Adaptations: turning words into film

Stephen King’s novel The Shining is an efficient horror. A bestseller. Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation is a work of art. They are different interpretations of the same story. Stephen King famously hated the film. But, for me, it is The Shining. That’s the thing with adaptations: sometimes they improve, sometimes they destroy. They work, or they don’t work.

Norwegian Wood, to my mind is a successful novel, but the film does not work. It goes nowhere. Slowly. And Silk, a favourite novella of mine, resulted in a cinematic non-experience. It’s difficult to work out why the films were disappointing. Maybe they were just bad films with bad scripts and lacklustre performances?

Somewhere during the conversion process the stories lost the magic of the language. The words. The novel Norwegian Wood lost the voice of the central character, his wistful melancholic otherness. The novella Silk lost the tone of its beautiful minimalist language (itself reminiscent of Japanese literature). The magic of the words did not translate adequately into cinematic language.

A critical thing about novels is that we get to experience the inner world of the main character, or a whole bunch of characters. It’s a very intimate, subtle, rich experience. In film this inner narrative is conveyed through the voice over. It introduces the main character, sets the scene, and the tone. The opening voiceover in Blade Runner is often panned by critics. I actually like it. Whatever you think, you would probably agree that it is certainly functional. Voiceover introductions are invariably seen as dumbing down, explaining the story to a mainstream audience. The Beach is another example where a preliminary voiceover sets the scene, and the main character’s role as a cool, detached observer. The voiceover helps to translate a literary fiction bestseller into a cinematic hit.

Ready Player One is a great example of a novel that breaks the rules. It takes place through the internal dialogue of the main character. It’s almost all explanation (and quite detailed explanation at that). The narrator literally explains the story to the reader. The protagonist tells us how things appear to him: a nerd explaining the nuances of his world. It works because the narrative style reflects the protagonist unique world view. The film of Ready Player One cuts out much that makes the story and the central character endearing. This is done in favour of set-piece action sequences. The novel provides a richer experience that makes more sense, while the film is a sequence of chases and fights with much less charm. The screenplay breaks the novel’s story, sacrificing its sophistication for CGI effects. But the decision paid off and the film was a huge success.

In a weird reversal of the film adaptation process, films and TV series often become vehicles for merchandising. This means T-shirts, posters, action figures, lunch boxes — and books. Novelisations of film and TV series tend to stick closely to the screenplay. This is probably the only thing the writer can use because the film or TV series is still in production. These are books for people who want to ‘read the film’ as it were. They might be better off reading the film script. But, while these works are derivative they can add an extra dimension, filling in some of the gaps, letting us see inside a character’s mind, casting more light on their backstory or deeper motivations. The novelisation of Seven by Anthony Bruno, for example, proficiently retells the story, using the film script as its original source. It’s an effective thriller in its own right.

The ‘show don’t tell’ minimalism of the book version of The Graduate reveals information through dialogue. The modern, paired-down writing style reads like a screenplay. The narrative is matter-of-fact, efficient, but lacks the charm and quirkiness of the film. The novel’s language doesn’t have a sense of individual personality. Sections of the screenplay are almost copied directly from the novel, and although they are very similar, one completely resonates, while the other fails to convince.

There’s only so much a film can do in 90 minutes. There’s a lot more space in an 80,000 word novel. The trick is what an adaptation retains and what it throws out. What it emphasises and what it dismisses — how much simplification the story is put through. The Beach, Silk, Ready Player One, are simplifications of an already highly crafted storytelling experience.

Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series of novels works within the crime genre. Child is an effective storyteller who uses accessible language. Consequentially his books are easy to read and for many readers they’re ‘addictive’. It’s the accessibility and the simplification that makes them bestseller material. Of course, it’s other things as well: great characters, mystery, and exciting action based plots. The film adaptation of Lee Child’s One Shot into the film Jack Reacher builds on the novel but it also improves on it by tidying up the plot, and honing the essence of the story to its essentials. The result is a more satisfying experience, one that feels more complete.

Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm is another example of a film that turns a novel (in this case a ‘difficult’ work of literary fiction) into a more coherent cinematic story. It makes the source material look confused, like a rough ‘sketch’. How is this achieved? Through a masterful screenplay by James Schamus and great use of cinematic language; wonderful visuals and a resonant film score.

Great adaptations tend to retain the essence of what makes the original engaging, often something within the language of words and sentences, while moving the story forward to work within the language of images and sounds to create a distinctively new work of art.