Yeah, but the Book Is Better


By Thane Rosenbaum

Published December 23, 2005, issue of December 23, 2005.
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Whenever a film is adapted from a favorite novel, serious readers of fiction are prone to say, “Yeah, but the book is better.” True partisans of the written page are always in conflict with those who like their stories cinematically revealed, projected onto wide screens that illuminate the darkness and pierce the quiet with Dolby Surround sound. The magic of movies, for so many in our increasingly visual society, is a far more stimulating and efficient storytelling experience than the labor intensity of reading.

I’ve had to think about this recently because one of my novels, “Second Hand Smoke,” is being developed into an independent feature film, and I was asked to co-write the screenplay. I had never written dialogue that was naked of narrative, and so I learned a good deal about what goes into a screenplay and what has to be taken out of a novel in adapting it into a film.

While certain novelists have successfully written screenplays from their own books — John Irving received an Academy Award for his adaptation of “The Cider House Rules”; Vladimir Nabokov wrote the screenplay for his “Lolita”; Robert Stone co-wrote “Who’ll Stop the Rain,” which was adapted from his novel, “Dog Soldiers,” and E.L. Doctorow lifted his fictional Rosenbergs from the page and brought them to the screen in “Daniel” (from “The Book of Daniel”) — I’m not sure that there is, generally, a great advantage to having the author of the novel become part of the filmmaking team. After all, the novelist may know the story best, but perhaps he or she knows it too well.

Those who maintain that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery have obviously never been imitated; any ego boost is offset by the nervous laughter from having all those tics, gestures and intonations exaggerated to the point of caricature. The same is true with a film adaptation. Giving art a second life sometimes creates more of a mutant than a clone. This explains the natural impulse to preserve the story in its original form. Any adaptation results in something new, and thereby false when compared with the original.

Yet, the film version may offer its own virtues. Indeed, many films have outshone the books that inspired them. “The Godfather” and “Gone With the Wind” come to mind. The fact is, novels and films are entirely different storytelling experiences. When it comes to making a movie based on a book — or ultimately watching that movie — being too invested in the integrity of the novel is probably a bad idea.

A film adaptation that is deemed “faithful” to the novel is not necessarily a compliment. The most successful adaptations have actually been adulterous: Liberties are taken; all kinds of cheating ensues. The artistic license enables great leaps of improvisation. There are redesigned endings, compressed time periods and newly invented characters, and often an entirely different storytelling mechanism. Anyone who read “The English Patient” before having seen the Academy Award-winning movie remembers shaking his head, imagining how in the world Michael Ondaatje’s superbly interior novel could ever sparkle so majestically on the silver screen.

But what films sacrifice in the small window of opportunity of a movie screen they make up in artfulness. Montage effects, slow motion, split screens, close-ups and superimposed images create visual moments that aren’t easily described in prose and are even more difficult to re-imagine as a reader. These filmic devices may be manipulative, but they are often emotionally effective.

Films require dispensing with many secondary characters that fit nicely within a novel but tend to overcrowd a movie. Sometimes several minor characters of a novel are consolidated to form one great “character actor” for a film. Other times, filmmakers change the geography of the novel — as in the short film “Bartleby,” based on Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” in which New York was replaced by Los Angeles. The novels of Charles Dickens have undergone all sorts of reworkings, some bearing only a tenuous connection to the original story. “Great Expectations,” for instance, was recently adapted into a late 20th-century tale with characters renamed and foggy London entirely lifted and replaced by the clear skies of Florida.

As Chekhov famously once instructed, if there is a gun in Act I, it needs to be fired in Act II, and the same holds true with films (though the aphorism is tweaked slightly to also make sure that a gun is never inserted into a scene unless it makes a loud noise). Certain things have to happen at various markers of a movie, otherwise audiences, expecting such contrivances, will simply walk out.

Yet, in novels, all kinds of props are abandoned on the page. Not everything needs to be resolved, not every loose end must be tied up for the novel to be satisfying. Ambiguity is tolerated much more readily; the impulse toward linearity — the beginning, middle and end of a story — is almost nonexistent in modern fiction.

It is for this reason that Franz Kafka has never received a cinematically successful treatment of his fiction, even though he has been arguably the most important literary figure of the past century. Magical realism doesn’t translate well into films. Similarly, dark psychological complexity is not particularly well suited to cinema, which is why Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novels have not been successfully adapted, either. A strong interior narrative voice simply doesn’t come across in film — even if one allows for voiceovers.

With all these obstacles and risks, you can see why starting from scratch with an original screenplay makes sense. Other than studio executives, no one has any great expectations because no one is guarding the central text, hovering nervously and breathing down the screenwriter’s back.

Ultimately, feature films cannot replicate the experience of reading, nor can everything about a novel end up being adapted — nor should it be. Filmmaking is about compromise and concession. It’s a miracle they don’t toss the book right out the window.

With a novel, the author forms an implicit partnership with his audience. He provides the story and its voice, but the reader adds the visuals. The power of a novel’s description is often tempered by sketchy details. Much is left out in order to leave something to the imagination. The reader is free to conjure the characters in his own way, to picture how they look, because the mind’s eye has a way of assembling an image that is quite different from how a character might appear on screen. In the end, the novelist surrenders his book to his readers. Thereafter it becomes theirs, and his proprietary interest ceases.

Movies, by contrast, are more controlled; the director calls the shots, and the camera focuses the point of view. The eyes of the audience are being drawn in a certain direction, but not necessarily from left to right. Which is, after all, what central casting looks for in a reader.

Thane Rosenbaum is the author of the novels “The Golems of Gotham” (HarperCollins, 2002) and “Second Hand Smoke” (St. Martin’s Press, 1999).

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