‘The book is a film that takes place in the mind of the reader. That’s why we go to movies and say, “Oh, the book is better.”’ Paulo Coelho.
We are all familiar with the tired cliché, ‘The movie was good, but the book was much better.’ If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a hundred times. There is a smidgen of scoffing pretension that goes with it. As in, I am well read, sophisticated, and I opine that the subtleties of the language can never be transposed adequately on to the silver screen. Movies are all right for transient, momentary thrills, but if you want to really get down to the nitty gritty, it simply has to be the written word. Reading between the lines, looking for hidden meanings, re-reading an entire sentence or paragraph, to gain a deeper understanding of what the author is trying to convey – none of this is possible when you’re at the cinema. I’ll grant you that if you’re watching a home movie, you can pause, rewind and start again, though it’s not quite the same thing. You’ll still hear the same lines, without discerning any change in the shaded nuances. Whereas with a book, the same descriptive sentence will trigger a different imagery for each individual reader.
Watching a movie is a collective process. At the cinema, all of us are viewing the same thing. This is true if you’re in a group at home, enjoying a DVD or the latest offering on Netflix. With a chilled beer, and a packet of crisps to keep you company. At times, it can even get a bit soporific. Flopped on your diwan, head thrown back over the cushions, you waft into a dreamy state. Next thing you know, your better half is upbraiding you. ‘I can’t follow the dialogue for your snoring.’ And your invariably weak riposte to that is, ‘I am not snoring, just closed my eyes because they were burning. Must have been a stray gnat or something. Ask me what Brad Pitt just said to Angelina Jolie, and I’ll repeat it verbatim.’ Nice try.
The consensus of literary opinion is that War and Peace was one of the longest, if not the longest book ever written. Rumour has it the author Leo Tolstoy was a fresh faced teenager when he started on this epic, hadn’t even thought about his first shave, and by the time he came to the last page and typed in ‘The End,’ he was a wizened old man with a flowing white beard, and the Russian priests readying themselves to read him his last rites. The story is apocryphal of course, but makes a telling point about the lengths, literally, to which Russian authors went to tell a story. The 1956 film adaptation of War and Peace, starring Henry Fonda and Audrey Hepburn, tested the audience’s patience for three and a half hours. The director must have thought since reading the book from cover to cover took him a year to complete, he must inflict some of the pain on his hapless audience. As P.G. Wodehouse famously complained, it takes nearly 400 pages of ploughing through a Russian novel before the first murder takes place in a remote petrol pump in an even more remote gulag! Posterity’s verdict on War and Peace, therefore, must be that it was touch and go as to which was more draining – the book or the movie.
Contrastingly, what about the shortest book ever written? According to experts, ‘The sex life of the British,’ if such a title exists, would qualify eminently. Again, the origin and veracity of this claim is shrouded in mystery. Thank God the British have the singular ability to laugh at themselves. It is instructive to quote from the Hungarian born, British émigré George Mikes’ satirical meditation on the British, How to be an Alien, in which the chapter entitled ‘Sex’ is disdainfully dismissed in a single, telling line – ‘Continental people have sex life; the English have hot-water bottles.’ Making a movie out of this is clearly precluded.
Notwithstanding Mikes’ caustic cynicism of the Briton’s sexual proclivities, or the lack of the same, in the world of British cinema, sex has been celebrated with gay (pun intended) abandon in such films as D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Women in Love, Fanny Hill, My Beautiful Launderette and for comic relief, the never ending, racy Carry On sagas. Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita enjoyed critical acclaim as a book, though subsequent cinematic adaptations received muted response. The point is made that, even in the subterranean world of erotica, the literary power of suggestion is more likely to arouse than humans on screen in fake orgiastic missionary positions.
Indian cinema has its own unique way of dealing with love, marriage and sex – strictly in that order. All our heroes and heroines need is a well composed, hummable song that traverses time, some frolicking amidst sand and snow, hills and valleys, a tree or two to prance around, the scene swiftly cutting to an outlandishly garish bridal bed, camera quickly panning to a hideous painting on the wall of two love birds precariously perched on a twig, the song finally culminating to reveal a bedecked cradle with the cherubic, gurgling infant wreathed in spittle. The alternative, less pleasant, scenario involves the heroine falling suddenly, unaccountably and violently sick, followed by fainting fits, and everyone in a bit of a tiswas. Until the good doctor is summoned, and with beaming smile, announces the impending patter of little feet. Joy reigns supreme. Unless of course, God forbid, the nauseous heroine happens to be unmarried. Tauba Tauba! For then, all hell breaks loose and the pitiable leading lady breaks into an insufferably mournful, self-pitying dirge. In Harry Belafonte’s calypso-inflected words, ‘Woe is me, shame and scandal in the family.’
Adducing the Indian cinema example does not enhance the case for books being superior to film adaptations, other than to say that even the best novels would suffer at the hands of most of our directors, barring some notable exceptions. No better example of the film not quite living up to the book exists than some of the delightful Wodehouse sagas captured on celluloid. Over the decades, there have been many versions of the Jeeves – Wooster and Blandings Castle imbroglios adapted for screen and television. Some of the finest actors have portrayed key roles with great aplomb, the most recent being Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie as Jeeves and Bertie Wooster respectively. In Stephen Fry’s eloquent words, ‘Wodehouse’s language lives and breathes in its written form. It oscillates privately between the page and the reader. The moment it is read out or interpreted, it is compromised.’ Here’s an outstanding example from the Master’s oeuvre of what Fry was driving at.
“‘Sir Jasper Finch-Farrowmere?’ said Wilfred. ‘ffinch-ffarromere,’ corrected the visitor, his sensitive ear detecting the capitals.’” By definition, this cannot be transferred on screen. A clear case of ‘book trumps film.’ It’s another matter altogether if you have not read the book, on which the movie is based. You are then blessed by ignorance and can enjoy the film for its own sake, without having to carry the baggage of being a part of ‘the original sin,’ like Adam and the Tree of Knowledge.
It is not as if the book has always held sway over the film adaptation. Take Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, a brilliantly crafted novel on the seamy underworld of the Mafia or Cosa Nostra. The world, however, will forever celebrate and remember Francis Ford Coppola’s screen adaptations of The Godfather trilogy. Movie pundits have routinely voted the first of the trilogy as the best film ever made in the history of cinema. With Marlon Brando, Al Pacino and ‘a cast of thousands’ taking this film to stratospheric heights, few can argue with popular public acclaim. Mario Puzo’s place under the sun, however, was not to be denied as he wrote the screenplay for the film as well. The Godfather’s clutch of Academy Awards bears permanent testimony to its exalted status. Adding a dash of controversy, Brando boycotted the Oscars ceremony to receive the Best Actor award, in sympathy with what he felt was the ‘mistreatment of Native American Indians.’ But that’s another story.
While I have elaborated on a few examples to underscore my point of books being cinematically adapted with varying degrees of success or failure, we must pay homage to some magnificent honourable mentions in this genre. Dickens’ Great Expectations and Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago were sumptuously directed by David Lean. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird provided Gregory Peck with an Oscar. Anthony Hopkins’ standout performances shone through in Thomas Harris’ noir, The Silence of the Lambs and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day. And you ignore Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind at your own peril – the book and the movie vying for equal encomiums. Clark Gable’s ‘Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn,’ may arguably be the most famous throwaway line ever uttered in movie history. As the master of horror fiction Stephen King says, ‘Books and movies are like apples and oranges. They both are fruit, but taste completely different.’
In conclusion, what I have shared is little more than a soupçon of the best and brightest that the wonderful world of books and the cinema offers us. So which takes pride of place – the book or the film? Or their convergence? You be the judge.
This article first appeared on Spark online magazine.