An Adaptable Evening

Films adapated from novels usually take lumps from bibliophiles. Sometimes this criticism is unfair. The book does come first and becomes fixed in a certain way in the mind of each reader, mental pictures that cannot be recreated for each of them by one film. The novel is often an internal medium that is difficult to translate into pictures. A screenplay is also only about 120 pages long, which means that parts of longer books will always have to be left out. These are just a few of the reasons why adapting a novel into film is a tough, thankless business.

Regardless of your position on the subject (and I have to admit, I usually like the book better myself), adaptations make for a fabulous discussion and a marvelous theme for a monthly book group. I had the pleasure of attending one such group last night. Fifteen minutes in, a thunderstorm left us without power, but the lightning, rain, and hail didn’t distract us as we talked on into the darkening night.

Epics received mixed reviews. Ros loved Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s Italian epic The Leopard, but didn’t care for the film (which oddly features Burt Lancaster speaking Italian). Howard was surprised to find that he actually liked the film of Dr. Zhivago better than Pasternak’s classic novel. In this case, the visuals did a better job of transporting him and drawing out his emotions. Mary brought up Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films, which are remarkable in that they pleased even hardcore Tolkien fans, a group that may have had the most exacting expectations ever for an adaptation.

Carolyn had The Secret Garden, which spurred a debate about which of three film versions were the best. Everyone agreed however, that Frances Hodgson Burnett’s beloved book was best of all.

Tom had read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? which launched us into a heated discussion of whether or not Decker is a replicant in Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner. I had to share a related story about a remarkable Philip K. Dick robot (and artificial intelligence) that was used in trade shows. On a flight home, the head went missing and is still at large.

Norman had Richard Bradford’s beloved New Mexico coming-of-age story Red Sky at Morning. The 1971 film, which featured Richard “John Boy” Thomas, Desi Arnaz Jr., Richard Crenna, and Claire Bloom among others, is unfortunately not available in DVD.

Finally, I pulled out William Goldman’s The Princess Bride. The film is one of my all-time favorites (“As you wish”: I cry; “My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die”: priceless; Wallace Shawn and the poison: hilarious) but I like the book even more because of its clever framing story surrounding Goldman’s claims of adapting S. Morgenstern’s book and the delightful way in which he characterizes himself as a true jerk.

In addition to his novels, Goldman is an accomplished screenwriter. If you find the subject of adaptation interesting, cap your reading with his Adventures in the Screen Trade, or Which Lie Did I Tell?: More Adventures in the Screen Trade. His credits include Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Princess Bride, All the President’s Men, Misery, Marathon Man and Maverick. The books are fascinating both for the wisdom they impart about the screenwriter’s craft and behind the scenes stories of working with film greats like Newman, Redford and Olivier.

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About the Author:

Neil Hollands is an Adult Services Librarian at Williamsburg Regional Library in Virginia, where he specializes in readers’ advisory and collection development. He is the author of Read On . . . Fantasy Fiction (2007) and Fellowship in a Ring: a Guide for Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Groups (2009).

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