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.