Abridged Too Far?

Posted by in September's Magazine

In a recent conversation with my brother regarding Shogun, the James Clavell novel, we found ourselves on the topic of Jerry London’s 1980 film adaptation. My brother, having a passion for books equal to my passion for film, was quick to roll out the old adage, “The book was far better than the film.” For once I agreed with him; London failed to flesh-out the intrigue, vibrant foreign world, and characters that populated Clavell’s huge novel. I then began to wonder; of all the screen versions of books that have been made since the birth of narrative cinema, how many people have expressed that very same opinion upon exiting the movie theatre?

By the end of 2010, no fewer than forty mainstream film adaptations will have graced our screens. With versions of international bestsellers such as Stieg Larsson’s The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows due in November, I felt it was time to consider Director’s motives when they take it upon themselves to adapt books into films.


Readers are, for the best part, left disappointed when books are adapted for the big screen. In my experience this dissatisfaction stems from the fact that more often than not the screen versions do not remain ‘faithful’ to the book. What I mean by ‘faithful’ is that although the story is portrayed through a new medium, the film must remain accurate with regards to the theme, aesthetics and/or the message, which is portrayed through the novel. Invariably Hollywood seems satisfied with taking the name or basic plot of a novel and morphing it into a diluted or unrecognizable screen version.

Yet suggesting that all adaptations that have strayed from the essence of their source material are pointless renderings isn’t true. Many titles such as Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Steven King’s The Shining and Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity, have endured this creative butchery, only to resurface as excellent and often classic films that surpass the novel’s foundations.

The main argument between pro and anti adaptation camps stems from the idea that it is impossible for any film to inhabit a novel’s interior space. Alan Moore, the genius responsible for graphic novels V for Vendetta and The Watchmen is a strong critic of adaptations and believes that his graphic novels are, “Designed to show off things that other media can not.” He advocates his creations only work in the graphic novel medium and attempts to transpose them into another form robs the audience of his true intentions.

Some argue that a film adaptation must do exactly that; adapt. A director must only introduce changes to the story where necessary, when problems arise through time restrictions or narrative perspective. Between 1995 and 2003, Peter Jackson painstakingly adapted one of the worlds most revered and loved books into a cinematic masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings trilogy. His interpretation was in essence true to Tolkien’s books but was abridged, which was essential due to those pesky time restrictions. If one were to purchase The Lord of the Rings Boxset and watch all three installments back to back, they would be wading through a  mammoth 681 minutes of celluloid; that is without transposing the entire book and, in addition, editing out a few film segments as well. So although the trilogy was ‘different’ it is widely acknowledged to be a true adaptation.

A direct transcription of a novel into film is impossible; even endeavouring to achieve the goal of ‘accuracy’ is an absurd notion. A book may take a reader a week to get through, the average film lasts 115 minutes. The most notorious example of the transposing literally from novel to screen is Erich von Stroheim’s Greed. Based upon Frank Norris’s novel of poverty, murder and envy – McTeague. Stroheim, ever the perfectionist, put the entire novel into his screenplay. The resultant movie was a phenomenal 16 hours long; a postive marathon for a modern audience.

Playing god
What sort of criteria should we use in order to determine whether or not a film presents a ‘faithful’ adaptation of a literary work? Fans care about adaptations because novels and movies are very different artistic media; one focuses on description, the other depiction, in order to portray the narrative. When you read a book you are partaking in a creative process. The book is simply a template for the mind to follow as it constructs the realm into which it will escape. Reading is an investment of time and imagination. Reading is as close to being God as one might ever get. With films it is the exact opposite; all the work is already done for you – with the exception of horror movies which occasionally leave their worst excesses to the imagination – for the duration of the film you escape into a visual world and appreciate (or not) the director’s version of events. In this scenario the director plays God.

Some opine that a novel is a novel, and a film is a film; therefore the two works should be seen as two separate entities. They believe that the director shouldn’t concern himself with the source material. One key similarity remains however; they are both open to interpretation. When two people read a book or watch a film, although they will have had roughly the same experience, they may come away with very different opinions as to what the material was about. Someone reading Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho may find it a shocking and debauched psychological thriller. Watching Mary Harron’s film version, it seems more of a satire on yuppie culture in the 1980s. Interpretation is key to the director’s motives and ultimately the audience’s acceptance of the adaptation.

Spectacular failure
It all boils down to what the director is aiming to do. For better or worse there is usually a clear line of logic when writers, directors and producers decide upon changes when adapting a book. Is the director trying to remain faithful or is he attempting to create a new entity altogether?  Deborah Cartmell says, “any film that prioritizes transposition over interpretation will spectacularly fail.”

It is obvious that Stanley Kubrick adhered to this maxim; eleven of his films were adaptations and followed the trend of taking the name or basic plot of a novel and morphing it into a diluted or unrecognizable screen version. You could say that he created them aiming to please audiences, yet with his perfectionism and artistic arrogance in mind, it is probably fairer to say he created them for himself. His motive was to create films of visual and narrative magnificence and to hell with staying true to the novel.

Adaptations such as The Lord of the Rings, where the director specifically set out to be ‘faithful’ to the book, allow the audience to comment on the fact that the film is ‘different’.  With regards Kubrick, no, the audience should stay silent because remaining ‘faithful’ was not his motive. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if the director attempts a truthful adaptation or bastardizes the story completely. The problem is that a director’s interpretation of a book is not, and could never be, yours. As good as some adaptations palpably are, no film adaptation can truly satisfy unless you make it yourself. By Adam Smart

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