From the Archives: The Book was Better

The academy loves them. the fans hate them. Eoin Moore takes a look at the problem of adapting novels for the big screen

Originally Posted 2014 | Written by Eoin Moore

The film industry has an interesting relationship with books. Films constantly return to books as a source of inspiration. The reason for this isn’t obvious; the two are drastically different mediums, one visual and based around catching the attention of the viewer and holding it, the other entirely abstract, and determined by the investment the reader places into it. Yet, evidently, something about it works. Over the last ten years, half of the winners of the Academy Award for best picture have been films adapted from written works. For whatever reason, it’s a successful marriage. Except in the case of the fans of those books, that is. The phrase “The book was better” has come to hang ominously over any film which is created from a literary text. While the phrase “Based on…” at the bottom of your poster might encourage Oscar nods and attract critical interest, it also welcomes the scorn, derision, and hate of those who read “…” and will feel personally hurt by any mistreatment you do it. It’s strange that adapting a work of literature to film, a process which usually comes from a place of admiration and respect for the original text, so often results in such vitriol from those who enjoy the text the most.

The Inherent Vice movie has been getting its fair share of this lately. Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice was a satirical, trippy, detective mystery set in the early 70s, which followed a stoner P.I. and his interactions with wacky members of the LA scene on the trail of a missing billionaire. Pynchon has often been described as an “unfilmable” writer, due to his unique, aggressively postmodern style of writing and his mind-bending subversions of plot, character, story structure, and narrative. Up until this point, no director had ever attempted to unlock the riddle of adapting him. This is the challenge that was taken up in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice. Anderson’s adaptation does an admirable job of remaining true to the text: the plot is kept in its original, convoluted form, almost every line of dialogue is taken verbatim from the book, and the performances and visual style capture the lazy, hazy atmosphere of the beginning post-hippy age which totally permeates the original novel. Of course, that last part’s just my personal interpretation – and that’s where the issues begin. Complaints have been levelled against Anderson’s film for being too spacey, too slow, and not exciting or funny like the book was. While I think Anderson’s slurry, incomprehensible, offbeat approach to his film accurately captured the book, other people had very different interpretations and, as a result, to them the film seemed to betray the essence of the original text.

This is largely due to the fundamental difference between books and films. Books are pure abstraction. Except in the case of House of Leaves-style affairs where words splash across the page as a visual art form, in books the content is entirely descriptive. Any visual representation of a place, an object, or a character can only be determined up to a point with words on a page; the ultimate image is a unique creation of the reader’s imagination. Films are totally different. While the viewer still interprets, they can’t do so from a blank mental slate. The overwhelming objective realness of the physical world that the audience can see drastically reduces their ability to imaginatively construct their own subjective version. In Inherent Vice the book, Doc Sportello is some guy wearing a Hawaiian shirt, a pair of shades, and some large sideburns. In the film, however, Doc is Joaquin Phoenix dressed in a specific Hawaiian shirt, a particular pair of shades, and an exact pair of sideburns. Whatever personal Doc the individual reader had in their heads before the film came out, it almost certainly wasn’t that one. This isn’t just in the case of visuals; every abstract element in the book that gets translated into a certainty by the adaptor takes away some of the text’s subjective elasticity. The adaptor constructs a concrete piece of cinema out of their personal interpretation of the book. This process naturally risks the possibility of closing off avenues of interpretation which, to the readers, were essential parts of the text.

Everything she does in some way reduces the abstract possibility of the text to a singular, concrete certainty. This is a necessary step in the process of adaptation from book to screen

In an interview with Film School Rejects, the author Bret Easton Ellis had some interesting things to say on the subject of adaptations, in relation to Mary Harron’s adaptation of his own novel, American Psycho: “The movie is fine, but I think that book is unadaptable because it’s about consciousness, and you can’t really shoot that sensibility.” Ellis goes on to state that “If you’ve written a novel, you’ve written a novel because it is a novel.” Mary Harron’s American Psycho deals with the issues of adaptation in an interesting way. Much of the book takes place within the mind of the protagonist, Patrick Bateman, and many of the book’s events may in fact be Bateman’s hallucinations. This ambiguity is more difficult to capture on screen, which is central to Ellis’ issue with the film as a whole: “you have to make a decision whether Patrick Bateman kills people or doesn’t. Regardless of how Mary Harron wants to shoot that ending, we’ve already seen him kill people”. Thinking along these lines, it becomes evident that everything Harron does is some kind of “decision” of interpretation or adaptation. Everything she does in some way reduces the abstract possibility of the text to a singular, concrete certainty. This is a necessary step in the process of adaptation from book to screen. The clothing that appears in the film is a good example of this. Bateman and his coworkers are all well-dressed according to the upmarket fashion of the eighties. However, in Ellis’ book the clothes as described are ridiculous, vibrant, and nonsensical. In choosing a more conventional clothing range, Harron took away that satirical element to better fit her own more sombre interpretation.

A film which brilliantly addresses this issue of adaptation, by making that issue its central subject, is Adaptation. While technically adapted from Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief, Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation actually tells the story of Charlie Kaufman, played by Nicholas Cage, attempting to adapt The Orchid Thief. This film not only serves as a strong example of an adaptation having more to do with the adaptor than the original writer, it also ruminates on this fact in its narrative. Kaufman is portrayed as a nervous individual fretting over how to translate The Orchid Thief to the screen. As he toys with various ideas the film morphs to reflect his shifting mind: as his ideas become more avant-garde the film gets more avant-garde; when he starts considering more conventional approaches the film becomes an action-thriller. The entire film, from its insanely meta premise to its equally ludicrous finale, hammers home the work that is done by adaptors. The story isn’t simply poured from the book-shaped jug into the film-shaped one, it is rebuilt in an entirely new form. In the case of Adaptation, American Psycho, and Inherent Vice, the filmmaker is less an adaptor of a creation than a creator who must constantly learn to adapt themselves.

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