"It’s being made into a movie."
Words to strike terror into the heart of a devoted reader. Even worse: “It’s being filmed for television.”
Sometimes it’s done right. The movie of Mystic River is almost as good as Dennis Lehane’s novel. The first Godfather film is better than the book. Showtime did a credible job of bringing Darkly Dreaming Dexter to television, and I liked it despite some changes.
More often, films and TV shows based on novels disappoint me. I watch out of morbid curiosity, to see what has been done to a favorite book, and when I discover that a ravening pack of filmmakers has torn the story apart, chucked indispensable scenes out the window, added new stuff that doesn’t fit, and slapped it together in a barely recognizable form, I am not happy.
Few films or TV shows adapted from books are that bad, though. Most lie inert on the screen not because of major changes but because the books’ essential energy and passion failed to make the trip from page to screen. Snow Falling on Cedars is a good example. The French version of Ruth Rendell’s The Bridesmaid is another. The movie Children of Men has plenty of energy – it’s a big, noisy science fiction action film. But it’s not the heartbreaking, thought-provoking story P.D. James wrote.
A travesty of casting can blight my image of a character. I no longer see Tommy Lynley as Elizabeth George writes him – blond, with aristocratic features. Instead, I see the dark-haired, ordinary-looking actor who plays him on TV. (My enjoyment of the novels isn’t helped, either, by the decision to take the TV series in a different direction, eliminating some major characters and allowing one who has died in the series to continue living onscreen.) I once pictured P.D. James’s Dalgliesh as brooding and darkly handsome – a Timothy Dalton type. Now that I’ve seen him played on TV by two different actors, I no longer have a firm image of Dalgliesh.
At the moment, I’m apprehensive about the upcoming film of Lehane’s Gone, Baby, Gone, starring (gulp) Casey Affleck as Patrick. Let us pray.
Despite the pitfalls, many writers yearn to see their books become movies or TV shows. Why? The sale means more money, of course, and perhaps the sheer glamour of it is seductive. A writer’s work is lonely and decidedly lacking in razzle-dazzle. The very word “movie” conjures images of hanging out with stars, maybe copping a cameo for yourself. Beyond that, the prospect of seeing your characters and stories come to life onscreen is undeniably enticing. How will you feel, though, if you hate the result?
Sara Paretsky says she went through “all the stages of grief” after seeing the film V.I. Warshawski, starring Kathleen Turner. But what, exactly, is Ms. Paretsky mourning? What does a novelist lose when her work is mangled in translation to the screen? Nothing, at least not directly. Her work remains where it belongs, between covers, and a third-rate film will not alter a single word she wrote. Some readers, however, could lose a mental image of the characters and a degree of pleasure in the book. When that happens, the writer has indeed lost something valuable.
Okay, your turn. Which movies or TV shows based on books have you loved or hated? Did they change your perceptions of the characters? If you’re a writer, do you want to see your work filmed?