Filming Books

Books have been adapted for film and television for decades with varying degrees of success. Genres such as fantasy and crime have been popular: The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and recently His Dark Materials. On the crime front, we have had multiple versions of Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, the Wallander novels of Henning Mankel, (two in Swedish and one in English), and one of the Montalbano books of Andrea Camilleri (in Italian).

Classics have been popular for the treatment too, from Jane Austen, through George Eliot, Thackeray and Dickens, to EM Forster, John Irving and many others. Adaptations of solid books like these provide welcome opportunities for acting talent (Helena Bonham Carter, for example) who usually do very well by them. And it may be that film and TV versions provide the only exposure to these books for some.

But the question will often arise, How faithful is the adaptation to the original?  Because there are purists out there who will contest any departure from the books they hold dear even if the change might result in a possible improvement or be necessary to render it in visual terms at all.

Here in the UK, we have recently had yet another version of The War of the Worlds, by HG Wells. Those who study such things report that the script has taken significant liberties with the text. Why would anyone do this? Suggestions include making the original appear more relevant to the present day, and to spice things up with ‘love interest’ where there was none before.

Changes like these are probably not be unusual. Think of the fun a post-graduate student could have watching all those films and TV series then comparing them to the books on which they’re based. If I were younger than I am today . . . I still wouldn’t consider it. The task would take years and life is too short.

But what if, instead of taking liberties, the film or TV version is completely faithful to the text, surely that will be enough to guarantee success? I think this will depend on several things. Is the text worth being faithful to in the first place? The recent TV version of His Dark Materials is a genuine attempt to put across the original and much labour has clearly been expended on it. Yet I failed to find it involving – exactly the same reaction I had to the book. (I expect to be in a minority here and shot down in flames by a talking bear or a squadron of witch-archers flying overhead with bows and arrows.)

At the other end of the scale (for me) is Italian TV’s version of my Brilliant Friend. This, too, is exceptionally faithful to the book, required an astonishing amount of hard graft but works very well in conveying not just the characters, of which there are many, but the place where it all happens. Naples.

To end with a tricky one. Where much of the effect a book has on the reader is due to its prose style we will have a serious problem adapting it for the screen. If the narration is first person then much of the flowing prose may still be supplied –  by members of the cast, sometimes in person so to speak, more frequently through voice-over. But if the original is written in the third person there is no obvious solution.

Fortunately, there is no obvious problem either, because it is not compulsory to adapt a novel for the screen. Leaving well alone is always an option.

 

 

What highlights tells us

We read for various reasons. Sometimes, when wrung out, I read to de-stress. In the last two years I’ve turned to Georges Simenon for this reason. Better than alcohol or drugs. But in this time I have also been reading other authors, some of whom would doubtless be considered more literary. One of those has been Elena Ferrante.

I am in the habit of highlighting sections of particular interest, sometimes for what is being said (the thought-content, for example), sometimes out of interest in the author’s craft (scene-setting, characterisation).  And it has struck me when looking over these highlights, that I have found more of note in Simenon than Ferrante.

As my old physics teacher used to say, Is this significant?

Being older now, my reply would be that everything is significant, the trick being to determine what that significance might be. In this case, I plainly find Simenon more interesting. But that may say more about me than either of the authors in question. When I say This book is interesting I really mean I find this book interesting, the subject changing from the book to the reader.

As he deals with his characters and how they relate, Simenon often generalises from their behaviour. In the four books staring with My Brilliant Friend, Ferrante deals at much greater length with her characters, but keeps to the particular more than Simenon and generalises from them less. This is made more noticeable by the fact that these books are much longer than Simenon’s. But I am not an academic and cannot support any of this with statistical analysis.

Sighs of relief all round.

But it often happens that when something springs to the eye in Ferrante, it has usually attracted many. It is not only in the world of antiques that rarity value counts. Here is an example from the second book, The Story of a New Name:

There are moments when we resort to senseless formulations and advance absurd claims to hide straightforward feelings. Today I know that in other circumstances, after some resistance, I would have given in to Bruno’s advances. I wasn’t attracted to him, certainly, but I hadn’t been especially attracted to Antonio, either. One becomes affectionate toward men slowly, whether they coincide or not with whomever in the various phases of life we have taken as the model of a man.

Why are such passages relatively rare in Ferrante’s work? In Chapter 28 of The Man Without Qualities, Robert Musil might have an answer to this question he can never have heard.

Unfortunately the healing power of thought seems to be the same faculty that diminishes the personal sense of experience.

Ferrante sets great store in recounting personal experiences and may feel that analysing them too much will weaken them.