Read The Book Or Wait For The Film?
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.