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Films Based on Books

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An old-style camera on an open book

Reading books and watching movies are wonderful and entertaining ways to spend free time. Settling in with a good work of literature makes full use of one's imagination; the author sets down the story and characters in ink, but it's up to the reader to colour in the details using the mind's eye. Motion pictures, on the other hand, show a story from the director's point of view while filling in all of the visuals and details. A few extremely challenging original films have been made; films that really make you work to understand the vision of the director and the movement of the story. Also, both mediums depend on either the author or the director/screenwriter to outline the story at hand while at the same time leaving the responsibility of conclusion (figuring out what it's 'all about') up to the reader or the viewer. However, it is relatively rare to find a motion picture that raises itself up to the level that literature affects us - more often than not it is the written word that fixes in the mind knowledge, imparts wisdom and sparks creative, independent thought.

This is why motion pictures based on books are so fascinating. This is the format where both mediums come into play - the author creating, outlining and detailing a story from which the director/ screenwriter draws out an image to present to the viewers. Moreover, we are seeing the director's interpretation of the book - all the details that we see in our minds and take with us while reading. Sometimes, given a poor story or simply just poor direction, the end result is disastrous. Sometimes, just sometimes, when you combine a wonderful piece of literature and an extremely talented and creative filmmaker, the end result is glorious. The book truly springs to life.

Translation from Book to Film

A director may choose to represent a book through film in several different ways. One way is to try to tell as much of the story, line for line, as it was originally told in ink on paper, adapting only in order to fit the unfortunate time-lines to which movies must conform.

Using the Author to Create a Near-exact Adaptation

In order to do this, the director may seek help from the author in creating the film's screenplay. A good example of this can be found in the film The Princess Bride. William Goldman wrote both the novel and the screenplay, and Rob Reiner directed the film. With the help of Mr Goldman, the original story was followed very closely, albeit leaving out several 'side stories' included in the original novel. With Mr Reiner's direction, the 'feel' of the book was brought to the screen in spades.

A more colourful example is that of Lolita. Vladimir Nabokov wrote the novel and the 1962 screenplay. Stanley Kubrick directed the 1962 film, while Adrian Lyne directed the 1997 film with a screenplay written by Stephen Schiff. The first filmed version of this novel utilized Nabokov himself as the screenwriter, an unprecedented move considering Nabokov had never wanted to publish Lolita in the first place. Surprisingly (or perhaps not, considering Nabokov's feelings toward his story) this version does not follow the story as closely as Adrian Lyne's version, although it is filmed and directed brilliantly. Adrian Lyne's adaptation is the novel set to life, and therefore the favourite of the many fans of the novel.

Yet another interesting example of a symbiosis between author and director is 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was based on the short story Sentinel, by Arthur C Clarke. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick wrote the screenplay together, and Kubrick directed the film. The screenplay was then later developed into a novel - a perfect example of what can happen when the two mediums intermingle.

Screenwriters Trying to Stay True

Other films rely solely on the talents of the screenwriter and the director for an accurate adaptation. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a film written and directed by Terry Gilliam, and based on a novel by Hunter S Thompson. The film is a near carbon copy of the novel, all the while drawing from Gilliam's bottomless reserve of creativity to bring this twisted and hilarious story to life.

Dune, was a film written and directed by David Lynch, and based on the novel by Frank Herbert. The film did great justice to the sprawling fantasy by Herbert. One of the ways that Lynch managed this was through voice-overs, enabling the viewers to hear the characters' thoughts much as you would read them in the novel. Nevertheless, many of the book's hardcore fans found the movie to be less than perfectly true to the novel, with some concepts added in and the ending substantially changed.

Slaughterhouse-Five is a novel by Kurt Vonnegut Jr that was turned into a film directed by George Roy Hill and written by Stephen Geller. The film accomplished the seemingly impossible task of depicting a man 'unstuck' in time, telling Vonnegut's story with an almost underscored simplicity that let the story tell itself.

The film The Shining was written by Stanley Kubrick and Dianne Johnson, directed by Kubrick, and based on the novel by Stephen King. The film holds very true to the novel while highlighting all of the disturbing images almost impossible to discern fully when reading. This is Kubrick's definitive stamp of direction, seen best in A Clockwork Orange, which was both written and directed by Kubrick, and based on the novel by Anthony Burgess. The film more than adequately tackles the task of depicting Burgess' despondent future world while bringing to the surface all of the author's jabs at politics and religion. Interestingly enough, Kubrick utilized the American version of the novel rather than the original British version, deleting Alex's eventual turn to morality in the final chapter of the book.

To Kill a Mockingbird is a novel by Harper Lee; the 1962 film version was written by Horton Foote and directed by Robert Mulligan. The film takes us right into the pit of the Depression years and the fight against racism - in the court and in the home - with all the grace and wit of Lee's novel.

The Director's View of the Book

Silence of the Lambs is a novel by Thomas Harris that was developed into a film written by Ted Hally and directed by Jonathan Demme. This film may be the quintessential example of a book made into a film; it won both the Academy and the Writers Guild of America awards for 'Best Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published in Another Medium' in 1991, and deservedly so. Other examples of this adaptation style can be seen in such films as One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest1 and All the President's Men2, which take as much as they can from the author's manuscript before transcribing upon it the director's vision.

The Book with Some Extra Bits Added in or Taken out

Some film adaptations may toy around a bit with the story, due to the length or content of the book, or just because the director feels like it. This creates an image that is very similar indeed to what one might have from reading the novel, but different enough to make the adaptation one that is original.

Bits Taken Out

Contact is a novel by Carl Sagan; the film was co-written by Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan and directed by Robert Zemeckis. This film is a good example of a situation in which the storyline needed to be condensed for the film; the film leaves out just enough of the background and side-stories found in the novel to make a person say, 'Wait... there's more to it than that!'. It does follow the main plot, though, and very well at that while painting a beautiful picture of Ellie's own contact.

The movie Trainspotting, written by John Hodge and directed by Danny Boyle, is an excellent adaptation of the novel by Irving Welsh. Where the novel follows each of the different characters in different chapters, each from their own unique point of view, the film focuses primarily on one character - Renton. Yet if there was anyway to put this book into motion, this film was the way to do it.

Some other examples of this style can be found in movies like Misery3 and Manhunter4. In each of these films you see enough of the original story to appreciate the artistic liberties that the director took in the filmed versions. The film and the book are the same, yet different. Sometimes different can be good.

Bits Added In

Finally, there are the motion pictures based on short stories and novellas. These may be the most fascinating examples of this theme, considering that they follow the opposite rule of film making - not to cut down the story due to time allowances, but to elaborate on a story to fill in time and space. Movies such as this include Blade Runner5, The Shawshank Redemption6 and Stand By Me7. In all of these films, the director not only had to glean knowledge from the original story, but also had to add in his own vision of the direction this story should take. Placed in the wrong hands this could easily be a disaster, but given the brilliant visions of very talented directors these films were great successes. Furthermore, it is a wonderful opportunity to look at a story differently than you ever have - through the eyes of someone who had the guts to say, 'Okay, I think I can do more with this'.

In the End

A great deal of respect is due to the people who have the vision to bring a work of art to life. Art almost always breeds criticism, yet this is compounded when you make one work of art from another - the motion picture from the book. Some may not like having their own, personal interpretations of literature influenced by someone else's insights or objectivity. But if you have an open enough mind to experience something wonderful through another person's eyes, these films are the way to go.

1The novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, was written by Ken Kesey; the film was written by Bo Goldman and Lawrence Hauben and directed by Milos Forman.2 The novel, All the President's Men, was written by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward; the film was written by William Goldman and directed by Alan J Pakula.3The novel Misery was written by Stephen King; the film was written by William Goldman and directed by Rob Reiner.4The novel, Red Dragon, was written by Thomas Harris; the film was written and directed by Michael Mann.5The movie Blade Runner was written by Hamptom Fancher, directed by Ridley Scott, and based on the book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Phillip K Dick.6The movie The Shawshank Redemption was based on the novella Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption by Stephen King; the film was written and directed by Frank Darabont.7This film Stand by Me was based on the short story The Body by Stephen King; the film was written by Raynold Gideon and directed by Rob Reiner.

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