Are adaptations of novels destined to failure?

'To adapt a loved book wrong is to cast a dampener on everything'

The translator’s task is an oft-lamented one. How to convey the beauty, the subtlety, and still remain faithful? Perhaps one is doomed. To quote Umberto Eco, ‘translation is the art of failure’. Well, at least they have each other; less reflected upon, yet an equally tricky tightrope to walk, is that of a film director, in adapting a novel. Do you remain faithful, and have a novel’s natural storyline, so different, cause the film to flounder? Or do you stray, and risk incurring the wrath of millions, or, worse, get it wrong and embarrass yourself?  

To adapt a loved book wrong is to cast a dampener on everything. The Golden Compass, a.k.a Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights, springs to mind; it was a CGI-suffocated travesty of a book treasured for its mystery and intangibility. Percy Jackson too; less a classic but still the jealously guarded love of thousands of fangirls, disgusted at the half-heartedness of the adaptation. Yet other films will never lend themselves to it; The Catcher In The Rye is held back by Salinger’s insistence that if he could not play Holden, no one would, but perhaps that is a good thing – it is hard to imagine it being done well, so dependent is the novel on his monologue. The Great Gatsby, as well, has been tried many times, and the 2013 version with Leonardo DiCaprio is not a total embarrassment – but nor is it F Scott Fitzgerald on the screen.   

And this brings us to the central point; to have F Scott Fitzgerald on the screen one needs an F Scott Fitzgerald of the screen. One cannot just dutifully set up any scene as described in the book and call ‘action’; it requires an auteur, perhaps, to give the story new meaning in its new medium by transforming it completely.   

Jane Austen adaptations work well as an example of this. Many are somewhat derided - the number of conversations I have had insulting the 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice does not bear thinking on. But, as my own hypothesis goes, the 90s versions are without fail successes, for various reasons. 1995’s Pride and Prejudice, an unequivocal blessing to our lives, had the distinct advantage of a) Colin Firth and b) being a TV series, giving the creators countless hours over which to draw the story, instead of hurriedly cutting it to blockbuster length, as every film adaptation apart from Gone With The Wind (and even four hours was the cut version; it’s a really long book) has had to do. Sense and Sensibility, also 1995, despite being very faithful to the book in spirit, had a highly artistic director in Ang Lee, as well as a cast which included every British thespian of note. His creative vision aligned perfectly with Austen’s, to create a film which was to watch as the novel was to read, which is quite the achievement. Both adaptations are ones for the ages. And yet, among scholars and teenagers alike, the adaption that stands out is neither of these. It is Clueless, the high school film following Cher Horowitz in her various antics. Half the people I spoke to didn’t even realise it was Emma, updated for a brand new audience, and utterly delightful. It was a total departure from everything except the (very) loose storyline and the sheer spirit of the novel; of rolling your eyes at the heroine’s ‘clueless’ schemes and snobbery, and yet somehow rooting for her. To end up with her...step-brother? Whatever, as Cher herself might say!  

Departures are a risk. For every Clueless, there is a From Prada to Nada (Sense and Sensibility, if you couldn’t tell, and 21% on Rotten Tomatoes). Yet it is in this way that the truly remarkable films come about, with a second visionary taking the reins – Amy Heckering for Clueless, or James Ivory for A Room with a View, my other personal favourite adaptation, which switches the dense introspection of E. M. Forster’s novel for silence and Puccini and somehow ends up with a similar artwork. And it truly is one. And somehow this has become a list of film recommendations – but that in itself answers the question, doesn’t it?

Clemmie VI