When the film doesnt always play it by the book
PUBLISHED: 21:32 17 November 2009 | UPDATED: 15:45 20 February 2013
The recently-revived Tyneside Cinema in Newcastle has reinvented the traditional book club, to look at big screen adaptations - and maybe work out why the director did that to the ending WORDS BY TONI MARIE FORD
Your favourite novel of all time is to be adapted for the screen by your favourite director. 'Fantastic!' you shout. But it seldom is, and you leave the cinema disappointed, irritated, and dissatisfied. You knew the film would never be as good as the book. It seems few adaptations escape critical backlash and yet still the public still flocks to see them.
Now Newcastle's recently-revived Tyneside Cinema has reinvented the traditional "book club", inviting us to delve deeper into big screen adaptations of books and maybe work out why the director changed the perfectly reasonable ending.
Brideshead Revisited, adapted from the 1945 Evelyn Waugh novel, was the first film to be dissected by local film and literature lovers. Released in October last year, the film, directed by Julian Jarrold, opened to a torrent of criticism. You may have loved devouring the book, but the film leaves a bitter taste.
Dr James Annesley of Newcastle University, a guest speaker at Tyneside Cinema's book club, understands this reaction. 'Readers imagine they own the story once they have read the book and feel somehow betrayed by a retelling of it that doesn't match their own version.' As crucial parts of much-loved stories are cut, endings are changed and characters don't look anything like you imagined, the urge to tut, sigh and shake your head under the cover of a dark cinema is hard to resist.
As James points out: 'Unlike many other forms of culture, an adaptation has a yardstick against which it can be measured - a ready point of comparison against which it can, often, pale.' Even children's films can be subject to an unforgiving reaction, yet are often extremely successful commercially.
In recent years C S Lewis's magical Chronicles of Narnia has been reworked into two feature films and J K Rowling's remarkably prosperous Harry Potter books into five (so far); the combination of which accounts for seven of the top ten grossing films from children's books of all time.
The more cynical among us may say that children are simply content to cut out the 600-page middle man and see their favourite characters ready-made in all their Widescreen, Technicolor, and Digital Surround Sound glory. Yet the success of these films and the novels which came before them speaks for itself.
Clearly there is no easy formula for directors who adapt novels. Change it too much or don't change it enough and you're left with the same problem. It's difficult to celebrate or even accept that both the novel and the film exist on their own merits, especially when the words of a novel which have moved you and influenced your life are bought by Hollywood, only to be hacked apart and stitched back together into a synthetic clich of what they once were.Imaginative retelling of well-known stories can avoid this, often creating something much more satisfying than a copycat director who plays it too safe, using the novel as a manual to making the film.
James agrees: 'In contemporary British cinema, you have Joe Wright who, in choosing well-trodden stories like Pride and Prejudice and Atonement, seems to be looking for a story that will have an easy currency. He doesn't do much that's interesting with the books, but simply puts them up on the screen for the audience to enjoy. Others, like Kevin MacDonald, who has adapted The Last King of Scotland and Touching the Void, are much more ambitious - they are looking for great stories with great settings and see them as a platform for projecting their own vision.'
Where does this leave Graham Greene who adapted his own novel Brighton Rock for the screen in 1947? The subject of last December's book club, Brighton Rock was very well received, particularly by Adam Baron; a leading authority on British crime writing and author of the Billy Rucker detective novels (Shuteye, Hold Back the Night, Superjack and It Was You).
Introducing the film, he described both the novel and film as being 'up there' and audience comments even went as far as to suggest that the film is more compelling than the novel. At times it seems adaptations can speak to us in a way the original novel doesn't. I learned to love Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet during a high school English lesson, but only after watching Baz Lurham's 1996 adaptation and falling in love with the gorgeous Leonardo DiCaprio.
We're surrounded by intelligent and interesting adaptations which Tyneside Cinema's book club intends to investigate further. Future book clubs will look at adaptations of Cormac McCarthy's The Road and Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones, to name but two. 'The events we've run so far have been really successful - even so, we're still only at the early stages of developing this project and hope it will develop further as we draw in more members and more speakers from the world of film and literature as word spreads and it grows', says James. Visit the www.tynecine.org for more information.