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