Always a tricky one, isn’t it?  People who love books frequently love movies, but it doesn’t always work the other way around.  Filmmakers and studios know this, which is why movies of books so often disappoint their avid readers.  A novel is usually the work of an auteur, a tin-pot god whose every word is law.  Even in the hands of a cinematic auteur, film-making is a massively collaborative process, and very rarely is it the chief aim to painstakingly recreate the novel that only a tiny percentage of the producers’ target audience may have read.  The film of even the best book should be a completely different entity, if it’s to work in this entirely different medium.  Film is the ultimate ‘show, don’t tell’.  That’s why entire chapters are cut or compressed, characters are forgotten or amalgamated, and telling details and cherished dialogue either ignored or changed.  A film script isn’t a novel.

Now I’m one of the worst for complaining when things don’t go right, but occasionally they get it exactly right.

For example, I love Stephen King.  I’ve read just about everything more than once, seen most of the terrible film adaptations, and seen all the goodies, too, of course -  Shawshank, Green Mile, Mist (stand up and take a bow, Frank Darabont), Misery, and Stand By Me (Rob Reiner).  And then there’s The Shining, which is for me the clearest example of a talented filmmaker knowing how to make his movie better than the author of the source material could.

I’ve read that Mr King disapproved of the choice of Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance, on the grounds that the audience’s expectation was that Nicholson was crazy anyway, and so couldn’t be surprised or shocked when Torrance high-sided it.

I’d say that was shrewd casting by Kubrick, considering that everyone who went to see the film already knew what it was about, more or less, and therefore that ensuring the audience believed the actor playing the guy who was going to go crazy could actually deliver crazy, probably increased the box-office tremendously.

And then there’s the axe.  Jack and his axe, an iconic image that’s probably sold a hell of a lot of paperbacks for Mr King.  In the book, Torrance’s weapon of choice is actually a glorified croquet mallet – which I believe was faithfully reproduced in a painful remade-for-TV version some years later.  A croquet mallet...

The point is, in a book an author has time to explain the reasoning behind such a choice, and even make it work.  But film is shorthand, and a talented filmmaker like Kubrick knew that when a madman starts hacking his way through doors and trying to murder his nearest and dearest, he doesn’t – shouldn’t – reach for a crochet mallet.  In those circumstances, a madman reaches for an axe, and that’s all there is to it.


Anybody else out there who has any pet theories on book-to-film or film-to-book translations?

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Comment by Dana King on January 21, 2014 at 10:44am

They're two different story-telling media; they each have their own demands and conventions. A movie should make every effort to be true to the spirit of the book. How it does that is in the hands of the director, screenwriter, actors, and crew.

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