Friday, November 26, 2010

Book to film (or whichever way you want to play it)

By Russel D McLean

Watching the movie adaptation of Ken Bruen’s London Boulevard, I found myself thinking about the language of cinema, and the expectations of movie adaptations of books. Many people talk about how “the book is always better than the movie” and in some cases they are right. In other cases by better they mean “different.”

One of my favourite book to movie adaptations is Blade Runner, adapted from Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. But the film is not the book. In fact it is nowhere close. Starting from the same basic premise – human androids illegally on the loose in a future US city – Blade Runner inverts so many of the themes and ideas of the original book, running its ideas in parallel to the original text. Character and thematic changes abound so that by the end of the movie, our sympathies lie somewhere in contrast to the end of the novel. But none of that matters because the movie – in its own right – is a marvellous work. The book has served as an inspiration, a jumping off point.

And why not?

Books are not movies.

Movies are not books.

Would we really want to see precisely the same story playing before our eyes?

Could they work the same way?

James Ellroy’s LA Confidential was often termed “unfilmable”. And indeed it would have been had one remained faithful to the text. But by softening up characters and by removing so much internal angst from the narrative, the movie was a different and yet equally satisfying beast with its own take on roughly the same action as the novel. It became an entity in and of itself and was thus regarded as a powerful film regardless of whether one had read the novel.

Books and movies tell different types of stories. They have different forms of narrative tricks to pull us in. What works in one will not necessarily work in the other. How was one to match James Ellroy’s powerful and unique voice in filming confidential? There was no cinematic equivalent meaning the film makers had to find their own voice; and that meant they had to tell a story that diverged from the source.

When approaching a film, even one adapted from a book, the question should not be, does it match the book? Does it reflect my own imaginings of what occurred? No, the question should be, is this a film in its own right? How does this work as a cinematic production? Is it clear what is happening without knowing the original text?

The fact is that storytelling is storytelling and some stories require the right kind of storytelling to work. The most disastrous adaptations often have complete fidelity to the text and thus lose the power of the tricks of prose storytelling while failing to take advantage of the unique nature of cinematic narrative. And it can work the other way round, too.

The right form for the right story.

And no matter what the fools say, if you got to deviate from the source material to take full advantage of your chosen narrative form, then you must do it. In the end, it’s not about fidelity to one thing or the other. It’s about telling the right story in the right way.


John McFetridge said...

Maybe it's about telling the right story the right way.

But maybe it's also about the money. LA CONFIDENTIAL or DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP could have been tried to tell the same stories witjout "softening" anything but if they then only appealed to the same number of people who read the. Books they would have been financial flops.

Most books are far too much for a niche market than the budgets of most films can justify.

Unknown said...

Interesting post, Russell. A recent book to move adaptation I watched was The Road - LOVED the book and after watching the movie - which was faithful to the book - I was left with an overwhelming feeling of, what was the point of that!.