Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Death by Film

Sandra Parshall

"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?


Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Great topic, Sandy. The worst film of a great mystery imho was Lawrence Block's Eight Million Ways to Die. Not only did they change the whole plot (drugs instead of a complex original), but they reset the novel in Los Angeles, criminal because Block is the quintessential New York writer. As a writer, though, I confess I'd love a chance to laugh all the way to the bank. Liz

Sofie Kelly said...

I wouldn't call them great mysteries but I do like Lawrence Block's Bernie Rhodenbarr series. I didn't like the movie, Burglar, based on them. Bernie became Bernice as played by Whoopi Goldberg. I like Whoopi but not in this role.

As a writer, I agree with Liz. I'd love the chance to laugh all the way to the bank--in my case it would be the orthodontist instead.

Julia Buckley said...

Well, this isn't a mystery--but TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, I thought, paid homage to the book, although nothing can quite capture Harper Lee's masterpiece. And GONE WITH THE WIND, although not a totally accurate reflection of Margaret Mitchell's novel, has become its own entity.

Interesting that both of those ladies only ever published one novel . . .

Sandra Parshall said...

TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD actually is a mystery of sorts, and a courtroom drama. The heart of the story is Atticus Finch's brilliant defense of a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman. I agree that nothing can match Harper Lee's writing, but TKAM is probably my favorite film of all time. A beautiful adaptation that is true to the soul of the story.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you completely that the enjoyment of a book can be decreased after seeing a bad film adaptation. It’s as though, once I see a character portrayed on the screen, I’m stuck with that actor, even if I don’t like how they played te role. A book and a movie/television show are completely different animals, each of which relies on a different method of story-telling.

Very few books can make a successful transition to the screen, though two actors who fit well for me were David Suchet as Hercule Poirot and the late Joan Hickson as Miss Jane Marple in the BBC Agatha Christie series done in the late eighties. What I liked best was that their body language, and the way they delivered the dialog, exactly matched what I’d imagined the characters to look and sound like.

Would I want my mysteries translated to the screen? Absolutely not. In the words of Detective Harry Callahan, “A man’s got to know his limitations,” and my limitation is the printed page. That’s what I write for and that’s where my stories belong.

Lonnie Cruse said...

Hmmmm, I recently finished DOUBLE INDEMNITY and was surprised by the differences. MALTESE FALCON is a bit grittier in the book than in the movie, but Bogart made a legendary movie there. I was also surprised by the ending of REBECCA in the book as opposed to the movie. For that one, I actually prefer the movie.

Great topic. Do I want my books made into a movie? Um, no.

Unknown said...

Sandy, I too await Gone, Baby, Gone with fear that I hope doesn't turn to loathing. Casey Affleck just doesn't have the snap of Patrick Kenzie (at least I've seen zero evidence of it so far) and Cheese -- a white criminal who speaks entirely in "Shaft" is being played by a black actor, thus turning Lehane's unforgettable jive into what I assume will be something ordinary.

I'm with you all the way on Mystic River. IMO no movie will ever surpass, let alone equal, the experience the book delivers, but it came in a close and haunting second.

My vote for the absolute worse adaptation of a novel -- Bonfire of the Vanities. Yeech.


Anonymous said...

Thank GOD an interesting blog. After the first two, I was almost ready to abandon you.

Here's an idea: why don't you reveal something of yourselves as Sandra did. A real opinion!

I want to love you guys. Let me know who you are as you write your posts.

Sandra Parshall said...

Hang in there, Anonymous. (Hmm. You might let us know who YOU are too.) You won't be disappointed. At least not consistently! Be sure to check out the guest blog coming up on Saturday, if personal revelations are your thing.

Anonymous said...

When THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE came out last year I was a bit nervous. I read the book at least seven times from childhood to adulthood and love it passionately. I was thrilled with the movie. It was really fantastic. Perhaps it helps that the book is shorter than a lot of novels that go to movies, so they were able to put in just about everything. But then, even with that, if you have a horrible director and cast it could still get mangled. But it didn't. It was lovely!

Leslie Budewitz said...

Great examples of the well-done and the 'why did they do it?' A series I loved equally in print and on the small screen is John Mortimer's Rumpole stories -- probably such a success because Leo Kern so fully captures the qualities that make Rumpole both endearing and exasperating.

I saw Mystic River before I read it, so I read with trepidation -- and astonishment. A long but well-paced book became a well-paced movie but almost nothing was left out! The flip side is Dr. Zhivago, whose screenwriters perfectly excised the story they could tell on screen from the much larger story Pasternak wrote. (Of course, the director made another significant change: the first line is "Yuri Zhivago was not a handsome man.")The book and movie are different -- but both exquisite.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Judy's mentioning Narnia made me think of the most obvious example of book-to-movie perfection: Lord of the Rings. They left out what didn't suit the dramatic pace and they filled in a bit of the hole Tolkien left by ignoring the existence of women, but the spirit of the books was beautifully preserved. Liz