On Adaptations

Sometimes I just take it up again and flip through it, until I end up lingering on a quotation, a paragraph, a page. I’m talking about Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, but I could apply the same rule to most of my favorite books. Here’s what’s special about them: though you know them already, they can still surprise you when you randomly open them. I read The Road for the first time three years ago, when I was about to go to the 2008 Venice Film Festival for the premiere of its adaptation, John Hillcoat’s The Road. I remember starting to read at around 10 am, and not dropping the book until the same night. That was love and pain, two of the feelings that can get you hooked in a heartbeat. Yes, The Road is short. But those 100 pages are dense, deep and highly painful. It’s about a dark and dry world, as dark and dry as its inhabitants. You can find no reason for them to keep on living and no reason for yourself to keep on reading since you know that there can be no hope. But you go on nevertheless, like them. Because, like them, you’re human.
Then came the film. By the time I saw it, the book was one of my favorite already, so you know how hard it is to be objective. I tried not to think about those 100 pages, but it was impossible. Parts were missing, parts that I had so vividly pictured in my head and that never got out. Then the movie ended and I felt like I had just finished reading the book once more. The feeling was the same, though some things were missing or different (Viggo Mortensen was also sit three rows behind me so yes, the broader frame was definitely different). The movie could have never been like the book. But it was good, it created the same atmosphere and conveyed the same feelings. The soul of the book was somehow there. The same thing happened to me with Barney’s Version. Let’s be honest, that book is almost freaking impossible to adapt. I like to picture Charlie Kaufman trying to do it and getting crazy as he did in Adaptation. But the movie is actually good, though different.
So that’s the secret of good adaptations, I guess: being a compromise. There’s no way a book can become a movie and stay as it is. It will always disappoint you. But the best a film director of a film writer can do is to take up the spirit, the soul of the book and turn it into images. Only then, even if you haven’t seen the part that you had pictured in your head while you were reading, you can end up saying: “Yes, that’s how I felt when I read the book”.

“Sustained by a breath, trembling and brief. If only my heart were stone”

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9 comments on “On Adaptations

  1. I try not to read.

    Ok, I’m just kidding, but I definitely put my movies first and my books later. So I tend to, if anything, see a movie first and fall in love with it enough to check out the source material THEN I read the book.

    For those things where I have read the source, or whatever? I do my best to sperate them. Like you say, sometimes its hard, but its a useless game… this is different, that’s different, etc etc. Doesnt really add much to the enjoyment of either.

    Could just be me though.

    • Jersey says:

      I know what you mean and it’s something I started to do lately. Along with films, I’ve always loved books so I used to rush and read a novel before seeing its adaptation. But yeah, that’s the way to spoil the film… Do you have any idea how bad it is to watch Shutter Island and know it all already?

      That’s a hard life.

  2. yes it’s hard to adapt a book on the screen and I agree with you, the best adapted movie are those which compromise, those where you can find the director’s point of view…
    another great adaptati.on to me is lovely bones, Peter Jackson ha conveied so well Susie’s feelings ad her “world” ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Jersey says:

      Well Chiara, when it comes to books, you know better then me!

      I didn’t really enjoyed The Lovely Bones though. As you said, Jackson portrayed perfectly Susie, but he left behind all the rest, as an implicit thing. And in the book, family is as important as Susie.
      As I wrote to Fogs, that’s the problem with me: I know that The Lovely Bones is a good movie, but I read the book before watching the movie. I should quit this bad habit.

  3. I definitely try to keep an open mind on film adaptations. If it’s adapting a novel, it has to cut things; a movie isn’t as long as a novel. If it’s adapting a short story, it often has to add things. Getting it exactly the same is difficult, even before factoring in things such as how my mental image of a character may differ from the on-screen portrayal. Unless a movie just completely blows it, I accept that it’s going to be a different take on the tale.

    Of course, comparing the versions is still a lot of fun. ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. Jaina says:

    Trying to remember a book I read before they did a movie adaptation of it. I’m sure there is one, just can’t think of it at the moment! I know in the last couple of years I read Never Let Me Go, Jumper and 127 Hours after I saw the movies. Jumper was almost completely different and 127 Hours was a very different book.

    Like you said, a lot of it comes down to compromise. What works in a book doesn’t always work on the big screen.

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