The Novel or the Film?
The three most recent films I’ve seen at the cinemas are How I Live Now, The Hunger Games and The Book Thief. Besides war, oppression and heroics, these films have something else in common. They were all novels first. While the films were enjoyable, I couldn’t help but wonder if I would have enjoyed them more without all the preconceptions and expectations that come with having read the book. Which did I prefer? I would say the novels in a heartbeat. It seems as though this is almost always the case. So why is that?
Novels don’t have time limitation
While a novel can fit in as much or as little as the author desires, a film must deliver the contents of a novel in only a few hours. This makes it impossible for the film to portray all the events in the novel. It is up to the director to pick and choose what should be included and omitted, and what is most important to the story. Not only may the decision be one that you don’t agree with, but by cutting out content, the film runs the risk of lacking substance, being less coherent, and affecting the development of characters and future events. Even the smallest moments in a novel, such as a look or a word, can add value to the narrative but are simply overlooked in the film. For example in the film The Help, we are told that Aibileen has raised seventeen white children when she starts sharing her stories with Skeeter. She then begins to recall the first child she ever raised, and the affectionate relationship they shared. What the film fails to mention is that Aibileen left those children because she knew eventually they would learn to be racist, and no amount of her love could stop that from happening. She left to avoid heartbreak. The novel doesn’t exempt children from racism in the way you could argue the film does, and hence, Skeeter’s unconditional love for Constatine is more exceptional and significant. This small piece of information that didn’t make it into the film is enough to slightly alter the novel’s original message.
Furthermore, time limitation can make it difficult to establish a sense of time elapse in film. Does it ever seem like characters that have just met are suddenly getting married, and too many dramatic events have occurred in a short amount of time? What we may interpret as a few weeks may actually be many months. Time elapse is much easier to achieve in a novel because the narrative doesn’t need to be compressed. We can witness a more natural progression in character development and build up to key events that take place rather than jumping from one significant event to the next. My biggest disappointment when watching the 2011 adaptation of Jane Eyre was the tension and chemistry between Jane and Mr Rochester. It seemed as though one moment they were cold and hostile towards one another and the next moment they were falling in love. This sudden change in feeling eliminated all tension, suspense and chemistry portrayed in the novel. As a result, the transition in the novel felt much more complex, deep and subtle, and much less rushed – which was all the more satisfying.
Sometimes less is more and cutting a narrative to fit the film can be exactly what the narrative needs to come alive and engage the audience as they fill in the blanks. For example, in the film Jaws there was a bigger focus on man versus beast rather than the romantic subplots Benchley explored in his novel. Rather than subtracting from the film, it benefitted the film by making it more concise and compact. Other times the novel may not offer all that much, and this gives the film a chance to go in a whole new creative direction. For example, F. Scott Fitzgerald is a brilliant author but his short story The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was too bland and simple for what was quite an extraordinary idea. The film, on the other hand, managed to capture the essence of Fitzgerald’s tale in an unforgettable cinematic experience that, by heading in a different direction with the story and expanding on it, brought it to life.
Words are powerful
I know, I know there is that saying ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’. But when watching a film you can’t smell the visuals, you can’t taste them or feel them. Evocative language has the power to awaken your imagination to these sensations. Oscar Wilde sums up this power of words pretty nicely in The Picture of Dorian Gray:
“Words! Mere words! How terrible they were! How clear, and vivid, and cruel! One could not escape from them. And yet what a subtle magic there was in them! They seemed to be able to give a plastic form to formless things, and to have a music of their own as sweet as that of viol or of lute. Mere words! Was there anything so real as words?”
Wilde himself had a knack of capturing his readers’ imaginations through words. Take, for example, the opening lines of The Picture of Dorian Gray:
The studio was filled with the rich odour of roses, and when the light summer winds stirred amidst the trees of the garden there came through the open door the heavy scent of the lilac, or the more delicate perfume of the pink–flowering thorn.
As soon as we read the first passage in his novel we can feel the light summer winds stirring, we can smell the scent of lilac and the delicate perfume of the pink–flowering thorn among the odour of roses, so much so we can almost taste it. No opening scene of the film can produce these sensations without the words that elicit them. The novel allows us to be a part of the environment and to be experiencing what the characters are experiencing. Powerful language is not only about vivid descriptions that transport us to the world of the novel, it is also about narration. Narration allows us to make better sense of the story by providing explanation, background information, allowing us into the character’s mind, and being a separate entity that can help us understand things that may not be known in the world of the narrative. While film may overlook or clumsily attempt to display intricate details in character or plot development, narration can illustrate them flawlessly.
The novel Atonement delivers many intricate and complex messages that cannot be illustrated by visuals, especially when entering the mind of Briony. Take this passage for example:
There did not have to be a moral. She need only show separate minds, as alive as her own, struggling with the idea that other minds were equally alive. It wasn’t only wickedness and scheming that made people unhappy, it was confusion and misunderstanding, above all, it was the failure to grasp the simple truth that other people are as real as you. And only in a story could you enter these different minds and show how they had an equal value. That was the only moral a story need have.
Through this passage the reader gets a direct sense of the thoughts passing through Briony’s mind. While in a film a voiceover could communicate this, it cannot communicate every single complex and insightful thought Briony shares with us throughout the novel. These thoughts contain the crux of the complexities within the novel and the moral dilemma that Briony is grappling with. They are crucial to our understanding of Briony, her motives and her feelings. Since the novel is about interpretations, misjudgments and misunderstandings of events and characters, without these vital thoughts we become just as handicapped as the characters when we come to terms with Briony’s actions. Our perception of her and her role in the narrative changes.
Films may not necessarily have narration, but they do have many other tools that they can use to impact their audience. Dialogue in a film may be much more powerful than in a novel because you have the tone and expression of the voice. Music is another advantage as it is extremely effective in creating mood and conveying emotion. In Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, suspense and horror was established through Hitchcock’s use of sound, visuals, pace and tempo, body language, and musical score. These combined cinematic elements seemed to have had a bigger effect in manipulating the audience than the words did in the novel.
Casting decisions can detract from the film
In a novel the characters are mostly left up to our imagination. While some description is offered to us, we ultimately decide what the characters look like and who they are in our minds. In a film that decision is made for us. We are presented with someone else’s interpretation of the character. The actor will be judged on not only their performance but also on their physical appearance when inhibiting a character that has already been developed in our minds. It is impossible for an actor to fit everyone’s interpretation of the character and therefore an enormous task to satisfy all expectations. An example of this is Keira Knightley in the 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. She was criticised as being too “pretty” for the role of Elizabeth Bennett, who is described in the novel as “tolerable” and “not handsome enough”. Another poor casting decision was Mickey Rooney as Japanese landlord Mr Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. He wore makeup, a prosthetic mouthpiece and squinty eyes to portray the racist caricature. The director, Richard Shepherd, repeatedly apologised for the insensitive portrayal that caused offence among many fans of the otherwise classic film. Rooney himself has said he would have never taken the role if he knew how much it would offend people. There was always going to be mixed reactions to Johnny Depp’s performance as Willy Wonka in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Depp took the role in a completely different direction. His white skin and black slick hair, quirkiness and creepy demeanor seemed to channel Michael Jackson rather than the Willy Wonka portrayed in the books.
When the casting is right, it can take a good film and turn it into something brilliant. Take for example To Kill a Mockingbird. While the novel is one of the greatest pieces of literature there is, the film managed to do it justice and is a masterpiece in its own right. A large part of this has to do with the powerhouse performance by Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch. The director managed to recreate this powerful tale on the silver screen by ensuring that the moral essence and warmth of the story was preserved, and this was seen largely through Atticus. A completely different example would be Mrs Doubtfire. The novel is a simple and at times charming story but nothing special. The film, however, was a much bigger success. Robin Williams was absolutely brilliant in his heartwarming and hilarious performance as Mrs Doubtfire – making her a household name. Mrs Doubtfire went on to become the second highest grossing film in 1993.
The audience is more involved in a novel
Many of us go to the cinemas for a chance to unwind and relax. While some films do stimulate and get us thinking, many films allow us to switch off. Everything is presented to us on the screen, ready to take in. Our experience when reading is completely different. We are a part of the creative process and the last link in making the story come alive. We imagine what the characters look like, how they speak, how they interact with each other, what the surroundings are like. Everything we read has to be imagined and interpreted. This provides us with a more unique, individual and intimate experience. We live the characters, they become our own creation as much as the author’s and we experience their journey rather than simply observe it.
Furthermore, we invest more into a good book than we do a film. While a film takes up only two hours of your day, a book can take weeks or even months to read. Not only is your enjoyment prolonged, but you have many opportunities to reflect over what is happening in the novel, and contemplate and dwell on characters and their situations between reads. This allows you to absorb the story, which will help you understand it on a deeper level and pick up things you might not have first seen. In contrast, it is easy to miss things in a film as you have little time to process an event before the next one takes place.
The audience being more involved in a novel than in a film may not be viewed as an advantage to everyone. People may enjoy watching a film rather than reading a novel because they want to relax in their leisure time and switch off. On the other hand, there are certain films that demand a high level of concentration and engage their audience with complex and philosophical ideas, mystery or conundrums. For example, every time you watch The Matrix you will pick up symbols or hidden meanings you may not have noticed the first time around and develop new ideas and theories. Donnie Darko is another film that requires you to use your imagination as many events are left unexplained and there is an indefinite ending. These sorts of films leave you thinking about them long after you have watched them.
In a novel anything is possible
There is only so much that visual effects and stunt doubles can do in a film – and even then it may not come off as very realistic. But when we read, we can imagine anything and bring that image to life. There are no limitations when creating through words. For example, in Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series she delves into the world of fantasy. We can imagine Jacob Black transforming into a werewolf quite naturally whereas in the film the transformation seemed so unrealistic it made a few people giggle. Not only that, but the werewolves seemed out of place in the environment and too robotic to even remotely resemble a ‘real’ werwolf – unlike what we could create in our minds. While the vampires are supposed to be the most beautiful and captivating creatures on earth, it is impossible for the film to demonstrate that. No such beauty could be cast because everyone’s interpretation of what is beautiful differs, and other factors have to be considered such as acting ability. However we can imagine such beauty.
Films are getting better and better at making the impossible happen through breathtaking visual effects. Who can forget the vivid and stunning colours, and almost dreamlike qualities of Pandora in the film Avatar? The land with its shadows, lighting and movement seemed to be alive rather than animated. James Cameron brought this world to life through innovative techniques such as photorealistic computer–generated characters, a motion–capture stage six times larger than any previously used, and using a new texturing and paint software system.
While the novel may be preferred to the film in many cases, it is important to keep in mind that film and literature are two different art forms that offer different experiences. They both have their pros and cons. It is possible to enjoy both experiences if we keep an open mind and let each method of story telling speak for itself.
What do you think? Leave a comment.