John Irving once said the key to making a movie out of one of his novels is to throw away nine-tenths of the novel. Given the size of a typical Irving book, that seems like a fair ratio. The trick is to keep the right 10 percent.
It’s a common conceit that a big-screen (or small-screen) adaptation of a literary work is going to be inferior, and to an extent I get that. The two media have different aims and different means — books have an unlimited capacity to immerse us in a story, while movies traditionally are expected first and foremost to entertain. I’d point to Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” as a classic example of cinema’s inability to convey the drama and pathos of the remarkable narrative that unfolds on the printed page. In the hands of a more artful director, it might have worked, but I’d recommend the book to anyone who wants to gain a full appreciation of Oskar Schindler’s story.
That doesn’t make it a rule. This week I caught a screening of an Italian adaptation of Stephen Amidon’s “Human Capital,” at which the suggestion came up that the movie is actually superior to the book. I haven’t read it, so I’ll have to take that assertion at face value, but what struck me about the film was the depth of its characters. That’s a telltale sign of a book as the source material for the script, and I applaud the producers for understanding its value. There’s a decent thriller plot to drive the story along, so a lesser director (I’m looking at you, Spielberg) could’ve easily latched onto suspense and narrative twists at the expense of character study.
Luckily, that didn’t happen, and we care what happens next while caring about the people it happens to. Whether that makes it “better” than the book, I can’t say. I’m more inclined to argue that the best we should hope for is “equal.”
The most “equal” screen adapation of a book I’ve seen is Lawrence Kasdan’s “The Accidental Tourist,” primarily because of the lead performance by William Hurt. Interestingly, I saw the film first, so I’ll never know how I might have envisioned the Macon Leary put forth in Anne Tyler’s novel. Hurt forever defined the character for me. His puzzled and sometimes pained delivery captures the character’s maddening attempts to stoically ride above life’s turbulence. That came through when I read the book, but was it because Hurt put it there? Like I said, I’ll never know. That’s extraordinary casting and an extraordinary performance in a film that’s worthy of its literary counterpart.
“Wonder Boys” benefits from similar casting brilliance, but for the film version of Michael Chabon’s book, I’d substitute “equal” with “different.” Michael Douglas is the perfect choice for the lead role of befuddled, drifting Professor Grady Tripp, but I found room for my own interpretation of the character when reading the book. Perhaps this is because there are significant differences between how the two versions of the story play out. To me, they were equally enjoyable. In the spirit of Irving’s nine-tenths rule, the filmmakers understood that Tripp is the beating heart of the novel. As long as the they stayed true to that character, other differences wouldn’t matter.