Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Translating Books into Film


Lots of novels are made into film every year, some successfully and some not so much. But the book industry definitely drives at getting novels into film because despite box-office numbers just having a book made into film seems to boost actual books sales at Barnes and Noble or Borders. So I suppose my question today is, what’s worthwhile about making a book into a film anyway?

I know plenty of you can probably think of a film off the top of your head where they remade a book you loved and then destroyed it onscreen. A pretty typical scenario it seems these days. But I think that there’s room to see both the pluses and minuses of translating a novel into film. On rare occasions, some films actually improve the book itself. For instance, Ernest Hemingway considered To Have and Have Not to be one of his worst books, but when Howard Hawks rewrote the plot and cast Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in the film he created a blockbuster on the silver screen. Another example, would be James Fenimore Coopers’ The Last of the Mohicans. An intriguing storyline, but nonetheless it can be torture to read through as the chapters drag on at times without purpose. But when made into film (particularly Daniel Day-Lewis’ version) it turned out to be a cinematic masterpiece. 

Of course, many good books have been ruined in film as well. Michael Crichton’s Lost World and Jeff Shaara’s Gods and Generals were both spectacular books, but when translated into film it was as though the directors hadn’t even read the novels in the first place. In fact, contemporary Postmodern literature actually seeks to write books that cannot be translated into film, just as abstract artists of the early twentieth century sought to create paintings that could not be mimicked by the advances in photography. Likewise, authors such as Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, and Salman Rushdie now write novels that emphasize the advantages of the written page, and purposely try to create a text that cannot be translated into film. At least not easily.

Honestly, I’m not sure I stand firmly on one side of this debate or the other. Which is better, to create books that purposely scorn filmmaking or to generate plotlines that apply to both the world of film and literature? It’s funny how a film can effect peoples’ perception of a book. Look at how many J.R.R. Tolkien books sell in the bookstores since the success of the Lord of the Rings films. I think Tolkien’s books were definitely good enough on their own, but I also love the movies. So where do you stand? Do books still have a secure place in the ever evolving world of cinema and film? Or do they have another destiny altogether?