Pensive Ponderings

Reflections on things that matter.

Movie Interpretations of Books: Why I Approve (Now)

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We’ve all done it.  The eye-rolling, deep-sighing cringe at the announcement that yet another one of our favorite books is to be made it a film.  That our beloved comic book hero, novel heroine, or childhood story is going to be attempted for the silver screen for a new audience, one that probably didn’t have the common decency to actually read the book first.  How dare they!  How dare the directors?  How dare the producers!  It’s just too much to be borne.  But…should it be?

James McAvoy, award-winning actor, has played in more than one film adaptation of a well beloved print icon, including the first Narnia film, the reboot of the X-men series and the quasi-biopic on the romantic life of authoress Jane Austen.  This rather astute young actor made an interesting observation in one interview discussing the “bastardized” nature of the Jane Austen film.  He said of the film “rather than a…documentary, it was more sort of a discussion on elements of her artistic soul and her work[1].”  This sentiment brings a whole new realm of understanding to the book-movie argument.  What if every film was taken, not as a video reproduction of its book, but as a discussion or commentary on that text?  What if the film were used as a sort of medium by which to explore the obvious and obscure themes of a text in a new way?

I have been playing with this idea since I went to see the movie Ender’s Game before having read the book.  I enjoyed the film, but when I read the book afterwards, I noticed that I could engage with the text on a completely different level.  Themes from the novel were amplified in the film in ways that the book could not have done.  Choices were made as to the age of the child, the pacing of the story, and how much information was withheld from the audience.  At almost every turn, the movie rewrote these elements, but why?  Some say that it is because 2-hour films cannot possibly contain all of the details of 400-page novels, but they shouldn’t have to anyway.  Film is a completely different storytelling medium.  Things that can be expounded upon over 50 or so pages must be communicated in ten minutes or less often times, so film directors find ways to contract story elements in order to preserve themes in the film.  So by necessity, a film becomes a commentary on its original story. But it’s the way these adjustments are made that reveals new ideas about the original book.  By playing with the methods by which these themes are preserved, the film itself becomes a new discussion on the essence of a particular work of literature.

This is why I have become a fan, not of all movies based on books, but on the journey from the book to the movie.  If I wanted the movie to be just like the book…I wouldn’t watch the movie.  We book-lovers all have sacred preservations of our ideals when it comes to our favorite books.  No actress is ever good enough to play Lizzy Bennett or Jane Eyre, and no actor is ever the right coloring or stature to play Alex Cross or Mr. Rochester.  Because in our minds exist the Platonic image of our heroes and heroines.  I am not suggesting we do away with our Platonic images.  I am suggesting we open our minds to other voices and their comments on our shared images.  The film is not a replacement, but a new friend who just finished the book and is dying to gush about her impression of it.  She may be wrong, in your mind, about the story, the characters, the reality of the novel in your opinion, but she’s there to talk about it with you, and that’s the fun of being a book-a-holic: having other obsessed friends to nerd-out with over the details and disagree with over the themes.  So I would encourage my Tolkienites, Austenites, and book-lovers of every sort, not to cringe when your favorite book goes to film.  Make a date with your new book-club buddy and look forward to a discussion rather than a translation.  Even if they screw up, you get something good out of it.  It’s so much more rewarding.


[1] McAvoyRusSub. “Times Talks.” Youtube.com, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aGuBNw5hLvw&feature=youtu.be.

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2 comments on “Movie Interpretations of Books: Why I Approve (Now)

  1. Bethany
    February 11, 2014

    For me, it’s not really about whether the movie is the same or different, but rather that the spirit of the book is there, and that the book is respected. A positive example is Hunger Games, which, while not exactly like the book, knows what the book intended and showed that. A negative example is the Hobbit, where Jackson changed things for no reason, essentially creating a fanfiction.

    • content2b
      February 11, 2014

      I can agree. Another negative example would be the second and third Narnia films. I think what makes things like that so infuriating is that some of the changes are made arbitrarily. I enjoy a good fanfiction occasionally, especially the ones that still let you think about the original story, but there is the unfortunate reality of the obnoxious distracting changes that contributes no useful conversation about the story itself…I guess my point is that the “conversation” is worth the risk of finding out that the director/producer is or is not a competent part of the book community.

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