Lights, Camera, Conversation… “Paper worlds, picture worlds”

With films adapted from books, it’s stressful when the movie version inside our heads, from the page, does not match the movie version on screen.

By the time you read this, Ang Lee’s Life of Pi would have been released, and I would have seen it and – who knows! – probably awarded it 3.14 stars. But as I write this, on a Monday morning, the film is still days away, and I look forward to it in a way I haven’t anticipated other recent book-to-film adaptations – for, after a long time, I will be seeing a novel-based movie without having read the novel. Except for the psychotropic images from the trailer – shipwreck! tiger! boy! – I know nothing about it. This is, of course, the best way to see a movie, without knowing anything about it, and while reading interviews and articles can colour your expectations a certain way, reading the book is far worse because we now have actual pictures that were formed inside our heads while reading. A fully formed “movie version” of the novel already exists in our minds, and seeing another person’s movie version can be quite stressful, requiring the reconciling of two very different inner worlds, ours and the director’s.

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It does happen, at times, that both these versions are remarkably similar. The movies of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest and To Kill a Mockingbird, for instance, turned out to be very similar to the enactments inside my head. One reason is surely that the casting was so right – Jack Nicholson was Randle McMurphy; Gregory Peck was Atticus Finch. And it helped that both films were transferred to screen with scrupulous respect for the source material. They weren’t reimagined for the screen, where the core was retained but filtered through a director’s vision. That’s not always a bad thing, for if this vision is overwhelming, it practically exorcises the ghosts of the “movie version” inside your head and makes your mind a blank slate – as was the case with Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet. (His forthcoming adaptation of The Great Gatsby looks equally overwhelming.) But very often, excessive tinkering around can result in a movie that resides in a no man’s land, where you cannot let go of your version, and the director isn’t able to convince you of his.

Special effects-based movies, for the most part, find it easier making the transition, especially when the novel is itself written like a movie, filled with “visual” set pieces that today’s technology can wondrously replicate. A novel like Jurassic Park exists not because of the humans in it but because of the dinosaurs, and it matters little if the character of Dr. Alan Grant, in your mind, resembles Sam Neill or not. As long as the actor playing the part is fairly invisible and doesn’t go all Dennis Hopper on us, it doesn’t really matter who he is. Books like those in the Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings series have slightly more involved character development – that’s why we gasp with delight when Sir Ian McKellen’s Gandalf is so right, exactly as we imaged him, which is also something we could say about Imelda Staunton’s Dolores Umbridge in the Harry Potter movies. But even in these adaptations, once the casting is taken care of (and despite the great movie-only pleasures the directors bring to the table), the rollercoaster plot takes care of the rest.

But when special-effects films are about more than just plot, it becomes a problem if you’ve read the book, which was the case with the recent Cloud Atlas adaptation. I had in my mind a free-floating sextet of lightly overlapping universes (corresponding to the six different settings of David Mitchell’s novel), but the film, instead of letting us settle into each setting by staying there for a while (as the novel did), keeps cutting between the various stories. This proved bothersome for me in two ways. One, there was a constant sense of disorientation, the very opposite of the book’s serene atmosphere. Nothing was allowed to linger and develop. It was like being whisked through a vacation itinerary by a totalitarian tour operator. And two, this cutting emphasised the parallels between the six stories, and thus ham-handedly literalised a metaphorical thread that stitched together the six sections of the novel. People who hadn’t read the book, of course, faced none of these problems.

Some people suggest that a movie should be seen only as a movie, and that your experience of the book should not figure into your experience of the movie. But I’ve never found this possible. How can you, short of lobotomising yourself, wipe your mind clean of images from a book? And the more the book holds us in thrall, the more deep-rooted the images. The reverse, unsurprisingly, seems easier. I saw The Godfather before I read The Godfather, and the movie’s images dictated how I “saw” Don Corleone in the book and how I visualised Michael’s first killing, and even the parts that didn’t make it to the movie were coloured by the same sombre browns and blacks. Movies are a visual medium, and a more aggressive medium than books – they don’t let us imagine things, and instead do the imagining for us. We cannot (and have no need to) switch off midway and form our own mental images. Maybe that’s why, with books, we treasure our visuals so much – because they’re our own, and at least until we watch the movie, we cannot be bullied into believing that the Corleone patriarch really looks like Marlon Brando.

Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here.

Copyright ©2012 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

21 thoughts on “Lights, Camera, Conversation… “Paper worlds, picture worlds”

  1. Amazing analysis….

    You are so right about the movies – One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest and To Kill a Mockingbird… But it is obvious that once you have read the book before seeing the movie you feel so much is missing in the movie… Someone who hasn’t read them may not realize it at all or sometimes will have hard time understanding the movie ( I had to explain instances of To kill a mockingbird to a friend of mine throughout the movie)!!! But both the movies were very satisfying.

    I hated to read Harry potter but I absolutely love the movies!!! But again Kite Runner failed to do it – at least for me…. Hope Life of Pie satisfies my mental images… Waiting for your review too!!!


  2. as usual you are spot on .you just stopped short of saying what i always thought.if you have liked a book after having read it,theres no way you would like the movie as much no matter WHO makes it.take any adaptation and put it to test.i repeat again,it can happen with a mediocre book but never with a classic or something that had you liked.


  3. As someone who havent a clue about tamil literature, the apparent zero adaptations of novels to movies in tamil cinema has always bewildered me. Is it because of some vague notion that the audience would not have the patience to sit through it and deem it “slow”? Is it because there are not enough material in tamil literature suitable to make a movie with? Or could it be that the directors just dont read any books? Because Mahendran is the only director that comes to my mind who consistently adapted novels, and that was some 40 odd years back.


  4. 3.14 stars = very clever! (If I believed in smileys, I might have inserted one here.)

    About “Jack Nicholson was Randle McMurphy” – I can think of at least one person who would disagree. Kirk Douglas. You know the story, right?


  5. When I’m imagining a book, the movie-frames in my head don’t have edges, in that the worlds are usually wide, expansive and teeming with possibilities right outside my point of view. Sorta like the Carlos Reygadas camera trick here

    So I’m usually glad when a film-maker can populate his frames with enough detail to make it look convincing. Apart from everything you’ve mentioned, of course. :D


  6. Godfather worked very well because Mario Puzo collaborated with Coppola. Otherwise in most book adaptations, you get to see the book from the director/scriptwriter’s viewpoint. I would say Godfather was the only movie where you can argue that it was better than the book. Of course this hypothesis has to be tested with people who read the book first. Suspect many of us in India have done the reverse like BR.

    Sonfogun, we had directors of earlier era who did adaptations. Mahendran for one, if I remember right with Uthiripookal. If you go further back, there will be more examples, I am sure. Recently, Azhagasamiyin Kuthirai is an adaptation of a short story. Thangar Bachan has shot his own novel into Ammavin kaipesi.

    I guess it boils down to how literate/eclectic our directors are. It is possible that the ones who are deeply into tamil literature don’t have the stature to convince producers to do adaptations. Lot of the contemporary or recent past (good quality) tamil literature is rural or mofussil centric. And the directors who can make the movie they want are urban types who are into only ‘english literature’. You can identify such directors from the amount of english dialogues they write in their films:-) Of course KV Anand has short circuited the process by roping in writers of popular (pulp?) fiction to collaborate on his scripts!


  7. In my comment on literary adaptations in tamil, forgot about the contribution of late Sujatha, the great novelist/essayist. One of his detective fiction stories was made into ‘Priya’ where Rajnikanth played a detective lawyer! And Sujatha also wrote Vikram as a serial novel specifically for Kamal, but as a movie it got butchered beyond imagination. And I would like to think that ‘Enthiran’ was somewhat inspired by Sujatha’s sci-fi novels.


  8. I’ve had similar experiences as well. A movie that I was sorely disappointed was “The day of the Jackal”. I had read the book first, quite early in my life probably 7th grade or so, and was blown away by it. Also, it was the first “big” book I had read and it had made a huge impression. When I watched the film, all the details that I was so intimate with, were missing. The movie seemed like an abridged version of the book. That was a lesson to me, on how it was impossible to fully capture all the intricacies in a book, within a 2 hour film.


  9. Fair warning (probably a bit too late now): THE BOOK DEALS WITH RELIGION. IN A SINCERE, NOT-SO-CYNICAL MANNER.

    Phew. Had to get that out. And the sincerity could be chafing at the worst of times… especially to an agnostic or atheist.


  10. Sonofgun/athreya: I was about to mention Sujatha, but athreya beat me to it. When people think “books,” they instantly think of high-minded literature like Jayakanthan (whose “Sila Nerangalil Sila Manidhargal” I wrote about here) — but there’s so much genre fiction out there that could make good time-pass films, and no one seems to look at that. And as the directors here insist on being screenwriters, at least they wouldn’t have to worry about plot and narrative thread too much. Another Sujatha adaptation that comes to mind is “Karayellaam Shenbagapoo”, aka the movie whose sole purpose in life is to serve as the receptacle for the fantabulous “Yeriyile elandha maram” :-)

    “Ammavin Kaipesi” BTW — good intentions, but such mediocre execution. If Thangar Bachan were half as much a filmmaker as he is a talker, he’d be a celluloid genius. And what horrifying music. From “Azhagi” and “Solla Marandha Kadhai” to this? The music managed the impossible — it made me yearn for Bhavatharini singing “Yedho onnu nenachirundhen.”

    Jabberwock: Well, I didn’t see the play, so… :-) As you can see, I have no soul-corroding angst about smileys :-)

    Nidhi: “the movie-frames in my head don’t have edges” – oh, lovely. That thought planted such a world of beauty inside my head. Thanks :-)

    Shankar: Oh, I thought that was a damn good movie :-)

    Aurora Vampiris: NOW you tell me!


  11. Funny. It’s been a while since I read LoP, but I interpreted the book, especially the ending, as a less than flattering take on faith/religion. Not sure how Martel intended it, but “sincere” is not how I would have described it. Then again, A.O. Scott voiced similar concerns about the movie, so I might be in the minority here.


  12. That’s one of the reasons film adaptations can be tricky for me. The very act of framing a scene is limiting, no?


  13. BR, your point on why directors should try adaptations is bang on. When directors insist on writing the ‘story’ themselves there are only so many original or interesting narratives they can come up with. When the credits roll , “Written & Directed by” sounds grand but even the best directors have struggled after a few movies. It might be a sacrilege but one of my pet peeves with Mani Ratnam is his insistence on ‘writing’ his own stories. Hence the need to mine the epics or depend on true stories/events, with diminishing returns.


  14. You’re right as far as Martel’s intent is concerned – the guy’s as agnostic as they come. But, Pi Patel’s intentions? Methinks Martel’s characters grew away from him. :D


  15. I don’t read much fiction, but I loved Patrick Susskind’s “Perfume,” and I refuse to see the film adaptation. I’ll eventually re-read it, and I don’t want the film’s images to intrude on my imagination.

    Are there any Indian film industries that adapt literature or plays into films regularly? In the past, Malayalam, Kannada, and Bengali films were often sourced from literature. I don’t know about now. Bala’s upcoming “Paradesi” was adapted from the Malayalam novel “Eriyum Thanal.”

    Being adapted from a novel doesn’t necessarily make a film good (see Nicholas Sparks) but it is an untapped well of source material for films.


  16. “But very often, excessive tinkering around can result in a movie that resides in a no man’s land, where you cannot let go of your version, and the director isn’t able to convince you of his.”

    I find this very true of the last 4 Harry Potter films (Order of Pheonix to Deathly Hallows part 2) all of which were directed by David Yates. Although he didn’t deviate too much from the plot, he deviated thematically from the theme which really jarred in the films precisely for the reason of what you wrote. Yates didn’t convince me of his version.


  17. “I’ll eventually re-read it, and I don’t want the film’s images to intrude on my imagination”

    Not even to see how the climactic mass orgy scene plays out?


  18. LoP will be one instance where I’ll look forward to the cine adaptation. Read the book, loved it overall, but beyond a certain point, the scenes on the raft dragged on and I started skimming portions of the text. When too few characters are stranded geographically in one place for too long , my attentions start to wander in books. I think seeing these scenes visually would add some much needed kinetic drive to the story that I found lacking in the book (especially if the superlative reviews of the movie’s special effects are true)


  19. Baddy, it’s a good movie but I was saying it from a book to movie adaptation perspective. It’s impossible to put in all of FF’s details into the movie. That said, i feel there’s another angle as well to it, both from a writers perspective as well as an audience. From a writers point, I feel many of the current authors don’t invest too much into the details as older ones. They don’t have to…since the world has changed, things are more connected, google helps with research etc. so they don’t need to lay the setup as much as older authors had to. That’s why I feel authors like FF invested so much into the details. Similarly, for the audience, our view was completely channeled by the words since we did not have the visual images to guide us, with no TV etc. so, if FF was detailing a corner block in France, there was a perceived visual in our minds which may not always translate well when you do watch it on film later. Nowadays it’s different since there is far greater exposure through media and people know far more than they did back then. I’m saying this purely from our growing up experience in India…


  20. Every time somebody does a motion picture adaptation of a stellar book the quality suffers. The try to bring a commercial element, demands of audience expectations etc and stray away from the crux. Godfather was the only, truly awesome adaptation of a gripping novel. It did full justice…
    On a diff note when mani ratnam came up with hs casting for ponniyin selvan, kalki must have stirred in his grave. Am I glad that project got shelved!


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