The bookshelves have long been a treasure-trove for frustrated film directors and ambitious TV producers. Classic literary novels provide not only a proven story and strong characterisations but come with a ready-made fan base - one that will be just aching to see what their favourite characters look like on screen. How could the latest literary adaptation fail to dissapoint?
Quite easily, of course, and for the simplest of reasons. Anyone who has ever read A Passage to India, Wuthering Heights or the Lord of the Rings triology, has already formed their own unique vision of the book, and already knows the plot and the characters inside out. There is little more that a screen adaptation can offer - it can bring the characters to life and show you what they look like, but if you don't agree with the way that's done? Well, then it's just a great dissapointment.
And, of course, there are the changes. Even the best screen adaptations alter the orignal material in some way. Peripheral characters are removed; lines of dialogue are rewritten; romantic storylines are inserted; original endings are completely ignored etc etc? Not all of these changes are necessarily bad. In fact, sometimes they make for a better film. Peter Jackson's The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) for example, ignores several well-known characters from Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy, and changes dialogue and minor details all over the place. But it is still a very good film. Yes it is different from the book, but it is just as good - something that can't be said for the majority of screen adaptations.
Television can sometimes get things right. Without the pressure of forcing a long novel into a two-hour show piece, TV adaptations are usually truer to the original; and being shown on the small screen, the little details are attended to. Classic authors such as Austen and Dickens lend themselves well to serial adaptation when done properly. When not, the results can be painfully embarrassing for the dear reader.
Indeed sometimes, film and TV adaptations can improve upon the originals. Stephen King's short stories Stand by Me and Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption were both grim tales taken from an anthology which became fantastic films. Not having the length or the depth of a full-length novel seemed to benefit the filmmakers and was never going to upset hardened fans. The series of naval novels by CS Forester set in the Napoleonic wars appealed only to a certain type of reader, but the television adaptation of his Hornblower stories brought a new audience.
There is no hard and fast rule for books on the screen. If you know the book inside out, then you probably won't like the film. On the other hand, good adaptations can introduce you to a writer you hadn't noticed before. In my mind, the best adaptations keep the essence of the original and the style of the author. A Room with a View isn't the best literary adapation I've seen, nor my favourite film, but I believe it captures the essence of the book and something of Forster's intent.
It is all quite objective of course. We could argue for hours about the relative merits of different productions - it's all a bit of fun. But for me, that is where the movies will never equal the written word. Films and television are good entertainment, but can they ever equal the impression and inspiration that a truly good novel can provide?
My Top Five Screen Adaptations
Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen (BBC, 1995)
(This was the book for me. The spirit and tone were just right, the humour spot on. Being six hours meant the story didn't need to be condensed. Now the mother and father of all subsequent TV costume dramas.)
The Jewel in the Crown, by Paul Scott (Granada, 1984)
(26-parts long, adapted from four novels, this adaptation is spectacular. The characterisations are wonderful and the essence, if not everything, from the books is captured. Beautiful.)
Stand by Me, by Stephen King (Rob Reiner, 1986)
(A short story that made a wonderful film. In fact the film is probably better than the original. Proof that the system can work from time to time.)
Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, by JR Tolkien (Peter Jackson, 2001)
(An amazing achievement. Opens Tolkien's stories out to a new audience while redefining it for old friends. Doesn't depend on the book alone - worth seeing in it's own right.)
The Godfather, by Mario Puzo (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972)
(Does what all the best adaptations should do - the film makes the book better and the book makes the film better. Try reading the book after watching the film and not seeing Al Pacino as the face of Michael Corleone.)
My Top Five Screen Dissapointments
Captain Corellis Mandolin, by Louis de Bernieres (John Madden, 2001)
(Nicolas Cage as Antonio Corelli? No, no, no! Where was the comedy? Where did the politics go? Where did the ending go!?)
Little Women, by Lousia May Alcott (Gillian Armstrong, 1994)
(The film wasn't terrible and it looked just right, but they tried to condense two books into two hours and it was never going to work. Maybe if they'd stuck to just filming the first book they'd have had a lovely film, as it was, it was a dissapointment.)
Regeneration, by Pat Barker (Gillies MacKinnon, 1997)
(The film wasn't that bad - in fact the final scene has a chillingness that lingered long after the credits rolled - and the casting was very good (except for Johnny Lee Miller as Prior, a mistake). But, naturally, it wasn't a patch on the book. For a book with such strong dialogue, the verbal spats seemed curiously flat on screen and they skirted around some of the more interesting areas.)
Anne of Green Gables, by LM Montgomery (Kevin Sullivan, 1987)
(Like the film adaptation of Little Women, this Canadian mini-series looked just right but hit many a flat note. Changing not only plot, characters but also the period it was set in, the subsequent sequals were unsettling and unnecessary. The books are beautiful - leave them alone!)
The Far Pavilons, by MM Kaye (Peter Duffel, 1984)
(Another beautiful book, it was perhaps the enormous scope that failed to be captured on screen. Curiosly, this 6-part television-series might have worked better as a film, where majestic cinematography might have given it some of the mystic charm of the novel. That's if the lengthy plot could have been trimmed down of course. As a TV series it failed - mostly because the character of Ash, of whom one's interest in the story pivots, didn't seem half as interesting or layered as the written version.)