Much of my life has been spent – especially early on – in the company of people who manifestly prefer books to films. I attended film school for four years and am now the editor of a website dedicated to film reviews, so I hope it is implicitly clear that I reject the notion that films are nothing more than entertainment ipso facto and find it patently absurd to suggest, as some do, that they “cannot really be art.” Nevertheless, I grant, those who suggest that books are “better” than films are not without grounds. One medium is, after all, far older and more venerable than the other, and I am sufficiently biased towards old things that claims of this nature hold some water for me. Time is the arbiter of greatness, and books have been around longer. There are more great books than there are great films; the greatest books are greater than the greatest films. However, sweeping generalizations like these do little to make heads or tails of the common claim that “The book is always better than the movie.”
If this is true, one wonders whether or not we ought to bother making books into movies at all. The prevailing tendency is to judge an adaptation by its fidelity to the text – a test which it must always ultimately fail. By this logic, the film is necessarily unnecessary. To read Dante in English is only a concession; if it were possible, you would read him in Italian. Like a translation from one language to another, translation to the screen is expected to approximate the original as closely as possible – but while a translator who did not accurately convey responses between two interlocutors would surely be considered a failure, the nuances of language are such that a certain amount of interpretation and reinterpretation is inevitable. To insist on word-for-word precision would be to miss the point; it would be foolhardy and pharisaical, not to mention counterproductive.
Similarly, a bad adaptation may follow the letter of the text, but a good adaptation is more concerned with following its spirit. We have all seen bad adaptations, though they are not always bad in the same way. Some fatally misjudge the appeal of the original text, but others fail despite superficial fidelity to their source. In Hollywood, it is common practice to make books into movies because they make money. If a book is a bestseller, it stands to reason that a movie based on that book will also be a bestseller. The soulless cash grab is the most crass form of the bad literary adaptation, and by their nature, such cynical efforts result in the banalities that always emerge when the demands of commerce dictate the course of the arts. How many disposable airport novels are turned into equally disposable films every year? Put another way: remember The Girl on the Train?
After the success of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films in the early 2000s, multiple studios tried to follow suit by rushing various shoddy imitators with literary pedigrees into production. The Chronicles of Narnia likely suffered the most from a transparent lack of reverence for the seminal texts on which they were based, but their failure cannot be explained simply by pointing to deviations from the source – scenes from the book, or lines of dialogue, that are altered or lacking in the movie. Christopher Columbus’ early entries in the Harry Potter franchise are not bad films because they differ from the books on which they are based; instead, they are stifled precisely by their slavish devotion to those books. Most often, the failure of the film is a failure to capture something far more elusive: the spirit of the book, its mood and its atmosphere. Worse still is the failure to provide any spirit at all. Most adaptations settle for a dull, uninspired literalism, straightforwardly transposing the page to the screen. A bad adaptation is a mere visual translation of its source text, nothing more than a gloss on another work of art; a good adaptation ought to stand on its own. A good adaptation is its own work of art.
It should be evident by now that I am no literary purist when it comes to cinematic adaptation, but this is not to say a film is always better off charting its own course. Consider Joe Wright’s 2012 adaptation of Anna Karenina, with its myopic focus on the heroine’s eminently marketable affair with Vronsky. It would be impossible to compress an 800-page novel into a 2-hour film without losing any nuances, but to excise Levin’s plotline, which comprises nearly half the text, is to fatally unbalance Tolstoy’s vision – and for all its stylistic showiness, Wright’s adaptation offers nothing substantial to replace what has been lost. (This sin is particularly unforgivable when Kitty is portrayed by Alicia Vikander, but I digress.)
On the other hand, I hold that Alfonso Cuarón’s film version of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is definitely superior to J.K. Rowling’s original, and while I have neither read Stephen King’s The Shining nor seen the more faithful adaptation he produced, when it comes to his complaints over Kubrick’s film, my sympathies lie with the filmmaker, not the aggrieved author. A good adaptation loves and imitates the book it is adapting just as children love and imitate their parents, or as students love and imitate their teachers – but the best parents and the best teachers want their children and their students to surpass them. The essence of a good book is ineffable; a good film will inherit that essence, but it will also have its own.
There is a tendency to think of a “good story” as an abstract thing, independent of the medium through which it is expressed. I doubt this is the case. A good story is simply a story told well. The details of a book’s plot are rarely the essential thing, which is why adaptations can – and should – get away with condensing characters, skipping scenes, and repurposing lines of dialogue. The genius of a truly great book is peculiar to the written word; a film should strive for a genius peculiar to the moving image. The spirit of a book resides in its particular expression on the page; it can never be translated, without alteration, to the screen. Any book worth its salt could only ever be a book. Any film worth its salt could only ever be a film.