It has long been debated whether a film adaptation of a really popular novel can ever truly live up to the reader’s expectations and equal its paperback’s sucess. I started thinking about this whilst in Waterstones purchasing the Help when the store assistant enthusiastically announced that the film version was almost as good as the book, as though this was some sort of revelation. What really struck me was her emphasis on ‘almost’, as though it was never a point in question that the film could rival the book, but it was to be applauded that it had even come close.
As a self-confessed book-worm I’m concerned I might be approaching this debate with a slightly biased opinion (as you can probably tell from the title of the post) as, for me, there’s nothing better than those rare moments when you find yourself in possession of a book you just can’t put down, I’m talking about the kind of book you unashamedly read in a queue or on a 5 minute bus journey despite the fact you might only be able to squeeze in a few pages. Such books are hard to find and it’s a tough task to create films that live up to them. As they say, there’s nothing more powerful than the imagination, which is the true beauty of a well-written book, it’s almost as though you’ve dived into the page and you’re there with the characters – Elizabeth Bennett isn’t just the annoying Kiera Knightly playing the typical upper-class heroine you watched her play last week in Pirates of the Caribbean, she’s the character you’ve created in your mind, the one you feel like you know, she’s Elizabeth Bennett only. For this reason, I tend to prefer a good book over a good film.
Musing over this, I decided to buy the film version of the Help as well as the book and also started thinking about some of the nation’s favourite novels in comparison to their on-screen partners. Perhaps the most obvious – Harry Potter, the little wizard who many of us grew up alongside, his school years echoing our own, who is now a worldwide phenomenon, a massive Hollywood franchise and a brand in his own right. For me, however, this success is all attributable to the books. Whilst the films are undoubtedly addictive and highly watchable, they never quite capture the true magic that J K Rowling created in the books. A similar sensation a few years ago was the Da Vinci Code, one of those novels (much like 50 shades today) which was everywhere! Too mainstream and over-hyped to please the critics, the Da Vinci Code was never going to be an award-winner but it was literally un-putdownable and I found myself eagerly anticipating the film but left hugely disappointed. Tom Hanks just didn’t seem to fit the bill and his performance as Robert Langdon felt flat, a character who in the book had much more of an edge and oozed charisma and sex appeal. After reading the book I found myself googling the Holy Grail and Mary Magdalene keen to know more, however the movie lacked depth and seemed to skim over many of the issues and ideas raised by the novel leaving me dissatisfied and wishing I’d never watched it. Another favourite of mine a few years ago was the Other Boleyn Girl, the highly scandalous story of Anne Boleyn and her sister Mary and their relationship with the infamous Henry VIII. A big fan of period dramas and historic novels, I couldn’t wait for the film to be released, but as I think many will agree it was a poor adaptation, departing in many places from the book and failing to capture the charm and shock-factor of the novel despite casting the brilliant Natalie Portman and gorgeous Scarlett Johansson as the female leads.
Despite this, I did think of a couple of examples where the film triumphs. The first is My Sister’s Keeper. If you finished watching this film with dry eyes you may need to seek help for lack of feeling, it’s the ultimate tearjerker. The plot centres around the complex and heart-breaking situation of the Fitzgerald family whose eldest daughter Kate has been diagnosed with terminal leukaemia and whose youngest daughter Anna, who was conceived through IVF to be a match for her sister, has taken a lawsuit out against her family for the rights to her own body. Without giving too much away, the ending of the film is radically different to that of the book and in my opinion works so much better. Whilst more predictable, the film feels so much more real and I found myself, unusually, sympathising a lot more with the characters in the film. Another example is Water for Elephants, a film I watched recently and was told beforehand was surprisingly better than the book. Whilst an easy read, the book is also easily forgettable and doesn’t accurately depict the beautiful, colourful, yet cruel nature of the circus in the early 1900s. Whist the film was marred by controversy in that it was speculated that the film’s central character, the lovable elephant Rosie, had been subjected to ill-treatment (albeit not during the production of the film) this didn’t detract from the film’s success and I found myself fascinated by circus-life and enchanted by the relationship between the two main characters played by Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattison. Ultimately however, I think the reason I preferred the film version of these two stories was due to the failures of the books rather than the brilliance of the films.
They say a picture can paint a thousand words, but a book can take you into the mind of another, allow you to experience what they’re feeling and thinking, something a film can’t do, and for this reason, despite the occasional, unusual exception it’s rare for a film to be better than a good book (emphasis on good). This is not to say that a film can’t be great, there are obviously an enormous amount of exceptional films, it’s just for me the best films are those that aren’t based on a successful novel, but those based on screenplays. To take for example a couple of the big box office hits of the last few years: Avatar and Inception, both written for film and both much better than the likes of Harry Potter, Twilight, The Da Vinci Code etc. In conclusion, it seems that whilst a film can be brilliant, if there is an equally brilliant book hovering in its shadow, it is unlikely that the film will come out on top!
Finally, here’s my review of the book/film that provoked the debate:
Set in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960s in the ‘deep south’ as it is often referred to, the Help is the poignant but non-preachy tale of an unlikely friendship between two black maids and a young white college graduate in the midst of the African-American Civil Rights Movement. Endangering their own as well as the lives of those around them, the women embark on a secret mission to write a first-hand account of the plight of black maids, a story that they hope will change attitudes and erode some of the deep-rooted prejudices and opinions of white employers.
The novel is structured so that the three women narrate the chapters in turn, each with their own distinctive voice and story to tell and this is what makes the novel so remarkable. Through the differing perspectives of these three incredibly real women, we discover just how rife and brutal racism really was during those long years of unrest, with Kathryn Stockett cleverly depicting the subtle irony in the fact that whilst a black maid could nurse her employer through miscarriages, bereavements and births she was forbidden from using her bathroom and could be prosecuted for reading her books. Despite this, there are also moments of real love and kindness between the maids and their employers, and ultimately the novel is about friendship, empowerment and hope. Whilst there is an underlying message, it was never over-sentimental and in many places had me laughing out loud.
The film version follows very much the plot of the book, with Emma Stone playing the part of Miss Skeeter, the white college graduate and Viola Davis and Octavia L Spencer brilliantly cast as the two black maids Aibileen and Minny. Despite excellent casting, with Octavia Spencer playing the part of the hilarious Minny brilliantly, I found that the woman in the bookshop had it spot on, there isn’t much about the film I can criticise, it just doesn’t quite seem to match up. I think this can be attributed to the fact that in the novel we experience the same scenes and scenarios from the point of view of three different people which really allows you to get into the head of the character your reading about. By the end of the novel you feel like you know the women personally from their passions and quirks through to their flaws, whereas the film just doesn’t really convey this. So, despite being worth a read and equally worth a watch, again, the Help confirmed what I already suspected, there really is no living up to a truly good book!