Film & TV

Novel to Screen

Leanne Dixon takes a look at the film industry’s growing obsession with creating films from novels. Is it an effective way of the integrating two art forms? Or simply a way to make money by the use of one to publicise the other?


Creatives often take pleasure in illuminating the ideas of others, whether in their specialised area or an alternative art form, experts in every craft often take inspiration from each other. Kate Bush paid homage to Emily Brontë with her musical version of Wuthering Heights and the novel turned film Girl with a Pearl Earring was influenced by Johannes Vermeer’s painting of the same title. This sort of ‘modification’ is most seen in the world of cinema; novels are just one adapted screenplay away from book to screen transformation. But is this borrowing of storylines damaging the sanctity of literature or simply strengthening the cinematic plot and adding an unexplored dimension to the narrative?

Filmakers began experimenting with film adaptations as far back as the early 1900’s, with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens both being converted to film in 1910. Since then this technique has flourished into an open opportunity in which a director can illustrate their very own vision of particular novels onto the big screen.  Why then do some of these metamorphosed bestsellers not conform well to life through a lens?  The ambitious vision of film makers don’t always correlate with the audience’s imagination, our favourite books can be devalued by an underwhelming attempt at adaptation. After Chris Weitz delivered a charming portrayal of Nick Hornby’s About a Boy, high expectations were held for his version of Philip Pullman’s astounding children’s book Northern Lights. The novel has everything necessary for a gripping fantasy film; distinctive characters, ethereal aspects, cross-generational storytelling, and potential for stunning settings using Pullman’s vivid visual depictions. So what went wrong?  It could have been the film’s lack of compelling narrative or its bad choice of cast for the alluring yet devious Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman) and the vivacious, strong-willed little girl Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards). The film also struggled to allude to the controversial meanings regarding the Catholic Church that blaze through the novel. Yet if this film had been constructed from an original screenplay would our reaction have been the same? Is it those high expectations of a film adaptation that which ruins the film and hinders our ability to perceive it as a separate entity?

In some cases the release of your favourite novel as a film can make it all the more unappealing to watch due to fear of the effect it will have on your perception of the book. The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold is a beautifully composed novel about a deeply traumatic tragedy. Written from the perspective of the murdered young girl Susie Salmon, this original yet disturbing style made the novel all the more harrowing and emotive. Director of the film adaptation, Peter Jackson, handled the novel’s seemingly realistic approach to the after-life with colourful CGI. Although at times an effective celestial visual was produced, it did not always capture the dark tone of Sebold’s language which makes the novel so magnetically raw. Whether due to poor casting or insufficient time for character development the catastrophic devastation of Susie’s parents was not felt as it was in the novel. This is a frequent predicament for films; the detail and length of a novel cannot be duplicated within the film adaptation, consequently resulting in the omission of characters and sections of the storyline. Often a novel’s cast do not have the opportunity to develop as characters due to the difference in pace between novel and film. A film takes so many hundreds of pages and reduces it to just under two hours on average therefore sacrifices must be made.

Yet through the dim haze of unsatisfactory interpretations shines the beacons of adaptation hope: those heart-stirring, spine –tingling renditions that get it oh so right! Films have one superior advantage that rivals any novel’s detail or poetic language: music. As David Mitchell, author of novel and upcoming film Cloud Atlas, finely stated ‘Music is an extra character that can amplify emotion or subvert it or stitch a narrative together. A gifted score-composer can somehow transform the essence of a book into music and have it waft through, like the Holy Spirit.’ A supreme example of this is Cary Fukunaga’s depiction of the classic Charlotte Brontë novel Jane Eyre. Dario Marianelli’s outstandingly beautiful score does just as Mitchell suggests. The eerie vocals embody the gothic mystery that surrounds the novel and the soaring violin melodies accompany the highs and lows of the lovers’ relationship. The gothic atmosphere of the story is undeniably enhanced due to Marianelli’s dazzling music. Mia Wasikowska delivers an unsurpassed performance of Jane, bringing to life the intensity and intelligence of her character within the novel.  Michael Fassbender harmoniously accompanies this triumph with his usual incredible acting, perfect for the role of Mr. Rochester. As if that wasn’t enough, the cinematography and costume design are also both exquisite. In the case of this film, it is hard to distinguish which form is the better one!

Suzanne Collins, the author of The Hunger Games, commented on Gary Ross’s film transformation of her story, saying how she felt that although both book and film were individual they were also complimentary pieces that enhanced each other. This could definitely be said of Peter Jackson’s finest achievement to date The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. These novels demanded silver screen attention and Peter Jackson whole-heartedly met and exceeded the expectations of many film fanatics. All three films are visually phenomenal; include magnificent special effects and a driving narrative with a sublimely suited cast and glorious score. It can only be assumed that Jackson’s upcoming release of The Hobbit will be just as awe-inspiring as these masterpieces. The hugely successful adaptation of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (directed by Milos Forman) also reveals two individual yet complimentary pieces of art, which work together in providing a realistic representation of mental illness. The novel provided an intimate approach to the story by unveiling it through the eyes of a patient at the psychiatric hospital in which the story is set. The film made a distinct change in narrative perspective and allowed a more objective viewpoint, conveying a fresh outlook on the story. The film includes outstanding performances from Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher and Brad Dourif.

With some literature the novel itself will draw in the specific audience that the filmmakers need in order to strike it rich. The Twilight Saga and Harry Potter films reeled in a massive teen audience, which then spread to a broader worldwide audience, due to the response from the novels. This is a great opportunity for both filmmakers and novelists to enhance their profiles and make vast amounts of money, as the films don’t need to sell themselves because the books have already done it. It is wonderful to entwine all art forms. Art is all about passion and conveying emotion and adaptation is a way of translating this through different guises and paying tribute to other artists.

So is there anything wrong with converting the works of great novelists into screen masterpieces? Of course not…as long as they are indeed masterpieces!

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