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Adapting to preference

May 3, 2009

On Friday I became involved in a discussion about Angels & Demons, the soon to be released sequel to Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.

A friend, who has read the book, was excited about the film and keen to see whether it lived up to the original. After a brief exchange about our opinions on Dan Brown as a writer (which won’t be repeated here!), a friend mentioned that film adaptations are never as good as the original books, which was met with nods and grunts of agreement, until one of the group started to list films which, in his opinion, were better than the original text – for example, Jaws, Kes, The Shining and Watership Down.

Once the heretical notion of a film being better than the source book was mentioned, this opened the floodgates. Having recently read The Prestige (despite being warned in advance by Dale), I can honestly say that the film was far better by a country mile.

Of the titles mentioned above, I have seen all four as films, but only read Watership Down as a book, and had to disagree, I thought the film was nowhere near as good as the original.

Literature has always been a rich source of material for adaptation by the film and television industries, be it straight adaptation (eg the upcoming Angels & Demons) or inspirations (eg 10 Things I Hate About You and Clueless, based upon Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew and Austen’s Emma respectively).

Taste is always subjective – for everyone who loves a writer, there are detractors, for every movie fan there is a hostile critic. The film adaptation of Watchmen was loved and hated in equal measures by people who loved the original comic book.

So I wonder – is our opinion influenced by the order in which we encounter the materials? I consider Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose to be better than the film adaptation, yet Christopher Priest’s The Prestige I prefer the film. I read Eco before I saw the film, where it was a few years after seeing the film that I read Priest’s original.

The same goes for Watership Down, I read the book first and consider it superior. I have for over 20 years now loved the film The Princess Bride, and have hesitated about taking the copy of Goldman’s original book down from my bookshelf and reading it, in case I find it disappointing.

Do you consider all adaptations to be pale reflections of the original work, or have you encountered adaptations which build upon and improve the source material. Did the order in which you encountered them change your opinion?

In three weeks time Paul will be performing his adaptation of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner by taking part in the annual BUPA London 10,000 in aid of Amnesty International. If you would like to sponsor him, please visit his donation page.
12 Comments
  1. May 6, 2009 3:16 am

    An extremely interesting question and one which probably has as many answers as people who want to pronounce on the question. Personally, I can only think of two films I’ve seen (but I’m not an avid movie-goer) which I felt were better than or as good as the originals. The first is Truffaud’s adaptation Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451. In my opinion the film really captures the spirit of the novel and nowhere better than in the final scene where we see various people committing books to memory to save them. The second is Doctor Zhivago which given the limited scope of the film certainly equals the quality of the novel. And Paul, maybe you’re right. In both cases, I first saw the film before reading the novel.

    That said I would like to say that the film Da Vinci Code was, in my opinion, far inferior to the book, which may not have had much literary merit (was it supposed to?) but certainly kept me turning the pages. The film quite literally sent me to sleep.

    As to what Christopher wrote about “The Never Ending Story” I beg to differ. Ende did not write the screenplay to the film.. IMDB attributes the screenplay Wolfgang Petersen and Herman Weigel. I point this out because Michael Ende actually expressed publicly his dissatisfaction with the film, distancing himself from it. I just cite this as a case where the author was unhappy. Having never read the book (I did see the film but didn’t really like it – my personal opinion) I am not able to comment as to which was the best.

    And to close with a question… Where would Ian Fleming be, if cinema hadn’t made a legend of 007?

  2. May 6, 2009 6:12 am

    No, you misread me (sorry). I didn’t say Michael Ende wrote the screenplay to Neverending Story, I said that Katsuhiro Otomo wrote the screenplay for Akira.

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