Novels from films?

We are all accustomed to works in one medium adapted to another. Novels are often dramatised as plays, as, increasingly nowadays, are films. Films themselves are frequently adapted from novels and plays. Operas plunder from wherever they can. None of this raises eyebrows. We sometimes want the adaptation to be as faithful as possible to their sources (e.g. the various BBC adaptations of classic 19th century novels) – to such an extent indeed that if adaptations diverge even slightly from the material on which they are based, aficionados of the originals can become quite irate; and at other times, we can accept that the original material was but the starting point for the creation of something new (Verdi’s Otello, Kurosawa’s Ran, etc.) But one thing we never see is the adaptation of a film into a novel. I wonder why that is.

hammerbookIt wasn’t, admittedly, always like this. In the days before DVD Blu-Rays – in the days even before VHS video recorders – “novelisations” of films, usually cult films, were quite popular, as that was the nearest fans could come to owning the film. Most of the writing was hack work, and, although I may be very wrong here, I doubt there was much in any of them of any great literary interest. But if it is possible to create significant works of art in one medium based on works in another (the examples I gave earlier – Verdi’s Otello, Kurosawa’s Ran – can be cited again in this context), there should really be no reason why we should not have novels of high literary quality based on films. Unless, of course, we think of cinema as an art so inferior that it does not have the potential to engender works of artistic merit in other forms.

So can it be possible? Could a talented novelist write novels of significant artistic merit based on, say, La Règle du Jeu, or Citizen Kane, or  Sullivan’s Travels, or Persona? If so, why don’t they already do this? And if not, why not?

I think the answer comes down to a residual snobbery in these matters. We may pay lip service to cinema as an art form, but while we think it perfectly acceptable for films to be based on novels, we feel the novel to be so much more elevated a form of art than mere film that we cannot imagine it the other way round.

I’d like to see it tried, at least. Indeed, if I had any talent as a novelist I’d have a go myself!

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8 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Richard Halfhide on August 15, 2013 at 11:21 pm

    The first thought that occurs to me is that adaptations of novels are, to a greater or lesser extent, distillations of the original text. Whole subplots and characters can be omitted or made peripheral; much nuance can be lost. That’s not to denigrate adaptations per se, but it’s primarily extracting from rather than embellishing its source.

    Unless you’re watching a film of exponential length it will most likely be over before you’ve consumed more than a few chapters of a novel. So to perform the reverse it would be incumbent upon the novelist to expand on the film, spin out its story and ideas in ways which may never have been intended. This, I would suggest, feels more artistically contrived than the reverse.

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  2. I would like to draw your attention to the Jamaican-American writer Michael Thelwell’s The Harder They Come (1980), the only example I know of a novelization taken on as a work of art.

    So that’s one. Thelwell’s novel does just what Richard suggests – it expands the film, especially the interior life of the protagonist.

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  3. Intriguing thought here. I too would love to see a writer of merit give such a thing a try. I am thinking that it could happen in this way: Years after a classic film is made (obviously a film NOT based on a novel) a writer attempts to give the story a literary treatment. I suspect that to be successful, the writer will not create a “faithful” adaptation.

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  4. Posted by Alan on August 16, 2013 at 6:16 pm

    One could just as well ask why there are so few adaptations of poems into novels (or short stories); I think it has to do in part with the difficulty of expanding the language into a longer form, in that poetry and film can, at their best, express in very few or no words at all (in the case of film) a feeling, an aspect of character or an action. If the poem or the film is accomplished in doing this, rendering it in prose feels redundant.

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  5. I’d rather not see novelists bothering to adapt films. Likewise, I’d rather not see films adapting novels (and videogames, comic books, chess board games, newspaper articles, foreign movies, plays) so often. The lack of originality in cinema is ghastly.

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  6. Posted by alan on August 19, 2013 at 8:48 pm

    Here’s a bordeline case for the pedantically or philosophically minded: Wikipedia claims that in the case of “The Third Man” that “The screenplay was written by novelist Graham Greene, who subsequently published the novella of the same name (which he had originally written as a preparation for the screenplay).”

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    • Now I’m reminded of it, 2001: A Space Odyssey has much the same story as The Third Man; Arthur C Clarke wrote it as a screenplay, and seems concurrently to have written it as a novel.

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  7. I apologise to everyone for the late reply: i am just back from holiday, and at 5.30 on my first day back, i still have some 300 e-mails at work to get through!

    If I may answer you all in one reply:

    Looking back, this post doesn’t seem to be among my better considered ones. While adaptations into certain forms (opera, films, television series) are common, adaptations into others aren’t. As Richard says, most adaptations are “extracting from rather than embellishing”. That’s an interesting observation. Adaptations tend to extract teh essence of teh source, rather than expand upon it. All the same, i can’t help wondering what a novel based on, say, “Citizen Kane”, may look like.

    I take Miguel’s point about the lack of originality in films. It’s probably just economics: there’s so much expense involved in making and distributing a film, that film-makers can’t afford to take risks with something the public may not like. Mainstream cinema these days consists largely of unimaginative copies of the tried-and-tested. However, I wouldn’t like to lose ada[tations altogether: I’d be sorry not to have John Huston’s “The Maltese Falcon”, say, or John Ford’s “The Grapes of Wrath”.

    Graham greene reputedly wrote “The Third Man” first as a novel because, he said, he felt more at home writing a novel than writing a filmscript. Is uspect it may hav ebeen much the same with Arthur c Clarke.

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