The Books Were Much Better?

     Many times, people will say that the movie was not as good as the book. However, I do not feel that the director or screenwriter is necessarily writing to compete with the book. Most movies adapted from classical works of literature are just that--adaptations. In the case of a well-known play or novel, the director would have some very large shoes to fill; creating a movie that would outshine the book.

     Many times, I think that adaptations exist to clarify, simplify, or convey only the main idea or theme of a work of literature. There are many people that may not understand this concept, and think that the director is doing an awful job of creating the movie. An example used in class was my all-time favorite movie, Gone with the Wind. When creating the movie, the screenwriters had to be careful not to cut very much when adapting the book to a movie. They knew that omitting just one critical scene or line would create an uproar among the general public. That is one of the reasons that the uncut version of the movie is about four hours long.

     This brings me to my first point. Adaptations may exist only to clarify a book or work of literature. The 1898 book The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James, I found extremely difficult to read. The setting jumped from the perspective of the person telling the story to the actual tale of Miles and Flora and all the gang at the manor tucked away from civilization in the English countryside. And the fact that in the book, one of the main characters had no name only added to the confusion. However, in 1961, the film The Innocents (directed by Jack Clayton), there were noticeable differences between the book and the screenplay. Clayton gave the governess a name, and it was easier to put the names with faces, as it is in almost all adaptations. Also, by being allowed to see what the creepy old mansion looked like and feel the scariness of encountering the ghost, we gain a better understanding of the reasons the governess, Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr), as she is called in the movie, went nuts. Also, the director used great cinematography and sound effects in making the viewer (or reader) see exactly what it was like for Miss Giddens, with her mind spinning with voices and images. The movie really helps bring some clarity to the idea behind the movie.

     Another reason that I feel that some film adaptations exist is to simplify a complicated story. The 1847 novel Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontė, was extremely long and involved. The film adaptation directed by William Wyler (1939) benefitted from not only the first use of adaptations (to clarify) but also became more exciting by simplifying the story by omitting a large section of the novel. Almost one-third of the book was left out of the film, and the main point was still conveyed. We still heard the story from the perspective of Ellen retelling it to the visitor. We still understand Heathcliff's prosecution as a child (Rex Downing) by Hindley Earnshaw. We see Heathcliff's revenge on Hindley (Hugh Williams) gaining control of Wuthering Heights through his gambling addiction. We still comprehend the longing of Heathcliff and Cathy (Merle Oberon) for each other, the hurt that Heathcliff feels when Catherine marries Edgar (David Niven). When Heathcliff marries Isabella (Geraldine Fitzgerald), we wince at the pain that Cathy endures. The main idea is still present without the extra generation of children from Hindley, Cathy, and Heathcliff. They do nothing but add names and characters to the jumble of people in the story. The book tended to lose my attention (a lot) by providing extraneous details and anecdotes. However, I found the film very engaging. I did not feel as if the story line dragged in any spot. The plot moved along nicely and steadily.

     The principle of clarity can also be applied to his story. Viewing the film, we are able to hear conversations and actions that were not really available for Ellen to know, like Cathy and Heathcliff's goings-on out on Penniston Crag. Conversations such as that helped the audience to better understand the emotions of the characters. These two elements had a profound effect on my understanding of the work.

     The final aspect that I think that adaptations are trying to convey is purely that of theme and main idea of a work. Adapting a book or work of literature to show only these two elements opens up many ways for the director to be creative. He or she can place the setting in the future, the present or leave it in the past. He or she can also allow the idea to transcend culture and social class. For example, William Shakespeare's classic love story Romeo and Juliet has been redone many times on stage and in film. It has taken the form of gang members in a New York City ghetto in West Side Story, directed in 1961 by Robert Wise. It was even redone in a future version a few years ago, in 1996, starring Claire Danes and Leonardo DeCaprio and directed by Baz Luhrmann. When the movie came out, critics had fits. Many people thought the movie was a joke. But if one watches it, one still is able to catch the underlying theme of "Star cross'd lovers" with the unfortunate folly of being sworn enemies.

     Adapting only the theme and main ideas also allows the director a lot of latitude in casting. For a very dramatic version, the director may want a very serious cast, but he or she can also use comical characters if he pleases, so long as the underlying idea is still there.

     These three purposes of film adaptations--clarity, simplification, and communication of theme or main idea--do not necessarily hold true for all works of literature. This is merely my understanding of films adapted from classical literature. In modern times, many books that were barely best sellers have been made into blockbuster films.

     So next time someone says, "The book was much better than the movie," one must evaluate whether the director was in fact intending to rival the book, or was he or she just putting his or her personal spin on the literary work?

Julie Hallemeier

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