My loyalties are torn when it comes to the age-old book-or-film argument.
On the one hand, I am an English Literature student, and nothing beats curling up with a book. It’s personal, it’s creative, it feels very intimate when compared to film. On the other hand, I am the editor for the Film and TV sector of the Yorker, so I evidently see some merit in film (or I’ve got an existential crisis to attend to). It is carefully calculated, aesthetically beautiful, and often gives an audience a different perspective from how they interpret a book. This aside, I also disagree with the ‘high’ and ‘low’ art construct that cinema is ‘lesser’.
In the end, it boils down pretty neatly into Thomas Leitch’s statement: “the book will always be better than any adaptation because it is always better at being itself.” So often, we compare adaptations by how accurate they are. This sets up an impossible goal, as a film will never accurately depict what every reader saw when reading the book. It is also dismissive, because it treats a film like a failed replica. A film isn’t trying to be the original; a film is a culmination of a team of creative’s idea about what might make for an interesting take on a story. In the same way that a reader stamps their personality on interpreting a novel, the director stamps their personality on their interpretation. Sometimes, this is to glorious success; sometimes, admittedly, this can be an absolute disaster. So, without further ado, here is my list of some of the best adaptations, and some showing us how not to adapt a novel.
Emma (2020, dir. Autumn de Wilde) is a perfect example of how to nail an adaptation. It kept fans happy by staying true to the book, but added an unmissable stamp of personal style from first-time director Autumn de Wilde. The plot echoes the book, following unbearable protagonist Emma (Anya Taylor-Joy) as she proceeds to meddle in the love lives of those dearest to her.
The casting of this film is sublime, including Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, Bill Nighy and Miranda Hart; although there is a noticeable lack of diversity. But what makes this film really come alive is the colour. A pastel palette runs through the set dressing, costume, and colour grading, to create a fine balance that mirrors both the artificial politeness of Regency-era England and a genuine girlish warmth Emma possesses. De Wilde is a photographer, and her experience pays off in Emma to perfectly capture the essence of classically sharp Austen wit.
The Percy Jackson and the Sea of Monsters (2013)
There were high expectations for the adaptations of Rick Riordan’s series surrounding Perseus (get it?) Jackson and his friends and their mishaps with the Greek Gods. The books are a fundamental part of most tweens’ lives, but the two films made under the same name do not hold the same value. The first two films were poorly received, including by Rick Riordan himself, and what was supposed to be a 5-film franchise was halted at just 2.
I’m all for a film straying from precise details in the novel, but the second of the Percy Jackson films (2013, dir. Thor Freudenthal) strayed in a way that felt like the creative team knew better than the bestselling author. In fairness, the first film (2010, dir. Chris Columbus) set Freudenthal up poorly. Annabeth’s character, once the most badass feminist 12-year-old any young reader could wish for, is turned into a wishy-washy two-dimensional character. The kids, originally 12 when the novels begin, are in their late teens. The Gods are presented in an odd sort of squabbling-Marvel-villains way, rather than grand figures of divinity. Then Sea of Monsters moves so far from the plot of the novel that it is almost unrecognisable. Unfortunately, this series is a prime example of the issues with altering major plot points in a way that is detrimental, rather than positive.
The Personal History of David Copperfield (2019)
This film is a masterpiece of adaptation. Coincidentally, I wrote a longer piece on colour within Armando Iannucci’s adaptation of a Dickens classic. This is one of the most innovative uses of film to convey the same essence as the original novel. Iannucci uses cinematography to emulate David’s path through different life stages. Blocks of colour are assigned to different characters who are more socially static than David: the set, the costume, and the grading are all blended to create a certain aesthetic that fits each character. David is able to move through these colours, representing his social transgression, until the end when the colours become a blend of experiences David has gone through.
This is also a textbook example of colourblind casting. Dickens is an example of complex and intertwining relationships that are difficult to emulate in a film. Although characters are related, the cast are racially diverse with no heed to familial relations. But not once do you think, I wonder which characters are related. Iannucci’s use of colourscapes for characters creates a sense of relationship through shared space, highlighting how even classical literature does not need to be restrictive.
Divergent Series (2014)
Divergent (2014, dir. Neil Burger) was a film that came at the height of the teen fiction, dystopian world era alongside the likes of The Hunger Games. The novel by Veronica Roth had proved hugely popular, and the first film in the series was a relative success. Shailene Woodley is the gift of this film. She lifts protagonist Tris from what could be a two-dimensional character into something more complex. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the rest of the cast: Theo James, Zoë Kravitz and Ansel Elgort provide a weak supporting cast by comparison. But the overall effect is one of an enjoyable dystopian film.
The following films are where the series goes wrong. The plot strays so far from the books that the series is totally unrecognisable. This, as aforementioned, is fine, if you’re doing it for good reason. But the following films (dir. Robert Schwentke) in this series become increasingly formulaic. The third novel was split into two parts for films three and four, but the final instalment was cancelled, leaving the series on a cliffhanger where the novel series has a spectacular ending (no spoilers!). The cinematography in all the films is undeniable, especially the first one. But the Divergent series is another victim to plot diversion, and it’s one that not even Shailene Woodley can save.
Little Women (2019)
Greta Gerwig’s recent version of Little Women (2019) was one of the most acclaimed of the decade. The film is a cinematic triumph of screenwriting, acting and cinematography. The film surrounds four siblings Meg, Jo, Amy, and Beth, navigating successes and losses surrounding their home. The novel is a time-old, well loved tale and to create an adaptation is no mean feat.
The film may not have stayed totally true to Louisa May Alcott’s novel, but that is no bad thing. The screenwriting is delicately done but done successfully, creating prominent lines such as “Just because my dreams are different than yours doesn’t make them unimportant.”, without making them sound cliché. Gerwig’s take on the four siblings is a rare take on true feminism, that advocates for all women and all dreams.
Although this is a star-studded cast, Florence Pugh and Saoirse Ronan steal the show in this film. They bring a vitality and powerfully female presence that compliments Gerwig’s vision. This film had me sobbing in the cinema, and if it doesn’t move you to tears, you’re made of tougher stuff than I am.
The Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials (2015)
The first instalment of the Maze Runner (2014-2018, dir. Wes Ball) film series had promise. The first film was a teen-dystopian-fantasy-genre success. The film develops questions posed in the first film about a higher power named WCKD. But the second instalment was quickly reduced into a dull zombie film.
This was not helped by the fact that the second novel by James Dashner is almost totally devoid of hope. To make an adaptation of a novel that has no driving force is a difficult task, as shown by The Scorch Trials (2015). There is little in the way of character development, and so much information is withheld from the audience that it is difficult to want to keep watching. Admittedly I am going to be biased because I hate a zombie film, but this film doesn’t create anything new with the genre. Instead, they rely on cheap jumpscares and action-packed sequences to see the audience through. I struggled to sit through the entire thing, which is a rarity.
The Great Gatsby (2013)
This opinion is a somewhat controversial one, but here it is: I think The Great Gatsby (2013, dir. Baz Luhrmann) is a fabulous film. The adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic was ambitious, but in my opinion, it payed off. It is riddled with flaws (Jordan Baker is bland, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Gatsby is too brutal, and occasionally it is a bit Hollywood-ised in its approach), but fundamentally, it has captured what is essential about 1920s culture. Baz Luhrmann evidently understood Gatsby. Each scene encapsulates what is described in the novel, from the bleak Valley of Ashes to the luxurious Old Money / New Money of West and East Egg to the manic New York apartment owned by Tom.
The set and camerawork create a hectic energy that carries throughout the film, including speeding up the vehicles Gatsby drives at a ridiculous pace until it becomes feverlike. The soundtrack, often criticised, I think adds a modern touch to what could be a dated film, suggesting little has changed. But what makes this film unique is how it navigates the difficult task of an unreliable narrator in film. They choose to have Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), quoted directly from the novel, narrating in hindsight as he writes down his experience. In fact, the majority of the dialogue is lifted straight from the text – and when a novel has become so renowned for its quotations and themes, this is a stroke of genius.
I came to Inkheart (2008, dir. Iain Softley) with high expectations. The novel by Cornelia Funke is a work of genius, and one of my favourite books of all time. But as previously mentioned, films are not meant to be exact replicas. That being said, the film adaptation Inkheart is objectively bad. It is filled with clichés, poor acting and screenwriting, a lack of diversity, and almost becomes farcical in its take on quite a serious plot line. What is supposed to appear magical and whimsical becomes comic, but not intentionally so. It has an almost Pirates of the Carribean (2003) quality but without the dry humour of Captain Jack. Dustfinger, a complex and fascinating character in the novels, is reduced to a cowardly villain.
Cinematically, the film has merit at times. Any scene set in a bookstore / marketplace / grand house is going to create a dark academia ethos that builds a natural mis-en-scene. But for the most part, the cinematography plays in to the rest of the film: falling into the ludicrous where it could be gentle and meaningful.
Normal People (2020)
Granted, this isn’t a film. Normal People (2020, dir. Lenny Abrahamson & Hettie Macdonald) is a series that, rightly, has received much acclaim since its release. It is a beautifully tragic story of on-and-off couple Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Paul Mescal) that mirrors Sally Rooney’s book. Co-written by Rooney, it has delicate but purposeful dialogue. It explores a very similar storyline but possibly better developing Marianne’s character than in the novel (unheard of, I know!). Ditto, Connell’s therapy scene is so masterfully written and acted by Mescal that it is more emotive than the novel.
The series is visually stunning. The camera is often positioned at a higher than comfortable closeup, which takes some getting used to, but once you do then it provides an interesting power-play perspective in a show that centres around power. We, the audience, feel as though the characters are submissive to the camera. The colour palette is soft and deliberate, creating a mis-en-scene that is intimate enough that it feels as though you’re peeking in on a novel. Normal People is one of the few pieces of cinema deemed better than its source text, and it is easy to see why: it is seldom that a series can highlight a wider range of emotions, but Abrahamson and Macdonald show us how it’s done.
This is an unpopular opinion, but Love, Simon (2018, dir. Greg Berlanti) is lacking as an adaptation. As a standalone film, it is an enjoyable watch – and it is undoubtedly deserving of the praise it received as a first of its kind, a teen rom-com centring around a gay protagonist. It is a pretty film, with a charming screenplay, and some very good acting.
That being said, Love, Simon feels hollow to me. It ticks all the Hollywood boxes, but it is a missed opportunity to make something alternative and emotionally resonating (in a Perks of Being a Wallflower kind of way). Instead, it opts to fall into the John Green category. And there was so much to go on. It misses out on so many of the best moments in Becky Albertalli’s Simon Vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda. The novel’s way of speaking, in clumsy, plain English, is part of its charm, and the intricate relationships between Simon and his three oddball friends are reduced to nothing. They add plot points at fundamental moments that weaken the overall story; not everyone has to be in love with everyone. Leah in particular, badass drummer and general awkward being in the novel, is a bit simpering and not very three-dimensional in the film. So although this film is a pretty good watch, it’s missing out on so much fabulous raw source material that could really make it something special.
I had to end on a good one. The Martian (2015, dir. Ridley Scott) is an adaptation of Andy Weir’s novel by the same name. Weir is a superb writer, adding humour and lightness to a genre that can sometimes be heavy (I’m not a Sci-Fi fan, but I love Weir’s books). Plus, his work has the added bonus of (theoretically) checking out, scientifically-speaking. They’re believable. This meant a large amount of the leg work was done for Scott’s adaptation, but it wasn’t going to be easy to inject the same lightness. He succeeded.
Matt Damon is fabulous, essentially monologuing to the camera the entire time. The screenplay is witty and sharp and creates a character that we can understand why he was chosen to travel to Mars. The supporting cast is equally as impactful, including names like Sean Bean, Mackenzie Davis, Donald Glover and Jessica Chastain.
The film is a cinematic triumph, the Martian landscape not only looking realistic but in equal parts beautiful and deadly. A fabulous soundtrack is littered with disco music left by the commander which Watney (Damon) hates. This film is both about a single individual and the whole of humanity, and it creates a heartwarming feeling that doesn’t feel contrived. If you haven’t already, go and see this film, and go and read this book. Not necessarily in that order.