This week, I’ve watched a few films on Netflix, while attempting to knit a pair of socks. They were randomly chosen, apart from the proviso that they couldn’t have subtitles, as I can’t read and knit at the same time. (You may think that this isn’t much of an issue, but I mostly enjoy watching martial arts films and don’t speak Cantonese). If you’re familiar with Netflix, then you’ll know that they recommend movies based on your viewing history and I just happened to click on World War Z, Ghost World and The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet. I also watched The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part One on DVD. Actually, I enjoyed all of them, but that isn’t what this blog is about – what I want to discuss is movie adaptations of books and novels and pose some questions to you, the reader:
Have you noticed how many novels are turned into films?
Does this indicate a lack of originality and creativity in Hollywood?
Have you any favourite adaptations? Any that you loathe?
If you wrote a novel, would you want it to be made into a movie?
I’ve read Ghost World and about half of World War Z. It’s possible that some would think that the movies improved on the original material, in that they made them more accessible and cohesive. I actually prefer the graphic novel of Ghost World, as it is gloomier and doesn’t include a dodgy relationship between a middle-aged man and a teenager. Hey, that’s Hollywood for you – it seems that leading ladies have to be at least twenty years younger than the male lead, as Maggie Gyllenhaal will tell you.
Max Brook’s novel, World War Z, is so completely different to the movie, that it’s difficult to even compare them. While the film concentrates on the highly implausible character, Gerry Lane, played by Brad Pitt, the novel is a collection of fictitious oral histories. It’s interesting and genre subverting, but lacks tension and suspense as the narrative is so fractured. I also found that the mostly male voices sounded too similar and was I irritated by the lack of female perspectives. The movie, on the other hand, was very tense, but Brad Pitt’s super hero indestructibility made it often seem ridiculous.
Both the film and the novel tap into contemporary anxieties about over-population and immigration. The living dead are created by a disease, a global pandemic, and the narrative picks up on the problem of displaced people, refugees, human trafficking and the illegal trade in organs, all of which make transmission of disease more likely. I have already lived through the threat of various devastating pandemics, such as bird flu, swine flu and AIDs, which fortunately proved less apocalyptic than predicted by the media generated hysteria. I flew to Hong Kong at the height of bird flu and was greeted by two officials in white space suits, who pointed what looked like a ray gun at my forehead (it was a thermometer!) and the sight of people in face masks was a common one. The zombie apocalypse draws on a very real fear of ‘the other’ as a sinister unknown multitude; carrying deadly diseases or brain-washed by terrorist ideologies. In the movie, the computer generated zombie horde moved in a way that human beings never could – they seethed and squirmed like a box of maggots. Or perhaps like the cockroaches of Katie Hopkins’ hate-fuelled imagination?
So, to answer my own questions:
Yes, it seems that Hollywood sees literature as a treasure trove to be plundered for tried and tested story lines and I often groan when I see that a novel has been turned into a movie.
My favourite film of a book is Cabaret, which is based on Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin stories. I also love Stanley Kubrick’s version of Stephen King’s The Shining. The Wizard of Oz with Judy Garland is far better than the book, in my opinion (and my daughter’s too). David Lean’s Great Expectations is wonderful.
The Golden Compass was a very disappointing adaptation of Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights. I saw the stage version at the National Theatre, with a fantastic revolving set, and enjoyed that, so it’s not that I’m a purist. His Dark Materials are among my favourite books, and Lyra is one of the best heroines in literature, but the movie transformed her into a brat. I hope that Hollywood just leaves them alone from now on.
Similarly, the film version of The Time Traveller’s Wife was bloody awful.
I’m sure most novelists would jump at the chance to have their novel turned into a film, not least because they would get paid big bucks for it! Reif Larsen seems quite pleased with the film The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet. Watching the movie made me want to read the book, something I’m sure is true of many people, so the symbiotic relationship between cinema and literature can be mutually beneficial. It can also make a classic of a novel that may otherwise disappear into obscurity.
Just don’t, whatever you do, remake any more Jane Austen’s – I’m sick to death of them.