A Look At Life: From Book To Film

10th June 2011

Clare FInney

We were supposed to be some of the finest students of literature in the country. We’d aced our A-level and read every Penguin Classic going. We wrote poetry and took Ulysses to bed. So when Durham University’s student rag ran a survey of finalists’ most fanciable fictional chaps, one would have hoped we might have come up with something slightly more erudite than Mr Darcy.

Needless to say the rest of the shortlist followed a similar pattern: Robbie from Atonement, Aragorn from Lord of the Rings, Emily Brontë’s Heathcliff, Atticus Finch… reluctant as I was to accuse any fellow scholar of being swayed by cinema, the fact that every single one of these ‘literary’ heroes had been portrayed on screen by some of the tastiest celebrities in the pack was impossible to ignore.

It’s not that I object to the likes of James McAvoy and Colin Firth; I know a good thing when I see it. Devastatingly gorgeous as these actors are, though, it is a poor reflection on our literary tastes when such portrayals determine our appreciation of a fictional character.

In viewing the big – or small – screen adaptation of a novel, what we witness is the personal interpretation of a select few: the director, the scriptwriter and a few key actors. Such interpretations are inevitably defined by their respective upbringings, education and agenda. Yet amidst the sensuous combination of a good cast, powerful graphics and stirring soundtracks, this is easily forgotten.

Of course, you only have to hear Puccini in Room with a View or see the Harry Potter sequence to know that the addition of graphics and soundtracks is not always negative. Books are there to be interpreted, and, as visualisations go, an Oscar-winning film crew’s is possibly better than most. Yet our cultural and commercial veneration of the big screen does become a problem when the crucial distinction between a novel and its adaptation breaks down.

When one considers that it takes the average human being an estimated three seconds between meeting someone for the first time and forming an indelible impression of them, it is easy to see how watching a film can lead to a more superficial judgement – even when the ‘reality’ of the character is much more complex.

Reading, on the other hand, forces you to balance that person’s personality and inner motives as well as their looks – and, as this process of imaginative interpretation is more mental than physical, the visceral reaction incited by, say, Ralph Fiennes’ Heathcliff, is, in the book of Wuthering Heights, balanced out by the fact that ‘he took a grim pleasure, apparently, in exciting the aversion rather than the esteem of his few acquaintance.’

As the results of that small survey showed, in the public consciousness actor and character are synonymous. Yet film, by its very nature, is a reductive art form, limited by time, resources and intended audience. It’s not inferior, but to judge it by on the same rule as a book is bound to reflect badly on one or both.

In the preface to The Portrait of a Lady consummate novelist Henry James maintained that the most important scene was that in which Isabel Archer sits motionless in a chair – for hours. In the book, the moment is an arresting, stomach-churning symbol of confinement, indecision and helplessness. Put it onto a film reel, however, and you can bet your box office ratings that the scene will turn into a loo break – because while it may be a dab hand at externalities, it is no match for the novel in portraying the inner life.

Film v book is like the difference between a restaurant and a home cooked meal. The former looks (maybe even tastes) better. It requires a great deal less work. But if you want real gratification, and an emotional understanding that isn’t preassembled before it reaches you, then I strongly suggest that you get your hands on a copy of Jane Eyre. Come September, when the latest adaptation premiers here, we will no longer be able to tell the difference between Mr Rochester and former X-Man (and total heartthrob) Michael Fassbender…

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