Typically I find the film depiction disappointing after reading a book. I’ve given the example of Lord of the Rings. A recent example is the True Blood series, such a bloody, unsubtle rendition of the Sookie Stackhouse books which I thoroughly enjoyed. UK filmmakers do better than American, typically. They can actually pull off an animation of The BFG (1989 version!) with awesomeness that keeps to the essence of the author, Roald Dahl’s, original creation. British film, in many cases, is unfortunately getting more Hollywood-ish. That’s my opinion anyway.
There are exceptions, though: films that I love in a separate way from the book, that capture the character of the writing but carry their own flavor as well, adding, embellishing through acting performances and the visual medium. I’ll talk about four of them here:
Room with a View. This is actually a film I saw first, reading the novelette by E.M. Forster after. He uses delicious language and I enjoyed the book, but the film brings the story to life in a different way: the relationships between Mr. Honeychurch and his son, between Lucy and her brother Freddy, scenes in Italy and the English countryside, the humor, the humanity. The cast can’t be beat: Maggie Smith, Helena Bonham Carter, Judi Dench, Julian Sands, Daniel Day-Lewis. Lucy’s brother, played by Rupert Graves, is classic; his singing at the piano is a delight every time I see it. It’s the kind of scene that lives with me. The part with Mr. Beebe, Freddy and George (Julian Sands) at the swimming hole makes me laugh like nothing else. Ideas and feelings are captured differently by the written word; certainly vibrant images can be evoked. A film well done can captivate on other levels.
Similarly with Cold Comfort Farm, I saw the film first (the 1995 version) and afterward, read the novelette by Stella Gibbons, published in 1932. This film is a perfect mix of darkness, humor, and surprise. It’s also the last role of Kate Beckinsale’s that I really loved. Stephen Fry is his unique and wonderful self. The dreary farm scene is hilarious, yet touching. On the way to Starkadder Farm, Flora Post asks the endearing farmhand Adam Lambsbreath, “What’s the farm like?” He responds in a doom-laden voice, “The seeds wither and the earth will not nourish ’em. The cows ‘re barren. The sows ‘re farrin’. All is turned to sourness and ruin.” That’s a dazzling speech, worthy of Puddleglum. There’s an earlier version of this film that is tasteless slapstick so be sure you’ve got the right one.
Shipping News is another that I saw before reading Annie Proulx’s book. This film sweeps one into stark scenes and dynamic relationships, at the knife’s edge of life and death. We’re pulled underwater with Kevin Spacey’s character, Quoyle, drowning with him from the traumas of his childhood, as well as intergenerational traumas being carried forward. I was stunned the first time experiencing the icy wasteland that spoke to my soul, drawn with longing to the small community where residents depend on each other, laughing in the newspaper office with interplay between Beaufield Nutbeem (Rhys Ifans) and Billy Pretty (Gordon Pinsent) which Quoyle quietly starts to join. The novel is rich, and so is the film. When Nutbeem says he’s leaving the little community, I feel like crying every time.
Finally, I come to an example that I read before the film came out. Practical Magic, by Alice Hoffman, is a bit of magic in itself. The tale has a feeling of myth and legend, immortality, as Hoffman weaves recipes and spells into her captivating story. I loved this book. When I saw the film, one of my responses was, “This isn’t true to the book.” The precious love story for the sister, Gillian, toward the end of the book, is dropped from the film to keep the simplicity of the plot arc: a single love story and cute, witchy ending with Sandra Bullock floating from the roof to gather a long kiss from Aidan Quinn. I enjoy the film’s love story but the detective in the book has a lovable lonely quirkiness not conveyed—not even aimed for—in the film. That’s the kind of touch that differentiates indie from mainstream. There are other disloyalties that seem unnecessary throughout, yet I own the film and go to it when in a certain mood. The haunting scenes with Jimmy Angelov (actor Goran Visnjic) are masterful.
It’s been fun putting these thoughts together. I bet every reader has a film/book combination they either love or hate!