We need to talk about Adaptations

I am sure I am not alone in finding adaptations problematic. As an avid film fan but also a veracious reader I have all too often found myself  underwhelmed and in many cases disappointed when a story is transplanted from page to screen.  Obviously for countless reasons it is both impractical and undesirable to faithfully depict the unabridged narrative on the cinema screen; it is doubtful that even the most committed movie goer would be able to sit through 10 plus hours of footage.  In generalised terms books are more internal, they hold greater detail and are far more complicated than their cinematic counterparts which are required to be more kinetic.  In addition to this, reading affords the opportunity to create a visual narrative in your minds eye not offered, and instead rendered for you, on the cinema screen.  Is that to say that I don’t believe adaptations can be good?  Not at all, in fact a number of my favourite films are adaptations of books I had pre-read and loved, Girl, Interrupted and American Psycho for example.  For me a successful adaptation is less about a faithful retelling of events than capturing the essence of what made the  book great. Blade Runner differs significantly from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep but captures the themes of the book perfectly and whilst doing so plays to the strengths of the cinematic form.

Over the past weekend I watched two adaptations for the first time Prozac Nation based on Elizabeth Wurtzel’s memoir and We Need To Talk About Kevin based on Lionel Shriver’s novel of the same name.  Whilst the omissions from each adaptation are glaring for me We Need To Talk about Kevin, worked in a way Prozac Nation did not.

*****************May Contain Spoilers*****************

In many ways Prozac Nation is not a bad film, the performances from Christina Ricci, Michelle Williams and strangely Jason Biggs (who I had personally written off as a fornicator of pies) are strong, and it avoids the threat of over-sentimentality ever present in films about illness.  As I said before I understand it is next to impossible to adapt a book without making cuts to its content and also that this does not need to be a bad thing, but with Prozac Nation the cuts they made to Wurtzel’s original for me robbed the story of any depth.  Choosing to only portray Wurtzel’s collegiate years resulted in a thin and trivialised version of events.  The intelligence of Wurtzel’s writing is lost in translation and instead of showing a young woman terrified of abandonment, using sex and anger as defence mechanisms, aware she is doing so but unable to stop, you are left with a bitchy, slutty, college kid.  This is really a story which needs to be told from beginning to end and with the exception of a couple of all too brief flashbacks Wurtzel’s formative years, crucial to an understanding of her character, are totally neglected.  If you do not have an understanding of depression before watching this film you it is unlikely you will gain any of the insight to be found in the book.

We Need To Talk About Kevin suceeds were Prozac Nation failed, of course cuts were made but the essence of the story remained in tact and the film is just as chillingly haunting as the book.  The book, written in the form of letters to Eva’s absent husband could have lent itself to a voice over however the opposite approach was taken; dialogue and words in general are kept to a minimum.  The tone of the book is depicted perfectly, Eva both seems to be central to the action and marginalised, she is both haunted by her past and haunting it.  As in the book we already know the ending and the body of the film is careful weaving of narrative, revealing a little at a time.  Holding its ground against cinematic convention Kevin does not try to sanitise events, it does not try to make Eva likeable, and it does not try to answer the questions also left open in the novel as to why Kevin did what he did. Was it nature or nurture? And as both arguably come from a mother does it matter?


4 thoughts on “We need to talk about Adaptations

  1. When I want to over-simplify this question, I say … “Bad books make good movies. Good books make bad movies.” Which is another way of suggesting that middle-brow-ish and low-brow-ish stories (focused on plot, character, and dialogue) are easier to make into movies that high-brow-ish stories. (I’d like to see someone take a crack at “To the Lighthouse” for example.)

    I enjoy watching adaptations because I like to see how the screenwriter / director / actors solve the problem of adaptation, and particularly to see what they’ve changed. I don’t see the point of making a film that is strictly faithful to the book, even if the book makes that possible, because who wants to work on a project in which they don’t bring their own creativity? That can make the adaptations that don’t work more fun than they would be otherwise: you can think about what didn’t work, and why, and whether you could have thought of something better.

    • ” I don’t see the point of making a film that is strictly faithful to the book, even if the book makes that possible, because who wants to work on a project in which they don’t bring their own creativity?”
      You make an excellent point here which I totally failed to address within my post.

  2. Sometimes adaptions have more emotional impact than the book. The Hunger Games, for instance, is the newest in a short list that for me was overall a better experience in film than it was in book.

    Jaws was the same. The characters are unconvincing and the horror shallow through the pages, but on screen they both are immortalized.

    Perhaps because of my sex, I found the movies for Little Women, Pride and Prejudice, and Sense and Sensibility more enjoyable than the books.

    Then they are series like Harry Potter, where the movies and books are equally entertaining. The brevity of the films works and the extra information in the books are fine, most of the time.

    • I have yet to see The Hunger Games, I enjoyed the book to an extent but didn’t find it to be instantly engaging so I am interested to see how it has been adapted.

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