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FIVE AUTHORS WEIGH IN ON THE BOOK-TO-SCREEN DEBATE

To be, or not to be?

17.07.2020

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There’s nothing quite like the feeling of losing time to a shit film based on a brilliant book. The book you could not put down, cancelled plans for, read aloud, knew your shelf would be lonely without, but lent to a friend anyway, because they had to read it. They just had to.

And then your worst fears – OK, maybe not worst, but – are confirmed when the screen version of your literary companion resembles a bad Hinge date, so much potential but ultimately falling short of your expectations. Why? Historically-speaking, this is usually down to a god-awful script, tragicomic casting, and a messy plot, totally divorced from the source material.

“You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll rewind to see Grant, Wise and Rickman's floppy fringes move in slo-mo”

Still. We all love the idea of our favourite stories getting a silver screen makeover. Some even feel tailor-made for cinematic adaptation. And there’s an excitement, a giddy pre-judgment, before watching it. TV and film studios understand this: The hype machine. Even if it ends up being actually crap, it doesn’t matter. Curiosity is a powerful drug - people will still watch it to find out.

That’s not to discount some utterly brilliant screen versions of late, from Little Fires Everywhere to The Invisible Man, alongside highly-anticipated offerings to bookmark later this year in the form of Shonda Rhimes’s Bridgerton (based on Julia Quinn's best-selling novels) and Sally Rooney’s adaptation of her novel Conversations with Friends (to fill that Normal People-shaped hole). So, what maketh a masterful book-to-screen adaptation? We asked five authors to weigh in, picking their favourites over the years…

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ELIZABETH DAY

Author of How to Fail, available to buy here and Failosophy (out in October 2020, available to pre-order here)

My favourite book-to-screen adaptation is currently Normal People. I think the central performances are incredible, the direction superb and the script understated in the most powerful way. It's an adaptation that brings the book even more to life and I love that it was faithful to the novel, while also expanding the themes in such an elegant way. Nothing much happens, and yet everything does because it explores John Updike's famous dictum that there is beauty in the mundane; that these everyday interactions are actually the most profound things, rather than car chases and alien invasions. Stream here.

I also thought David Nicholls's adaptation of the Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St Aubyn was superlative. Before that, I loved the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice and the Merchant Ivory adaptation of A Room With A View. All three of these examples were lushly filmed, respectful of the original material but with vivid performances that brought the books to a whole new audience. Basically, I think I like adaptations that are faithful to the book...which, as a novelist myself, is perhaps no big surprise! 

HARRIET WALKER

Author of The New Girl, published by Hodder, available to buy here.

Not only is Sense and Sensibility Jane Austen's most heart-rending - and wrenching - novel, the cast of Ang Lee's 1995 adaptation reads like a dream celebrity dinner party: Emma Thompson, Hugh Grant, Alan Rickman, Kate Winslet, Greg Wise - and more familiar faces in supporting roles than an episode of Game of Thrones. As a book, S&S tends to live in the shadow of Pride & Prejudice; it's more overtly political and, I think, rather more substantial in its emotional wallop for that. At its heart is the issue of income at a time when women of a certain class had neither schooling nor the opportunity to work, were reliant on either father or husband for money, and had to choose between love or stability in marriage. This is a story of exquisitely painful longing for both. Emma Thompson's own script handles Austen's words with all the wit and elan you'd expect. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll rewind to see Grant, Wise and Rickman's floppy fringes move in slo-mo. Stream here

ABI DARÈ

Author of The Girl With the Louding Voice, published by Sceptre, available to buy here.

I must have been about 15 when I spotted The Godfather on my mother’s bookshelf in our Lagos home. I grabbed it, wrapped the back with newspaper to hide the title (because I was forbidden from reading my mother’s novels) and found myself drawn into the world Mario Puzo had expertly created. The movie stuck closely to the book, with scenes that flew by and which captivated me. While the book added so much more depth and detail, the film was beautifully acted and the themes of family morality and the system of business integrity, the interlacing of good and evil, came together effortlessly. A masterful book and brilliant film. On the flip side, a movie adaptation which departed from the book a lot more than I expected, but which in no way diminished the rich experience I was expecting, was The Girl on A Train by Paula Hawkins. There were a lot of subtle and no-so subtle differences between both forms and I think that was why I enjoyed it, not just because the acting was brilliant, but also because it allowed me to relive that thrill I felt when I first read the blockbuster novel. Stream here

JACK ROOKE

Author of Cheer the F**K Up, published by Ebury Press, out July 30th (available to pre-order here)

Matilda is by far my favourite book-to-screen adaptation. The themes are so universal: friendship, kindness, greed, children being smarter than adults, control and agency, corruption, the ties of true family going beyond blood, magic. It's all in there. This Roald Dahl classic is written with such detail and innocence, yet so succinctly confronts the heaviest stuff. Every scene in the 1996 film adaptation, both narrated and directed by Danny DeVito as well as starring as Matilda's dad, in my mind is perfect. The visual effects for its time in the 1990s are also incredible, whenever Matilda is practising any magic. I particularly love the times where Matilda’s dad despises experts, 'clever people' or those with an education - it feels so pertinent in today’s political climate with men of that bigoted demeanour. It's almost quite cool to think how recently the whole world is finally listening to experts whom for the last few years, in this country at least, have been denied viability and mocked. So, I would really recommend giving the film a lockdown watch, whether you're seven or seventy-seven! Stream here.

LIBBY PAGE

Author of The 24-Hour Café, published by Orion, available to buy here.

I loved Brooklyn and discovered the film on Netflix, starring Saiorse Ronan. It was such a gem. The characters felt very true to my memories of the book and the whole spirit of the story and the characters felt perfectly captured. That's the most important thing to me about a book-to-screen adaptation; I don't mind if minor things change as long as the soul of the story is the same. Interestingly, Saiorse Ronan stars in two of my other favourite book adaptations: On Chesil Beach and Little Women, two other beautifully-made films based on books. Stream here

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