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March 22, 2004 | by  | in News |
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Lost in Translation

It is generally thought that to make a movie out of a wonderful book is to lay literature down and rape it.

The whole movie-of-the-book controversy thing began way back in 1939 when David O. Selznick, who was quite the Harvey Weinstein of his day, decided to make Gone With The Wind into a movie. Americans were outraged. How could such an amazing book (now considered indulgent romantic crap) possibly be brought to the screen? It couldn’t be done. But they did it. The film is one of the most significant in movie history.

Ha! Thought the cynics. It was a fluke. At the end of the day, books are to be revered, and shouldn’t be prostituted into film.

I remember feeling the same sort of outrage when I heard that they were making a film out of Bridget Jones’s Diary, one of my favourite books of all time. And they were casting an American! But I remember going to see it at the movies with my friend Amanda (also a big fan of the books) and we loved it so much, I now own it on DVD.

Clearly one of the most magical experiments in book-to-movie translation is the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Not that I’ve read the books. Too many damn pages. But I have read all five Harry Potter books, and I was pleased that the films stuck closely to the plots – although perhaps this was a disadvantage, because every scene was totally predictable. In fact, I knew most of the dialogue before the actors spoke.

I was un-excited about seeing The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. I knew it was too good a book to become a movie vehicle for Sandra Bullock. I was right. The writers overcame the problem of a complex plot by cutting out most of it. Disgusting.
But even more horrendous than destroying a plot is the destruction of characters – in your mind, that is. Because I never read LOTR, I never had a picture in my mind of what Frodo or Aragorn looked like. So when I see Elijah and Viggo on the screen, I am entirely accepting. However, I wasn’t so happy with Emma Watson, who plays Hermione in the Harry Potter films. She didn’t look remotely like the Hermione I envisaged when I was reading the books. And Nicolas Cage as Captain Correlli? Hmm.

Some people, though, go the other way round, and they see the movies and then read the books as an afterthought. So when they read Harry Potter they can see the actors in their minds. I don’t know if this is a good thing. Surely the whole point of a book is so that one is forced to use their imagination, and create their own angle on a character?

Although in saying that, some casting choices have been absolutely inspired. In the role of Arthur Dent in the movie version of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy will be Tim from The Office. This isn’t how I imagined Arthur, but now that I’ve had time to think about it, I think it’s a nice idea. Then there’s Charlotte Gray, which is an amazing book, and an amazing actress like Cate Blanchett has the depth to pull off the character. Likewise with Chocolat – I couldn’t think of anyone better than Juliette Binoche, what a divine actress!

I have to say that in general, the English do a much better job of translating books to film. Emma Thompson, who wrote the screenplay for Sense & Sensibility, did a great job, and with subtle visual humour reinvented Jane Austen for the 21st century. The BBC version of Pride & Prejudice (i.e. Colin Firth in a wet shirt) is fabulous. The only serious blow-out was Angela’s Ashes. Some books are just so good, they should be left alone.

Then of course there’s this other phenomenon – the movie-to-book scenario. This is always appalling. I would go so far as to say tragic. This basically involves some wannabe novelist grabbing a copy of the movie’s screenplay and writing it up as a book – word for word. Horrible. Someone should tell them that in books you can’t go dashing between scenes willy-nilly like in the movies. And in books you have to allow a moment to develop a character through ways other than dialogue. And a physical description alone just isn’t good enough.

Play-to-film is generally okay, because obviously a play has been specifically written to be performed. Oscar Wilde’s works have made tidy films; Shakespeare is always a winner; Dangerous Liaisons was a triumph. Then there’s book-to-musical, namely Once Were Warriors: The Musical. I have issues with this that require at least another column. Screen-to-stage (e.g. The Lion King) is a fairly smooth transition, as is stage-to-screen-and-back-again (Chicago). Book-to-stage I am very wary of, especially when I found out about the stage version of Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights. There’s also book-to-musical-to-film (Les Miserables) and Bible-to-musical (Jesus Christ Superstar) and book-to-TV series (The Potato Factory) and film-to-TV series (Buffy The Vampire Slayer) and Shakespeare-to-teen-remake (10 Things I Hate About You) and…!

Don’t you think we should just leave well enough alone?

In other news, I have been receiving a lot of abusive feedback from a couple of my readers – namely, my flatmates, Jeremy and Hugo – who are miffed because I haven’t written a column about them. “How are people supposed to know how important we are if you never write about us?” is what I hear every Monday, followed by much foot-stomping and spitting. I figured if I added in this paragraph about their tantrums and attention-seeking that would satisfy their fame hunger until next week.

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