Thoughts on films adapted from books

I am SUCH a bad blogger! Just as I’d promised to try to post something at least once a week I go and leave it 28 days without a post! ARghhhhh! I’m useless.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about books that get made into films. There is no way I can cram all my thoughts on this into one reasonably-sized post, so I’m going to be as concise as possible, and mostly talk about all the YA books being made into films at the moment. Wish me luck!

I’ve found a pattern emerging with books I’ve been reading, specifically those branded by annoying marketing peeps as “Young Adult”. Either I see a trailer/hear about a new film being adapted from a book I keep meaning to read, or I read a book and then find out they’re adapting it for the big screen. It seems today that every YA novel ever written is being picked up by a studio and made into a film. It’s not hard to see why: look at the success of Harry Potter and the Twilight films. Last year The Hunger Games was the first instalment in what is sure to be another mega-money-making franchise and this year we have Beautiful Creatures, Warm Bodies, The Host and The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones and more to look forward to. There’s also Divergent (Veronica Roth) set for 2014, in which Kate Winslet has just been confirmed to star.

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That’s not all. The list of YA books which have supposedly been picked up by various different film studios over the last few years is enormous, and although not all of them will make it to the big screen, I’m sure some of them will. Here’s a few of them (some are in early development stages whilst some are still only rumoured):

  • Unwind by Neal Shusterman
  • Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor
  • Uglies by Scott Westerfield
  • The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness
  • A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness (not YA but still about vampires and witches!)
  • Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer
  • The Maze Runner by James Dashner

I have several thoughts on this growing trend. Firstly, is it good that so many YA books are being made into films? On one side it’s good because it means that these books are being read by a wider audience who might have otherwise steered clear of books labelled as Young Adult for whatever reason (embarrassment, snobbery, etc). And indeed, a lot of people I know have read The Hunger Games since it was made into a film. Also, there are so many great YA books around at the moment – the genre is bursting with life and imagination – and it’s great to see that this is being acknowledged.

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Next for the big screen?

However, I can’t help but feel cynical about it all and just see it as a lazy way for film studios to make easy money with a tried and tested formula. My main problem with this is a fear that the films won’t respect the books and will all be turned into the same formulaic entity with standard love triangles, baby-faced actors, same-y action sequences, poor casting and even poorer scripts. I have to admit I was a bit disappointed with Peeta’s casting in The Hunger Games, as I didn’t think he fit the description in the book (I somehow picture him as bigger and stronger – he’s meant to be really strong!). I’m also dubious about Jamie Campbell Bower playing Jace in The Mortal Instruments, as I pictured Jace as being somewhat broader and sexier (*cringes at how much I sound like a teenager*), I just didn’t picture him weedy, pale and a bit odd – sorry JCB, I’m sure you’ll be great in other roles but I’m not convinced about this one yet!

Does this make me sound fussy and looks-obsessed? Hmmmm. But it does lead me on to another thought about books being made into films. Does it ruin the magic? It’s been said before but I’ll say it again… Great books allow your imagination to run free, they let you picture the story in your mind in your own way. Film adaptations take this personal interpretation away and force someone else’s vision on you. This is inevitably different to your version of things and therefore makes it seem wrong in some way.

I mostly end up disappointed with films adapted from books I like for this reason. They never quite live up to expectations, even if they are excellent films. The trouble is, I can’t help but watch them. I know I’ll end up watching The Host when it comes out, and I’ll look forward to seeing it. I think I must crave disappointment.

Furthermore, I think the more I like a book the more disappointed I end up being with a film adaptation. I read all of The Lord Of The Rings but wasn’t too attached to it really (I think this is mostly down to the fact that I took a year to slog through it) and the films turned out to be amazing! Although that’s probably a bad example as the films are great and Peter Jackson kept so close to Tolkien’s vision. Ok another example: I liked Life of Pi but it wasn’t my favourite book ever, and I thought the film was great. Brilliant cinematography. On the other hand, I LOVE Harry Potter but am not too keen on the films (gasp!), and find Rupert Grint and Emma Watson to be especially irritating at times. Also, all the extra awful lines thrown in (Harry saying “I love magic” like an idiot in Goblet of Fire comes to mind) make me cringe. But I can’t really tell if I don’t enjoy adaptations from books I love because they are actually bad, or because I’m so attached to them I don’t tolerate any deviation from what I interpreted the book to be like.

One of the worst film adaptations of all time

One of the worst film adaptations of all time

So, I’m wondering how to avoid constant disappointment… should I give up on watching films adapted from books I like? Should I avoid seeing The Mortal Instruments later this year? I really like Cassandra Clare’s series and know I will likely end up disappointed for some reason. I know I’d be happier now if I’d missed Chris Weitz’s dreadful adaptation of Pullman’s Northern Lights (one of my favourite books). Or perhaps instead I should try to readjust my expectations a little – I can’t expect films to be just like the books are in my head! I should have known The Golden Compass was going to be less than great when I heard they’d changed the title for cinema audiences. I should probably try to treat book and film as two separate entities so as to avoid such bitter disappointment. Finally, maybe I should give up reading books that are about to be made into films! Although this would probably mean giving up all YA fiction altogether and concentrating solely on fiction which DEFINITELY won’t be made into films. Hmmm…Murakami it is then!

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An Irrational Rant about Cloud Atlas and the Use of Accents and Dialects in Books

I recently read Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, and whilst I thought it was an excellently written book, and I generally enjoyed it, I found the middle section a bit of a drag. After some consideration I’ve realised why. I simply don’t like it when authors write in an accent or dialect.

In fact, the more I thought about it, the more this realisation rang true, and I began to remember other examples. I have never really loved Wuthering Heights (gasp!). This is primarily because it was sold to me as a tragic, timeless romance and I discovered it to be a book full of pathetic, bitter and petty characters that don’t have a single redeeming quality between them. However, my dislike of the book was deepened by Joseph, the disagreeable servant who speaks in an unintelligible Yorkshire dialect throughout the whole novel. Also he’s miserable and irritating, and generally (in my opinion) superfluous to the plot, although I’m sure I once said how his character is an example of the hardened labouring classes of nineteenth-century rural Yorkshire or some such claptrap when I studied the book at school. My point is, any book that contains the below speech is just asking to be thrown at a wall in exasperation.

            We’s hae a Crahnr’s ‘quest enah, at ahr folks. One on ’em’s a’most getten his finger cut off wi’ hauding t’other froo’ sticking hisseln loike a cawlk. That’s maisterm yah knaw, ut’s soa up uh going tuh t’grand ‘sizes.

Back to Cloud Atlas. It isn’t half as bad as Wuthering Heights, but it still got to me a bit. The middle section is set an indeterminable amount of years in the future after the collapse of civilisation. The story is narrated by a man living on an island inhabited by several tribes who live without electricity, technology or any of the “Smart” of the “Old’uns”. It starts:

Old Georgie’s path an’ mine crossed more times’n I’m comfy mem’ryin, an’ after I’m died, no sayin’ what that fangy devil won’t try an’ do to me

Upon reading this first sentence my heart sank. Yes, I know it’s not that different to “normal” writing, and it’s definitely easier to understand than Joseph but I couldn’t bear the thought of a whole chunk of this novel being written like this. In my experience writing in an accent makes it awkward for the reader, constantly trying to sound out the words in their head, and it usually ends up ruining the flow of the prose.

It’s not that I don’t see where David Mitchell is coming from; it makes perfect sense to write the middle section like this as it is an oral account, not a written one, and therefore it wouldn’t make sense to be overly formal. I totally understand why he felt the need for a dialect. I also think it’s perfectly reasonable to imagine that countless years in the future after the collapse of civilisation language won’t be the same as it is now. Hell, I know that language is evolving every day and if my Victorian/Edwardian/until 10 years ago ancestors read this they would be horrified and perplexed by my informal, scatterbrained writing. I think it’s actually extremely clever of Mitchell to have written the book like this, with each section written believably in the language of its setting. The middle section is meant to be a narrated story, not a written journal or tale like the other sections, and as such it fits in with the rest of the book nicely. And the rest of the sections are also cleverly written. The proper and precise language of Adam Ewing’s Journal  in the nineteenth century seems entirely credible, as are the funny, flowery and verbose letters from the 1930s.

However, it’s not the language I have a problem with, it’s phonetic writing. Even though writing in an accent like this is the best way for Mitchell to convey that a) it’s an oral account and b) language has changed in this future setting, I still don’t like it. Phonetic writing slows the reader down because you have to translate the words in your head (internally you go, “oh I see, by “an'” he means “and”). I don’t really want to have to translate what I’m reading. In fact, if I wanted to do that, I’d have bought a book in Italian and spent a month trying to decipher it. What I really wanted was a novel written in my own language that I could lose myself in. It’s made even worse by the fact that English is the least phonetic language in the world (it feels like it anyway). We’re just not used to reading like this! We carefully learn how to spell and say every word properly when we’re really young and then we stick to it. Stubbornly.

I’m only picking on Cloud Atlas because it is fresh in my mind. Please understand that I thought that it was a great book, and the language thing was really only a minor irritation. I’m just using it as an example of a bigger issue I have had for years. I also had similar troubles with Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, and even though it was a good book, I struggled through it because of the phonetically written speech. I think that generally, I have a pretty good idea of what most accents sound like in English, and if an author was to write that a character spoke in a Scottish/Irish/German/Whatever accent I would be able to hear it in my mind all on my own, without any help from the author. Sometimes it feels like writers just like showing off.

So there you have it. I reeeeaally don’t like accents and dialects in writing. In my opinion they’re unnecessary and awkward to read. Rant over.

N.B. I allow only one exception: I don’t really mind Hagrid’s slight accent in the Harry Potter books as it’s very easy to understand, doesn’t interrupt the flow of the writing and accounts for such a small part of the series. But as a Potter geek I’m probably a bit biased.