6/10/2016. CAN A MOVIE BE AS GOOD AS THE BOOK?
I love movies almost as much as I love books. And, thanks to Netflix, I watch as many of them as I can. Unfortunately, movies based on high-quality fiction rarely seem to achieve the richness of the original novels. Nevertheless, novels have become popular sources for movies. Of the eight movies nominated for the 2016 Best Picture Oscar, four were based on novels. Three of those offered stories that didn’t interest me, but I was eager to see Brooklyn. In my opinion, it was an all-right movie, but even though I haven’t read the novel, I kept thinking the novel surely offered so much more. The main character, Eilis Lacey, was appealing but not engaging. I wasn’t with her as closely as I wanted to be. I didn’t feel what she felt.
In an article written for Slate.com a few years ago, Willing Davidson had similar thoughts about Revolutionary Road, which he says is “both the worst movie I saw this year and one of the best novels I’ve read.” The problem with the movie, he contends, lies in the viewers’ lack of involvement. With the novel, author Richard Yates’ language enables readers to experience April and Frank Wheeler’s dissolution of hope along with the characters, so that their despair becomes the readers’. In the movie, the emphasis is on plot, which relegates viewers to spectator status. “We’ll never know these people,” Davidson says. “They’re not us.”
Literary Agent Donald Maass offers more insight into the dilemma of movie adaptations with an explanation of the difference between literary and commercial fiction for Writer Unboxed. He isn’t actually talking about movies, but I think his points are relevant. Authors of commercial fiction, he explains, most often use scenes to tell their stories. Authors of literary fiction add what he calls postcards to those scenes, not to move the story forward but to take the story deeper. To illustrate his point, he compares The Nightingale and All the Light We Cannot See, two recent novels about World War II. Scenes in The Nightingale show change in the lives and attitudes of the characters. Postcards in All the Light We Cannot See bring about internal change, but not in the characters. The change is in the readers and their perception of the conditions of the characters. Davidson might say, “They become us.”
Both The Nightingale and All the Light We Cannot See have been optioned for film, by Tri-Star and 20th Century Fox, respectively. Having read and loved All the Light We Cannot See, I’ll be interested to see what kind of movie it becomes. So much of the strength and beauty of the novel lies in author Anthony Doerr’s postcards, which are filled with sophisticated, lyrical language. I feel the same way about Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, which are scheduled to become an international TV series. I don’t see how the depth of Ferrante’s writing can be conveyed on a flat screen.
At the least, I hope the screen adaptations of the Neapolitan novels and All the Light We Cannot See are faithful to the story and spirit of the novels. In another review of the movie Revolutionary Road, the reviewer points out that for her a weakness of the film is that it focuses on the character of April, whereas the novel is told from Frank’s point of view. The shift in focus makes it difficult for the viewer to understand why April married Frank. In the novel, the attraction is clear.
The worst movie adaptation I’ve ever seen is Admission, based on the excellent novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz. The novel is the very serious story of a woman who gives up her son for adoption when he is born and the sacrifices she makes for him when he comes back into her life as a young adult. It’s a thoughtful, provocative look at relationships and responsibility. The movie industry took that story and turned it into a comedy with a very different ending staring Tina Fey.
Admission’s fate proves what Ernest Hemingway said about novelists and movies: “Drive to the border of California, throw your book over the fence. When they throw the money back over the fence, collect the money and drive home.”
Does it really have to be that way? Some novels, no matter how big a bestseller they are, should not be made into movies. Movie makers need to realize the limits of their medium and stick to stories that can be told completely and well on the screen. And that doesn’t mean they all have to be action/adventure stories. Some insightful novels can be made into good movies.
Remember To Kill a Mockingbird, anyone?