So because my birthday was last week, Stephen King made an appearance in Cambridge to moderate a discussion with Lee Child, author of the much-beloved Jack Reacher novels (at least, that’s what my dad told me–not because Lee Child just released a new book). The event was a wonderful one for fans of Child and King alike, not in the least part because it turns out that Child and King are enormous fans of each other, and spoke together not only as colleagues and fellow wordsmiths, but as delighted readers who ad just met an author who had a profound influence on their literary life.
And, unsurprisingly, in the course of this conversation, the topic turned to issues of film adaptations and the perhaps misguided selection of actors to play certain roles (Cough–Tom Cruise!!–cough, cough!). It seemed that, by and large, readers still had not yet come to terms with an actor who would never be mistaken for tall, or rugged, playing a character who is defined by his height and rough-hewn survival instincts. King and Child, however, attempted to assuage the masses, in part by discussing the nature of film-making and casting, but also by offering one of the most fascinating pieces of counsel I have ever had the good fortune to receive.
“I want to assure you,” Child said, with a little British smile on his long British face, “that Tome Cruise is not coming to steal your books. When it’s all over, the books will still be there.”
And after I overcame the urge to leap out of my chair and cheer, I began thinking…what is it, really, about film adaptations, that so upsets many devoted readers? Because, truthfully, no one is coming to steal your books. And when you come home from the cinema, the books, and all the words inside them, will still be waiting for you.
I think, in part, at least, it might have something to do with that sense of ownership we feel over the characters and scenes in books we have loved, which we’ve mentioned previously. For someone else to tell us what Jack Reacher, or Kurt Barlow, or Edmund Bertram look like seems like heresy; we know what they look like, and sound like, and act like, because, in part, we brought them to life through the act of reading.
On another level, nothing is as scary/romantic/moving/surprising on screen as it is on the page, precisely because your own imagination is fueling those scenes of terror, or love, or reunion, or shock. When you see the product of someone else’s imagination on screen, there is nothing for your brain to add. This is precisely why no aliens are ever scary once they walk on-screen.
Actually, there are some superb adaptations out there; works that allow us to explore relationships that the author could not (for example, in the latest Brideshead Revisited film, where we could finally talk about the relationship between Sebastian and Charles with a measure of honesty), or to unpack issues that the book may have rendered obscure (like The Painted Veil did for Kitty’s feelings towards Walter), or show us flashy magic or grand explosions in a way that, perhaps, our imaginations can not (I, for one, can never imagine being as cold as Jon Krakauer was on Everest, so I look forward to the film showing me what a blizzard on the world’s tallest mountain looks like). Adaptations also, occasionally, give authors the chance to revisit and re-consider previous works. Douglas Adams stated that whenever he adapted The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy for another medium, like film or radio, he always changed things up, not only so readers could see a different story, but also so that he could explore options that he didn’t when writing. Though this doesn’t really excuse the poor production qualities and general lack-luster feel of the latest Hitchhiker’s film, it does, at least, make us that much more grateful for the book, I suppose.
Which brings me back to Child’s words of wisdom. Movies aren’t coming to steal our books, or to take that experience of reading away from us–or from anyone else. What they can do is offer us, at their best, is a new way of looking at characters or events, give us a chance to visually wallow in period details, or, at their worst, a chance to be grateful that we have those books to savor, and the pictures in our imagination to sustain us.
Here are some adaptations for your readerly consideration:
The Painted Veil: As I mentioned above, I personally think this is one of the most successful adaptations I have seen. It is pretty closely based on W. Somerset Maugham’s novel, in which Dr. Walter drags his adulterous wife, Kitty, to China, where he has been assigned to assist in a cholera hospital during one of the largest epidemics in Asian history. While the book is a moving and engaging one, the film moves past Maugham’s inherent ambiguity about Kitty and Walter’s relationship, showing us the joys and tragedies of getting to know the person you married, wholly and completely. It also delves into issues in Chinese history just after the First World War with a sensitivity and insight that Maugham was simply not in a position to do. All in all, this is a visually stunning, deeply engrossing love story–between people and places–that is definitely worth checking out.
Jane Eyre: Though there are aspects of Charlotte Bronte’s seminal novel that seem generally un-adaptable, this version seems to ‘get’ Jane’s quiet-but-steel-willed personality, and also captures the tension between her and Rochester in pitch-perfect fashion…and even allows us to see a few moments that Bronte couldn’t…this is no ‘bodice-ripper’ by any stretch, but by showing us Jane and Rochester touching and (gasp) kissing (!), it also allows us to realize just how powerful–and dangerous–their relationship was for the time period in which they lived. I love the fact that the film makers weren’t afraid to allow the two main characters to look plain, ugly, and generally human, as it enhances the power of their performances and relationships immeasurably.
The Prestige: This is a tricky one to discuss for those who haven’t read the book, but suffice it to say, this is one of those films that allows us to see what authors attempt to describe: in this case, magic, both the mystical and the technological kind. Christopher Priest’s novel is a wildly complicated, deeply complex story of two warring magicians in the late 19th century, and the film embraces not only the heights of the Age of Invention, but also the depths that these two men are willing to go in order to prove their own superiority. Plus, David Bowie plays Nikola Tesla.
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell: Oh, I’m sorry, did you think you could get through a post on literary adaptations without this one getting mentioned? Not going to happen this week, beloved patrons. This adaptation not only captures the simply breath-taking quality of simple magic with simple tricks and angles, but the grand, awe-inspiring majesty of it, as well. Truthfully, it was interesting to read reviews of this miniseries in Britain, which generally complained that the adaptation was too close to the book. Which seems to be a different problem entirely, and one that we shall have to tackle on another day….