It’s not uncommon to feel a small pang of anxiety upon hearing that one of your favorite novels is soon to be adapted for the big screen. On one hand, the immortalization of your favorite stories is obviously very exciting. On the other, the movie could be a total flop, or worse, it could deconstruct and reinterpret the book in a way that strips it of its most effecting literary devices. Some books just aren’t meant for film adaptation, no matter how good they are; others have potential, but aren’t translated with the proper care and artistry, and then, on occasion, a movie will transcend the book from which it was inspired, using the medium of film to enhance the book’s best qualities.
In my experience, there’s no greater disappointment when it comes to film adaptation than when a childhood favorite is not done justice at the cinema. The books that stuck with me through my childhood and remain the stories that I return to again and again serve as a marker of that time in my life. Whenever one of those stories is to be translated for the big screen, anyone touched by the source material would hope that the filmmakers felt as strongly about the book as they did, and would do all in their power to bring it to life in a way that evokes the same emotions they experienced during that first reading.
In 2013, a film adaptation of Markus Zusak’s novel The Book Thief was released. While the book is written for and about children, the themes the text explores are quite dark, given that the book is set in Nazi Germany. Readers are constantly reminded of the war, death, and poverty that surround the protagonists. In fact, the narrator of The Book Thief is Death itself, who at times pulls back from the narrative and muses philosophically on death’s role in the lives of the characters. None of the darkness that made the book so affecting, the scrawled cartoons that haunted the pages of the original novel, and the heart–wrenching moral dialogue that made it such an incredible book for young readers were brought to the cinematic adaptation. This pained me.
Failing to preserve the tone of the source material was the fundamental flaw here. Books allow for long passages of philosophical discourse and can take breaks from narrative to paint tonal pictures across the landscape of a story. For a PG movie, The Book Thief simply wasn’t able to translate these devices. The Harry Potter franchise, one of the most successful book series adaptations of all time, was able to take on a darker tone as the series progressed. It is true that many of the fantastical details and intricate subplots adored by fans of the books were cut from the film adaptations, but their ability to preserve the feeling and intensity of the books made for a respectable batch of satisfying commercial successes.
One particularly remarkable adaptation of more recent memory is that of Andre Aciman’s 2007 novel Call Me by Your Name, whose film of the same name came to theaters last November. The reason this adaptation defied expectations is that it was able to translate a novel almost entirely composed of internal monologue and sculpt it into a two–hour film without narration. The director, Luca Guadagnino, and writer, James Ivory, were able to shape the film through meaningful, albeit limited, dialogue, and a particularly effective handling of atmosphere. For instance, the moodiness and unpredictability of the adolescent lead, whose angst was narrated in first person in the novel, was conveyed through facial expressions, bodily gestures, and a carefully chosen soundtrack.
In a book–to–movie adaptation, it isn’t necessarily how closely mirrored the details are across the two forms of storytelling that make the adaptation successful, but rather how the filmmakers used the unique qualities of cinema to rework a beloved story. There are some people who claim that no movie will ever be as good as the book off of which it was based, and perhaps this is true. However, using cinematic devices to achieve the same depth as conveyed through the written word is a feat that only the best adaptations are capable of, and one for which they should be recognized.