Book to Film Adaptations – Is This The Same Character?

Córa-Laine Moynihan

The film industry has been taken by storm by book adaptations in recent years, however, while many of these have succeeded, others remain forgettable.  Film genre after film genre has jumped on the book adaptation bandwagon and experimented with this creative inspiration. From teen-fiction, to taking on horror giants like Stephen King’s novels, the film industry has delved deep into written fiction to test its potential on screen.

Earlier this week, I spent my evening watching Pride and Prejudice (2005) for the umpteenth time as ‘further reading’ for my assessment. It was an entertaining film to watch; the classic regency era flair of it all satisfied my need to escape into the land of films, and it was a joy to once again watch Elizabeth Bennet and her family in their search for potential husbands. However, this time I struggled to stay immersed. Having now read the entirety of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, I was instead spotting elements of the it that had been omitted in the film’s narrative.

The ensemble cast of the novel had been demoted to background extras, with Miss Charlotte Lucas and Elizabeth’s Aunt and Uncle offering short cameos, and Elizabeth being given centre-stage to explore her conflicting feelings for Mr. Darcy.  As stylistic as the shot is, Keira Knightley’s Elizabeth spinning on her swing in somehow perfect twists wasn’t as engaging as reading about her relationships with her close friend and her Aunt.

Too many characters and storylines would have been too much for an audience to focus on

The demotion of characters and change in their personalities that occurs when converted to film, is an issue that is common in book to film adaptations, one that has been majorly highlighted in recent years.

In Pride and Prejudice, the main differences between the film and novel were occasional narrative events being removed and characters nudged out of the spotlight, but their characteristics remained fairly similar. This could simply be put down to the plot needing to suit the conventions of a film in the romance-drama genre. Too many characters and storylines would have been too much for an audience to focus on. So, how have other book adaptations managed in other genres?

I watched Mortal Engines a few months after it was released and was let down

In 2018 we saw the release of Mortal Engines, an adaptation of my childhood favourite book series by Philip Reeve. Based in a dystopian future where a ‘Sixty- Second War’ has ravaged the Earth, resources have become extremely scarce, forcing cities to adapt to survive.  The narrative follows a young historian, Tom Natsworthy, and an assassin, Hester Shaw, as they oppose corrupt government bodies and try to survive their deadly world. A pretty standard teen-dystopian novel. Yet, what drew me to get so attached to this series over the many other teen-dystopian novels out there, were its unconventional characters. The narrative was gripping and suspenseful at every turn, but it was the variety of morally-questionable and unique characters I met along the way that got me hooked. Hester Shaw was not a conventional heroine, and Tom was in no way the traditional hero. Then, the film changed that.

I watched Mortal Engines a few months after it was released and was let down. The setting and world that the film was set in was great! It mimicked Reeve’s creation closely and was believable. But the plot and characters vastly diverged from their originals.

Her deformity and its effects are what fuelled her revenge…Instead, the directors chose to take a riskless path and conform to the attractiveness of teen-genre heroines

Tom was reduced to love interest. His role in the film could have been removed and it would not have made a dent. Hester took his place as protagonist and embodied a feminist icon – she was strong, determined, and desired justice. What’s wrong with that? Nothing at all, but for a fan of the books, the Hester Shaw that readers first met was a terribly immoral person – her main motivation in life was revenge. Questionably, this is what drew me to her. She was no Katniss (The Hunger Games), or Tris (Divergent) – she was this emotionally damaged and ruthless young woman. Oh, and horribly disfigured. She was recognised as disformed – with only one functioning eye, a crushed nose, and a scar trailing across her entire face. Her film counterpart had a clean scar across her mouth and cheek but remained attractive, like many other heroines of the genre. The reasoning behind this was because the directors felt that her deformities would take the audience’s attentions away from the narrative and romance too much, as Peter Jackson (director), told EW:

“I think if you literally made the scar how it is in the book, you wouldn’t be able to watch the film with anything other than being totally distracted all the time by the scar.”

For the storyline and watchability of the film, this makes sense. How could you continue to watch a film when you cannot even look at its main character? Yet, this steals away from Hester’s attitude, her deformity and its effects are what fuelled her revenge, acting as a reminder for the horrors she faced. It was something that was essentially part of her in the novels. Instead, the directors chose to take a riskless path and conform to the attractiveness of teen-genre heroines.

Whether it is ignoring characters entirely or tweaking their attitudes, book-to-film adaptations still have a long road of improvements to take

Maybe Mortal Engines would have been better suited for the horror genre, where book adaptations have typically thrived.

Stephen King’s novels have been the favourites of horror readers for decades, and easily gained the same admiration when transferred into cinemas. In recent years we have seen positively-received adaptations of his novel It, but his best book-to-film adaptation remains The Shining (1980).

The plot follows Jack Torrence and his family as they move into a remote, haunted hotel, and soon face paranormal and frightening events. King’s writing is terrifying in its own way, keeping you trapped in his descriptions of conflict and unwilling to put the book down. The film adaptation more so. I rarely put my pillow down.  Fans really enjoyed the film, especially its realistic portrayal of Jack’s descent into madness. The film is one of the highest rated horrors of all time, receiving an 8.4 from IMDb.

Could this be considered a successful book adaptation?

Stephen King begs to differ.

Speaking to The Paris Review in 2006, King shared his dislike for Kubrick’s adaptation, saying he found it “Too cold. No sense of emotional investment in the family whatsoever on his part. I felt that the treatment of Shelley Duvall as Wendy—I mean, talk about insulting to women. She’s basically a scream machine. There’s no sense of her involvement in the family dynamic at all.”

It seems the trend of ignoring the characters’ book personas also crosses over into the horror genre, holding the adaptations back. The focus on Jack’s downward spiral left other characters forgotten in the writer’s room, and their on-screen portrayals lifeless and cliché. Who doesn’t love an always screaming woman during their scary movie marathons?

Whether it is ignoring characters entirely or tweaking their attitudes, book-to-film adaptations still have a long road of improvements to take. The plot of a novel can be played with, the setting created to represent whatever the director wishes, but the characters are what make or break these adaptations.

Will directors ever realise this?

Córa-Laine Moynihan

Featured image courtesy of  freestocks via Unsplash. Image use license found here. No changes made to this image.

In article trailers courtesy of Movieclips Classic Trailers and Universal Pictures and via YouTube.

In article image courtesy of theshiningofficial via Instagram. No changes made to this image.

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