So the old adage goes, that the movie is never as good as the book. It’s kind of the elitist’s refrain: “It was alright, but the book’s better.” Translation: “I read the book. I’m smart. I read books. Everyone else was lazy and just watched the movie. They’re all jumping on the bandwagon now. I READ THE BOOK.”
Unfortunately in most cases it’s actually true. With a few exceptions—The Godfather (the book was kinda pulpy and doesn’t nearly achieve the expansiveness of the film), The Lord of the Rings (in concept, obviously, the books are unparalleled works of genius, but tell me if we really needed all the dense paragraphs of description of foliage and food that J.R.R. packs in that trilogy?)—filmmakers can never quite get the book right. At least not in a way that satisfies a book’s fans. I’m not making any statements about the validity of one art form over the other; it’s just that something gets lost in translation between the two.
(Note: There is never, ever, any valid reason to have a film-to-book adaptation. That’s straight up not a valid art form. Just gonna say it.)
Regardless, I still get excited whenever a book I like is being turned into a film. I’ve been disappointed before (ahem, The Golden Compass!) but I still hold out hope that the film will at least halfway capture the awesomeness of the book, or even just take something awesome about the book and run with it in a slightly different direction. It doesn’t have to be the same! It just has to respect the source material enough to make a good movie out of it, faithful to a T or no.
So here’s three book-to-film adaptations and one book-to-musical-to-film adaptation that I am really excited about and that, by implication, am also crossing my fingers they don’t totally ruin:
1) Life Of Pi
Yann Martel’s book—with its blue ocean cover and its big orange tiger– was a huge hit when it came out, though I came away with mixed feelings. It begins with an interesting take on faith: Pi, the teenage Indian narrator, actively practices three different religions, and rather petulantly states that despite his piety he prefers atheists to “muddled” agnostics because at least they believe in something. It moves on to a gripping story of adventure and survival as Pi is stranded on a lifeboat with a few of his zookeeper father’s charges, including an orangutan, a zebra, and, ultimately, after the rest die, only a tiger, with whom he must learn to coexist while surviving at sea. It’s a fantastic premise (in both senses of the word), and the “twist” at the end is intriguing, but in the end I wasn’t sure if I really liked the book or not. I might have to revisit.
An extended scene trailer (which I could not find online) was shown before Prometheus for Ang Lee’s film adaptation, coming in November, a scene in which Pi and the tiger are caught in a flurry of flying fish and then engage in a battle of wills over the prize of a boat-stranded tuna. It looks amazing, despite my wariness of creatures with major screen-time being CGI. And Ang Lee has done well with book adaptations before (Brokeback Mountain, and from what I’m told, Sense & Sensibility) while also not doing well with a comic book adaptation (the Eric Bana Hulk). Level of promise: 7 out of 10.
2) The Great Gatsby
This is the third Great Gatsby film that I’m aware of, the first being the 1970s film starring Sam Waterston as Nick the Narrator, Mia Farrow as Daisy, and Robert Redford as Gatsby, the second being the late 1990s TV miniseries starring Paul Rudd as Nick, Mira Sorvino as Daisy, and the guy who played a fake Caucasian/actual Korean in the last Brosnan Bond film as Gatsby. Rereading Gatsby a few years ago, I was surprised by how incredibly wordy it was. Both the denseness of its prose and its use of symbolism are a little hit-you-over-the-head (the optometrist’s eyes; the green light). But I still like the book. It’s a classic, you know? It wormed its way into the cultural fabric. And my heart.
So this version, slated for December release, has Tobey Maguire as Nick the Narrator, Carey Mulligan as Daisy, and Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby (and Amitabh Bachchan as Meyer Wolfsheim… WTF!). That makes two out of three blond Gatsbys, even though I always pictured him brunet. Director Baz Luhrmann is known for his flamboyant over-the-top filmmaking, which has only worked once or twice (I love Moulin Rouge, and, yes, I enjoy Romeo + Juliet in spite of its ridiculousness, but I hear Australia was just plain terrible). But based on this trailer, it looks like he might have reined in some of his crazier impulses, and besides– the flashy, glittery, all-style-no-substance 1920s party scene might be particularly suited to his visual style. Level of promise: 8 out of 10.
3) Ender’s Game
For some reason Ender’s Game was assigned reading in eighth grade, and I remember it was just a fascinating and disturbing piece of young adult sci-fi that stayed in my head for awhile after. Ender Wiggin is a boy genius, the younger brother of two other geniuses, one brutal, one tender– he splits the difference between them. So, naturally, he’s recruited to the elite young person’s military academy in space to help in the war against an ant-like alien race. Orson Scott Card does not sugarcoat the violence of childhood—Ender is the victim of bullying on two occasions, and both times his tactical response is much worse than its provocation—nor for that matter the violence of adulthood, when Ender’s skills are finally put to horrifying use under the auspices of the military brass, which upsets him deeply and produces extreme moral ambivalence.
The film doesn’t come out til 2013, so not even any stills yet. But what I’m hoping for with this adaptation is that they avoid some Bridge to Terabithia shit (disclaimer: I didn’t see the film, but wasn’t the goddam book about your best friend dying? Why were the trailers filled with fantasy creatures? That shit was all in their heads! It’s not goddam Chronicles of Narnia!). Meaning, Ender’s Game is a dark and violent story, and it should remain as such. Hugo star Asa Butterfield is Ender, and True Grit star Hailee Stanfeld is Petra, and Little Miss Sunshine Abigail Breslin is Valentine. Harrison Ford’s there too (kinda weird). Orson Scott Card talked about the challenges of translating the Battle Room to film—anti-gravity and all that—so looks like they’re taking the technology seriously. Level of promise: 6 out of 10.
4) Les Misérables
Of all the dramatically over-the-top blockbuster musical overproductions this is my absolute favorite. (The only other one is Phantom of the Opera, anyway, and Les Mis is like TEN TIMES better.) I’ve never read the book, so I can’t speak for its translation from book to musical—though I’m sure it’s not exactly faithful. But I can and will speak for its translation from crazy awesome musical to movie musical.
(There is a 1998 film version of Les Miserables, NOT the musical but the book, starring Liam Neeson as Jean Valjean, Uma Thurman as Fantine, Claire Danes as Cosette, but I never saw it all the way through. And when I first heard about it, not gonna lie, I was a little disappointed they were not singing.)
(The book also spawned elements of The Fugitive—the film, and, I’m assuming, the TV show it was based on. Harrison Ford is a Valjean, Tommy Lee Jones is a Javert. “I didn’t kill my wife!” “I don’t care!”)
So Les Mis is basically one of the biggest musicals ever produced. It was written by French guys Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel (?) Schonberg, produced by Cameron Mackintosh and imported to the U.S. and England and is now all over the world. It has a gigantic cast, a gigantic orchestra, a gigantic rotating stage, a gigantic effing barricade that people wave French tricolor flags from. It has thirty themes that you hear twenty times each. It has big hit songs (“On My Own,” “I Dreamed a Dream”). It has an epic struggle between righteousness and goodness. It’s possible to recognize, criticize, and fully and totally embrace the heavyhandedness of the whole overburdened enterprise, because it’s just that engaging and invigorating and exciting, and it’s just substantive enough to not feel bad about loving it.
In the film version coming out in December, we have Hugh Jackman playing Jean Valjean (no stranger to musicals, but no easy part!), Anne Hathaway playing Fantine, Russell Crowe playing Javert, Amanda Seyfried playing Cosette. It’s directed by The King’s Speech’s Tom Hooper. The trailer shows Anne Hathaway singing “I Dreamed a Dream” over a montage of scenes. Even if this movie is terrible, I will enjoy it, because if nothing else it’ll have a lot of awesome music. Level of promise: 9 out of 10.
Ah, screw it. They all get 10 out of 10! Make it good guys.
For the first guest post in the history of My Beautiful Bookshelf, fellow blogger Elspeth Olson will be contributing her especial book wisdom to my humble book blog. Elspeth is one of my brilliant colleagues from graduate school, a librarian extraordinaire currently getting her second Master’s (!) in Vancouver. Check out her blog at http://bluecastledreams.wordpress.com/.
When I was a child my best friends could be found on the library shelves.*
Perhaps this concept is a cliche now. As geek and nerd cultures become mainstream, the stories of lonely children who lived in their heads have also increased, but in my opinion the proliferation makes the stories no less powerful. It is, after all, the foundation to every great hero story since warrior epics fell by the wayside and Everyman heroes took the places previously held by Beowulfs, Gilgameshes, and Siegfrieds. Those of us who read and imagined ourselves into adventures are the mild-mannered alter egos of the heroes and heroines who starred in our mental epics.
In high school, I read Michael Ende’s wonderful fantasy novel The Neverending Story (translated from German: Die unendliche Geschichte). “Read” is probably a polite way of describing how I devoured the story – it felt more like swallowing great lumps of it, each time I sat down to read. Though I loved the story, enjoyed characters like Atreyu and Falkor, and was amused by the way each chapter starts with the subsequent letter of the alphabet, it was Bastian who caught my attention. Ende managed to capture the way a book can pull one wholly inside its pages, how it dominates the mind entirely and leaves one unaware of even the biologically necessary processes like breathing. In Ende’s world, Bastian is physically pulled into the book, much as Harry Potter seems to physically fall into Dumbledore’s Pensieve. Obviously, in our mundane world, this doesn’t happen. But it can feel like it does.
There’s a sense of complete shock that occurs when one encounters a passage in a book that perfectly verbalizes something in one’s own psyche or experience. I felt it when I read The Neverending Story because in elementary school and middle school and high school I turned to fantasy literature for the escape, much as Bastian does. I recognized in Bastian what L.M. Montgomery’s Anne Shirley calls a “kindred spirit,” this lonely, somewhat odd child who loses himself in a book.
The shock of recognition happens in two ways – characters and descriptions. While character kindred spirits are fascinating, it is the surprise of recognizing a familiar feeling or experience in the pages of a book that is most interesting to me.
Robin McKinley is one of my favorite authors. Her fantasy novels are populated with incredibly believable personalities, and have an unexpected streak of humor. Of all her novels – though her retellings of Beauty and the Beast (Beauty and Rose Daughter) are wonderful and Aerin in The Hero and the Crown is the ultimate example of the “sheroes” genre – of all her novels and her strong female characters, my favorite has to be Harry (Angharad) Crewe in The Blue Sword.
The Blue Sword tells the story of Harry Crewe, who moves to the Homelander colonial village of Istan in the desert province of Daria after her father dies. It’s not hard to read this as a fictionalized version of a 19th-century British colonial town in someplace like Africa or the Middle East. Harry has always felt like she doesn’t quite fit in her role in life, and moving to Istan – well, she’s surrounded by other Homeland colonists and soldiers, all of whom complain about the sand and the wind and the heat. Harry, on the other hand, feels drawn to the sand and the wind and the heat and the distant mountains, as if she is finally home. When she is unexpectedly abducted by the king of the Free Hillfolk, the name given to the final remants of the old Damarian kingdom, Harry is forced to confront something within herself that allows her to finally fit within her own skin and find the right place for herself in her suddenly expanded world.
Aside from the fantastic story (to which I have done no justice in the above description), Harry and her story appeal to me for two primary passages found in the book. Robin McKinley describes the experiences of insomnia and anger in a way that finally verbalizes how I know them. Early on in the book, Harry finds she can’t sleep. Every night, she goes to bed like a proper Homeland maiden, and every night she lies awake, or sits in her window-seat and watches the night pass. I, too, go through phases when I somehow don’t sleep. It’s not that I’m not tired – I am. If I try to get up and do something like read or work, I can’t focus. But I just don’t sleep. McKinley describes the aftermath of what I call a white night as not feeling much the worse for wear, other than a “moral irritability” from knowing one OUGHT to have been asleep all those hours. This is so it. Sure, I don’t feel all that rested after one of the bad nights, but mostly I’m just grumpy about having wanted to be asleep. I enjoy sleeping. When I miss out on that enjoyment, I feel annoyed by the loss.
As for Harry’s anger – there’s a moment in the book when Harry realizes that she possesses some gift – psychological, intellectual, magical… it could be argued any way – that is linked to strong emotion. And she realizes that she has unconsciously trained herself to calm, because leaving the way open to other passions means never fully closing the gates to anger. Harry looks back into her early childhood and remembers tantrums, expressions of rage that frightened her nurses and frightened herself. To control them, she taught herself a “nonmuscular control.” When I first read that passage, I felt like something inside my head froze, and all I could do was stare at the paragraph in shocked recognition. Like Harry, I feel I have trained myself to a controlled sort of calm. It’s a daily fight, for keeping my temper has never been easy, but I know I have to try.
People read for many reasons. There’s the escapism, sure, but I think the most powerful reason is to find those moments when an author perfectly describes a person, experience, or place that one thinks is unique to oneself. For the time it takes to read the passage, there is a strong sense of connection to both author and characters. And the knowledge that the passage is there makes the reader feel a little less lonely.
*Seriously. When other kids had imaginary friends they made up, or anthropomorphized their toys, I pretended I was playing with the children from the Pippi Longstocking stories, Annika and Tommy. I have no idea why.
This was my first Jane Austen, my first official Jane Austen, though before you gasp in horror I would add that that I’ve watched lots of the movies (!). In particular, my mom watched the “Pride & Prejudice” miniseries starring Colin Firth as the Ultimate Mr. Darcy (didn’t he even play a Darcy-inspired character in Bridget Jones’s Diary named Darcy? what!) throughout my childhood so I feel like I’ve kinda known the world all my life.
I started with Sense & Sensibility because I thought it would be way too cliché to start with Pride & Prejudice, plus I already knew the P & P story. The entirety of my familiarity with S & S was catching the end of the Ang Lee film version on cable, once– so yes, I did know who ends up with who, but other than that, totally in the dark.
And I loved it, and I loved her writing, and I loved the way the story unfolded like a circa 2000 romantic comedy, albeit with less technology, more rigid social constraints, and a good deal more eloquence. It combines the silly desperation and empathic heartbreak of, say, “He’s Just Not That Into You,” with the utterly romantic setting of the early 19th-century lower upper class Austenian English countryside. I mean, really, throw a high collar and a pair of well-placed sideburns on a guy and his attractiveness exponentially increases, with an average attractiveness rate significantly higher than your average turn-of-the-millennium flannel-wearing rom-com romantic interest (Matthew McConaughey, Ben Affleck, modern-day Colin Firth < James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Darcy-day Colin Firth. I blame this on the Darcy Complex, which modern Western-thinking women continue to inherit from their mothers.)
To see what I mean, look at these three photos. Tell me the third one doesn’t disappoint you a little bit.
For all its rommy commyness, though, Jane Austen wasn’t just writing some entertaining chick lit. Her books make commentary on class—usually the social boundaries that confine women of limited means and lower status than the men they wish to marry. There’s often some stuffy old woman looking down a wrinkled nose at our heroine (Lady Catherine in P & P, Mrs. Ferrars in S & S—speaking of, Ms. Austen was certainly a fan of the dual alliterative title!). The skill of her writing is undeniable, the unfolding of her marriage plot captivating to the very end. Her sympathetic characters are sympathetic, her villains alternately vain or cold-hearted or vacuous.
And the humor is subtle but much of it remains funny. Here’s the stylings of my favorite comedic duo from S & S, Mr. and Mrs. Palmer. Mr. Palmer’s last line here is my new favorite insult.
“How charming it will be,” said Charlotte, “when he is in Parliament! — won’t it? How I shall laugh! It will be so ridiculous to see all his letters directed to him with an M.P.– But do you know, he says, he will never frank for me? He declares he won’t. Don’t you, Mr. Palmer?”
Mr. Palmer took no notice of her.
“He cannot bear writing, you know,” she continued– “he says it is quite shocking.”
“No,” said he, “I never said any thing so irrational. Don’t palm all your abuses of language upon me.” (122)
Writing in the 19th century, by the way, was no joke. The conventions of the British style, with its strange phrases (“I’m monstrous tired”), run-on sentences kept alive by proliferations of commas, and over-the-top gentility in speech and letter-writing, are a constant source of amazement to me. Even Lucy Steele, described as “illiterate,” seems to write quite a letter, albeit one whose literary stylings Elinor looks down her own nose at (even the socially unfortunate heroine is guilty of the prejudices of class).
But the juiciest thing about it, for me, the thing that kept me turning pages, was the romantic comedy angle, bolstered by my empathy for the two main characters, Elinor and Marianne. If Sense & Sensibility were to be updated for 21st-century Hollywood—like Emma and Shakespeare have been before it*—it would absolutely have to involve Marianne texting—and it would go something like this.
*Emma = Clueless (1995). The Taming of the Shrew = 10 Things I Hate About You (1999).
MY SCRIPT PITCH: Sense & Sensibility & Sex & the City
The story concerns Elinor Dashwood, early 20s, interior designer, living in tony New York/L.A./San Francisco suburb of the Hamptons/Calabasas/Los Altos Hills with late teens sister Marianne (world literature major at Vassar/UCLA/Berkeley) and their completely uninteresting younger sister Margaret. They also live with an overdramatic comic-relief mother.
Cut out of their inheritance by their dolt half-brother John, an investment banker, and his terrible socialite wife Fanny, they downsize to a mission-style cottage guest house in the neighboring tony suburb of Chappaqua/Glendale/Palo Alto on the back part of retired record producer Sir John’s lot. He spends his time living off his royalties and throwing parties for rich neighbors and minor celebrities.
Sir John and his vapid legal-assistant-turned-stay-at-home-mom wife Middie constantly invite the Dashwoods to their parties, where Middie spends her time fawning over her bratty kids as they throw around their high-concept sustainable wooden toys. They meet Colonel Brandon, a rich bachelor venture capitalist, and the Steeles, two dumb sisters who went to public school and basically write in Tweetspeak.
Marianne starts dating a grad school dropout named Willoughby who she met at the gym. Meanwhile, Elinor can’t figure out what’s going on between her and her good friend Edward, a trust fund baby who spends all his time trying to find himself. They keep meeting for coffee. Are they dating or what??
Willoughby and Marianne go on “break” when he moves to the city, for an internship he says. She feels like they’ll get back together when he’s done; sort of an unspoken agreement that only Marianne knows about.
THEN, Sir John’s good-natured but silly mother-in-law invites the sisters to stay at her penthouse apartment in Manhattan/Beverly Hills/Pacific Heights over the holidays. Excited to finally be in the city, Marianne texts Willoughby nonstop, asking to see him, but gets no reply. Later, when she spots him at a club downtown with another girl, she’s heartbroken and shuts herself in her room with chocolate ice cream and soap operas for two weeks.
Meanwhile, Elinor finds out that Edward is NOT single; that he has been dating Lucy Steele, who is clearly his intellectual inferior and doesn’t even like the same books he and Elinor like, so what on earth do they talk about?? But Elinor just says she’s happy for him and cries alone in her car to a Phil Collins soundtrack. It isn’t until later that she finds out Edward was only dating Lucy because of a bet he made in high school with his football jock friend over whether he could turn her into prom queen. Or something. They break up.
Lucy ends up dating Edward’s self-absorbed younger brother (he hasn’t been cut off by his mother, unlike Edward, so he’s got the dough. Plus he’s in a rock band). And Edward finally tells Elinor he was into her the entire time! They kiss. Then run holding hands through Times Square/Santa Monica Pier/the Golden Gate Bridge.
SUBPLOT: Marianne thought Colonel Brandon was old (“he remembers the ‘80s!”) and boring until he kept showing up places and doing super nice stuff for them. When Willoughby turns out to be a total jerk, she slowly starts to see Brandon in a new light. (Camera catches long gazes from across crowded rooms where gaze-ee is speaking smilingly with friends in slightly slow motion and warm acoustic guitar music plays.) Then, super nicest of all, Brandon gives Edward a half a million to fund his start-up idea, which, after being cut out of his trust fund by his terrible mother, gives Edward enough to move in with Elinor in a humble one-bedroom in Brooklyn/West Hollywood/Berkeley. And helps him find himself. Last scene, Marianne finally agrees to go on a date with Brandon.*
*Note: Make sure to cast actors in which the age difference isn’t too creepy. 17 and 35 wouldn’t quite cut it in today’s world. Although, actually, 18 and 36 would and has (see: Sleepy Hollow, Once). Hrm.
Oh wait I forgot I’m not actually making a romantic comedy.