By: Stephanie Swide
“Eh, the book was better…” These four words haunt the premier of every film adaptation of any much loved novel. Those who’ve read the book, clung to the pages which have filled their imaginations with extravagant expectations are most often let down when films cannot deliver the vibrant personalized journey that one finds in the literary component. I know this feeling first hand as most do. I’ve read the book and seen the movie and most often been disappointed when the film was not distracting enough visually to compensate for its shortcomings in adapting my favorite scenes. “They cut out Chapter 9 altogether! WHY WOULD THEY DO THAT??” I mean really, why would they do that? Because my friends, film adaptations are not books.
Our collective induction into this society of literary citizens watching movies and snubbing them most likely started in or before high school. In the context of most high school settings we were forced to read literary classics and then watch their black and white adaptations (or worse, the 80s version) on small television screens in the corner of classrooms. Most often these were disappointing, even boring films chosen based on their fidelity to the original text. Clever re-imaginations of classics like Romeo + Juliet are thrown out in English classrooms, allowing our expectations of book-made-movies to be filled with notions of honest interpretations to the original text.
No one ever explains why we make books into film. For profit, for mass unification of one vision, for convenience, reasons differ. Anyway, we are many times left critiquing these films based on one aspect that does not take into account the medium specific properties of film adaptations, or even the complexities of the adaptation process, including the fact that some things in books are impossible to adapt in the first place. Language can be vague, ambiguous and medium-specifically is open to interpretation for the sake of the reader’s imagination. This paradox of freedom and fidelity is a visionless fool that quickly leads film adaptations down the path to blasphemous exile should the filmmakers make a decision that is too specific. Unfortunately, every decision made in film is specific, down to the stances characters should take, to the set design, to the way the wind should be blowing, to the choices in lighting, to the framing of the shot and to the decision of how to portray a textually described “sharp-faced man with an air of menacing trickery and a grimace that would make any cat hiss in its presence.” The latter is a classic, unadaptable phrase that can only be interpreted by the reader or in the case of many films, by the director and his staff. The decision to cast Jeremy Irons in this role is an interpretation that can be both argued and approved by many. Regardless, somebody has to play the part and the decision must be made. Ambiguity is impossible but this is what gives film its power and one of the defining differences between to the book and the movie.
So, I’m writing this blog in defense of the film adaptation or rather, re-imagination. Specifically, in defense of the creative, more imaginative adaptations that derail literary texts altogether. I propose that we celebrate the differences in the mediums and that we understand those differences to be gifts that come with each text. In their simplest descriptions, reading a novel is an internal, individualized journey while watching a film with friends is a unifying collective daydream. Adapted films are not always wonderful, are rarely superior but are sometimes creatively unique. Let us not fall victim to the classic default of adaptation criticism, that is, writing off a film due to its lack of fidelity to our first love.