Hollywood has always poached stories from the republic of letters (not to mention Broadway and, increasingly, Nick at Nite), and some of the greatest movies of all time have started out as novels. Still, this year seems notable for the number of literary adaptations coming to the screen (see our earlier post). It strikes me that movies made from books can disappoint in two ways: first, by hewing too closely to the source material, and, second, by venturing too far afield from it. Either way, one’s reading of a book can be spoiled by seeing a movie first. Instead of E.L. Doctorow’s Dutch Schulz, one sees… Dustin Hoffmann. And then one has to live with an ugly paperback edition of Billy Bathgate, whose cover is basically a movie poster.
The most successful adaptations, I think, take on a life of their own, using the source material as a springboard. And any time previews lead me to believe that one of these adaptations is in the offing, I try to read the book in a hurry, before heading to the theater.
My strategy has been paying handsome dividends lately. First, I bumped Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men to the head of the reading queue, and discovered one of my favorite books of all time. So much of what makes this novel great – its voice – seems unlikely to translate to the screen, and so I’ve elected to skip the recent movie version, starring Sean (no relation) Penn. Even if the DVD is on your Netflix queue… read this book first!
Less likely to stand the test of time, but still a wicked-fun read, was Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal. This book, too, was voice-driven, introducing me to the nasty wit and sly machinations of schoolmarm Barbara Covett. The movie version, with Dame Judi Dench in the Covett role, wisely eschews some of the book’s narrative elements, finding cinematic equivalents instead. Through a masterful Dench performance and some judicious voice-over, the movie manages to convey much of the ironic tenor of Barbara’s internal monologue, while giving us more insight into Cate Blanchett’s character than Heller does in the book. Still, I’d recommend the novel Notes on a Scandal to anyone looking for a literary page-turner.
This month’s Bookforum offers insight on yet another movie adaptation: that of Patrick Suskind’s Perfume. This bestselling German novel from the 80s features an antihero who relates to the world entirely through his olfactory glands, and would thus seem to be unfilmable. In their Bookforum interview, director Tom Tykwer and producer Bernd Eichinger discuss the difficulties of adaptation. “You cannot really put this novel into an existing structure for a film,” Eichinger says. “It’s not a genre movie, not a thriller, not a horror, not a love story. It’s truly bizarre and original.” Which is a fair description of Suskind’s novel, the story of an 18th-century murderer.