Monday, February 13, 2023

To Be or Not to Be Truthful to the Author

 Q Why do you think so few beloved books become equally beloved films? Do you have a personal list of exceptions?

-from Susan


Great question, and one that I think about whenever the air goes out of a hopeful balloon of anticipation. I read and hear stories of contemporary authors who are crushed or furious when the dream they had of seeing their novel turned into a movie or series turns out to be something else entirely. 


We all know some of the authors who’ve made that transition successfully: Harlan Coben, Craig Johnson, Janet Evanovich, Lee Child, Michael Connolly, Liane Moriarty, Elizabeth George…The list is impressive. Even when the results aren’t quite what the author envisioned (think Tom Cruise as Reacher), they can say, as he supposedly did, that he was crying all the way to the bank. Or, if the author is pissed enough, as Louise Penny was at the first adaptation of her Three Pines mysteries, buy back the f*king rights and insist on a complete re-do. 

                                                            Robert Taylor as Craig Johnson's hero, Walt Longmire


But what about viewers who read the book first and choke on their popcorn seeing a five-foot seven actor pretending with all his might to act six-foot four? And, even when a screen writer, director and actor get it right, we can still be left feeling let down. Why is that?


I will say, without shame, that I am a fan of Jane Austen’s small catalog of novels, as she wrote them. I do not need to see them “refreshed” for 21st century tastes, re-made as cloying, contemporary romances, or abridged with important characters left out. Occasionally, a contemporary actor will nail a performance embedded in one of these wishy-washy edits, witness Bill Nighy as Mr. Woodhouse, the hypochondriac father, in the 2020 version of Emma.

More often than not, though, these leave me cold because I see, hear, and have my own perceptions of Austen’s character painting, and her fine-tuned ear for human frailty, and my imagination is my own, distinct from anyone else’s. The closest any film has come to being a Yes! For me is the 1995 film of Persuasion with Amanda Root and Ciarán Hinds, in which Sophie Thompson almost stole the entire show with her hilarious portrayal of one of Austen’s slyest satires, the narcissistic hypochondriac Mary Musgrove. That film might have been cast and directed by Austen herself. Emma Thompson’s adaptation of Sense and Sensibility had its fine moments too. 

                        Amanda Root and Ciarán Hinds as Elizabeth and Captain Wentworth in Persuasion
                    Emma Thompson and Kate Winslett in Thomson's film version of Sense and Sensibility

The core answer to the question is two-fold: Readers inhabit the worlds created by good novelists and we prefer our worlds, thank you; and too many screen versions are deliberately dumbed down, spun around, and distorted in the belief that they will fit the marketing and sales departments’ mandates to make the most money by catering to the lowest common denominator viewer. I say, bah humbug! (I bet Catriona has a much more colorful Scottish phrase she could insert.)

1 comment:

Catriona McPherson said...

I hope we can still be friends after I say I think Emma Thompson improved Sense and Sensibility. For me, Margaret had a purpose in the film that she lacked in the book (beyond being another mouth to feed).