Roger’s blog … READ THE BOOK, SAW THE FILM…THE FILM WAS BETTER…
According to opinions, such a statement as this has only ever been made a handful of times. I have certainly never heard it, and possibly never will. Storytelling, in all its many forms, seems to require its own individual technique. Whether it be a film script, a short story, a novella, or a thousand-page tome, each requires its own means and methods, those means and methods inapplicable to the other forms of storytelling.
There appears to be mechanical reason why books cannot be successfully adapted into films. It has something to do with ‘losing the plot’. Apparently, a book delivers a scene of some significance to the plot every thousand words. Every three or four pages something happens that we need to know in order to understand what is happening, whether that be the introduction of a character, a plot twist, perhaps some dialogue of importance. That is not a concrete rule, of course. It is just something that seems to have naturally evolved though generations of storytelling. However, in the early days of Hollywood, it was discovered that if a viewer was presented with a film scene of significance more than once every three minutes, they would become a little overwhelmed; they would, literally, ‘lose the plot’. Hence, a film of some ninety or one hundred and twenty minutes can only deliver thirty or forty significant scenes. Do the maths. A book, somewhere over a hundred thousand words, possessive of a hundred scenes, now has to be collapsed into a film with only thirty or forty. We leave the cinema thinking, ‘What about the other wife?’ and ‘What on earth happened to the scene with the dog?’
A film script is based on a treatment, this written by a treatment writer. A treatment writer does not write screenplays, but condenses the book into what he or she considers are the most important thirty or forty scenes. Hence, a film is merely someone else’s perception of what they consider are the key elements of the story. As has been said, when a play is staged, the playwright has written one play, the director has directed a second, the actors have each acted a third, and the individual members of the audience then see a fourth. So it is with books. You and I and a hundred other people can each read the same book, and yet we are each reading a different book.
This is the fundamental reason why film adaptations don’t deliver the goods. They are someone else’s perception of what is important in a story.
Even Stephen King’s adaptations, these stories from the pen of perhaps the best-selling and most loved contemporary writer, seem to have worked so much better when they have come from short stories (‘Shawshank Redemption’, ‘Stand By Me’, even ‘The Green Mile’, which was originally published as a series of novellas, not a complete novel). Perhaps the exception is ‘The Shining’, but that is a Kubrick interpretation, and no-one can deny that Kubrick very definitely made it his own. King was famously very critical of the adaptation, saying that he was ‘deeply disappointed in the end result’. King went on to work with another director and created his own version of the film which aired on ABC in 1997.
Which brings me to the point of this piece…
I have – traditionally – shunned television series. I don’t watch television as a general rule. There is nothing that has ever really caught my attention. From 24 to Lost, from The Wire, Breaking Bad, Mad Men to Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead and Sons of Anarchy.
Nothing. Not interested. Not in any of it.
Until Boardwalk Empire came along. That was because of my son. He wanted to watch it, and convinced my wife to get he first series. He then proceeded to bombard me with texts, saying that I had to watch it, that it exactly the kind of thing I would enjoy, that I would really ‘get it’.
I watched the first series, then the second, then the third. Halfway through the second series I realized what they had done. Martin Scorsese and Terence Winter had taken the book by Nelson Johnson, and they had told the story at the pace of the book. They had used the book as inspiration, and they had taken time to give us the scenes they wanted us to see. They had time to let the plot unfold, to let the characters reveal themselves little by little, to actually tell us the story.
I have now just watched the first series of House of Cards, again based on a novel by Michael Dobbs, originally filmed as a four-part British series and aired in late 1990. Of course, the US version is very different, but it is based on a book, and the character arcs are given sufficient space to stretch their dialogic wings…and the story can be told.
I will not become a TV series junkie. I doubt I will ever watch Breaking Bad or Mad Men or Game of Thrones – I have barely enough time as it is. But this recent experience has definitely shown me something: that a great book can become a great TV series, and that – when given sufficient time so we don’t ‘lose the plot’ – HBO and other mainstream television companies, those possessive of sufficient funds to pull it off, can indeed challenge the long-held certainty that a film or TV adaptation will never hold a candle to the book.