What with all the winter around here, and everyone being cooped up and kind of off their routines, I’ve been finding it hard to concentrate on much serious reading, so a couple of days ago I plucked Jennifer Weiner’s In Her Shoes off the shelf for a reread. My copy has the movie tie-in cover, so I must have picked it up around 2005. I own the DVD of the movie and have watched it several times, but I can’t remember the last time I read the original. I knew I liked it enough to hang on to it, though (it has survived numerous purges) and I thought, rightly, that it would be a good choice to pass the time in between bouts of shoveling and attempts to get some writing done.
I enjoyed rereading In Her Shoes for just the reasons I expected: it’s a well-told story with well-drawn characters; it appreciates the emotional complexity of close family relationships, especially between sisters; it is comic but not mean, touching but just the right side of sappy. It’s well-written, too: I’ve complained a few times here about books with awkward exposition or tedious padding, but Weiner moves us along like the pro she is. It doesn’t make a lot of intellectual demands on us as readers, which is why it’s engaging but also relaxing, yet it includes some unexpected elements that give it extra dimension, such as the courage reading poetry gradually gives Maggie about her own insight into the world.
I’m not saying any of this in order to damn In Her Shoes with faint praise. I think it’s a genuinely good novel. If you think there’s a “but” coming, though, you aren’t entirely wrong. As I was reading it this time, I was struck by how close reading it was to watching it, and that got me thinking about what makes the difference for me, not just between books and movies, but between books I consider “good” and those I think of as “great.” Maybe this is already obvious to everyone else, but it occurs to me that every book I think of as great is one that — whatever else goes on in it — does a lot of things in the writing that really can’t be neatly transposed to another medium, and more than any difference in content between what gets labeled “chick lit” and what is considered “literary fiction,” this — let’s call it bookishness, rather than “literariness” — is the element that determines a novel’s overall place in my hierarchy. Ease of adaptation (or, easy congruity between book and film) is a symptom of literary limitation: how’s that for a working hypothesis?
I don’t mean that I’m against adaptations: I’m not such a book snob that I think nothing can also be gained by moving to a different medium: as has often been argued, film adaptations can do really interesting things on their own terms. (That said, the many people who tell me they haven’t read, say, Bleak House but they have watched it usually seem to be ignoring that adaptations are also, immediately and inevitably, interpretations or readings of the novels, not “just” cinematic renditions.) Still, almost always when I watch an adaptation — even one I like a lot, like The Remains of the Day, or A Room With a View, or the version of Persuasion starring Amanda Root — I’m always very conscious of what has been lost in the transition from book to film.
I guess when it comes to adaptations, at heart I’m a reader first and a watcher second, and that affects my reactions and my preferences. What I usually feel about adaptations of books I admire is that they are stuck with being quite literal: what they convey is typically just the plot and characters, and then whatever they can of the themes, as far as these can be made visible (or audible). What is lost is everything else that writing can do, from deft metaphors to sharp irony, from prolepsis to retrospective or intrusive narration. A prime example of this for me is, inevitably, the mostly adequate but in no way outstanding BBC version of Middlemarch, which tells the story (well, most of it) with some fine actors and a lot of sincerity, but which completely abandons Eliot’s experiments with form and language: her play with chronology, her unifying metaphors, her dedication to alternative points of view — and of course, except for one short voice-over at the end, any sense of the narrator and thus all of the wisdom, humor, and philosophy she brings. Adaptations of Jane Eyre can’t do anything to convey Jane’s narrating voice or, more important, the interaction between the older perspective from which she tells her story and her youthful actions. Bleak House becomes just a series of interrelated story lines without the alternating narrators, even though Gillian Anderson makes a splendid Lady Dedlock … and so on. And this isn’t even taking into account details at the level of language itself — the way in which individual words matter.
Anyway, my point here is that I think of the books I’ve mentioned above as great books (or as great books?) not just because of their stories and characters, or even because of the ideas they circulate or the insights they offer, but also because of the ways that they are written: because of the amazing things their authors accomplish with the selection and placement of words on the page. That’s one of the necessary (though not in itself sufficient) measures of greatness for me, and at the same time it’s exactly what makes adaptations of books I love almost always a disappointment.
In Her Shoes, however, adapts perfectly: the plot is tweaked a bit in the film version, but my feeling on rereading the novel was that the two versions were otherwise remarkably interchangeable. The story and characters as told to us by Weiner are conveyed really effectively on screen; there’s no theme or idea in the book that’s not there also in the film; and, crucially, there’s nothing remarkable — and thus nothing to be missed — about the way Weiner writes, whether her style or the formal structure of the book. It’s all fine, but it’s also very straightforward (which is also true of the movie version). That such a smooth transition from one form to the other is possible seems to me like a sign that there are limits on Weiner’s accomplishment (and thus presumably on her ambition) as a novelist.
Again, maybe this is all terribly obvious! And it isn’t meant as any kind of manifesto for or against one kind of book or the other, or, for that matter, for or against adaptations, whether in principle or in particular cases. As I said, I enjoyed rereading In Her Shoes and I think it is a genuinely good book — much better than any of the covers for it suggest! But I do think that to be truly great, a book has to somehow make us revel in its incorrigible bookishness (a quality that, happily for all of us, comes in many different varieties), and I hadn’t quite put that together with the issue of adaptation. If the more “literary” books in that respect — the ones that make (or even aim to make) the absolute most of their own medium, you might say — are the ones that end up getting most of the critical attention and all of the awards, well, that actually seems reasonable enough. Ironically, though, I’m likely to find the film versions of good books that aren’t so thoroughly and ambitiously bookish much more satisfying.
What an interesting post! I’m trying to think of counterexceptions that would indicate there is more to it than what you’re suggesting. What do you think of the book/film of To Kill a Mockingbird? Those have each achieved such iconic status in their own right, though — might be a true exception. Hm. I’ll have a think.
It has been too long since I read or saw To Kill a Mockingbird for me to know! Ever since I aired this hypothesis I have been thinking of possibly contradictory examples. I wonder, for instance, if hard-boiled fiction and noir film are a case in which there’s a film style that matches the “bookish” quality in its own way — that works better (I think) for The Maltese Falcon (Hammett’s prose is very spare) than for The Big Sleep (where we lose Chandler’s almost excessively metaphorical language). Gone with the Wind is iconic in both forms, but I’d be hard-pressed to call it a truly great novel …
I thought I would jump in here. I grew up in a rather poor neighborhood with a bad reputation. To our credit we had an excellent English faculty at our high school. Our teacher had us read TKAMB and for whatever reason the part in the book where Scout has to read to her neighbor who is dying of cancer (I think) and you become aware that the neighbor is trying to manage their pain and Scout’s reading to her is part of that pain management made a huge impression. So much so that when in the movie Scout simply waves at her neighbor sitting on the porch my whole English class gave an audible gasp. Because of that scene they talked about how horrible the movie was. We’re not talking literary scholars, but it was visceral the feeling of being cheated of the depth of that moment.
There had to be decisions made in that film and the film is okay, only, I think, if you didn’t love the book.
This is interesting. I was discussing with a friend recently what makes a literary work great — poem, story, essay, what-have-you — and came up with a formulation similar to yours. My thought was that if the meat of a piece — the reason it’s great — can be adequately conveyed without reading it, then it actually isn’t great. If a plot can be summarized, if a poem can be described, if an essay can be outlined in a way that stands in for the experience of reading it, then it may be good, but it can’t possibly be great. It strikes me that your cinematization test is along the same lines, something about the untransferability of really great literature. (Of course that is then intimidating to think about in terms of our own writing, isn’t it? I’m pretty sure most of what I write is all too separable from its final, literary form…)
This is probably why, with the very best books, we don’t tell our friends all about them, we just give them copies!
Well, if you mean the kind of critical writing we do, I don’t think most of us imagine it’s really that “literary” — at any rate, we aspire to something a bit different than the art of fiction. I think. It’s certainly never going to be made into movies! 🙂
Well, I meant all kinds of writing, certainly including criticism. If, that is to say, the cinematization test can be extended to the principle that the greatness of great texts can only be conveyed by reading them — or the principle that greatness in literature is tied to greatness as literature — then it might apply (I think it does) to any kind of writing. (Perhaps you disagree. In which case I apologize for polluting your cinematization-of-novels thread with random divagations!)
Auteurist film critics apply a very similar standard, judging a movie by the quality of the properties intrinsic to film, thus often downplaying or dismissing acting or writing – plays have acting and writing – and thus sometimes driving me crazy. But the auteurists are right that great film art has essentially nothing to do with fidelity to source material.
Similarly, are great plays those that are most intrinsically theatrical, whatever that might mean?
The entire mainstream history of 20th century painting has been a pursuit of painterliness, a pursuit perhaps to exhaustion, a pursuit to the death of painting.
I didn’t say (I don’t think) that the best books are the “most instrinsically [bookish],” though. I can see how that leads you down a kind of essentialist aestheticizing tunnel. I just think that one quality a book has to have to count as “great” for me is that among its properties is something that is intrinsic to its being a book and not something else. Am I splitting hairs?
Interesting that you bring in the stage-to-screen transition. Many of my favorite plays are ones that I think would be wrecked if brought to the screen. There’s a film coming out soon, for instance, of the musical The Last Five Years, which appears to abandon a key aspect of the way the musical is staged. It would have to be done for film, but I think it will lose a lot of its charm. I don’t have any interest in seeing any of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s plays on screen because the language, the performance style,the staging just wouldn’t make sense in the less artificial context of film. The plays that I can think of that would adapt well are ones that have good stories but don’t necessarily take advantage of the medium. (Amy Herzog’s plays could be good movies. Excellent plays, but it’s the story that makes them excellent.)
So I guess that adds to your point, Rohan, that maybe there’s something about taking full advantage of the form, whether it be a novel or a film or a play, that makes a work particularly great.
FWIW, my favorite film adaptation of a novel, LA Confidential, basically rips the plot of James Ellroy’s baggy novel apart and puts it back together while retaining the essences of the central characters and the mood of the book. And James Ellroy liked it, despite the big changes. The screenwriter transformed the story for a different medium and made it more of a work of art than a straightforward adaptation would have been.
No, not splitting hairs. The big move to some kind of formalism is one the primary characteristics of Modernism, what links all of these different arts together, and I know it is something about which you have expressed skepticism.
But “incorrigible bookishness” is getting pretty close!
Probably the highest artistic level at which I have felt “struck by how close reading it was to watching it” is Flannery O’Connor’s and John Huston’s Wise Blood.
If you haven’t read it, you may enjoy Joy Gould Boyum’s Double Exposure: Fiction into Film which discusses a number of film adaptations of “literary fiction”, successful and unsuccessful (at least in her opinion; I don’t always agree).
I’ve made it something of a pastime in recent years to read now obscure novels that were made into more famous films. It’s usually, at the least, an interesting exercise; occasionally I’ll come across a real literary gem such as Dorothy B. Hughes’ In a Lonely Place.
It’s interesting, how translation doesn’t always work. I believe adapting is really like translating into a different language, something gets lost in the process, but there are potential gains as well. There are brilliant translators after all.
Funnily enough Christopher Hampton, responsible for many adaptations, some of them quite brilliant (The Dangerous Liaisons and Atonement among others), agrees with you. I remember him saying in one of the interviews that the greater the novel the more difficult it is to actually translate it into a script.
I’m coming at this from the other perspective. What keeps a book that is cinematic in nature from being great?
The reason I ask is that the touchstone of my own writing process is that I write what I would see if I were watching the events unfold. (Just for the record, I’m not writing for publication but fun. In other words, I write fanfiction.) There is inner monologue, too, and some experiments with form, POV, and narrative. Where would that lie on your continuum?
The other thing I want to say is that there are books that do what you suggest but which I don’t think are the kind you’re thinking of. Gillian Flynn’s psychological thriller Gone Girl comes to mind. She plays with form and with POV, but that didn’t prevent her from writing an apparently successful adaptation. (I read the book, didn’t have time to see the movie.)
I doubt it would be considered a great piece of writing, though, as opposed to a very good and accomplished one. Can we articulate why? And is the fact that it can be successfully adapted without changing the narrative much part of the reason why despite her experiments with form? Or is the determining factor how those “bookish” qualities dovetail with the book’s content?
My question about Gone Girl would be whether the film also plays with form / point of view — I think there are quite a lot of adaptations that are successful, either very or up to a point, but the thing I’m puzzling over is how tied that might be to what I’m calling “bookishness” (because as you and Liz rightly note in your discussion at her blog, I don’t think it’s quite a question of “genre” vs. “literary” — plenty of genre fiction is formally interesting, or, as in the Chandler example above, uses language in ways that can’t be simply transferred to film).
Another example I was thinking about, because I keep reverting mentally back to the 19th-C novels I like so much, is North & South. For me that’s one of the more satisfying adaptations because I don’t feel a great deal gets lost from the book in the process (besides plot details and exposition) — but I also don’t think of Gaskell as a particularly great stylist (she has her moments, but her prose is generally fairly literal and sometimes quite heavy-handed) and the novel itself proceeds without any of the complex narrative devices you get with Dickens or Eliot. Bleak House is a more artful adaptation in lots of ways, but it’s so flat compared to the novel!
I, cautiously (because of my lack of a literary background), disagree with you about “North & South.” I adore the miniseries and I’m reading the book now and loving it. I saw the miniseries first and felt it conveyed a complete picture with all the delineations of the northern and southern attitudes and norms and also the industrial movement at that time. However, upon reading the novel, I realize so much nuance and subtlety was lost in the adaptation. The miniseries puts far more emphasis on the romance than does the book, so a lot of “real estate” is spent exploring that rather than, say, Margaret’s and Mrs. Hale’s relationship during the Milton days, among other such examples,
That’s a really fair point about N&S. I guess I take for granted in adaptations that elements from the book will be condensed and as a result there will be less nuance, but recently when I watched it all through for the first time in a while what I noticed right away was how little attention it gives to the religious debates that are so important in the novel. I think the romance is pretty crucial in the novel and overall I think the adaptation plays it out pretty well — but much as I enjoy the train station ending, it is a lot softer or more sentimental than the novel ever gets.
Going by the summary of the BBC North and South, the “Once and Now” chapter, the most artistically complex single piece of the novel, is simply omitted.
I have hardly seen any BBC adaptations. “Flat” is also the perfect word for the Great Expectations with Charlotte Rampling.
I was struck by your supposition: “adaptations are also, immediately and inevitably, interpretations or readings of the novels,”
This brings to mind audiobooks. They’re a performance of a kind. They add to the characterization and plot in subtle but distinct ways. And the performer’s skill greatly affected how a book is perceived. There are also obviously aspects of the text that cannot be conveyed through speech, even if read word for word, because of the performance of those words. Given this, I find it interesting that many readers consider listening to a book equivalent to reading it.
I also feel that different medium adaptations limit the viewer’s/listener’s imagination, because you’re being given the performer’s imagination. Reading is purer in that, the reader is free to engage fully and imagine whatever.
I’m cautious about “purer”: maybe we could go with “freer,” since our own reading is also an interpretation? One thing I do like about adaptations is that they clarify some of the interpretive choices we have been unconsciously making — if you say “that’s not how I saw it” you are better able to recognize your own “version,” if that makes sense. When I show clips in class that’s how I try to use them — to prompt us to consider how else the scene might have played, or how the actors, the directing, the costumes etc. are shaping the ideas from the novel into something particular.
I agree that our biases and experiences create our own lens through which we perceive books. As a result, out interpretation varies from other people’s versions. However, in reading, we’re free to choose our own version. In watching a movie adaptation or listening to an audiobook, you’re bound to the performers’ interpretations.
I like how you bring this home to your students in your teaching.
I think, also, when discussing adaptations the idea is not whether a particular movie did or did not do a good job (there are budget restrictions, actor contracts, need for fiscal profit, etc. which go in the mix of film making), but whether a movie ever could be made to of a book and get it ‘all right’ in terms of nuance and depth.
Bookish qualities verses visual and dialogue qualities. There are some books which don’t translate well even to an audio book for that matter, because of internal matter in your head when you read it is lifted in the listening.