How to (and how NOT to) adapt literature to the screen
It’s a classic refrain: “the book was better.” Whether discussing Death in Venice or The Hunger Games, "everyone knows" that movie adaptations can’t hold a candle to their literary source. Movies condense plot and characters, alter the source material, cast actors “all wrong for the part,” so naturally they don't measure up. Does this really mean they’re inferior?
Few of the innumerable Shakespeare, Leo Tolstoy or Jane Austen adaptations are immortal classics. Which makes sense: it’s impossible to render a 500 page book into a two hour film. To capture a novel’s complexity, you need more time and scope than movies allow. Otherwise you get Sergei Bondarchuk’s six-hour War and Peace, the 1995 miniseries of Pride and Prejudice, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy or a full-blown TV series like Game of Thrones– which still compress or alter their source material.
Yet one shouldn’t overgeneralize. Leaving aside worthwhile adaptations of classics, how many great movies come from mediocre books? The Bridge on the River Kwai, Die Hard, The Godfather, Jaws, Psycho, and The Silence of the Lambs come to mind. Who remembers that John Ford’s The Searchers or Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo were based on novels? If books are inherently better, these movies would be pulpy ephemera instead of classics.
A better question than “why are books better than movies?” is “how should filmmakers adapt literature?” Should they slavishly follow the original book or strive to make their own distinct work? Let’s consider two examples.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby seems designed to frustrate filmmakers. Of the six extant screen adaptations, none does Gatsby justice. Fitzgerald’s book brims with literary symbols (the green light and glasses billboard) that work on the page, where imagination lends them space and credibility. As literal screen images they’re ridiculous. Narrator Nick is Gatsby’s least interesting character, a fly-on-the-wall everyman scrutinizing New York’s idle rich. Even Gatsby himself is so enigmatic that casting Robert Redford or Leonardo DiCaprio negates the point. How can a movie star with so much baggage be mysterious?
Jack Clayton’s 1974 Gatsby is a reverential bore. It’s designed for high school English classes, meticulously recreating Fitzgerald’s dialogue, scenes and imagery as if compiling a book report. Sadly, Clayton forgets to make them cinematic, becoming endless parade of period costumes and stilted dialogue without style or purpose. This version especially struggles with Nick; sans narration, his presence in Gatsby and Daisy’s love scenes seems singularly inappropriate. The result is a dull, lifeless movie which even a talented cast (Redford, Mia Farrow, Sam Waterston) can’t save.
Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 version goes the opposite extreme. It indulges in splashy, overwrought imagery which celebrates high society decadence – hence missing Fitzgerald’s point. Every creative choice, from the rap soundtrack to nauseating visuals, ruins the novel’s charm. Did Luhrmann have to depict Tom’s party as an under-cranked kegger orgy? Do we need text from Daisy’s letters written onscreen? Must Gatsby’s green light generate a loud electronic whir? Why show that damned billboard in extreme close-up a dozen times?
Luhrmann’s incongruous adaptation extends to Gatsby and Daisy’s relationship. This tragic, romantic Daisy seems alien to Fitzgerald’s flighty, selfish blueblood who viewed Gatsby as little more than momentary respite from her loveless marriage. This undermines Gatsby’s own character, here less hopeless dreamer than lovesick dope. Which might be excusable if Luhrmann didn’t embrace the opulence Fitzgerald loudly condemns. While the film generally adheres to the letter of the novel, reproducing dialogue almost verbatim, it egregiously violates the spirit.
The Godfather (1972) stands in stark contrast. While Francis Ford Coppola draws closely on Mario Puzo’s Mafia novel, he excises several absurd elements. There’s a subplot with singer Johnny Fontaine, who begs Vito Corleone for helping landing a movie role (culminating in Vito’s “offer he can’t refuse”). Coppola uses Fontaine to illustrate Vito’s power (intimidating a powerful Hollywood producer) then drops him. But Puzo devotes several long chapters to Fontaine’s debauched Las Vegas lifestyle, leaving the story back in New York.
Which is tame compared to Lucy Mancini, Sonny Corleone’s mistress. In a remarkably tasteless subplot, Puzo obsesses over Lucy’s over-sized private parts, even sending her to Vegas for genital surgery! There’s no justification for these digressive subplots except a “sex sells” mentality. Whatever its strengths, The Godfather, the book, is more suitable for airplane or bathroom reading than serious reflection.
Surprisingly, Coppola’s film is more restrained than its source. It excises the sensationalism, along with several subplots (Michael’s vendetta against a treacherous bodyguard) that bog down the narrative. Instead, he focuses on Puzo’s effective elements: the period décor and colorful violence, the intricate family dynamics, Michael’s descent from nice guy to heartless criminal. In the process, The Godfather grows from an overblown potboiler to an epic mediation on the American Dream. In other words, inverting Gatsby’s page-to-screen fate.
This extends to other examples mentioned above. What makes a great book doesn't necessarily make a great movie - and vice versa. Cinema is less reliant on imagination than a tangible blend of image, sound and action. Faithfulness to source material is admirable but not its own end. Best to capture a novel’s spirit, its message, themes and characterizations, than obsessively reproduce it line-by-line.
Many literature buffs consider cinema an inferior art form, unable to render a book’s subtlety. But for every Great Gatsby that’s a travesty of the book, there’s a Godfather which transcends the source material. No one considers painting inferior to literature because it’s visual. And no one should criticize movies, adaptations or not, for not adhering to the strictures of another art form.