Book or Movie?

A bookmark I was given for my birthday states ‘Never judge a book by its movie’ – which focused my mind on the thorny issue of film adaptations of favourite books. And there’s also that old question: read the book first, or watch the film?

Almost always I’d say you have to enjoy the book first – otherwise any subsequent reading will be tainted by the unshiftable vision of the characters looking exactly as they did in the movie. The only exception to this, in my opinion, is the Harry Potter series. I tried to read the first book in the late 90s, soon after it came out, when an author friend lent it to me with an avid recommendation. At that time I couldn’t get past the second page; for some reason the story held no appeal for me.

But after watching the film series over the years with my daughter, and recently seeing my niece devour all seven books in a matter of weeks, I wondered if I was missing something. So I tried the books again – and loved them. The fact that in my imagination Harry was Daniel Radcliffe and Snape was Alan Rickman (etc) didn’t matter; yes, the Hogwarts on the page had merged in my mind with the one I’d seen on the screen – but that didn’t matter, any more than the new face of Dumbledore mattered in the third movie. The films were good enough not to spoil the books.

But what happens when your most beloved novel is made into a film (or TV programme) and ruined? My first experience of this was when Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night was serialised on American TV many years ago. The casting of Dick Diver, the central male character, wasn’t a problem – Peter Strauss had bland good looks exactly as I’d imagined from the book. His wife Nicole was a different matter. In the wonderful novel, Nicole is described as blonde and fragile; for some inexplicable reason tall, dark Mary Steenburgen was cast in the part. I was horrified.

Unfortunate casting! Mary Steenburgen as Nicole

Other examples include the film version of Hardy’s Jude the Obscure – great acting from Christopher Eccleston and Kate Winslet, but the overlong movie emphasises the deeply depressing nature of the book – as well as filmed adaptations of Wuthering Heights. In my view, nothing can capture Emily Brontë’s intense writing and the bleak Yorkshire romanticism of Cathy and Heathcliff’s doomed love. Seeing it on the screen just doesn’t work.

Movie versions have been made of some fabulous novels – The Lovely Bones, The Time Traveller’s Wife, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, The Help, The Colour Purple, Cloud Atlas – but in my opinion the books win out every time. 

Sometimes, though, novels turned into TV or film are so damned good that they bring a new audience to an author’s work. I’m thinking of Pride and Prejudice – where female viewers fell for Colin Firth in a cleverly added scene that isn’t in the book – and Sense and Sensibility, my all-time favourite movie adaptation. What makes it so perfect? The screenplay, for a start – written by Emma Thompson who won an Oscar – no dumbing down, no omission of ‘boring’ scenes; just a faithful telling of Jane Austen’s story with beautiful locations and a superb cast. What’s not to love?

Other Oscar-winning adaptations include Sophie’s Choice – I found the novel rather wordy but loved the movie with Meryl Streep – or Schindler’s List which worked surprisingly well on the big screen, starring Liam Neeson.

One film I’m eagerly awaiting is one I read hints about a while ago but of which I’ve seen no trace: an adaptation of Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree series, supposedly taken on by director Sam Mendes. I would trust him to create a suitably magical big screen version of one of my childhood favourites – but maybe he’s given up on the idea, as the rumours have vanished. I shall keep hoping…

In the meantime, I’d love to hear your suggestions for particularly successful film/TV versions of favourite books or – just as interesting – any disasters!

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