Adapting Literature For The Big Screen – At Least Pick Good Source Material

I feel I should start with an apology for not posting anything for a while now. I’m currently working on a drama piece that I’ve written and am in the process of directing at the moment so that is taking priority. I should be getting back in to the swing of things now so do not fear.

Not so long ago there was a bit if a rumble in the news, the film adaptation of ‘Fifty Shades Of Grey’ found itself landed with two leading actors in the form of Charlie Hunnam and Dakota Johnson. The internet began overflowing with various comments about the decisions made, some filled with optimism, others filled with outrage. Personally I still feel annoyed that the film is being made in the first place. It’s going to be based on a book that is badly written, with little story or substance, that promotes rather old fashioned views of male dominance. It may be a case of the film being different from book, with the director choosing not to display certain elements, but if it’s a case of the film following the book tightly, then Houston we have a problem.

The thing about making film adaptations of literature, for me, is that the book has to be good to give the film a chance of being good. Some of the best films in my opinion come from books that were fantastic in the first place. Take F Scott Fitzgerald’s classic ‘The Great Gatsby’ for example, that book is a work of art. It presents characters that are strong and have depth, with Gatsby himself representing the greed that hides in all humans, but also the love that we all have towards others. The book itself is written very well, with descriptions so detailed you can visualize the vast city landscapes of the 1920s, and contrast it to the dining experiences of wealthy landowners. One of the key elements that stands out for me also is the dialogue; it contrasts each character so beautifully, singling them as separate entities in conversation. Gatsby has a rather crisp feel to his speech, speaking like a man of the world who has everything and yet nothing and as someone confident in social situations, and then Nick Carraway represents the quieter members of society and what happens to them once mixed in to a world of lavish wealth and cold deception. The underlying messages of the book, crucially the idea of wanting something you cannot have, make the book an interesting experience, compelling you to read on with every page. The book is an utter masterpiece and it has depths that film makers can explore and do something with. The latest screen adaptation (I refer you to my review of it in a previous post) was a little over the top but it shows you just how much freedom there is in making a film based on a book that is genuinely brilliant.

The beauty of books it that they have the potential to transport the reader to a world that is different from their own, which is why I feel that ‘The Hobbit’ is one of the best pieces of literature to be written, and one of the best to be picked for cinema adaptation. The world that Tolkien creates is so artistic, with creatures that are chilling and obscure, and settings that require an extremely artistic mind to put to the big screen. It’s an exciting adventure that presents some interesting themes such as the value of friendship, and the idea of grasping great opportunities with both hands. The character of Bilbo Baggins is key to the book, he represents the hunger than all humans have to seek adventure and see things that could never be seen again. It’s heart warming to follow Bilbo on his journey from being a shy and uncertain character, to one who is brave and intelligent in the face of danger. The book is masterfully written, with strong characters that you actually care about, and a journey that we would all like to be part of, so it’s very exciting to see what is produced for the big screen based on what the book presents us with.

If there is one book I’m glad has been adapted to cinema, it has to be Douglas Adams’ ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy’ quite simply because it is brilliant. It’s written by someone who clearly loved sci fi enough to spot it’s weaknesses and take the mick out of them. There is a real sense of adventure but also a fantastic sense of humour, one that you have to think about to find what’s funny about it. The beautiful combination of science fiction and humour means the jokes are clever, they’re written by someone who was intellectual and carefully constructs jokes that are different. I consider Arthur Dent to one of the best, if not THE best characters of all time for the simple reason that he is so human. He’s comfortable in his own little life that’s clearly meaningless and insignificant but then is pushed head first into a completely different life of space travel and contacting aliens. He is a perfect representation of how human we can all be at times; sad in our pyjamas, drinking something that relaxes us on a day of the week we dislike for petty reasons. He links well to some of the key themes of the novel; sense of adventure, the idea of falling in love, but most importantly what it means to be human. He questions himself at times because his behaviour on occasion is different from what he would expect, which is precisely what we all do at times, and we only realise it when once it’s printed on to a page in black and white. The recent film adaptation wasn’t the best film ever made, but I don’t care; I really enjoyed it. Martin Freeman was perfectly cast as Arthur Dent, and with a script that very much mirrored the author’s vision, it’s a film that made it on to my list of favourite films, and one that is staying there for the foreseeable future.

I understand that making books in to films is very difficult, there’s the whole issue of the films not being able to include everything from the book, but it depends entirely on the book. People have always complained about the Harry Potter films saying that they left out huge sections and details from the books, but if the film makers added everything single detail to the films then they would be worse than they already are. It’s an unpopular opinion but I’m not a massive fan of the Harry Potter series, well at least the films anyway. However I can appreciate the ambition behind them and the film makers intentions where clearly in the right place.

The key element that separates any of the films/ books mentioned from Fifty Shades of Grey is the characters; they’re human. The ones in Fifty Shades of Grey are not human. And if they are then they are very poor examples of human beings, ones that shouldn’t be allowed to have screen presence. The connection to them isn’t something I want to feel, nor am I going to feel. Unless my values change and I suddenly feel the urge to watch characters that are essentially ignoring the idea of gender equality and throwing the audience back in to the 1950s. There’s so much wrong with the book I can only hope that the director is going to do something completely different with it. I agree with the good doctor Kermode; for a film fan there is nothing better than the surprise of something you thought was going to be bad actually turning out to be good. That is the extent of my optimism.

Some people will argue that the book is different. It is. Some people will argue that it’s artistic. It isn’t.

Some people already hold the view that it’s not possible to make an artistic film based on sex without it being sleazy. Clearly none of these people have seen ‘Boogie Nights’.