As regular readers of this site know, I tend to prepare these articles quite far in advance. So, very early this year, I was surprised to read that there is a modern US film adaptation of an “edgy” 1990s horror novel I’d reviewed quite a few months earlier called “Piercing” by Ryu Murakami.
Although I haven’t seen the full film at the time of writing, the trailer (which is probably “not safe for work”, hence the lack of a link) seems to have kept the disturbing premise of the novel and even seems to have kept a lot of the novel’s grim farce and unsettling psychological drama too. Yet, even though it looked like a good adaptation, I found myself reluctant to put the full film on my “to watch” list. This, of course, made me think about film adaptations of novels.
One of the strengths of the written word is that it makes the reader use their imagination. A novel is a personal experience. Every reader’s memory of a story – the compressed collection of images, moods and impressions that lingers long after the final page has been read – will be different. So, one of the problems that film adaptations can have is that they will inevitably be different from this. After all, cinema is a mass medium where everyone sees the one identical interpretation of a story.
This, incidientally, is why I refuse to watch some film adaptations – like “The Beach” or any of the “Jack Reacher” films – since I’m worried that they will overwrite my amazing memories of the novels they are based on. Yet, when I saw the film adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s excellent “Shutter Island” several months after reading the book, I found it to be a really good distillation of how I imagined the book – with the only problem being that I already knew the ending (which I won’t spoil here. You need to read or see it for yourself).
However, all of this also extends to everything surrounding a novel. Because novels are things that the reader has to co-create using their imagination, they are strongly linked to the time and place that they were read and to the imagination of the reader at that point in their life.
This is probably one of the reasons why I’m reluctant to watch the adaptation of “Piercing” since, although I only read the novel a few months earlier, I chose to read it as a way of feeling nostalgic for a time – about a decade earlier – when I read several other books by the author. Of course, even the best film can never quite capture that exact feeling of personal nostalgia.
On the flip side, reading a novel after seeing the film adaptation is actually a rather fun experience. In addition to being able to gain a deeper insight into the surface-level drama of what you’ve seen on screen, the fact that you will probably imagine the characters in the same way that you saw them on screen makes the process of reading feel a little bit more concrete. This is kind of hard to describe, but it’s strangely relaxing to read a story where you already know what the characters look like – it’s like part of your work as a reader has already been done for you.
Another difference between film adaptations and novels is how they are made. Novels are created by one author, the product of a single imagination given the freedom to be as unique, quirky and creative as possible. On the other hand, films are a team effort that cost millions to make. As such, there’s much more of an incentive for a film to have mass appeal or, at the very least, a wider appeal than the original novel. In principle, this is a good thing, but it can often end up losing or changing what made the original novel so interesting to read.
However, the best film adaptations actually use this to their advantage. For example, the 1980s cinematic masterpiece “Blade Runner” is both visually and stylistically different to the excellent novel that it is based on. These changes allow for a lot of amazing creativity that works really well on screen, whilst still keeping many of the core elements of the story.
And, this thing about the core elements of the story is probably one of the most important things about film adaptations. For example, although it would have been cool to see a cinematic version of the gritty late-night 1990s Toyko setting of Murakami’s “Piercing”, one of the surprising things about the trailer for the film adaptation is how well it seems to transplant the atmosphere, themes etc… of the story into what I presume is modern America. Yet, the trailer still seems to be very clearly based on the novel. If a story can jump from one time and place to another and still retain a lot of what made it so dramatic, then it is a good story.
So, in this sense, I can see why people often view a film adaptation of a novel as the ultimate form of praise. If a novel can survive the adaptation process and still result in a compelling film, then the underlying story is a good one. If all of the author’s uniqueness can be removed and lots of details changed, and it still results in something recognisable or compelling then this is a testament to the author’s skill.
But, at the same time, there’s something a little bit disturbing about seeing film adaptations as the ultimate literary award. Anyone who has read a lot of novels will probably find amazing ones that they feel deserve the full adaptation treatment and deserve to become a part of popular culture, yet never get adapted.
If adaptation was the ultimate award, then there would be a lot more novel adaptations in the cinemas. Yet, all of your favourite un-adapted novels still remain as brilliant as ever. They still remain things that linger in your imagination. Things that you judge all novels you read afterwards in comparison to. Things that make you want to write stories that are even half as good. Things that quite literally become part of your memories of a particular time in your life.
So, yes, film adaptations of books are complicated things.
Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂