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From Word to Image

I'm not sure how many movies in the history of filmmaking have been based on books -- thirty percent? fifty percent? -- but it's not surprising that movies often have source material in another medium. Most stories in this world are based on other stories. This leads to the neverending debate: which is better, the movie or the book? And is it "better" if the movie honors the book more accurately, or if it uses the source material in a unique way to create its own vision?

I have no answers, just examples of books and adaptations I like. And what's unusual about each of these examples is the fact that I did it backwards: I saw the movie first, then read the book.

Probably the best-known successful adaptation of a novel is Horton Foote's screenplay of Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird. The film is a true embodiment of the tone, characters, setting, and message of the novel, and sets the standard for how a book and film should complement each other. I suppose the argument could be made for a longer, more thorough adaptation, one which delves into the history of Maycomb County and the Finch family more deeply, as Lee does in her novel. But when, as a teenager, I turned to the book after watching the film, I was startled by how accurately the filmmakers had captured the true essence of the story.

Like most people who saw Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain, adapted by Annie Proulx and Larry McMurtry from Proulx's short story, I read the story only after seeing the film (and crying and crying and crying.) What's stunning about the film is how the director and actors captured the feelings created by the author's words and presented them visually. We all remember the moment toward the end of the film when Heath Ledger's character Ennis breaks down, as though he's not just emotionally but physically destroyed. Here's the original scene from the novel:

"Like vast clouds of steam from thermal springs in winter the years of things unsaid and now unsayable -- admissions, declarations, shames, guilts, fears -- rose around them. Ennis stood as if heart-shot, face grey and deep-lined, grimacing, eyes screwed shut, fists clenched, legs caving, hit the ground on his knees."

And this is exactly what we see on the screen, in a brilliant, creative, collaborative interpretation by actor, writer, and director.

There do exist successful films which are quite different from the books on which they're based. Most people who have seen the film version of Doctor Zhivago, adapted for the screen by award-winning playwright and screenwriter Robert Bolt, have never read Boris Pasternak's book. It's a beautiful film, and I've read the book three times, gaining more insight with each reading. (I recommend the latest translation by Pevear and Volokhonsky.) Yes, the film is different from the book. Pasternak's novel is poetic and political, disjointed yet engrossing, and a bit of a struggle even with some prior knowledge of Russian culture and history. It stands by itself as an important work of the twentieth century. But nothing can compare to spending two hours staring at Omar Sharif and Julie Christie, and listening to variations of "Lara's Theme."

Even though it's a twelve-hour television series rather than a feature-length film, the most remarkably accurate adaptation I know is that of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, adapted by Derek Granger, Charles Sturridge, and "Rumpole" creator John Mortimer. There is literally one two-page scene in the book which is omitted from the film; every other word, scene, character, setting, every feeling is almost flawlessly presented. Case in point: at the beginning of episode two of the series, Charles Ryder is driven by Lady Julia Flyte to Brideshead castle to visit Sebastian, her brother and his friend. They park the car, walk up the steps to the front door, and upon entering, she sees a little dog waiting for her. She reaches down and picks up the dog. It's a cute moment, perhaps (I assumed) created by the director because there happened to be a dog hanging around the set.

But no. Here's the scene from the novel:

"She led me up the steps and into the hall, flung her coat on a marble table, and stooped to fondle a dog which came to greet her."

Now THAT'S attention to detail. The entire twelve hours is like that, from the sumptuous set design to the casting choices of the particular actors reflecting Waugh's physical descriptions of his characters. This kind of care on the part of the writers and directors shows a true respect for the words and intent of the writer, a respect which is often abandoned by screenwriters trying to feed their own egos.

These are only a few film versions of books worth noting; there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of other adaptations to choose from. I know there are literary purists who feel books should simply be left alone, to remain only as works of literature. But film is also creative work, and movies can inspire people to visit or revisit a book, which can only lead to more readers, more writers, and more books.

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