The Book Did It Better

With many book to film adaptations hitting our screens this year, Joyce Dignam takes a look at some adaptations that missed the mark

Film adaptations of books have always been a contentious issue. When our favourite books are adapted for the screen, we worry that our favourite scenes will be cut or that our favourite character will be cast in a way that you had not imagined. Recently, adaptations have been popular in Hollywood with films such as Little Women and Emma receiving wide acclaim but, still being under the scrutiny of beloved readers. Readers have all seen films where they had to stop themselves from screaming “this is not the way it was in the book!” at the screen, regardless of how good the film was in its own regard. In light of this, we must ask is it ever possible for a film adaptation to live up to the magic of the book? 

Narrative voice is an aspect of literature that arguably, cannot be adequately translated to the screen. Although films can have a narrator, allowing us to get an insight into the characters minds, we cannot delve into this mind as much as you can in a book. In Emma O’Donoghue’s Room, the story of a boy and his mother who have grown up in captivity is told through the narration of the five-year-old. The beauty of this story is the narration – how everything is described through the eyes of a five year old, and the reader has the ability to see how the world would be understood if you had never left a single room. This aspect of the story, which was so crucial to the text, falls short in the film. Readers of the book see the story entirely through one character, while film viewers are behind the fourth wall, watching everything unfold. This basic difference between film and literature means that narrative voice is something that will never live up to the books. As well as this, film is limited to time constraints and directors are often under pressure to constantly move the plot forward with action. Books have the time to spend pages of text within the mind of a character so in this sense, the limitations of the medium are against film and is often the reason why beloved scenes are cut.

Perhaps the appeal of reading is related to the ownership we have over characters and how we visualise the story itself. Unlike many other artforms, literature gives us free reign to picture characters and the story however we please. If this is the case, are film adaptations doomed from the start? In the 2017 adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, the infamous Hercule Poirot’s physical depiction came under great scrutiny. His famous moustache, which is described in the book as “upward-curled”, is comically large and in-elegant. Albeit a small detail, fans of the books were ready to dismiss the film altogether. It’s clear then, that small details mean a lot to readers when it comes to physical depictions of characters. Perhaps because readers themselves play a role in visualising the characters.

The commercialisation of adaptations means that often, the film doesn’t live up to the realism of the book. Frequently, characters who are described as fat or ugly in books are played by conventionally attractive actors in the film versions. A famous example of this is Hermione Granger, played by Emma Watson. Hermione is described in the Harry Potter series as having “lots of bushy brown hair and rather large front teeth”, but this is played down massively in the films and continues to be tamed throughout the series until Hermione’s film version is nothing like she is described in the books. Similarly, in Paula Hawkins The Girl on The Train, the protagonist Rachel is described as unattractive, “fat” and “heavyset”. But the role was played by Emily Blunt, an actress who is conventionally attractive and not fat. Readers often connect to characters in books because of their normality and relatability, but when Hollywood adaptations flip this to characters who are unlike everyday people, the stories can lose their relatability. 

When it is not possible to delve as deeply into our beloved characters in film as it is in books and with constraints and pressures of commercialisation in film, it’s  no surprise that film adaptations of books often let us down. Even in adaptations that are well-liked, they can never really capture the magic and imagination of a good book.