And what makes a film version good?
Comparing films and books really is like comparing apples and oranges. A film is composite work of multiple people while a novel is usually a single person’s effort. And a film crew and production teams have a lot more available to them concerning sensory perception. That’s probably the number one reason people don’t like the movie as much as the book—because it doesn’t look like their vision of the book. Let’s look at four books and movie pairings; all of which I think give some insight into this question: Pride & Prejudice and its various incarnations, the Last of the Mohicans, Les Miserables and Slumdog Millionaire and its predecessor of a different name Q&A. I’ll mention other pairings that go into the categories I have set up, but these four films and books are going to be the main points.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen has quite a few film adaptations. That happens when you write one of the most beloved novels of all time. I’m going to look at three: 1940 film adaptation with Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson, 1995 television adaptation and the 2005 adaptation with Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen. In these examples we see a little microcosm of possibilities when adapting a not-too complicated novel (those will be addressed later). The 1940 adaptation is a wonderful film…if you’ve never picked up a Jane Austen novel. While basically following the same plot as the novel, the characterization greatly diverges from that of the novel. It is nothing too drastic, but a modern Janeite would get really annoyed if she had to watch this instead of a more accurate film version. Also the costumes are circa 1820, not Regency, and Lizzie Bennett does not do hoop skirts. Still, all inaccuracies aside, Greer Garson’s Lizzie is wonderfully acted and really captures what her characters. None of the plots strays too far, unlike the most recent Wuthering Heights adaptation from PBS, where Heathcliff shoots himself (I don’t think is a spoiler, but hint: in the book Heathcliff does NOT shoot himself). This adaptation is about as far from the 1995 version as possible which takes a completely different approach. With Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy, the BBC version spares no plot whatsoever; the film is basically like watching the book on the screen. But does this make it a good movie? I don’t think so. I may be completely biased because Colin Firth never looked like what I thought Mr. Darcy looked like, but even with a book I love so much, I’d rather the film makers capture the spirit of the book and the characters every single plot detail. That’s why I prefer the 2005 version with Keira Knightley. It does create composite characters and blends plot together. But after I watch that movie, with its gorgeous cinematography and sweeping soundtrack, I get the closest feeling to what happens after I finish the book. I think with a film adaptation of a book like Pride and Prejudice that so many people read over and over again that spirit is way more important that plot. And Jane Austen’s books aren’t plot driven anyway, they are character driven. So I would rather have the notice of a twinge in Mr. Darcy’s hand than an inclusion of all tertiary characters. At least with books that are so beloved like Pride and Prejudice.
Then there is The Last of the Mohicans. I swear, I’ve read this book. I promise, I promise. And I love it. A lot of people don’t believe me. For anyone who has read Melville and knows that there are long sections about describing things that no one really cares about…that is kind of like the entire Leatherstocking series, but without any action in the middle. Still, I think Natty Bumppo was one of the first American Byronic heroes ever written and if you don’t believe me, I’d be happy to send you my research paper from tenth grade comparing Hawkeye Pierce from M*A*S*H and his namesake. But God, this book is boring. Like rather have teeth pulled than finish it boring during some parts. The movie is anything but. The film adaptation with Daniel Day-Lewis probably is better than book, as in more people enjoy it, and it is more interesting. But in this case, comparing the two is not like comparing apples and oranges—it is more like comparing apples and staplers. While with Pride and Prejudice, a reader and a viewer have the same goal: to hear about the love story of Darcy and Elizabeth with biting wit, and wonderful secondary characters. With The Last of the Mohicans, the reader and the viewer usually have two different goals. My goal reading the book was to hear about the wonderful landscapes, and a tale of heroism against odds and the saving of a ward by the hero. In watching the movie, mostly I wanted to see Daniel Day-Lewis. The movie is really a composite of quite a few Leatherstocking tales and overemphasizes Natty Bumppo’s and Cora’s love. But that is what the viewers wanted. I don’t think this is really a bad thing because I don’t think anyone, ever, in the history of film has wanted to see a textually accurate film of The Last of the Mohicans.
Part II is coming soon. I feel like this blog is quite long…and I like cliffhangers.
but feel free to comment now if you think of any movies that are better than the books.