the page.

  3. I just thought of a really interesting instance where the film isn’t necessarily *better* then the book, but it does something the book can’t because of it’s very nature. Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go” is told in first person from the POV of Kathy. Because the truth about their world is normal to her the impact of how horrific it is somehow slides over you (which is probably something Ishiguro was aiming for, to experiment with what we will accept). Watching the movie gives you enough distance to be haunted by the utter wrongness of watching everyone behave as if their fate is inevitable.

  4. I thought the film adaptation of the third Harry Potter novel (Prisoner of Azkaban) was excellent. Clearly the makers didn’t feel obligated to cater to Potter fans and in that particular case, it was a good decision and well executed. (After that, imo those novels became so Byzantine that they were well-nigh unadaptable).

    I just saw Passing, and I thought it was a great adaptation (although I had only read the novella about a month earlier, and because I knew of the film production). Similarly, I recently read Mothering Sunday for the same reason. I think that could be a great film and I look forward to it. I thought the film adaptation of If Beale Street Could Talk was also quite good.

    Other than that, the numbers of adaptations I didn’t like are legion, to the point that these days I avoid adaptations of things I have particularly loved.

    • This makes it a very interesting case study, because I was disappointed by Azkaban. I thought David Thewlis was woefully miscast as Lupin (he looked more like a vole than a wolf), the CG werewolf was *terrible* and the director devoted far too many precious shots to images of Gary Oldman making “raargh” faces at the camera, that could have been allocated to more dialogue or incident. So clearly adaptation is one of those extraordinarily subjective things.
      Can’t wait to see Passing – two of my very favourite actresses.

      • Maybe one criteria is whether adaptation captures what you loved about a book. I think that’s one reason why those Merchant Ivory films were so successful — they absolutely captured what large groups of people had loved about those books — the atmosphere, the detail, to some extent the “preciousness” of those scenarios. The films made people feel like they were back “in” those stories they loved so well.

        I don’t really love the HP books — I was not a superfan — but I read them all. I thought they were good on the plot level but the thing that drove me crazy about them was Rowling’s unwillingness to ever let go of *any* detail. This was a real problem in the first two films. To me the third film really upped the tempo and suspense of the story because it was willing to let beloved details go. I liked Thewlis, and I almost never have an opinion on CGI one way or the other, except if it’s so much that it’s penetrating (Hobbit III would be an example). I heard fans really did not like the film of Azkaban. But to me that took the series of films out of its fandom ghetto.

        Incidentally, I thought of another adaptation that I have real problems with: Scorsese’s adaptation of Shusako Endo’s novel, Silence.

  5. Love this discussion on books and book-to-film adaptations! Personally, I like to go into the cinema hall with the mindset of the film being an ultimately different work of art from the book. Even when the former is an adaptation, I like to view them separately, because each is a work of a different creator, and will ultimately say different things based on the authors’/directors’ priorities. (Though of course it is impossible to separate both ENTIRELY, since the source material, the crux is the same). One thing I notice is that, rather than either book or film being better, if both works are the creation of a great writer, and then a great director, the book and film act as companions, giving new angles, new perspectives and new ideas about the same story and character. Wonderful post!

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