On adaptations

I see there’s yet another film adaptation of Great Expectations doing the rounds. And the question “What’s the point?” does come to mind. There seems to be a new adaptation of this novel either for the big or the small screen every other year – I’ve frankly lost track of them all. I suppose it shouldn’t really come as a surprise: so powerful a story with such a gallery of memorable characters is bound to attract adaptations. But perhaps it raises a wider question of why one should choose to adapt books in the first place. After all, we have the novel: is that not enough?

An obvious answer to this, I suppose, is that far more people watch films than read novels, and so, by adapting it, one could reach a far wider audience. This is undoubtedly true, but it would be wrong to infer from this that watching a film adaptation, no matter how faithful, is a comparable and equivalent experience to reading the novel. Even when the film-makers set out to be faithful, they are translating a literary experience into a cinematic experience; and the two are essentially different. There are certain things that the written word can communicate better than cinematic images; and, of course, vice versa.

Of course, this is but one type of adaptation: there is, it seems to me, another type – where the intention is not so much fidelity to the original, but to take the original as a starting point to create something that is new.  If the former category includes such works as, say, John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath, David Lean’s Oliver Twist and Great Expectations, and – my own personal favourite – The Innocents, Jack Clayton’s adaptation of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, then the latter would include Kurasawa’s Shakespeare-inspired Samurai films (Throne of Blood based on Macbeth, Ran based on King Lear), Bresson’s Pickpocket (which takes Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment as its starting point), and Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy (based on the novels of Bibhuthibhushan Banerji). Indeed, if we were to widen our scope to include adaptations other than cinematic, then we could also include Verdi’s great Shakespeare operas Otello and Falstaff. Or indeed, Shakespeare’s own plays, which almost invariably are derived from other sources. In this type of adaptation, fidelity to the original is not a serious consideration: we do not judge Shakespeare’s history plays on how closely they reflect the chronicles of Holinshed. But if the adaptation that sets out to be a translation of the original work into a different medium, then, as with any other type of translation, fidelity to the original is inevitably a major consideration.

However, when translating from a literary to a cinematic medium, some things are bound to differ. Most obviously, one cannot squeeze so much into a two hour film as one can in a novel of several hundred pages. This is why even as strongly plotted a novel as Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo is not really good material for cinematic adaptation: over its thousand and more pages, Dumas delights in introducing new plot strands at every possible opportunity, and, with all the finesse and exuberance of a master showman, allows these various strands to overlay each other to quite exhilarating effect; but in any film adaptation of reasonable length, this dense narrative texture has to be thinned out considerably, thus robbing the work of the very feature that makes it so wonderful a reading experience.

There is another problem: cinema isn’t as effective as is the written word in depicting inner lives. What goes on in a character’s mind can at best be communicated in voice-overs. But even voice-overs can be clumsy, and cannot be used at all when, as is often the case, the characters themselves are but vaguely aware of their own selves. Of course, skilful film-making can overcome even this (The Innocents once again comes to mind), but usually, complex psychologies that we often find in novels go missing in film adaptations –  even in the finest: David Lean’s version of Great Expectations, for instance – a landmark film in its own right – conveys very little, I think, of Pip’s complex psychological development.

But of course, other aspects of literature can translate very well into film: it is hard now to read the atmospheric opening of Great Expectations now without conjuring up in one’s mind the images of David Lean’s film. (This is even more true of David Lean’s film of Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago: whatever criticism one may have of the film version, Freddie Young’s cinematic images, once seen, haunt the mind insistently.)

And sometimes, a film adaptation can add to the original: Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon is a wonderful little thriller, but how much richer is its effect when enhanced by the directorial skills of John Huston, and by the now iconic performances by Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Sidney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre et al!

One may say, of course, all that matters is whether or not the film is good – as a film. That there’s no point in complaining that the latest version of Great Expectations or of Anna Karenina is not true to the book; the question is – did it make a good film? But I am really not so sure on this point. If one does know the original; and if the adaptation falls far short of the standard of the original (as is virtually unavoidable when the original is of the quality of Great Expectations or of Anna Karenina); then comparisons, odious though they may be, are inevitable. The latest Great Expectations may or may not be a fine film – I don’t know: but if it isn’t, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to ponder of the size of the gap between what it is based on, and what it is.

And finally, there’s the argument that at least it may encourage people to read the book. This is undoubtedly true: I was about 12 or so when I found myself enthralled by the BBC production of War and Peace. (The production values of this adaptation look very primitive by modern standards, but the quality of Jack Pulman’s script, and of the acting in general – a then relatively unknown young actor called Antony Hopkins gives a quite sensational performance as Pierre Bezuhov – are exceptional.) It was this adaptation that encouraged me to tackle the novel itself, and now, some 40 years on, I’m still hooked. Would I have tried to read Tolstoy had I not been taken by this adaptation? I don’t know. But I am certainly grateful to have seen it at so impressionable an age

But there’s a possible downside to that as well: a poor adaptation may convince readers that the book is not worth reading. Or it may project the wrong impression: nowadays, it seems virtually de rigeur for television adaptations to use fast-editing techniques, and not allow any single scene to go on for more than, say, a couple of minutes at most; and this really does not lend itself to communicating much of the complexity or the intricacy of literature of any quality. Or film-makers may decide that the novel may have been good enough for its own times, but we moderns are so much more sophisticated now that we can’t do without a few sex scenes. Now, why we sophisticated moderns should require sex scenes in adaptations of classic novels when pornography is so easily available on the net for one and all, I really do not know – but there it is.

So will I be rushing out to see this new Great Expectations? No, I don’t think I will. I did not rush out to see the recent Anna Karenina either. But it is possible for a great work of literature to be translated successfully into a great work of cinema: unlikely, perhaps, especially given current cinematic fashions, but nonetheless possible. So I suppose there’s no reason why they shouldn’t keep on trying. And if they happen to be somewhat less than masterpieces – well, we still have the books, don’t we?

17 responses to this post.

  1. I rarely like adaptations of books to movies. There is simply no character depth or detail. The conversation is often dumbed down to typical Hollywood formula. I agree about the sex scenes. Some movie makers don’t get it; maybe the lack of sex scenes in classic literature contributes to their durability.
    Thanks for the review!
    PS I should mention that some exceptions for me are the 1990’s 6 hour version of Pride and Prejudice with Colin Firth; Persuasion with Ciaran Hinds; and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I liked the Hobbit, too. Not the book, but still enjoyable.


    • Hello Sharon,

      Generally, I think you’re right: complex works are too frequently simplified partly because the complexities cannot easily be translated into cinematic form, and also partly, I think, because of audience expectations. But as you say, there are certainly exceptions. But no matter how good or how bad, how faithful or otherwise, a cinematic adaptation may be, the experience of watching a film cannot be a replacement for the experience of reading the book.

      I am afraid when it comes to The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, I find myself a bit at sea as I never really managed to develop a taste for fantasy. My loss, I’m sure!


  2. I have similar thought on film adaptations. Of course movies are a different form of art and I do not believe that a film interpretation has to be true to a book. As films cannot do an adequate job of showing the inner self they can do things that books cannot.

    Of course there are great films based upon lesser books. The example that is often cited is the Wizard of Oz.


    • Indeed, sometimes lesser books are promising material for good films (as well as The Wizard of Oz, The Godfather comes to mind).

      A curious instance of adaptation is Double Indemnity. Cain’s novel is, I think, absolute dynamite. But Billy Wilder, and his co-scriptwriter Raymond Chandler (no less), subtly changed it, so that where Cain’s novel moves from being thriller to Grand Guignol horror, the film stays throughout in thriller territory. And, given Raymond Chandler’s involvement, there’s more snappy dialogue. The two are quite different, but both equally valid in their respective lights. I wouldn’t be without either!


  3. Posted by tolstoytherapy on January 14, 2013 at 11:28 am

    There have been many film adaptations of books that I’ve enjoyed. However, I haven’t heard many good things about the recent Great Expectations production, and therefore I’m not interested in watching it. Also, the film writers did away with the role of Orlick!

    Despite this, there was a BBC adaptation of the book (last year, perhaps?) that I really enjoyed. The portrayal of Miss Havisham wasn’t exactly how I imagined it to be, but there were other aspects that I thought were very well done.

    Thanks for the post 🙂


    • Hello, I find the character of Orlick rather curious: I generally tend to think of the character as the novel’s only failure, and have often felt that had Dickens not been writing in serial form, he would have gone back and taken the character out. This feeling is based on the resolution of the Orlick strand (the chapter in which Orlick takes Pip prisoner, and Pip is rescued only in the nick of time). This resolution seems to me a throwback to the earlier, more melodramatic works, and has always seemed to me out of place here. However, Howard Jacobson, an often incisive critic, thinks otherwise, and I suppose that, in the light of what he says, I should rethink this whole business. That’s the great thing about great literature, isn’t it? – you may live with a work for the better part of your life, and there are still mysteries to be unearthed, still new ways of looking at things!


  4. I have been baffled by people – I mean book bloggers – who treat a book and its adaptations as rough substitutes for each other. So reading Hugo, seeing Les Mis on stage and seeing the current movie are all more or less the same thing. Perhaps it is for some readers.

    Anytime this comes up, I should remember to bring up opera like you did. Opera pretty much demolishes any argument that the adaptation should not be treated as a separate work.


    • Yes, it baffles me as well. As if the plot were the only thing that mattered.

      Teh adaptations that most fascinate me are those where something of an exceptionally high quality is translated into a different medium, and when, in the process of this translation, a new work is created of a comparable quality. And the most obvious example I can think of this is in opera – Verdi’s opera based on Shakespeare’s Othello.


  5. Posted by cherubinox on January 15, 2013 at 10:41 pm

    I actually like the limitation of lack of inner lives in films, you can’t read people’s thoughts in real life. Sometimes writers explain rather too well what goes on inside the protagonist’s head, it leaves too little to imagination


    • Hello Kirsty, it’s good to see you here again!

      I was thinking a bit about your point that exploring the internal lives of characters leaves too little to the imagination. In some cases, this is undoubtedly true. However, I can’t help feeling that the human mind is so endlessly complex, that the best writers can explore it to depth and still leave intact the sense of mystery that is at the heart of it all. Indeed, rather paradoxically, the more one explores, the greater the mysteries appear. We may consider as an analogy our understanding of the universe itself: before we knew about relativity or quantum mechanics, the universe, while still not understandable, seemed to make some sort of sense; and there was a genuine optimism that some day we may understand it all. but the more we discovered about it, the more mysterious it seemed to become. It’s the same, I think, with the human mind: the deeper a Tolstoy or an Ibsen probes into it, the sense of mystery becomes intensified rather than diminished. And why that should be so remains in itself a mystery!


  6. I enjoy watching movie versions of books I’ve read. I just noticed that I watched over a dozen films/TV series last year that were adapted from books I read, one as long as 10 hours. I’ve provided my caveats at times but usually not in one place. I probably need to come up with a brief version of what I think I’m going to post here to include with my movie posts.

    My film posts usually focus on changes from the book simply because I don’t want to go back over the same territory I’ve already covered in my posts on the novel. Also, I enjoy seeing what has changed from the book—I don’t expect them to be the same since it is a completely different medium—and evaluating whether the change added or detracted from the story. I guess I would say I expect an “overall fidelity” to the story, but what that means is obviously hard to pin down. Unlike art, I probably won’t even know it when I see it (or the breach of it). I guess I’ve been fortunate in that what I’ve watched recently has been both fairly faithful to the novel, even with major changes, and well done. Well, except for The Sins of Man. Yeah, I can’t let that one go.

    One thing I expect a movie adaptation to take advantage of, since depicting the inner world of a character is so difficult, is to exploit the visual aspects of the novel. Shoot, and add to it as necessary. And not just in a “It looks so pretty” sort of way. One scene that comes to mind is the flaming shot scene in Ashes and Diamonds that Andrej Wajda added (I think I posted a YouTube link to that). Brilliant, even with Cybulski’s overacting. Captures exactly what happens in the novel inside the characters but in a visual way.

    There’s another old discussion I’ve had—that great movies are easier made from mediocre books than good ones—but fits in nicely with your post. Although improvement may not be a high bar to clear. So there’s another possible downside…people watching a vastly superior movie may decide to read the novel!


    • Hello Dwight, yes – while it is certainly possible to cite great films made from great books, it is much easier to think of great films from lesser books (The Godfather very obviously comes to mind): there, aspects inherent in the plot that the writer either had not noticed or had net been able to develop can be allowed a greater focus, and as a consequence, something is created far greater than the original.

      And no – like you, I don’t expect a film to try to depict exactly what the book had depicted: what, after all, would be the point if that? I haven’t read the book Ashes and Diamonds, but Wajda’s film certainly was tremendously impressive. Any adaptation has to be judges on its own terms – did it make a good film? – although if, as a film, it falls far short of the standard of the novel in which it was based, it is inevitable that the gap would be apparent to those who know the original. That’s probably a good reason not to try to adapt anything of a very high quality!


  7. Coincidentally, I just saw David Lean’s Great Expectations for the first time and was riveted by how faithfully he’s able to evoke the novel – particularly in those stunning opening scenes – and yet do something that is so purely cinematic, that doesn’t try to squeeze the novel into a new form but rather sees the novel through the new form. Attempting a new film adaptation after Lean’s takes no small amount of chutzpah.


    • Hello Scott, I agree about David Lean’s version: it’s only the upbeat nature of the final scene that has never seemed to me quite right, but that is only because I am too used to the beautiful subdued ending to Dickens’ novel. The novel also contains, I think, certain moral and psychological depths that it is probably unrealistic to expect to see reproduced in any film adaptation. But whenever i read the novel, it’s visual images from that film that come to mind, and it is, I agree, hard to see how any adaptation could match Lean’s.


  8. Late to the party here, and can add little to what’s already been said, save a couple of anecdotes. I remember my friend Karen’s fury when she saw the Kevin Reynolds film of “The Count of Monte Cristo,” with Jim Caviezel, and the changes that had been made to the book. She felt similarly towards the first “Harry Potter” film (and, for all I know, all of them). I saw her point, but then “Monte Cristo” is my favorite novel of all time and I found the film quite entertaining when I eventually saw it, debase its source material though it did (the always excellent Guy Pearce is a hoot as Fernand). I can see why people get upset over the changes seemingly inherent in adaptations, but for me the important thing is that the film captures the source’s “spirit” (silly though that may sound). As folks have pointed out, the only way for an adaptation to be completely faithful to a source is for the adaptation not to be made and the source to be simply reread.

    That said, I’m very fond of Terence Davies’ “The House of Mirth,” based on the Edith Wharton novel and starring Gillian Anderson (came out in ’00, I think). It manages to be a compelling film in its own right while remaining true to the world and ideas of the story (and features *two* unforgettable performances, from Anderson, and from Laura Linney as the scheming Bertha). Graham Greene’s “The Quiet American” is another good example. There are *three* different versions–the novel and two films–and I think the latter both succeed on their own terms (and in terms of the Southeast Asian politics of the time), though Phillip Noyce’s 2002 version is certainly more faithful to Greene’s idea of the central character (Brendan Fraser as opposed to Audie Murphy) than Joseph Mankiewicz’ 1958 film. It can be done, but I think it’s definitely a high-risk undertaking, which is why we see so many failures.


  9. Late to the party here, but this is a question that fascinates me every now and again. My friend Karen was incensed over the many inaccuracies in Kevin Reynolds’ film of “The Count of Monte Cristo,” and the changes that resulted in the first “Harry Potter” film (and, for all I know, all of them). Now, “The Count of Monte Cristo” is my favorite novel of all time, and yet I wound up enjoying the film enormously, almost as much for its quotidian inaccuracy as anything else (among other things, the always excellent Guy Pearce is a hoot as Fernand). It’s not very good, but it’s enormously entertaining. I’ve always felt that if you want to see a note-perfect adaptation of a novel (or any other source), just read it again.

    Still, I’ve certainly encountered a few success stories. Terence Davies’ film of “The House of Mirth,” based on the Edith Wharton novel, was a superb work in its own right as well as a faithful rendering of the 1895 original (it also features some excellent performances, most notably Gillian Anderson in the lead and especially Laura Linney as the scheming Bertha). A couple of years later, Phillip Noyce’s “The Quiet American” became the second of two adaptations of Graham Greene’s novel. I happen to think both films are very good, and both plausible in terms of the Southeast Asian politics of the 1950s. Noyce’s film and Brendan Fraser’s Alden Pyle, though, certainly come closer to the original conception of Greene’s story than Joseph Mankiewicz’s film and Audie Murphy’s Pyle (though I still consider the latter excellent). It’s possible to make it work (I’d enthusiastically agree with the widespread praise for Lean’s “Great Expectations”), but there’s certainly a very high failure rate.


    • I haven’t seen teh version of The Count of Monte Cristo to which you refer. Now I think of it, the only version of this I rememberseeing is the old one with Robert Donat. (There’s another onbe with Richard Chamberlain, isn’t there?) But the joy of the novel was in its multiplicity of narrative strands: new strands seemd to develop with each new chapter, and Dumas juggling with them all and overlaying them on top of each otherwith seeming recklessness is a terrific act of literary showmanship. And this cannot, I think, be conveyed in a two hour film. That’s not to say, of course, that a good film can’t be made out of it, but one shouldn’t expect fidelity.


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