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.
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.
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