It’s an age old predicament that cinema-goers and film fanatics regularly find themselves in: watch a film at the pictures, love it, wax lyrical about it to friends only to be rebuffed with statements of “you know that was based on a novel originally? You should read it, it’s so much better than the movie”.
But why is this the case? A number of reasons spring to mind, primarily the fact that while film adaptations of literature can be remarkable in their own right, they are still based on a novel or play, an original work, and consumers of art tend to value the original much more highly than any kind of reworking. This extends even to physical copies of art and not just the material itself – people have been known to pay ludicrous sums of money for first editions of their favourite novel, first pressings of a loved record, and so on.
Similarly, it seems there’s some kind of value attached to the effort you put in to actively consume the creative material. Naturally, it takes a much larger degree of commitment and time to read the 450 pages of The Shining than it does to simply sit and watch for two-and-a-half hours Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation.
However, I can’t help but question why these factors still persistently influence people’s opinions on books and their film adaptations. It can take but 15 minutes to fully examine a seminal portrait such as the Mona Lisa, much less than the 178-minute running time of The Godfather, and yet in general, the work found in art galleries still commands a “higher” status than films. Clearly, the connection between the effort needed to consume the piece of art and its status is not uniform across different mediums, so why is this the case for films and books?
Furthermore, taking an existing work and transforming it into a different medium for different (and often much larger) audiences is an art unto itself, not least because, in many circumstances, what a film director creates is an artwork so different that the film can stand alone in its own right.
Regard Danny Boyle’s 1996 adaptation of the Irvine Welsh classic heroin-addiction novel Trainspotting. The film spins an enthralling, exciting narrative, both complex in its intricacies and yet easy to follow. A viewer sees life, death, love, desperation and addiction played out across the relatively short 95-minute running time. Unique visual effects are abundant throughout, a particularly memorable one being the surreal disappearance of Renton, the film’s protagonist portrayed by Ewan McGregor, into “The Worst Toilet in Scotland”, swimming through a vast septic tank to retrieve precious morphine suppositories.
Such visuals cannot be communicated in anywhere near the same way in the novel. The story is more fractured due to its consistent flicking from one narrative perspective to another. It’s often hard to follow what’s going on. In other words, in the cinematic Trainspotting, Danny Boyle tells the story that Welsh does in the book. But he tells it better.
This is a single example, and by no means am I trying to say that all films are better or equal to works of literature. It can only be assessed on a case-by-case basis. But maybe it’s time to stop assuming that the novel is superior to the film. Remember, a picture paints a thousand words…