By D.L. Poirier
We love our artistic consumables. When we read a book or watch a movie that we really love we allow them to occupy a special place as part of our person. It’s only so easy then to raise a flag in their defence when criticisms arise. For a long time I was a stalwart supporter of the saying: “The book was better!” It seemed like an obvious conclusion, but I came to it often, praising anything that came close – To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) or No Country for Old Men (2007) come to mind – and condemning the majority as poor attempts.
Over the last few years my opinion began to shift due to my study of translation. The process of translation goes much further than the word for word change from one language to another. Countless cultural and geographical difference need to be taken into account to ensure that the reader of the target language knows what’s going on, not to mention the words that just have no equivalent from one language to the next. Yet, while translations are scrutinized by comparatists, the general population of readers wouldn’t dream of criticizing the translation of a novel by Paulo Coelho or Murakami Haruki. I found myself wondering why movies were held to a different standard.
Traditionally movies made from books are called “adaptations,” or else the easily defensible phrase “based upon the book” is used. While these terms aren’t technically wrong, they are also misleading for what the audience should realistically expect. The more appropriate word is the same one used for books of different languages, “translation,” because that is what’s really happening. So, what’s the difference? The way we humans gather information is by interpreting systems of symbols that are familiar to us. When we read a book, we are examining the symbols on the page and interpreting them, just as when we watch a movie we are decoding the images and sounds. The reality is that books and movies are two completely different sets of symbols, different languages, and the process of moving from one to the other is intermedia (or even intersemiotic) translation. That’s not to say that making a movie of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis is the same as translating it from German to English on the page, but I am saying it’s similar.
But there’s also something else going on here and it relates back to the word “love.” When we interact with something that makes a strong impact, it lives in us (which is why we all still call Nathan Fillion “Captain Mal” over ten years later). When we read a book there is participation on the part of the reader to give an image to the characters described on the page. When a casting decision is made for a book-based movie there is inevitably public outcry, but really it’s because they didn’t cast the person who lives in our minds. Flip it, watch the movie first, and it will be nearly impossible to read Harry Potter without imagining Daniel Radcliffe. This is because when we bond with these works of art they become “ours.” There is a translation of The Stranger by Albert Camus that is almost universally considered the worst translation, but I read it once a year because it is “my” The Stranger (never The Outsider!). I wouldn’t want it any other way, but it certainly ensures that I’m not impartial against a legitimate argument.
Removing the necessity of a movie being beholden to the novel on which it is based can be the best kind of liberating. One of the most exciting things that can happen with a translation from book to film is changing the game or pulling a bait and switch on the audience. I read the book Layer Cake (2004) before the film starring Daniel Craig arrived and I was excited because I knew all the moments of high tension that were coming. I nudged my then girlfriend, now wife, several times – my eyes saying “watch this” – only to have J.J. Connolly change what happens. Rather than directly port his novel into a screenplay, Connolly made all the extreme moments in the movie slightly different from the novel without altering the overall narrative. Similarly, the currently running AMC series The Walking Dead has dramatically altered the events from the popular comic of the same name on which it is based, including which characters live and die. The common thread between these examples is the direct involvement of the original creators, which removes a lot of the risk. Then again, I can’t think of a bigger risk than Charlie Kaufman’s screenplay treatment of The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean, which became arguably the most brilliant thing ever to emerge from writer’s block: Adaptation (2002), a work that defies categorization.
I’m not saying that arguing whether a book is better than the movie based upon it is an argument we can’t have, I’m just saying we should change the argument. Rather than pitting a film against its source material we should examine them as two very separate objects in different forms. Choosing to make a movie based on a book means telling the same story with a completely different set of tools, and realistically it’s often only possible to deliver a story fragment of the larger narrative. If we can hold on a little less tightly there’s something really exciting about seeing a movie based on something we love and seeing what the filmmakers choose focus on and bring to the surface. It’s cool to see what other people love about it too.
Except for The English Patient (1996). I can’t forgive that movie.
If you are a theory nerd and want to read more, Susan Bassnett’s book Translation Studies is a great place to start.
D.L. Poirier currently lives in New York where he is pursuing an MFA in fiction at Sarah Lawrence College and is the Creative Director of the LUMINA literary journal. His work has previously appeared in W49, Hiaspire, and Lyre magazines and more of his work can be found at dlpoirier.com.