I was just browsing the TV tonight, and stumbled on a special edition of the First Tuesday Book Club, talking about adapting books to films. I found myself trying very hard to participate in the panel, but somewhat frustrated that they didn't respond to what I was saying. So, I thought I'd write down some of my thoughts here about 5 of the books whose adaptations I've found interesting. I've done it in a roughly chronological order.
Perhaps one of my first experiences with adaptation was with what remains one of my favourite films, The Sweet Hereafter. I saw the film in my second year of university, and I have no hesitation in admitting that I teared up. Atom Egoyan's film is stark, and paints its characters so viscerally. After I'd seen the film, I chased up a copy of Russell Banks' book, from which it was made. I can only imagine that the task of adapting the book must have been extremely daunting. The book is atmospheric, very slow moving (as is the way of Russell Banks) as it tries to paint an impression of the community. Watching the film and liking it before reading the book makes it very hard to assess the adaptation objectively, but this was a fine book that I think was made into a better film, that did a great job of capturing the stark desperation of the town.
The next adaptation was another where I saw the film before reading the book. Mary Harron's American Psycho was a black, black comedy that I really enjoyed, and indeed bought on DVD. Years after I'd seen it, someone (I can't remember who) gave me a copy of the book, which I suspect was actually banned in Queensland at the time (and may still be). I read it slowly, and have to say that I didn't care for it. I found that the book really belaboured the stylistic elements that were its signature, and that I had liked in the film. The lasting impression that I gained was the whoever adapted the book to film did a great job of summarizing the stylistic elements of the book to a point where they didn't grate.
The third adaptation was the first in this list where I read the book before seeing the film. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas remains one of my favourite books - its first chapter might be the best first chapter ever written - and surely loomed as an enormous task for adaptation, with its extravagant writing style and madcap storylines. Terry Gilliam might have been the perfect choice as director (one suspects that given his career since then he would no longer be given the opportunity), with his flare for style in telling unconventional stories. The film, which isn't a great film (in my opinion), does an admirable job of staying faithful to Thompson's book, in a way that works on the screen.
The Constant Gardener was a book that I read closely, and discussed with a number of friends who had read it at the same time. In this case I don't come to praise the film, but just to note the impact that having very recently read the book (I think I finished the book the week before I saw the film in the cinema) had on my experience watching the film. I found myself thinking more about the choices that the adaptation made in adapting the story (which roams much too wide in the book to reproduced in a film), than immersing myself in the film in the way I normally would. That perspective forever changed my experience of that film, which I did nonetheless like a lot.
Perhaps the most disappointing adaptation (in keeping with the structure of the Jennifer Byrne show) for me was Watchmen. I read the graphic novel and greatly admired it as the best I'd seen of the genre, and was intrigued to see how it would be adapted to the screen. Visually, a graphic novel offers some advantages - it has already been made visual, for one. The parallel threads that had been used to build the story in the printed form were lost, as they had to be, and I missed that. More problematically, though, I think the director was much too faithful to the original story elements, and as a result made a film which was too long, in which too much happened, and that really failed to capture the essence of the book.