We’ve all heard the complaint: “He can’t win—If he strays too far from the book, people complain, if he sticks too closely to the book, people complain.”
How very true this is. Readers are notoriously edgy about seeing their favourite stories on screen and oh how we adore ripping these productions to shreds. “The lead actor looked nothing like I imagined.”/ “The mother-daughter relationship was completely overlooked.”/ “Why did they miss out the pinnacle scene where she talked to the Caribbean shopkeeper?”/ “Why does she suddenly have a German Shepherd as a pet?”/ “She’s supposed to have LONG hair and she’s got a BOB in the film, WHO THE HELL DECIDED TO GIVE HER A BOB?”
You catch my drift. Endless potential for scorn and disappointment. It seems us readers are are a tricky bunch to please.
But if you really think about it, it’s completely understandable to be disappointed by film adaptations. The experience of reading a book versus watching a film is entirely different. Reading is an active mental engagement; your brain decodes the information on the page and transforms it internally into a reality that is entirely personal to you. The fact remains that the theatre of your mind is built from your own individual impressions and imaginings. It is a construct that comes from within.
Reading the same book as somebody else, you could therefore argue, is like you and your friend seeing the same play, but at different theatres, with different actors. Same script, different experience.
When watching a film, however, you and millions of others are sharing the very same experience, regardless of venue. Yes, there are nuances in the way a film may be received by a viewer, but the fact remains that the visual information is identical. The world displayed on television and in films is imposed on you from the outside with no deviation from the viewing experience of another person.
These things matter. Take The Hunger Games: all readers of these books will have a myriad of personal impressions taken from the series, but with the making of the film, all of these impressions got shoehorned into a one-size-fits-all scenario. It doesn’t matter if you imagined Katniss differently, Jennifer Lawrence is the only option available. It doesn’t matter if the arena was larger, smaller, more oppressive, or less leafy in your mind, because the director chose a forest and that’s the one you’re getting.
It’s a sure-fire recipe for disappointment. To me at least, there is an actively jarring quality to having a world that exists only in your imagination suddenly recreated with props, scenes and real people. It feels wooden, uninspired and limiting.
Which begs the question (if anyone reading this agrees with me, that is) as to why film adaptations continue to be made. I have two theories about this:
- Readers can’t help but want to see their favourite books on screen for no other reason than novelty value, and having a guaranteed audience of “novelty fans” equals guaranteed $$$.
(I didn’t go and see Harry Potter in the cinema because I was expecting an unforgettable cinematic sensation. I went because it had been two years since the final book had been released and I was pining for my favourite characters to reappear to me in any form available.)
- A good director will see the move from page to screen as an opportunity, rather than bland imitation. He or she can think about what can be changed and added to make the conversion as original as possible, thereby offering something new.
(I’ll admit now that I don’t like The Hunger Games films. I think they follow the books way too closely. The only parts that I get excited about are those that are completely original. The part where all the rebels climb into the trees and blow up the forest below? Bloody awesome. Also—NOT IN THE BOOKS.)
But here I expect there are a great many people who disagree and consider drastic divergences from an original book to be sacrilege. Is there a balance to be found? Can we ever agree on what constitutes a good screen adaptation or are we doomed to a life of constant disappointment?
The life of a bookworm, eh? One challenge after the next.