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‘Saw the film; wasn’t as good as the book’

Every time a popular novel is brought to the screen, the inevitable comparisons begin with the  screen version often found wanting, disappointing the expectations of those familiar with the original.

For movie fans and purists of literature this is a vexing issue leading to another important question; should one read the book first or wait for the screen version and later read the original? A few examples might assist those juggling the relative merits of books – whether classics or popular fiction.- and their screen adaptations.

One of the most popular novels of the last century was ‘Gone with the Wind’ which a few years after its publication became a blockbuster film. I saw this film years before I read the original novel. The film is impressive and when I read the novel which is in the vicinity of 1000 pages, I was equally impressed and found that the novel filled in a few gaps and minor inconsistencies in the film. Viewing the film after this, the inconsistencies and gaps were now understood and minor characters became more significant. Had I read the book beforehand, I would not have been as impressed with the film. While this book and film are legendary, they are largely conventional in theme and structure.

Gone with the Wind: novel published 1936 and film released 1939.

When a novel is more experimental in form and content, both versions can be equally impressive. Occasionally a novel may be so unconventional, it may be decades before a screen adaptation is even attempted. The experimental novels of Virginia Woolf are a case in point. Some of her novels depart so markedly from conventional structure and themes, that it took several decades before any of them became feature film adaptions. For example, Mrs Dalloway (1925) was the first where she abandoned the form of the traditional English novel. Focusing on internal mental processes rather than external plot developments, It would have been difficult for filmmakers of the period to adequately convey the visionary aspects of this work, especially in the era of silent movies. 

Similarly, her more radical work Orlando (1928) had to wait over sixty years before it saw a screen version. Dealing as it does with a man who lives for several centuries and halfway through the novel turns into a woman, it explores issues of gender and sexuality that would have to wait for a more enlightened age before they could be given a feature film treatment. Fortunately, the screen versions of these two books are more than adequate. Each complements the other and the passage of time reflects both how advanced the original work was and how film culture has evolved to accommodate formerly unconventional themes. Each version enhances the other, so it is of less consequence which one you experience first. 

Orlando: novel published in 1928 and film released 1992.

Another important issue with film adaptations is how far they might diverge from the original story line. These may concern minor details such as location or the elimination of minor charters or more significant alterations to the plot. Various reasons may cause these changes from practical logistics such as economic constraints and shooting deadlines. However, there is a more significant cause for such screen ‘modifications’. 

Once upon a time offical censorship severely restricted what could be depicted in mainstream films. Scenes of overt sexual content, nudity and displays of graphic violence were all taboo. From the late 1960s these restrictions were gradually lifted. However, official censorship once went way beyond visual depictions and four letter words. It also had more subtle and pervasive effects on mainstream movies.

Where aspects of a book ran counter to the values of the time, censorship often intervened to alter the plot line. A relevant example is the denouement of Alfred Hitchcock’s film Rebecca. This was the first film he made in the US and was based on the best selling novel by Daphne du Maurier. The film is an accurate if condensed version of the novel. The film follows the plot of the  novel with one significant exception: the cause of death of the titular character. This revelation comes at the climax of the film and affects how we view a central character: it ascribes a different motive to his actions. The offical censors of the period would not tolerate wilful violence, namely murder, especially when it goes unpunished. (Those familiar with the novel and the film will understand the significance of this change).

Rebecca: novel published 1938 and film released 1940.

With certain books like murder mysteries (a la Agatha Christie), the final denouement is pivotal to the entire story. Knowing the ending beforehand might detract from the enjoyment of reading the book or seeing the film. In this instance, it depends on whether you enjoy the printed word or the visual big screen reenactment. The immense popularity of Christie’s work means that the plots of many of her works are well known. This may explain the subtle differences between the screen versions and original books of some Christie classics. Either way, knowing the ending will take some of the mystery out of the viewing or the reading. However, if the film performances and production values are impressive, it can still be entertaining. The fact that there have been many versions of her more famous books is proof of this.

A screen version cannot be a carbon copy of its predecessor. if only for sheer logistics; a feature film is rarely more than two hours long whereas a novel is usually a few hundred pages. Inevitably, sections will be simplified or even omitted altogether. This stream-lining condenses the overall story by leaving out minor characters or subplots. Unless the original book is rather short or the film has a few sequels (as with the ‘Twilight’ and ‘Harry Potter’ series), there will always a degree of omission and reduction. Given this, sticklers for accuracy, will always be disappointed by the film version. For them there are always the classics (Austen, Dickens, Bronte) of which there are now many versions. This variety might placate them at least a little. The fact that there have been various versions of such classics over the years confirms their lasting appeal.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone: novel published 1997 and film released 2001.

Literary classics whether regency romances or murder mysteries retain their popularity from one generation to the next. This lasting appeal ensures further screen adaptations well into the future. Each new version will not be a carbon copy of its predecessor but will retain the overall structure and central characters of the original book. Therefore literature purists will have a selection of versions to choose from. In addition, more recent versions are less likely to be constrained by earlier censorship conventions enhancing the accuracy of the screen depiction.

Both books and films inform and entertain. As different aspects of creative media they aren’t easily comparable even when they cover the same material. Which version is more entertaining is a matter of personal taste.