Why is it so hard to make a good film out of a good book? Why? WHY????
The Goldfinch seems set to be the latest great book terrible film adaptation to fail to capture what made the novel great. And it follows reviews of It: Chapter 2 arguing that the movie missed the mark in terms of capturing the menace of Stephen King’s book (which has plenty weird about it to start with…).
The biggest problem with a good book is that a lot of the time the thing that makes a book great is the writing – the language, the pacing, the way the story unfolds – rather than that it’s about, say, a boy wizard-slash-Christ analogue.
And that’s the stuff which translates least well to the screen. In fact, it’s preferable to get a trashy book written by a hack than an artsy classic where every setnence is a tiny work of art.
For example: Francis Ford Coppola’s decision to eliminate a long, rambling through-plot about a woman getting restorative surgery on her vagina from Mario Puzo’s trite novel is just one of the reasons why The Godfather is a great film and an annoying unreadable book.
Similarly, the decision by Steven Spielberg to focus the movie version of Jaws on a large unstoppable sea monster made it rather more interesting than the novel, which is a leaden exploration of infidelity and small-town corruption featuring unlikeable characters and tedious exposition, punctuated by the odd shark attack.
And ultimately that’s what makes awful books much easier to film. After all, they’re different mediums with different requirements, with pacing being the most obvious.
Thus if you have a meh sort of a YA series about a girl what shoots arrows or some vampires which encourage stalking and chastity then you’re more comfortable moving things around, cutting boring bits and inventing new bits to make an interesting film.
But it’s harder if you have source material that you love because then it becomes harder to cut things that won’t work on screen, or which pad out the run time, or
There’s also the reason why short stories tend to make better films than entire novels. To use Stephen King’s source material again: Stand By Me is a great film. Dark Tower very, very isn’t.
And sure, the Golden Age Of Television has let some great book-to-screen adaptations, from the brilliant (Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens) to the a-bit-over-faithful (Jospeh Heller’s Catch-22) to the utterly infuriating (Nail Gaiman again: oh, American Gods, you’re so close to being amazing and yet…).
And it’s not perfect. Meg: A Novel Of Deep Terror, for example, is an unreadably bad book by Steve Alten about a prehistoric shark sharking it up in the modern era, and last year’s film version The Meg was hardly better, although wildly different. And those claiming 50 Shades Of Grey is a great book are about as numerous as those claiming it’s a cinema classic.
Great books make for terrible films, and terrible books can be perfect movies. So if you love Donna Tartt’s prose, maybe avoid The Goldfinch like the plague. But man, how fun is Starship Troopers?