Thursday, July 18, 2019

From Page to Screen

We were talking about film adaptations of books before I decided to go on a digression about Trump's racism, it's a subject I'd like to return to.  We've already seen how the makers of the film version of World War Z by deciding to change the action from the retrospective narrative of the book, instead bringing the action into the present, ended up compromising the film's narrative structure. Their decision to try and retain the source novel's central narrative device of a UN investigator liking together the various historical reports of the zombie apocalypse, but to bring it all into the present and make this character an actor in these events rather than an observer of them, resulted in a poorly paced, disjointed and uneven narrative.  The obvious question which arises from this is why, if the structure of the book was considered so uncinematic, did the film makers buy the rights in the first place?  But, of course, the film rights of novels are optioned for all manner of reasons, none of them to do with their literary worth.  Hitchcock, famously, would often option novels on the basis of a single scene which appealed to him and set his cinematic imagination running, (this was certainly the case with his last completed film, Family Plot, based on Victor Canning's novel The Rainbird Pattern).  Sometimes a novel is optioned for purely legal reasons - it might have a plot or central idea sufficiently similar to a film project under development that a studio decides that it needs to protect itself from possible allegations of plagiarism.

More often than not, though, books get optioned simply because they had been best sellers and their titles have name recognition for potential audiences.  Whether they can be transformed into viable screenplays is another matter.  Sometimes, particularly when a novel uses narrative devices which don't translate neatly into film, substitute cinematic equivalents have to be found and plots and narratives restructured to provide the sort of linear narrative demanded by film.  Hence, the film adaptation  of James Ellroy's LA Confidential streamlines the novel's complex narrative, rearranging events (the film's climactic motel shoot out, for instance, comes at the beginning of the novel and involves different protagonists) and radically reducing the number of sub-plots, eliminating several of the book's major characters in the process.  That said, it is still recognisably the same story. 

An even more radical transformation from page to screen is in evidence in the film version of Len Deighton's The Ipcress File.  The original text, with its unnamed first person narrator, facsimile memos, elliptical plotting and chronicling of the bureaucratic minutiae of a government intelligence department, was never going to be ideal film fodder.  So the film adaptation simply dumped most of the detail, gave the lead character a name, instituted a linear, simplified, version of the novel's plot and wrote out several characters.  Some of the changes - the relocation of the book's overseas sequences in London, in much modified form - were dictated by budgetary restrictions.  The main character's suspicion of authority and generally anti-establishment attitude, conveyed via his first person narration in the novel, is instead communicated in the film by giving him a completely different back story and reducing his status within the intelligence organisation, replacing his well founded and reasoned scepticism with plain insolence.  Likewise, other complex characters, most notably Dalby and Ross, were considerably simplified, to make them more easily identifiable stereotypes.  Nevertheless, like LA Confidential, The Ipcress File is still identifiably the same story as the novel.  Just told differently, in a more cinematic fashion.

While both LA Confidential and The Ipcress File ultimately became commercially and critically successful films, both extremely well made and very stylish, there's no doubt that in both cases, compared to their source novels, they feel somewhat lightweight.  Although the extensive changes made during their transition from page to screen resulted in pacy, enjoyable films with excellent visual style, good story-telling and well staged action set-pieces, it also leaves them lacking a certain degree of substance.  Shorn of the serial killer sub-plot, involving the son of a Walt Disney-like figure, and the cover up involving senior LAPD officers, the conspiracy underlying the remaining plot lines in the film version of LA Confidential ultimately feels slightly lacking.  Moreover, the removal of the racial elements from the plot likewise deprive the film of much of the novel's political edge.  Similarly, the plot of the film adaptation of Ipcress File seems too obvious, with the real villain standing out a mile.  One of the pleasures of the novel was the way it succeeded in keeping its plot mechanics hidden from view, screened by a wealth of detail and incident, not all of it obviously linked to any plot development.  Also, by making Dalby such a martinet, quite unlike the cultured character of the book, the film telegraphs its villain too obviously.  It also makes the mistake of making his rival Ross an efficient, albeit obnoxious, intelligence operative, rather than the incompetent buffoon of the novel, thereby undermining some of the lead character's status as the smartest, most efficient, character, (despite his shambling appearance and demeanour, in the book at least).

But the fact is that literature and cinema are two completely different media - what works in one won't work in the other.  Moreover, audience expectations in the two are quite different.  The dense plotting and complex characterisations of novels like LA Confidential and The Ipcress File would simply be a turn off for the sort of mass audiences films must appeal to in order to enjoy financial success.  What the average cinema audience expects is a sleek visual experience,smoothly plotted and neatly packaged into a running time of two hours or less.  Which is what these two adaptations deliver, while still retaining the essence of their source material.  While those of us familiar with the source material might lament the simplifications necessary for their transition to the screen, most viewers will never have read the books and are only interested in being entertained in cinematic terms.  Long experience has taught me that one has to accept film adaptations and their source material to be separate entities, which have to be judged on their own merits rather than in comparison to each other.  The film versions of both LA Confidential and The Ipcress File succeed as movies by capturing something of the spirit of their sources without either attempting to slavishly ape them, or by fundamentally altering them.  Which is where, in my opinion, World War Z ran into trouble: it wanted to have its cake and eat it by retaining something of the source material's structure, while fundamentally altering its premise - the resulting fim never quite manages to reconcile these two aims.



Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home