1-2-3-4, I Declare a Form War

I had a conversation with a writer friend a couple weeks ago about the discrepancies between the mediums of literature and film—and, more specifically, adaptations bridging the two forms. The conversation developed from my mention of a mental_floss article about well-known authors who hated their work’s well-known film adaptations. My friend quickly jumped to the defense of those authors, elaborating further on her own inspired favor of the original literature over the film. Remaining loyal to the novel or short story is overwhelmingly the publically virtuoso stance: the most immediate debate, without fail, when film adaptations are announced is how the film can possibly match the original, and then, after release, how the movie industry ruined yet another good book. Maybe it’s the insipid exposure to product films (movies clearly made for similar motivations as one would make a Nerf gun) we gather as a mainstream society, but a distinct collective psyche exists in which the norm is to, without remorse, denounce film adaptations as rarely anything more than cheap attempts to capitalize on a proven commodity.

While the cynicism withstands, to greater effect, in regards to a Hollywood culture currently preoccupied with remakes and reboots, I cannot begin to sympathize with the criticism of adaptations. The aforementioned complaints, when further prodded, stem from the idea that a novel can do so many things film can’t, or at least to a more thorough extent. Character development and direct insight, cast, narrative arc, and the power and experience of the actual words on the page are commonly cited as fundamental gaps between the meduims’ capacities. The adventure of the prose and the direct insight, for example, were the two inspired drawbacks my friend offered. Wherever detractors come from, the creative form of literature being superior to that of film is the if unintentional suggestion. Unfortunately for literature enthusiasts, this assertion is simply not true.

I understand where the author’s discussed in the mental_floss article come from: a fiction writer myself, it would be an incredibly difficult process to hand over, as most adapted authors do, the creative responsibility of something so personal to a relative stranger. However, their complaints are irrelevant. The best you’re going to get out of a writer, concerning an adaptation of their work, is an I’m happy with the choices [the director] made. Translation: they didn’t butcher my child. What else could we expect? Nothing. While I find stories of P.L. Travers sobbing because the Disney machine of the sixties whitewashed Mary Poppins impulsive-big-lip-inducing, there is little credence in the displeasure of creative alpha dogs such as Stephen King and Ken Kessey (though the later eventually came around). All of these anecdotes vindicate fans of the original and of books in general, little more. Kubrick’s The Shining is a horror masterpiece, using ingenious scale and symmetry to weave thick atmosphere and dread. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was the second ever film to sweep the five major categories at the Oscars. (Both of these, of course, feature tour de force turns from Jack Nicholson.)

To favor a version is immune to criticism. That’s the freedom of art. To presume one medium’s superiority based on those biases is not. A film can’t characterize its cast as well as a novel? So, then, Nicholson’s Randle is an outright lesser character than Kessey’s?—Daniel Day-Lewis’s Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood doesn’t surpass (let alone meet) any character in Upton Sinclair’s original Oil!?—Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lector? The list could easily continue. A film may not have as readied access to direct perception or insight as literature, but I don’t think an argument can be made saying the nuance and depth of an actual human being stepping into the flesh and mind of another is incapable of capturing the same—or greater—profoundness of its prose counterpart.

Which leads to the other glaring form difference: language. Why did an otherwise beautiful and adequate film in the adaptation of The Road pale in comparison to McCarthy’s Pulitzer winner? Because the gorgeous and redemptive prose, more than any other element of the novel, communicated the transcendence of the narrative. However, to suggest that literature is the inherently better form, one would have to be able to make the case that a film could be expounded and improved upon in a novel adaptation. This, frankly, has never happened. Film-to-literature novels exist solely for fans of the film who also want the experience in literary form. An adaptation field without respect, quality writers rarely venture there, and little new ground is ever explored. If literature was in fact superior, even without efforts from the most talented writers, film-to-literature novels would still be more encouraging than what we have.

Now, what I have to say next may seem blasphemous, but it is true: film can depict with its imagery, mise en scèn, and editing visuals that do not translate to literature (literature we’d actually want to read, that is). Some quick recent examples: There Will Be Blood, Inception, Pan’s Labyrinth, City of God, Brokeback Mountain—each film possesses a visual quality either not found in their literary predecessor or irreproducible in appealing literature. A film can capture in a single moment scope and vastness or minute detail that in a novel would require unpleasant length, or the reduction of what exactly is described—but then, the product is no longer the same and therefore incomparable in any way so as to give one form advantage over the other. Or, in terms of spectacle, anything can be written into being. Not anything is supposed to be able to reside onscreen—what’s there, at some point in time, is supposed to have been tangibly real. Breaking that rule of real is film’s magic. By no means does the visual language of film trump the written language of literature. The only claim I make is that both are equally transfixed in their own medium. The visual is film’s prose.

Distinction for distinction’s sake is a time waster, so let’s put a point to all this rhetoric. The distinctions boil down to literature holding a greater level of intimacy with its audience. No matter a novel’s girth or density, the majority of its resonance is dependent upon the reader’s imagination. The novel may guide, but the reader is the one who executes the novel’s imagery, details, and characters—the fundamental reason people fall in love with reading, the classic “escape.” In film, on the other hand, everything is in front of you. A film can be ambiguous: we don’t know if Deckard in Blade Runner (based on Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep) is human or android by film’s end, but we sure as hell know that he chased down in the rain an intellectually captivating robot and had some sort of moment as the machine died.

Here’s a brief list:

  • United 93
  • Undefeated
  • Brokeback Mountain
  • The Road (novel)
  • A Separation
  • Schindler’s List
Off the top of my head and in no order, these are the most emotionally devastating creative works I’ve encountered, all for a variety of reasons, none of which are topically important.* Personally, five films jumped into mind, and one novel. That proportion will vary greatly and swing between either form for any given person. The point is, even though it may not possess the intimacy of literature, film can pack an equally legitimate emotional punch. How? Literature is more intimate doesn’t hit the ever-protruding nail–rather, literature’s process is more intimate, not the actual experience. Of course imagining the multitudes of scapes in a given literary work is more personal than being shown what you’d otherwise yourself conjure. Film is a massive collaborative endeavor–and there is correlative reward in that process for its members–and, as drawn out above, there is nuance as well to screen subtlety and craft. I know the first time I watched Brokeback Mountain I missed some of the swift eye movements, body language, vocal tones, and masterfully small filmmaking which build into an otherwise random sexual outburst between two otherwise straight sheep ranchers. Thankfully, despite–unfairly, I’d since say–initially feeling jarred, the film swept me up and won me over. I’ve watched it three times since and near marvel at the craft the cast and director Ang Lee display.

 The long-winded point: Read the book, it’s always better is so inaccurate it offends me as an equal parts writing and film enthusiast. I’ve been writing fiction for five years now, plan on applying to MFA programs in the fall, and this coming semester will, for the first time, attempt screenwriting. I have aspirations to, one day, be writing consistently for both fields, understanding fully the odds of finding success in one, let alone both.

I have a deep and unique affection for each medium, and such an affection is why I find the cliché adaptation bashing by literature loyalists problematic. The mediums are completely different in process, but aim for similar ground in experience. We should anticipate changes (after all, it is an “adaptation”) from one medium to the next, not begrudge them. Repudiating adaptations based on the merit of the adapted form is invalid. Not only that, it is self-defeating. Remember when the novel emerged as a commercially viable literary form? (You do? Wow, that’s a damn good memory, some three hundred years strong.) It was tarnished as trash. The intellect rested in poetry (Eh eh, poets?). Even the short story initially shunned long-form prose. So, keep your noses high, loyalists, you are not the first to label an enterprising genre as bloated and cheap. The publishing world has long felt the economic presence of film and, now, various other digital forms. Why wage medium war? If so determined to thumb your nose at film, I ask you, how do you think that will end? In fact, better yet. Ask poets.

*If either you’re cruel or wish to test your staunch emotional heartstrings too, feel free to ask about them, though they aren’t the most eclectic choices.


True Film posted in November last year a slideshow of their 50 favorite film adaptations. The rankings are a bit odd, but it’s an overall solid collection. The Gaurdian, to a much less interactive extent, did the same in 2006.

On the flipside, the A.V. Club listed their worst film adaptations. If it hadn’t been written almost five years ago, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close would have to rank near the top.

Some notable films I find, again off the top of my head, outright better than their notable source material:

  • Kubrick’s The Shining, and A Clockwork Orange (and I’d imagine 2001: A Space Odyssey, though I haven’t read the loose source story “The Sentinel”)
  • Brokeback Mountain
  • Let the Right One In (the American Let Me In is in equally favorable standing for me)
  • There Will Be Blood (also a loose source, but Oil! is so commonly associated with the movie that it counts)
  • The Prestige
  • Goodfellas
  • Shutter Island
  • Schindler’s List
  • American Psycho
  • Stand By Me
  • Silence of the Lambs

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleBurton9106

Twilight: Love and the Aging Author

In the film adaptation of Brian Morton’s novel Starting Out in the Evening,retired professor Leonard Schiller’s (Frank Langella) monastic life is interrupted when Heather Wolfe (Lauren Ambrose), an ambitious graduate student from Brown, wants to write her senior thesis about him and his out-of-print novels. He’s flattered but politely declines. He’s recently survived a heart attack. Time is precious and the writing is coming slowly. His fifth novel refuses to take shape. The characters, he says, don’t seem to want to do anything interesting.

I was so intrigued by this movie and its depiction of a mid-list writer in the twilight of his career that I showed it to my creative writing students, thinking that they might identify with, or at least admire, Heather’s boldness and tenaciousness as she efficiently bates and nets her prey. Not only does Leonard let her into his home, he also submits to her fierce personal questioning, an affront to his high decorum and his belief in New Formalism.

After an hour, I released the students who had “real” finals to study for and dorm rooms to pack, but I kept the movie playing for the four who stayed.

As Leonard and Heather’s relationship develops into a quirky, fragile May-December romance, one young woman I know to be squeamish about sex started fidgeting in her seat.

She erupted into a loud, barbaric “yuck” when Heather dips her fingers into a jar of honey and touches them to Leonard’s lips.

An argument about the appropriateness of the relationship was ignited. Two of the students were all for it. “It’s mostly just brain sex,” one said.

But all of them felt that Leonard was being manipulated. Though Heather has only published a brief essay on Stanley Elkin in a small literary journal, youth has conferred her with power. The old, too-long-ignored writer is putty in her hands. When he gives her a key to his apartment, my students groaned “oh no,” as if he’d signed his own death warrant.

Heather’s youthful arrogance angered me, too. Over tea, she accuses Leonard of using age as an excuse for not getting on with his work. She also wants to know whether sacrificing his personal life for his art has been worth it; after all, who is reading his books?

I’ve heard that during World War I when military men were given a few days furlough, they found the business-as-usual bustle of the Parisian streets befuddling. To them the city seemed untouched by war and they found few who could relate to their experiences on the battlefield. Writers feel a similar lack of empathy for what goes in their own private artistic trenches.

Writers are hard on each other. Even worse, they are hard on themselves and seldom feel the pride they deserve for confronting the blank page.

Few people worry themselves with the struggles of the imagination. I was reminded of this when I read Roddy Doyle’s story “The Bullfighter” recently published in The New Yorker. The protagonist is perfectly content with his life of nine-to-five work, wife and children, and weekly drinking buddies. Or perhaps this is simply a writer’s idealized depiction of the easy joy of a life more spectacularly ordinary than his own.