Wednesday, 7 January 2015

The Novella and Book to Movie Adaptations

the third man orson welles

Movies adapted from novels often turn out to be disappointments. Film-makers have been known to take breathtaking liberties with their source material, changing the setting, the era, and the characters in the process. Sometimes this works, but more often it doesn't. Such impertinence can usually be guaranteed to elicit howls of protest from fans of the books in question.

When you read a book, you have your own movie running in your head, and chances are when you come to see the film version, it is quite different from the version you imagined. You can't help but wonder why they decided to cast that particular actor, and what the hell happened to your favourite scene? Who thought that was a good idea?

One of the main problems is that so much has to be cut if the film version is going to have a reasonable running time. And you can guarantee your favourite character/scene/dialogue is going to end up on the cutting room floor. That was my main gripe with the adaptation of Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient. It was a great film, but I lamented how little the character of Kip was featured.

Which is why, very often, the most successful film adaptations use novellas and short stories as their source material. Novellas are notoriously difficult to define, so let's just say they are longer than a short story and shorter than a novel. The stories are more streamlined and spare than you normally find in a full-length novel, their plots less susceptible to movie interference.

Here are some of my favourite short story and novella inspired film adaptations.

The Third Man, by Graham Greene

The Third Man is a unique case, in that Graham Greene wrote the story as a treatment for the film, so the two versions are intimately intertwined. His close association with the film - he also wrote the screenplay, with uncredited contributions from Orson Welles, Alexander Korda and director Carol Reed - ensured the film stayed faithful to his vision. All the classic Greene elements are there - intrigue, loyalty, betrayal - in a tense post-war Vienna, enhanced by moody black and white photography and a catchy score.

Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, by Stephen King

Stephen King seems to have cornered the market in successful film adaptations of his novellas. I also loved the film Stand by Me, which was adapted from his story The Body. The film version of The Shawshank Redemption stayed pretty faithful to the original story.

The Dead, by James Joyce

This short story by James Joyce, often called the greatest short story in the English language, was beautifully filmed by the late, great John Huston. It was his last film, and did justice to a delicate and melancholy story.

Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad

A riveting tale of obsession in the Congo in the nineteenth century was transplanted to the Vietnam War in Francis Coppola's Apocalypse Now. This adaptation shows that some things can be drastically changed from book to screen without losing the power of the original. It's rare, but it happens!

Do you have any favourite book to film adaptations?