Or, the post in which I write a Mini-Treatise on the Subject of Translating Books into Movies.
As I explained in Part One and Part Two of My Thoughts On Literary Snobbery, a literary snob is someone who has very picky tastes in reading materials and their own definition of what makes something “high quality literature.” Many literary snobs, myself included, can have a very elitist mentality that often keeps us from reading some very entertaining books, and so generally I consider literary snobbery to be a negative thing. In my previous posts, I offered nine opinions about things literary snobs need to get over, already so that we can enjoy all kinds of literature and avoid alienating our fellow readers who may have (very) different literary tastes. A love of reading and stories should join us all together on some level, whether or not we enjoy the same books, and if we should happen to disagree on whether something is well-written or not, we should take the opportunity to have an interesting intellectual debate on it without getting our panties all twisted up in a bunch (there’s an additional opinion for you, free of charge).
Opinion #10: Literary snobs and book lovers need to leave behind the mentality that “the book is always better than the movie” because we don’t need to establish an either/or preference. Instead, we need to realize that the book and the movie are two completely different animals, entirely different entities with different creators, and make our judgments about the film as a separate work of art from the book.
The book is always different from the movie because it has to be – the story is being translated from one medium (a written medium) to a completely different medium (a visual medium with auditory elements). Generally, we go see a movie expecting a vastly different experience than when we curl up on the couch with a book – but for some reason, we suddenly expect the two types of experiences to echo each other when we go to watch the film version of a novel. The same rules apply, though – film is still a visual medium, an auditory medium. Appreciate the way that your senses are engaged by the movie version. Understand that because it’s mode of storytelling, it will inevitably evolve into a somewhat different story.
This happens because the director, producers and all the other creative individuals involved in the production of a film envision the story differently than you do. When we read a novel, it takes on a life of its own in our imagination. It becomes a different story, a whole world within our minds – and this happens to everyone in a slightly different way for each reader, even with the same book. Your Wuthering Heights is not my Wuthering Heights. My Dracula is not your Dracula. And so when a novel is translated into a movie, it is the depiction of one of these much more personal worlds.
Opinion #10b: Because of this, we should not expect a film version of a novel to be the same as the book. More than that, though, once we understand the nature of movies, we shouldn’t want the film version to be exactly the same as the novel. We need to stop watching movies with the expectation that we will see our own interpretation and vision up there on the screen (unless we’re willing and motivated enough to produce our own interpretation – as in, go make our own movie so that our own ideas get some air time). Instead, we need to understand that every story has multiple incarnations, and learn to enjoy a different version of a novel. Film adaptation is an act of translation, and so film versions may offer us new insights into the story, new twists to the plot, new details that expand the original world of the story. Relish the development and exploration of that world. Don’t hate on the film version – just understand that it was never intended to replicate your own very personal experience of reading the novel. (And for the record, while there are certainly some film adaptations that are meant to simply replicate your reading experience, those are usually the adaptations that turn out to be bland or even horrible movies if viewed separately from a positive reading experience. For example, the first two Harry Potter films are far less dynamic then the later films in the series, in part because they stick so closely to novels.)
My prime example (and my own personal soap box) of how literary snobs get up in arms over film adaptations: the Jane Austen fan reaction to the 2005 film version of Pride and Prejudice. I have to admit that while I’m an Austen fan, I’ve never been able to enjoy the 6 hour BBC version of this wonderful novel, despite the presence of Colin Firth. But those of you who love that version, please set aside your shock and horror for a minute to hear me out on the subject of the 2005 version. Many Austen fans have told me that that the movie isn't faithful to the book, and that Keira Knightly doesn’t portray Elizabeth Bennett anything like the way she is in the novels. While I’m not convinced of either of these things, I want to challenge you with several other questions for the moment: should these things really be the main criteria for evaluating Knightly’s performance and/or the film? Should fidelity to the book be the first priority? In my opinion, no.
First, let’s address the question of whether a film version should maintain a strict fidelity to the plot of a novel. People swear up and down that the 6 hour version is much truer to Austen’s text – but in truth, if you go through the 2005 version, you find that it contains at least 1/2 to 2/3 of the novel almost word-for-word. It cuts out a lot of the slower-paced drawing room conversation in the second half, and here’s why: because the filmmakers understood the extremely important truth that film is such a vastly different medium from written text that the pacing has to be different. The very conversations that keep us reading with tense anticipation over whether Darcy and Elizabeth will get together are the very conversations that will start to bore a movie audience if the climax is put off indefinitely. So chop, chop and we get a lot more consistently rising action up to the scene where Judi Dench shows up in the middle of the night at Elizabeth’s house, and then a quick resolution after that. Some people think that it changes the spirit of the whole story, whereas others disagree – and that’s an interesting debate worth having. But ultimately, I don’t think that exact fidelity should be part of the criteria used to decide whether or not the 2005 Pride and Prejudice is a good movie, independent of the novel.
And let’s talk about Knightly herself for a minute. Whether or not we believe she stays true to the Elizabeth Bennett that Austen originally created, we should be able to enjoy someone else’s interpretation of the character. Maybe Joe Wright (the director) and Keira Knightly saw something in the text that some readers didn’t notice, didn’t quite understand, or chose to ignore in favor of focusing on Elizabeth’s other characteristics. Maybe Wright and Knightly decided to play up certain aspects of the character that we wouldn’t have chosen – but does that mean that we can’t enjoy the story any more? We literary snobs need to realize that while it may or may not be our Lizzie up on the screen the way that we imagined her when we first read Austen’s novel, Knightly still gives her audience an interesting, intelligent, thoughtful but feisty, and ultimately very lovable character.
In the end, it’s not the same story. It will never be the same story because it’s not Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, it’s actually Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice, mashed with Roman Osin (the cinematographer)’s Pride and Prejudice… it’s a communal vision that comments upon the original story. And it’s gorgeous. I have to admit that I’m completely in love with it – it’s visually beautiful, the music is amazing, and simply put, I find it stunning. But so many literary snobs miss the beauty of this film because it doesn’t line up with their expectations.
This post participates in the Weekly Geeks Challenge for Saturday, March 26. Share your own thoughts on books and movies, post the link here in the comments section if you'd like, and make sure to link back to the Weekly Geeks site too. I'd be really interested in hearing your thoughts on this subject...