Credit: Jack Corban

Robert Somogyi

There are so many ways to adapt a book into a film; our writer Robert Somogyi goes through some of these methods and discusses their effect on their original source.

It is an all too familiar feeling. We read a book, we watch the film in the cinema, and we are left unsatisfied. Or perhaps the exact opposite happens and we love the film even more than the book. But how can our opinion of a story change so much between the two mediums? 

Well, let me put it this way: taking the black-and-white pages of a book and turning them into moving pictures for the big screen is not easy. There is more than one way to do it, with more than one outcome. So, let’s take a look at some of these ways, to help us understand the differences between film adaptations and how they can help in telling a story.

Let’s get the most obvious method of making a book into a film out of the way: the direct, page-to-screen adaptation. This is a director’s attempt to convert a book into a film without losing any of its essence on the way. This usually means working closely with the author and bringing their thoughts onto the screen as exactly as possible.

The film adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is one that recounts the happenings of the book almost word for word.  Throughout the film, it sounds as if the narrator has read the whole of the original novel out, unaltered. Maybe it’s for this reason that film and book both have long become classics, engraved into school curriculums. But, even here, some differences between the book and its adaptation remain. After all, every film has the same archnemesis: a limited runtime. This makes it almost impossible to adapt its lengthy source perfectly, especially as a book is able to express much more in the time it takes the reader to digest its text. Nevertheless, what is adapted is kept reasonably close to the written original, which shows the strength of this kind of adaptation: reliance on the original piece of writing, which often makes for powerful storytelling.

But, perhaps this is too simple. Maybe a filmmaker wants to be more creative. Luckily, there is another and possibly more risky way of creating a film based on a book: the loose adaptation. Unlike the direct one, there is no need to try and envision the writer’s exact ideas. Rather, directors are free to make the source material their own. Such loose adaptations tell their own story, even if inspired by the paperback original.

We don’t have to think too hard when trying to come up with examples of loose adaptations. Just this month, one of the most famous of these has celebrated its 40th anniversary. This is, of course, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Relatively few people know that this well-known piece of cinematic history is based on the much lesser known novel Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad – a short tale of imperialism, racism and a critique of civilisation. The reason for this is most likely the glaring differences between the two; a shift from the age of colonialism to the late 1960s, from the heart of Africa to the jungles of Vietnam. In simpler terms, the entire setting changes. 

And yet, we can rediscover possibly the most important themes of this literary prototype in its screen adaptation. Even if it’s in a different way, the film presents the audience with a depiction of madness and leaves us questioning the values of the western world – much like the original novel. Here lies the key advantage of the loose adaptation: filmmakers can make the story their own. They can extract the general themes and struggles from a literary work and apply them to new and altered takes on the original tale. They have the freedom to make the core of a novel more relevant to modern audiences whilst adding their own touch to the final work.

Of course, it’s not always this simple. There is an even more radical use of literary source material in film that pushes the meaning of the word "adaptation" to its limits. One popular example of this is Stanley Kubrick’s opus Eyes Wide Shut. This drama, loosely based on an Austrian novella entitled Dream Novel, seems to do the same thing Coppola did with Heart of Darkness; taking the original’s premise and placing it in a new, modern environment. However, we soon find out that that impression is misleading. The film only uses the novel’s story as an orientation, then directs its focus to the events in the background. Instead of the original’s exploration of the dark depths of the soul, the film becomes an extensive social critique. All this being said, the literary original still plays an important role in the film’s story, but it is hard to recognise it when we try to find the film’s core theme.

As we can now see, there can be beauty in both direct book-to-screen adaptations and films more loosely based on their source literature. Both genres provide their own advantages and drawbacks. There is a sheer infinite number of works on and off screen worth exploring.

Hooked? This post introduces our new series, Book vs. Film, pitting a book and its film counterpart together to decide which comes out on top.

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