When books become films

Movie adaptations of beloved novels are common fodder in Hollywood, but Queen’s film professor says adaptations often do literature a disservice

Clarke Mackey, film department head, says many parts of a story can’t be successfully translated onto film.
Clarke Mackey, film department head, says many parts of a story can’t be successfully translated onto film.

If you’ve ever had to read a 700-page novel in a week packed with classes, work, extracurricular activities and the other niceties of university life, the thought of renting the tome’s film adaptation can be tempting.

But, although filmmakers have tried to adapt novels into films, there are major difficulties in trying to achieve a successful adaptation, said film professor Clarke Mackey. “It’s almost the worst possible combination of two things because they’re so different from each other,” he said. “It seems too obvious.”

Mackey said the imaginative work a film dealer does when approaching his particular medium varies greatly from a reader’s.

“In a novel, you’re told what the characters are thinking and you have to imagine what they look like and the world they live in,” he said. “When you watch a movie, you know what they look like, you know what the world is that they’re living in, but you have to imagine what they’re thinking.

“To somehow translate that story—a novel which is a form of literature that relates to the internal working of a human being to a place where all you see are people’s actions—is extremely difficult, and I don’t think it works very well most of the time.”

Only four of the winners for Best Picture at the Academy Awards over the last 20 years were adapted from novels, Mackey noted.

“The Academy Award winners that have been novels in the past twenty years have been Lord of the Rings, Out of Africa, The English Patient and Silence of the Lambs,” he said. “The rest of the movies are either original screenplays or they’re based on non-fiction.”

Mackey said adapting novels into films could also be problematic when trying to balance the inclusion of all the elements of a novel while keeping the running time of the film reasonable.

“It’s almost better to make [a] movie out of a short story because movies are usually 90 to 200 minutes long and a novel usually takes a few days to read because there’s a lot more detail,” he said.

Although there are a few exceptions, Mackey said he generally tells aspiring screenwriters not to adapt novels into films.

“I think it does a disservice to literature most of the time,” he said. “There are a few exceptions, but because film is such a specific medium with its own rules and [its] own way of communicating, I think it’s better for people to just start from scratch.”

As for deciding whether to read the novel or rent it’s film counterpart, Mackey said it comes down to a matter of personal preference.

“If you want to go into the inner mind of individual characters and find out how they feel inside of themselves and explore the inner life of people, a novel is a better form of storytelling,” he said. “If you want to observe actions from the outside, if you want to decode things and tell a story that’s a series of behaviors and actions that people do and you want to evoke a world that has a lot of visual detail, then a movie is the way to go.”

English Professor Molly Wallace said reading is good practice for the imagination, because the mind produces accompanying visual imagery.

“Books highlight language; films highlight the visual,” she said. “This is not to say that language isn’t important in film, but books force attentiveness to language.”

Wallace said although there’s a chance of the novel’s meaning being lost when it’s made into a movie, a film adaptation is an interesting reading of the original.

“Novels have many meanings, as do films, and I think the danger is less that the meaning of the novel will be lost than that one meaning will be highlighted while others are downplayed,” she said. “A film adaptation is an interpretation of a novel in a new medium as long as one sees the two not as related, but importantly distinct.”

Kingston’s best bookshops

259 Princess St.Novel Idea
156 Princess St.Wayfarer Books
85 Princess St.Berry and Peterson’s
348 King St. EastThe Book Shop
122 Princess St.
No surprises here: you’ll find a large selection of new books, as well as a wide variety of coffee-based beverages at the Starbucks on the second floor. Expect typical retail prices and a staff that’s less than on the ball, but the convenience of being able to order most of what you want online if it’s not in the store.
While considerably smaller than Indigo, there is little you could want that you won’t find here. In addition to new releases and the classic staples, you’ll also find anthologies produced by Queen’s creative writing students. Though the ambient music often leaves something to be desired, the staff is usually friendly and you’ll feel good supporting a local business.
All the charm and mystery you want in a used book store without the kitsch. Volumes are well organized and include a solid collection of Canadian titles, and owner Walter Cipin can answer just about any question you throw at him. If you make it to the back of the store without getting lost in literary criticism or Russian history, you’ll find a wealth of vintage copies of National Geographic Magazine for no more than $2 a pop.
If you’re looking for local history or rare collectibles, this place should be your first stop. It’s the most expensive of the used book stores, but there’s a good mix of fiction and non-fiction. Merchandise is roughly alphabetized, but be prepared for a little digging. The store is small, but strategically placed armchairs make it a surprisingly comfortable place to sit and read.
With prices comparable to those at Wayfarer, this place has a wider selection of genres, including children’s books and a cooking and crafts section. There’s also a large collection of academic titles. Though it lacks Wayfarer’s charm, a willingness to spend a little time will still yield exciting finds.

Erin Flegg

What’s your favourite book-turned-movie?

“I can tell you a terrible example. A phenomenal book, A Prayer for Owen Meany, was turned into Simon Birch, and it was so atrocious that John Irving actually made the filmmakers change the title of the film and the main character’s name.”

—Michael Murphy, ArtSci ’07

“One of the best literary adaptations is The Princess Bride by William Goldman. It’s a phenomenal movie that captures the playfulness of the book such that people don’t even realize that it was a book.”

—Michael Murphy, ArtSci ’07

“A recent example of an excellent adaptation would be Brokeback Mountain, adapted from Annie Proulx’s novella. The film works because it doesn’t talk all the time, it lets the silences speak in the ways that her prose fills in the blanks.”

—Michael Murphy, ArtSci ’07

“E. M Forster’s A Room With a View, over which my friends and I swooned in high school. The film is stunningly beautiful, and the acting is superb. I thought it did a good job of capturing Forster’s subtle humour.”

—Molly Wallace, English professor

“Well, Tristram Shandy has in fact been adapted to the screen and it is my favourite book, although not my favourite adaptation.”

—Christopher Fanning, English professor

“Barry Lindor. Kubrick did an adaptation in the 70s and I haven’t actually read the book, but the movie was great.”

—Christopher Fanning, English professor

“You could say that I’m a sucker for any adaptation of a play or novel that features failed or problematic teachers, starting with both 1951 and 1994 versions of Terence Rattigan’s The Browning Version.”

—Chris Bongie, English professor

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