IFOA 2011: The Highs and Lows of Book-to-Film Adaptations
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IFOA 2011: The Highs and Lows of Book-to-Film Adaptations

When it comes to bringing books to the screen, how much is sacred?

Friday night at the Harbourfront Centre, (L–R) Tom Perrotta, Marieke van der Pol, Russell Banks, and Richard Crouse talk adaptations. Photo by Laura Godfrey/Torontoist.

For a panel discussion between three authors on the topic of book-to-film adaptations, last night’s event at the International Festival of Authors had a surprising focus on the perils of a movie being too true to the novel. Moderated by Canada AM film critic Richard Crouse, the discussion included authors Russell Banks (Lost Memory of Skin, and The Sweet Hereafter), Tom Perrotta (The Leftovers, and Election), and Holland-based Marieke van der Pol (Bride Flight).

All of these authors have been involved in screenwriting—sometimes for their own works, sometimes for others—and acknowledge that for many novels, big changes have to be made to ensure big screen success. “If you’re going to be adamant that there’s going to be a literal translation, I think it’s going to be dead on arrival,” said Perrotta. His 1998 novel Election ended up being adapted into the Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick movie of the same name, which Perrotta says got the kind of reviews he had hoped he would read about for his book.

There are plenty of adaptations where a well-meaning faithfulness to the source material can lead to a perilous road. (Speaking of which, 2009’s The Road was a movie so bleak it made us wish the cannibalistic scavengers would just take us already. Cormac McCarthy’s book, though, somehow finds a touching, manageable tone.) Any book whose success is largely dependent on a particular writing style or narrative voice runs the risk of not translating well. “Anyone who has seen Lolita will immediately feel the poverty of that film, because that voice just can’t be there,” said Perrotta. “The action is provocative, the character is interesting, but with the voice separated out, it just doesn’t feel rich in the same way.”

Banks, whose novel The Sweet Hereafter was adapted by Atom Egoyan, echoed Perrotta’s sentiments: “This might be heresy for a novelist to say, but I think filmmakers are too faithful to the novels, and intimidated by the text of the novel,” he said. “They’re never intimidated by the novelist, but they are intimidated by the reputation of the text, and the role it plays in culture at large. It would be better if they were more reckless.”

An example of a screenplay that really took apart a novel and made it into something new? As pointed out by Perrotta, Charlie (and Donald) Kaufman’s aptly titled Adaptation, the surrealistic comedy/drama based very, very loosely on Susan Orlean’s novel The Orchid Thief (which was itself based on her original article for The New Yorker). Not that we’d want every adaptation to stray so wildly from the characters and plot of its novel—but with Adaptation movie, which manages to focus on the writer’s block of the screenwriter himself, navel-gazing is turned into a high art.

There’s a lot of pressure when beloved books are being adapted for the big screen, and a certain faithfulness is worthwhile. But even authors will admit that sometimes, things need to be cut, and sometimes—brace yourselves—the ending needs to be changed. But Banks says even that is not sacred to him as an author, in terms of feeling comfortable with an adaptation of his own work. “If the atmosphere and the tone of the novel are carried over into the film, I feel in some way the moral or ethical centre of the film has been carried over,” he said. “Because as a novelist, that’s where it lies, really—it’s in the details, it’s in the tone.”