Read The Book Or Wait For The Film?

The Arts


I recently saw ‘The Limehouse Golem’, the film based on Peter Ackroyd’s ‘Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem’. I’d loved the book – Ackroyd in a more whimsical vein, playing with history, but was unprepared for the sheer awfulness of the adaptation. Despite its sumptuous trappings you can instantly spot the fault; it lay with the disjointed script that asked us to care about characters who had no time to become interesting. Jane Goldman is a fun writer perfectly matched to comic book characters (although the ‘Kingsman’ films are depressingly crude) but her cartoon style doesn’t translate into Victorian gothic, and it cheapens Ackroyd’s book by turning characters into caricatures.

Film versions of favourite books let us down because they don’t fulfil our visions of them. Everyone remembers Mr Darcy coming out of the pond in ‘Pride and Prejudice’ but if memory serves, it’s not dwelt upon in the book. Television is perhaps better suited to explore a novel’s subtleties in longform.

When JG Ballard wrote ‘Empire of the Sun’ he based it on his early life, even calling his boy-hero Jim. In many ways it’s as absurdist, cruel and unsentimental as his major SF works, but when Steven Spielberg filmed it the darker edges were rubbed off to bring magic and light into Jim’s life – yet such is Mr Spielberg’s mastery of the form that he succeeded in making an alternative version of the novel without travestying the original.

I had a major problem with Cronenberg’s version of ‘Crash’. Whereas the book was deeply subversive, seducing the reader into a perverse world of sex and death, Cronenberg’s chilly over-literal take on it made freaks of its protagonists. I was distraught by the failure of the film and knew Mr Ballard had endorsed it, so when the producer Jeremy Thomas waved at me across the post-screening bar and suggested I come and meet my hero, I did not go. I couldn’t deny what I thought of the film, and did not wish to offend the author on his big day.

There is no magic formula that guarantees a good translation of a book to a film. For me, the film version of Lissa Evans’ wholly delightful wartime novel ‘Their Finest Hour and a Half’ was not quite as enjoyable as the original. It seemed to me that the author’s gentle sense of amusement was harder to pin down on the screen. Film requires you to boil down a novel to its essential components without losing the flavour. ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ takes Atwood’s premise and spans it out into television that effortlessly maintains the tone of the book, but all the cobbles and carthorses in the world couldn’t save ‘Golem’ because its dialogue was tin-eared.

With historical adaptations a decision has to be made; do you attempt to capture the past – the reticence, the slowness, the endless reference to religion – or do you modernise to find an equivalent? ‘Taboo’ updated brilliantly after a weak start, so that Jonathan Pryce’s astounding outbursts of swearing in the East India Company boardroom felt genuinely shocking, and the whole lumbering, lunatic enterprise lifted off toward a pitch-perfect resolution.

Mike Leigh’s ‘Topsy Turvey’ took the opposite approach, capturing the language and lore of Victorian theatre so perfectly that one was tempted to leave the cinema talking this way. The playwright Charles Wood has written in past idioms that reignite language, making it exciting again. Listen to the speech in ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ and you’ll realise it’s closer to how Victorians spoke.


Some longform fiction is filmed because it’s enigmatic on the page and can be manipulated into interesting new forms on film. Why else are there so many versions of ‘Alice In Wonderland’? ‘Brief Encounter’ came from a very short play but never felt padded as a movie because David Lean opened it out, making it a perceptive study of guilt and shame.

When we write about or film real events we have to be highly selective, and that process reveals much about ourselves. Scriptwriter Anthony McCarten and director Joe Wright choose moments around May 10, 1940 for their powerful study of Churchill in ‘Darkest Hour’ but they decide it needs to be free of the corridors of power for one scene and plonk Churchill on the tube for the capital’s longest-ever one-stop journey so that he can meet the cap-doffing Gorblimeys. But why not? What’s the point of real life if you can’t make some of it up?

Best film adaptations of books, please. Let’s discuss.


25 comments on “Read The Book Or Wait For The Film?”

  1. simon says:

    Someone once said that it’s easier to make a good movie out of a bad book. In my opinion both Jaws and Starship Troopers are better than their source material, but in most cases where I enjoyed the book, I was disappointed by the film. Too many adaptations are too faithful, with too much reverence for the text, instead of taking risks in adapting it to a new medium.

  2. Brooke says:

    There is no pond scene in Pride and Prejudice–Mr. Darcy swelters privately as befits his character. The book does not have a scene with Darcy in an aggressive fencing lesson. This is just Colin Firth being his repressed character.

    Sorry to hear that Peter Ackroyd’s work, which I liked, was mangled.

  3. Brian Evans says:

    I liked Peter Ackroyds “Golem” a lot-more than I enjoy his factual style of writing. However, thanks for the tip., I will avoid the screen version.

    “The Holly and the Ivy” which was discussed over Christmas on here is a very good film adaptation of the play. I’ve yet to see a bad adaptation of a Dicken’s novel. I find him difficult to read, but love the dramatized films. The only novel of his that I enjoyed reading was “The Pickwick Papers”, and both the 1953 film version, and 1980s BBC adaptation are both excellent.

    Also, the recently discussed on here, “Night of the Demon”, the film version of “Casting the Runes” (Wilkie Collins) is great, as is the Hammer version of Wheatley’s “Devil Rides Out”. I now find Wheatley to be unreadable.

    My favourite though is “Went the Day Well?” the wartime film version of a Graham Greene’s mediocre short story, “The Lieutenant Died Last” is just brilliant. Even today, there is one scene which still shocks. Greene’s “Brighton Rock” also comes out well as a film, partially helped by Richard Attenborough’s career best performance as the would-be gangster “Pinkie”

  4. SimonB says:

    I’m struggling to think of any film or tv version that has fully captured a book the way I saw it in my head when reading. The Lord Of The Rings ones are close once you ignore the additions, but then Jackson blew it spectacularly with the Hobbit films.

    My biggest disappointment was the recent version of Swallows and Amazons. I grew up with Arthur Ransome, constantly re-reading the series, learning to sail myself and so forth. The 1973 film is about 90% spot-on, with just a few bits missing rather than wholesale changes. The new version, however, retains a few locations and most of the names but changes pretty much everything else. Throwing in Nazis, Russian spies, tensions between the children that were never there and a whole load of other inventions that just ruined it for me. In these days of extended franchises I also think it was a huge mistake to move it so much closer to WW2. Even with some of the more outlandish changes they could still have looked at the next 11 books as sequels, but there is no way the plots could stand happening under the threat of air raids.

    I have tried to train my mind to see adaptations as variations on a theme rather than being the same story. That way I can enjoy Adam West, Michael Keaton and Christian Bale as Batman or Radio/Book/TV/Film versions of Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy as springing from the same source but not being the same thing.

  5. Helen Turnage says:

    I don’t care if Darcy coming out of the pond is in the book or not; he’s beautiful.

  6. Colin says:

    What did you think of Rod Serlings writing Chris? Both film and Novel. I thought he had a very high hit rate in the short form. Be interested to know your thoughts. Thanks

  7. admin says:

    Rod Serling is shockingly missing from my repertoire, Colin. Obvs I’ve seen his Twilight Zone episodes but I’ll have to cover him for a possible sequel to ‘Forgotten Authors’ (I’m not saying there’s going to be one – I might just pop them in here).
    Good movies from bad books? That will be Mr King then. Great on ideas, turgid prose.
    Best Dickens adaptation? The rather splendid BBC ‘Bleak House’ chopped into half-hours.
    The new ‘Swallows and Amazons’ – not only ludicrous but boring and a flop.

  8. John says:

    If you’re thinking of doing a piece on Rod Serling as a novelist or story writer think again. He was strictly a playwright, started in radio and moved on to TV. I think Colin means what do you think of Serling as an adapter of other people’s work. Portions of the original PLANET OF THE APES screenplay, Jerome Bixby’s story “It’s a Good Life” for Twilight Zone, etc. Don’t bother looking for short stories or novels by Serling. There are none.

    Some movies better than the books: LES DIABOLIQUES, REBECCA, THE LADY VANISHES, GREEN FOR DANGER, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE, THAT COLD DAY IN THE PARK, MISERY, CASINO ROYLE (Daniel Craig version), ON DANGEROUS GROUND (based on Gerard Butler’s very dull novel Mad with Much Heart), BLACK NARCISSUS. And of course Ken Russell’s wacked out adaptation of Stoker’s LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM — for all the wrong reasons so much better than the book. Ludicrously over the top in every aspect. One of my favorite trashy horror movies of all time. Must be seen to be believed.

    As for books better than the movies– It is a pet peeve of mine when a writer or director takes the premise of a book and distorts it to tell an utterly different story. Here’s probably the best example I can give in the briefest amount of space. The movie version of SEANCE by Mark McShane turned into Séance on a Wet Afternoon is abysmal if you know the book. Oddly, I also like the movie. Very much admired nearly everything about it. It’s well told, acted with nuance and dignity, masterfully shot and edited but it is a wholly different story than the novel. Forbes took only the characters and the premise and rewrote the entire thing adding a backstory that transforms Myra into someone utterly new. In essence he created a whole new work of his own. I often wonder why they bother saying the movie is based on a novel when the end product is so entirely removed form its source. The ending of McShane’s book made me gasp in awe and truly affected me. The ending in the film is sadly predictable and left me numb.

    Other books better read than seen: ORLANDO by Virginia Woolf, DRACULA, BRIDESHEAD REVISITED, LAURA by Vera Caspary (even though the movie is one of my favorite crime dramas), THE SHINING (I utterly loathe the Kubrick film), GHOST STORY by Peter Straub, anything by Edgar Allan Poe… I better stop.

  9. Wayne Mook says:

    Happily I can usually disassociate film and book and rate them on their own merits. The Draculas & Frankensteins have moved a long way from the source, I enjoyed both universal & Hammer versions, I do wonder about the Library.

    Crime tends to film well, The Maltese Falcon, Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, Rene Claire’s And Then There Were None are all splendid.

    Usually for a film it needs to be good in it’s own right no matter what the book, so The Exorcist, The Godfather and a number of Raymond Chandler adaptations, The Big Sleep is a splendid book & film, (even if it’s noted the film & book are based on the same short story and the film came out after the book.).

    By the way Brian, Casting the Runes is an MR James short story. I’m surprised admin didn’t flag this up as one of his novels is inspired by the same story.

    Linking to previous post I wonder which is better the Da Vinci Code book or film?


  10. Roger says:

    “Casting the Runes” is by M.R. James, Brian Evans.
    James is an author who adapts well: my own guess is that his short stories are brief and have adequate characterisation, though no more, so their adapters can put their own interests and obsessions onto them as they expand them into films.

  11. Peter Tromans says:

    I’ll go for the totally obvious:

    Dare I mention Dan Brown? The films are inevitably far better (or, at worst, far less bad) than the books.

    And the most obvious one is ‘To Have and Have Not’, well known as a truly uninteresting book by Hemmingway made into a very nice Bogart-Bacall vehicle.

  12. Denise Treadwell says:

    Far from the Madding Crowd, Terrance Stamp version, followed the book pretty much, except for the end. It has my vote.

  13. May I add the Coen Brothers version of True Grit and Glehgarry Glen Ross, although the latter is an adaptation of a play not a book.

  14. Ian Luck says:

    I, too, was disappointed with ‘The Limehouse Golem’ I loved the book, as I have loved Ackroyd’s other novels, mostly the fascinating, and skin-crawlingly creepy ‘The House Of Doctor Dee’, and the night-dark ‘Hawksmoor’. Both fairly open ended, and would possibly be ruined by being filmed, as you just know that some studio executive would want the endings changed to provide ‘closure’. It’s all in the atmosphere, and if you have an imagination, you can piece the details together, and create as horrid an ending as you want. That’s why I prefer radio to television – the pictures are so much better. And why was the movie just titled ‘The Limehouse Golem’? The answer given will be along the lines of: “Nobody today knows who Dan Leno was.” Okay. But there will be people who have (a) No idea where Limehouse is, and (b) What a Golem is. As the late Tony Wilson, of Factory Records/Granada TV would have said: “It doesn’t really matter that you don’t know – but you should have read more books.” They should have kept the whole title. Also, adaptations of M.R. James’ stories – all a bit hit and miss. Jonathan Miller’s ‘Oh Whistle, And I’ll Come For You’, is beautiful, but set in the wrong county – Norfolk. It’s set in ‘Burnstowe’, which is actually Felixstowe, which James knew well. The hotel is real, but called the Fludyer Arms. If you head north up the beach, divided by black Groynes, you come to the golf links at Felixstowe Ferry. The area is very lonely and indeed, creepy at night. There was a Templar church in Felixstowe, but not on the beach. James would have known of this. The adaptation of ‘A View From A Hill’ is simply execrable.

  15. Denise Treadwell says:

    I like a good ghost story. What would you recommend? I used to like Ghost stories for Christmas.

  16. Ian Luck says:

    This is the end of the previous post. ‘A View From A Hill’ was full of material that hindered the story to the point of it almost being a totally different story. It’s whole appeal lies in the fact that it’s a very, very creepy tale, told simply, and not over-burdened with domestic troubles. Two of M.R. James’ tales I really like, are the version of ‘Wailing Well’, made, I believe, by a scout troop, and very faithful to the deliciously unpleasant original story. It’s on youtube. The other, is Mark Gatiss’ version of ‘The Tractate Middoth’, which is superb, obviously made by someone who knows, and loves the original material. The story by M.R. James I’d most like to see made, and made with love and care, would have to be ‘Count Magnus’ – which was obviously known to the writers of the 1960 Hammer movie ‘Brides Of Dracula’, where padlocks holding a coffin (containing George Melly’s sister Andrée, if I remember correctly) shut, fall off one by one. I’m still astonished that M.R. James, regarded as a nice, gentle man of God, frighteningly intelligent, and liked by his peers and students, could consistently write such wonderful, literate, and horrifying material.

  17. Brian Evans says:

    Wayne and Peter-thanks for pointing out my clanger. I did know, it was just a mistake. I’m afraid I’m getting more and more “Senior Moments” I’d like to be to do a Captain Mainwaring and say: “I wondered who would be the first to spot that”, or imply that it was only put there to try and catch Admin out.

    Actually, I didn’t care for the way the short story was written. It was rather clunking with long sentences and virtually no paragraphs. I looks like it was never proof read. The film brought out the visual elements very well.

  18. admin says:

    The film of Death On The Nile improved on the book, as did The Birds. Most of Lean’s adaptations are good, and I preferred Joe Wright’s adaptation of Anna Karenina to the book! Rosemary’s Baby is the only example I can think of where both are equally superb.

  19. chazza says:

    Robert Aldrich’s film version of Mickey Spillane’s “Kiss me deadly” is far superior to the original book but then I did read somewhere that the screen writer kept the title and threw away the book before adaptation. A bit unfair on the book I think which has a wonderful crude vitality about it.

  20. Denise Treadwell says:

    It has to be book for me.

  21. Colin says:

    Hi John,
    Rod has done a few books, currently reading The season to be wary again. He has some books on amazon or the website Rod Serling books. Well worth a look

  22. Davem says:

    I rather enjoyed the Limehouse Golem film.

    Yes, it’s a different to the book but no problem with that.

  23. Helen Martin says:

    Any Bogart/Bacall film would do a text up proud and even without Bacall Bogart does a good job. Ah, the Maltese Falcon which is better than the book and The African Queen where I have never read the book. I still find Hepburn’s voice an irritation.
    We have a detective series currently running which is set in 1921 Toronto but was inspired by Phryne Fisher. (The Aussies should sue.) The sets are pretty good and so on but there is this desire nowadays to rectify everything that was wrong in our past. Two female detectives and one of them black? Frankie taking boxing lessons (and is that all?) from a black man? Tonight’s episode involved the kidnapping of a flyer’s baby for reasons of eugenics. The aerodrome owner has a mechanic, a former RAF type who was played by Laurence Fox (the sergeant in the spinoff series “Lewis”) Fox’s accent fitted perfectly into the role. Accent is so often a stumbling block here because we aren’t exposed to the small differences that label regions in both Britain and Europe. My husband was very annoyed by the wandering accents in a local production of Stones in His Pockets, set in Northern Ireland. In a book accents are usually only as accurate as the reader makes them.

  24. ChrisB says:

    Anyone else an admirer of The Fog? A great overlooked film. I read James Herbert complaining that the film ruined his book. So I read the book. Dreadful! Not in the way Herbert had hoped.

  25. Wayne Mook says:

    You mean the John Carpenter film, The Fog, that is nothing to do with Herbert’s book. His book is a about a poisonous cloud that makes people do terrible things, while the film is about ghosts/creatures that lurk in the fog, by the way if it is that film then I’d avoid the remake.

    Wayne Mook

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