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The Book Was Better: The Great Gatsby, Lolita, & What It Takes to Adapt a Book into a Movie

June 14, 2012

A huge step of the life-cycle of a successful book is when it becomes a film.  The most compelling and popular stories will sooner-rather-than-later make it to the silver screen. Some of these adaptations (The Godfather for example) make great and important films.  Most of them make solid, entertaining films.

I’m not very versed in film criticism, but I believe the easiest way to test the success or failure of an adaptation from page to screen is the phrase, “the book was better.”  How many times do you hear this?  It’s been said about Harry Potter; it’s been said about the Watchmen; it’s been said about The Da Vinci Code, it’s been said about Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close.  It’s the general consensus that most adaptations, while good, fall short of their source.  The more famous the book is, the harder it is going to be to make an adaptation that can stand-alone from it, which means Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby might be somewhat doomed-from-the-start.  (At least by my standards.) So let me make something clear, I’m not accusing any of these films of being bad movies.  Some are, but the rest are usually good, well-made films.  The phrase “the book was better” does not mark an adaptations failure because it says anything about the quality of the movie, rather it marks the movie’s inability to stand on its own as a film, separated from the source material.

I realize that creating a film that outshines its source is a hard, and sometimes impossible, task.  But I also believe it is a filmmaker’s job goes beyond translator.  I charge filmmakers to make adaptations that, while not out-shining or disrespecting their sources, defy comparison.  When filmmakers choose to adapt books, they takes the power to tell story with their voices, their cameras, and their artistic spirits. The way a filmmaker decides to imbue his adaptation with his voice does not necessarily mean completely overhauling the plot, but usually a big change is necessary.  I think The Great Gatsby is one of those cases.

There are two reasons audiences usually like the books better.  The first is that it is impossible to fit an entire novel into two (or even three) hours and therefore, scenes are deleted, sub-plots are dropped, and favorite side-characters become unimportant extras, for
the simple reason that the movie cannot cover the same narrative space that the book does.  The second (and more affecting Gatsby) is, writing allows for internality that film cannot achieve without crushing levels of narration. How can you put something like,

“Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into aesthetic contemplation he neither understood or desired, face to face for the last time in history with something to commensurate to his capacity for wonder.”

onto a screen? You can have a time-lapse of the history of the continent all the way up to the building of Gatsby’s house while DiCaprio watches.  But how are you going to get a transitory enchanted moment where man must have held his breath?  And if you do, how are you going to get all of every moment like this visually represented?  The only answer is, you can’t.  There are parts of books that fundamentally can only exist in the written word, and if a filmmaker makes a movie that does not accomplish the same level of depth the book had without those untranslatable moments, the audience is left feeling the lack.  And if he tries to push all of them into the film, the audience will feel suffocated.

The best way to avoid both of these problems when attempting to adapt something as colossal as Gatsby, is to change the narrative of the film.  In his adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita in 1962, Stanley Kubrick did just that.  The tagline of film is, “How did Lolitathey ever make a movie of Lolita?”  This tagline says it all.  It pokes at the MPAA restrictions forced upon the film —Nabokov’s novel is so mature that the idea of translating the somehow sympathetic narrative of a murderer and pedophile onto the strictly regulated screen seemed impossible.  By addressing this, it also immediately calls out the idea of a book as impossible to adapt, and by phrasing the question in the past tense (“how did…?”) it immediately presumes that it has succeeded.  And Kubrick really did make a movie out of Lolita.

Kubrick’s Lolita is not a movie you can watch instead of doing your homework.  The film’s Wikipedia page has over 2,600 words dedicated to the differences between Kubrick’s film and Nabokov’s book.  One of the most interesting and biggest changing Kubrick made was vastly expanding the role of Quilty, the principal antagonist of the book.  When Kubrick read Lolita he said he could see “just beneath the surface of the story was this strong secondary narrative,” and his film is just as much an exploration of what he saw in Quilty as it is a retelling of Nobokov’s story.  Kubrick respects Nabokov’s novel, but does not let his reverence of the original work get in the way of his art.  I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say I liked the film better than the book, but it is bold, defies comparison, and, ultimately, gives us a new way to read the original story.

Will Luhrmann’s Gatsby do the same?  My guess is not. But I’ve only seen 2 minutes and 30 seconds of the same clips over and over.  What do you guys think?

Bonus Questions:

What’s your favorite movie adaptation of a book? (Hint: Mine’s The Godfather, followed by The Princess Bride, Lolita, and Clueless.)

What book are you dying to see adapted into a movie? (I’d love to see what a good director can do with something absurdist like The Eyre Affair.)

What book do you never want to see as a movie? (On The Road… and yes, I know.)

13 Comments leave one →
  1. Edward permalink
    June 14, 2012 11:19 am

    Great post, I would say the film adaptation of Girl with the Dragon tattoo was also a successful book to film translation

  2. June 14, 2012 12:39 pm

    My comment was waaaaaay to long, so I rewrote it. First shortened point: I agree with basically everything. Long point: something’s missing. That is the failure of audiences to do little more than begrudgingly accept the differences between film and literature in cases of adaptation, particularly when it’s a book that they enjoy. “The book was better” isn’t just a frequently heard comment, it is an expectation that fans of a book have when they see the movie.

    When one holds a piece of literature close to their heart, they generally know it fairly well. When they see it in theaters they already know the story, so when something deviates they notice. Since they love the book, this deviation is negatively reacted to because it goes against what they were expecting. While audiences enjoy being surprised, they also need for certain expectations that the movie has prepared them for to be met. It is possible to pull off not meeting those expectations, but very difficult. This is a big part of the reason fans of the book are critical of the movie. They have expectations that come from the book rather than from the movie.

    I think a great example of this is Fight Club because the one criticism people seem to have about the book compared to the movie is that the book ending is better. My people are a spoiler-free people, so I will try and do this without revealing too much. If you really need to know Wikipedia can tell you. One of the major plot points in Fight Club is it’s twist, which remains the same in both the book and movie. However, the two have different endings. The book’s ending echoes the events of the twist, while the movie’s ending echoes the theme of the work as a whole. Both are great endings, but more importantly, both are the perfect endings for their medium. If either the book or movie switched their endings to that of the other, it would have taken away from whichever had been changed.

    A different medium means different rules and as such, a viewer one needs to approach a different medium with different expectations. Intellectually, people know this, but they still have emotions and attachments that are hard to shake. The only way to objectively judge a movie is to try and put aside one’s emotional attachment to the source material and remove as many expectations as possible. This allows for one to judge a movie solely on its own merits as an independent work of art rather than tethering it to a set of expectations it will never meet.

    • jtrbsarah permalink*
      June 14, 2012 12:59 pm

      I think your comment agrees with me more than you might think. I wanted to address the fact that audiences will be more critical just because it’s someone else touching something they love. Yes, some people say, “the book was better” because they could never, ever appreciate the movie, but the thing about an adapted screenplay is that it’s part of its job to whether those audiences, and reach them anyway.

      A lot of people are critical of Kubrick’s Lolita (Nabokov himself was critical of Kubrick’s Lolita) for the same reasons they are critical of Fight Club. A lot of people won’t like Gatsby because they can’t remove themselves from the mindset of the book. But part of a filmmaker’s job is to remove you from the mindset of the book and force you into the mindset of the film. Yes, audiences need to put aside their emotional attachment, but you cannot demand that, and when a filmmaker decides to adapt of a screenplay, overcoming that is part of his job.

      It’s a hard task, and I don’t expect them to succeed, and I expect to like movies that don’t succeed at it, but I think it is, artistically, the task they take on.

      • Fey permalink
        June 14, 2012 2:16 pm

        Doesn’t surprise me that Nabokov didn’t like Lolita. This seems to be a theme. Stephen King wasn’t happy with The Shining either.

  3. Fey permalink
    June 14, 2012 2:15 pm

    Princess Bride is a great adaptation. The choice to replace the author reading the old manuscript with the grandfather reading a book was perfect. You got the same feel, and I really likable character that worked well with film.

    The Shining is another example of a Kubrick movie that is different from the book, but still really works.

    Other film adaptations I like: To Kill a Mockingbird, Grapes of Wrath, and on a more recent note, The Hunger Games– they did a great job of translating Katniss’s internal monologue exposition into game commentary.

    • jtrbsarah permalink*
      June 14, 2012 2:39 pm

      I totally agree on The Princess Bride. I would have used it in the article itself more, except that William Goldman made the screenplay for the film.

  4. Marge Cohen permalink
    June 14, 2012 2:24 pm

    If I’ve read a book and loved it, I refuse to see the movie. For example THE HELP – superb book. I understand the movie was good but I chose not to see it.

  5. Marge Cohen permalink
    June 14, 2012 2:25 pm

    What does my “comment awaiting moderation” mean?

    • jtrbsarah permalink*
      June 14, 2012 2:32 pm

      “Comment awaiting moderation” is just a way for WordPress to filter out spam. So if ANYONE comments and it says, “comment awaiting moderation” — hang tight, and I’ll approve you as soon as I get back on a computer! (After you’ve been approved once, all of your comments after are automatically unapproved.)

  6. Bonnie Bernal permalink
    June 14, 2012 9:29 pm

    It’s a tall order for a screenplay to be on par with its corresponding book. A book taps into our imaginations — WE create the visuals. Watching a movie is a much more passive act; our minds aren’t left visualizing when the visuals are dancing across our movie screen.

    Great and thought provoking blog!

  7. June 14, 2012 9:34 pm

    I once again find myself agreeing with you wholeheartedly, and again, you address an often-neglected point that I myself have been making for years. One important thing that both filmmakers and audiences alike seem to forget is that films and books are radically different media. It is impossible to literally translate a book into a movie. The result of such an attempt is an incredible level of mediocrity and forgettable-ness such as what one finds in the adaptation of Watchmen. A film adaptation of a book must make alterations, cuts, additions, in order to make the story work in such a different medium. The story simply cannot be told in the same way. Audiences forget that when they complain about the sidelining of their favorite characters, or the omission of their favorite scene. They don’t realize that it simply doesn’t work. Filmmakers forget this just as often, but such neglect is much more irritating. But you pretty much just said all that. So my conclusion is: you’re psychic, and you’re stealing ideas from my brain. Stop brain-plagiarizing me, Alpert!

  8. July 7, 2012 11:29 pm

    Here’s my long-overdue comment!

    I agree with you on almost every point. A filmmaker (using the term loosely, to apply to directors, writers, editors, even actors to a certain point) needs to adapt from the material intelligently, without sticking mindlessly to it. This is the number one most important rule for adaptations.

    However, I’d like to propose an alternate “test” for whether an adaptation is a failure or not: try imagining that the book didn’t exist. Can a person completely unfamiliar with the source material appreciate it fully? If not, then, at best, the adaptation is fanservice, at worst, something that nobody could possibly enjoy.

    More to the point, only someone who hasn’t read the source material can really judge an adaptation properly. If you read the original, then, whether you liked it or not, it has colored your perception of how the story should be told. Simply noticing a difference between the adaptation and the source material, even a change you prefer, distracts you as a viewer and takes you out of the experience, something toxic to the film medium.

    Sarah, you say that since films can’t convey moments of internality, a filmmaker should alter the plot to avoid these moments. Did you mean simply that the filmmaker shouldn’t attempt to represent these moments of internality directly (obviously not) or a set of more substantial changes?

    A general point that I think is interesting. Being an adaptation confers one main advantage and one main disadvantage. The advantage is that the story has already been proven to work in another medium. As we’ve already pointed out, storytelling is very different in separate mediums, but nevertheless, starting with a working framework rather than from scratch makes a huge difference.

    The disadvantage is that the existence of the original is a constant hinderance to the proper appreciation of the adaptation. Sometimes, a mediocre adaptation is adored by the fans because it finally allows them the privilege of seeing their favorite characters on the screen or is constructed in such a way that only a fan can understand it. Sometimes a great adaptation is received lukewarmly because it changed too much, even things that needed to be changed.

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