Watching films after reading the book (or vice versa)

I was recently faced with both these scenarios and it made me think about how we approach films adapted from successful novels. The two titles involved were Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer prize winning “The Road” and John Ajvide Lindqvist’s “Let The Right One In”.

I read “The Road” a couple of years ago and it completely floored me, I read it in one weekend while I was down visiting my mum and, in retrospect I probably shouldn’t have had my head in a book the whole time I was there but I found it impossible to put down.

For those that haven’t read it, it is a novel set after an unspecified global catastrophe and the book concentrates on the journey of a father and son as they try and make their way to the coast overcoming hunger and fear and trying to avoid the wandering groups of bandits along the way. It is stark, bleak and incredibly moving. McCarthy’s style of prose in the novel with his detailed descriptions and beautiful similes paints the picture of this grey, blasted world incredibly well. For example, one of my favourites that kind of seared itself into my brain is;

“The soft black talc blew through the streets like squid ink uncoiling along a sea floor and the cold crept down and the dark came early and the scavengers passing down the steep canyons with their torches trod silky holes in the drifted ash that closed behind them silently as eyes.”

So, as you can imagine when they announced a Hollywood film was to be made of it, I was not too hopeful that they would make a decent job of it. After the film was released I read some very praiseworthy reviews of it but still couldn’t believe it wouldn’t tarnish my memory of the book.

I was faced with the opposite situation with “Let The Right One In”. I watched the film last year as one of my rentals from Lovefilm, not knowing much about it other than it was a Swedish vampire movie. As a fan of the vampire genre I have watched more than my fair share of blood-sucker movies (apart from the Twilight series, I tried but only got halfway through the first one as I felt I was being drowned by the rampant hormones flying at me off the screen!) but this was so unlike your normal vamp-fest as to be almost a new genre in itself!

If you haven’t seen it (and if you haven’t, you really should give it a go, even if you are not a horror fan) the main character Oskar is twelve year old misfit, bullied by his school-mates, he spends a lot of time alone, his mother working late and his estranged father living miles away and he fantasises about getting his revenge. He then meets Eli, a girl seemingly around his own age and they strike up a friendship. Gradually Oskar realises Eli is not as young as she seems, in fact not a lot about her is as it seems.

As the film goes on a rather tender relationship grows between them, Eli says she will protect Oskar and he is initially sceptical as she is so small. But, well I’m not going to say anymore, you’ll have to see it.

But, my point is (was there one?), after I’d watched it and bought it on Blu-ray, I realised it was based on a successful novel, and, as with “The Road”, I found myself tentative about reading the book, afraid it would change the way I looked at it.

After much internal debate I decided to watch the movie version of “The Road”, Viggo Mortensen being the excellent actor he is, and the reviews seeming overwhelmingly positive after all.

And I needn’t have worried, the film is a triumph, even though restricted to a largely grey palette, the cinematography is outstanding, the shots of deserted highways with telegraph poles at skewed angles, carcasses of cars lying here and there are often breathtaking. The acting is also first class. This then, in my opinion, is one of the very few films to be made from an already successful book that really captures a lot of what the book was about.

In the case of “Let The Right One In”, I got a new Amazon Kindle recently and decided that Lindqvist’s book would be the first thing I downloaded. I read it over the period of a couple of days while I was down in Cornwall and was impressed once again. My preconceptions given to me by the film fitted perfectly, both the Oskar and Eli characters I had in my head worked fine with the book. Any film of a book has to leave certain things out and change certain aspects to allow it to flow as a movie should, they are after all two completely different mediums, and there are elements of the book’s plot that would have made the film a little too dark even for a vampire movie. This does lead to a small amount of confusion in the film regarding Eli and her older father-like companion that moves in with her, who is he, why is he with her? The film leaves these questions unanswered and is no worse off for it.

Why is it that we still insist on comparing these two media? It is always said “ooh, the film’s nowhere near as good as the book”, well that shouldn’t be entirely surprising should it? Read a good novel and the author can conjure things in your head that a film director would have to have a bottomless budget to attempt, a movie has to flow in a relatively linear timeline, something a novel clearly doesn’t have to.

Reading a book is something that can take a weekend, a month, a year, however long the reader decides, watching a movie tends to have to come in under three hours to avoid people getting fidgety or at worst getting up and leaving.

The Lord of the Rings for example, probably my all time favourite book, I remember going to see the animated Ralph Bakshi movie with my dad in 1978. I had not yet read LOTR, only The Hobbit, so I quite enjoyed it, my dad on the other hand was almost apoplectic with rage! The film was apparently meant to be the first of two, this one finishing roughly halfway through the second book of the trilogy, this was never mentioned and the second film never got made. I seem to remember my dad writing a stern letter to the film’s producers! Needless to say he never got a reply.

So, when in 2003 Peter Jackson’s first part arrived, I had been following the build up pretty closely now we had t’internet and was therefore stupidly excited about it, I’ve not looked forward to a film as much before or since! For some reason I had none of the worries I had with The Road and happily was not disappointed.

The point I made earlier about leaving stuff out for a film is more relevant than ever with this huge tome, and obviously Peter Jackson and crew had to make some pretty large and, some might say, controversial plot changes to fit it into the movies. No Tom Bombadil, the fellowship leaving Frodo and Sam to go off alone (I know of one person in particular that this still doesn’t sit well with!), Shelob appearing at the start of Return of the King instead of at the end of The Twin Towers. But even though this novel is hugely important to me I wasn’t too bothered and totally adore these three films to this day. I just wish my dad had got a chance to see them, I really think he would have loved them too.

I am not totally sure what my point was with all this waffle, a lacklustre novel can be made into a great film, after all a lot of really good movies are not based on novels at all. But it seems less usual that a great novel makes a great movie, anybody got any thoughts?

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  1. #1 by Martin on October 21, 2010 - 6:57 pm

    It’s interesting that you read LTROI. I cheated and read the IMDB forums to understand the difference between the two media and try to answer some of the questions that the film inevitably posed. It did make we want to read the book though. So are you planning on going and watching Let Me In? What chance of anything dark being left in at all?

    I’d definitely agree with you that lacklustre books can make great films. Most of my favourite films are adapted from trashy 1950’s pulp fiction in to something that bears only scant resemblance.

    But the other way round is a good question. I have two issues:

    1. Great is subjective. To one person, what might be a great book and an awful film adaptation, might to another person be the complete opposite.

    2. Great films can be based on books which aren’t novels.

    On the subjective side, was Mario Puzo’s The Godfather a great novel? Combining the two, if Nicholas Pieggi’s Wiseguys was a great book, would you count Goodfellas as a great adaptation?

    A couple of years ago I bought Gomorrah and it was one of the best books I have read. It was a non-fiction account by an undercover journalist exposing a subject that I find deeply interesting. The story, the details, the characters and the fear all blew me away.

    Later that year I watched the film at the cinema. Again I was blown away, however there was detail missing, characters missing and parts of the story altered or absent. Given that these were the precise elements of the book that I valued, it should have mattered; but it didn’t and not for the reason you might think. For me it wasn’t that those things in their amended format were still great, it was that the elements that can only be present in a film and not a book: the composition of the photography, the sounds and the atmosphere were all great in their own right.

    A great book and a very good film that I’d always regard as separate entities.

    Going back to subjectivity, a question: Could the biggest selling fiction book of all time not be great? Can hundreds of millions of people be wrong? You would have to say not.

    I however, always preferred The Life Of Brian.

    • #2 by Rich Pollard on October 21, 2010 - 8:44 pm

      Don’t plan on going to see Let Me In, can’t imagine it will be a patch on the original so can’t really see the point. Kermode said “Let The Right One In was a film about kids that just happened to feature vampires, Let Me In is a film about vampires that just happens to feature kids!”

    • #3 by Rich Pollard on October 21, 2010 - 8:50 pm

      Also, great is of course totally subjective, as is all opinion, but with novels, films and indeed all art forms there can be elements that can surely be seen to be great outside of objectivity. For example Shakespeare is not everyone’s cup of tea to read, but you’d have to pretty contrary to ignore its enormous literary influences etc that would still class it as ‘great’.

  2. #4 by Martin on October 21, 2010 - 9:52 pm

    The one I haven’t been able to get out of my head all night is To Kill A Mockingbird with Gregory Peck!

    • #5 by Rich Pollard on October 21, 2010 - 9:57 pm

      I’m ashamed to admit I’ve neither read that book or seen the film!

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