By February 22, 2010 2 Comments Read More →

Mal-Adapted

Books adapted into films are always a great choice for book groups, but three recent films are good reminders of how difficult it is to adapt great books to another media form. As I watched Shutter Island, The Lovely Bones, and The Blind Side, I couldn’t help but think that I would be enjoying myself more if I hadn’t read a book that told the same story better.

shutter-islandShutter Island was adapted from Dennis Lehane’s novel by no less a talent than Martin Scorsese. It’s the tale of a 1950s U.S. Marshal sent to a harbor island near Boston to investigate a disappearance at an institution for the criminally insane. Both the investigators and the institution have additional secrets that unspool in a twisty, atmospheric thriller. Scorsese and his actors do an adequate job of capturing the novel’s mood, but it’s still not as engrossing, as feverish as Lehane’s book. To keep the film a reasonable length, details are jettisoned that make the novel’s final twist (a real humdinger which I won’t even hint at here) seem both more believable, and conversely, more surprising and subject to interpretation.lovely-bones

Peter Jackson did well with one of the most difficult adaptations I’ve seen, the three Lord of the Rings films. So I was excited when I heard that Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens were making Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones. Sebold pulls off the amazing feat of making the rape and murder of a young girl into a buoyant, life-affirming tale. Jackson and his writing partners also find the bright spot of Susie Salmon’s negotiation of the afterlife, but their film floats away in these beautiful, surreal scenes. What gets lost is detail about those that Susie’s death leaves behind. The way they negotiate the years after her murder is a highlight of the book, a torturous but ultimately redemptive process. Again, the time limits of film can’t encompass this much detail. The survivors’ stories are told in shorthand to make room for scenes about the hunt for the killer and the ghost story, and ultimately a film that feels too long still misses most of what Sebold’s relatively short book contained.

blind-sideFinally, there’s The Blind Side, which in author Michael Lewis’s capable hands transcends the stereotypes of sports nonfiction. It’s the story of Michael Oher, a quiet giant of a boy from the rougher part of Memphis who is brought, by several coincidences, to a wealthy Christian prep school where his talent for football is discovered while he builds a complex relationship with the coach’s family. In particular, the coach’s wife becomes Mike’s advocate and defender, and that’s the role in which Sandra Bullock shines in the film adaptation that has been popular with both audiences and critics. It’s an entertaining underdog story on film with good performances, but it’s not nearly as complex as Lewis’s book. Lewis carefully explores the question of whether Tuohy family exploits Michael’s talent, intentionally or not, at the same time they take him in. It’s a complicated question that raises the book above the sports cliches that the film exploits. You won’t look at high school and college athletics in quite the same way after reading the book. The movie reduces this interesting subject into a sweet, easy-to-swallow candy.

Don’t let my negative film reviews stop you from taking on these adaptations in your book group. None of the films are utter disasters, and viewing them while reading the books from which they came will add depth to your discussion. But when all is said and done, these are three reminders of the subtle powers of good writing to tell stories that film can’t always capture.

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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).

2 Comments on "Mal-Adapted"

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  1. wmccully@phpl.info' Bill McCully says:

    Don’t forget to mention “The Ghost Writer,” the movie adapted by Robert Harris from his novel The Ghost. Haven’t seen the film yet, but the book was an excellent thriller.

  2. For more books that have been translated to film, whether successfully or not, see our March 15, 2010 post, “Oscar Loves to Read” at http://raknapsack.wordpress.com/2010/03/15/oscar-loves-to-read/

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