Sometimes You Can Judge a Book By Its Film

     My senior year of high school we were assigned to do a research paper on a literary work we picked from a list given to us by my English teacher. To this day I am not sure why, but I chose Edith Wharton's 1920 The Age of Innocence. This would end up being my first serious comparison between literature and its film adaptation.

     During my senior year, we had on a regular basis viewed film versions of books we read. One example off hand was George Eliot's Silas Marner. However, when it came time for me to study and write about the lengthy The Age of Innocence, I found myself a little overwhelmed. The book was long and boring, for the most part, which made it hard in parts to get a full picture of the story. Then I rented the 1993 Martin Scorsese-directed version, and all my questions on the work were answered. From that point on I have made an effort to see the film version of every novel I read. Some adaptations have been better than others, but just about all have provided some service to me.

     When I think upon this semester, I can think of one novel/film combo which proved this a great deal to me--Henry James's 1898 The Turn of the Screw/Jack Clayton's 1961 The Innocents. Our readings of James this semester has made me a fan of his work, with both this novella and Washington Square, but I found his unique, sometimes convoluted writing style in The Turn of the Screw to be extremely difficult to understand at times. This is the stage where the film helped.

     The most obvious way the film helped me was by giving me a more understandable version of the story. No longer was it an odd ghost story which seemed to have gaps; it was now a full- fledged lot. It was far easier to understand the film version than the book.

     Second, were the characters. While it is easy when reading to develop an image of characters based on people one knows, it is far more difficult to craft original images of one's own in your mind. All the actors in the film were just as I had envisioned them, yet somehow unique. This brought a familiarity and an awe of something both to the film. The most striking actor was the one portraying Quint (Peter Wyngarde); he was handsome and yet somehow disturbing. There was an Anthony Perkins in Psycho quality to him. Nothing visibly was wrong with him, but through those eyes one could almost see the Devil.

     Third, was the setting/sets. In my opinion, a setting in a novel can be described for one hundred pages, but one still may not see what the author does. The house in the story is almost a character unto itself. Therefore, I was very pleased to see the set production was done well. The dark and light areas of the house, combined with its non-linear look and feel, gave it an almost organic quality as one of the characters. The film viewer almost could see the house breathing. This is a quality which can only be seen, and not described into words.

     All of these elements combined to create a great film of an already great novel. Could I have gone without seeing the film?--Yes, probably. However, my understanding of the book would not be nearly as complete or enjoyable. From Gone With the Wind to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, many great novels continue to make great films, and while they are at it, make the novels more understandable.

Justin Young

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