For my far-flung readers, some context: the UK is in a second full lockdown. Unlike Lockdown-Lite in November, schools are closed, “non-essential” shops are closed. Ditto pubs and restaurants. Stay-at-home orders are in place. No travel, no non-essential journeys anywhere. An hour of outdoor exercise once a day is fine, but no mixing with other households. The result is that the majority of families are home together pretty much without interruption. Adults who are able are working from home. Children are remote learning.
No matter how much we love our families we are very much in each other’s space at the moment. We are all together all the time. Being all together in the same space all the time tends to erase the lines and dissolve the distinctions that usually give shape and definition to our lives. This raises some interesting metaphysical questions about the nature of reality itself.
Are sweat pants real pants? If I change from the sweatpants I sleep in to the sweatpants I type in have I really gotten dressed? Does time spent answering work emails at 8pm in the same room as one’s spouse and children count as family time? Is a zoom call actual people-contact? Does a bowl of cereal eaten standing at the counter at 10am still count as breakfast if you — or, let’s be honest, if I — ate two slices of leftover garlic bread, half a chicken breast, a few florets of roasted cauliflower and a spoonful of mashed potato out of the fridge at 7:30am?
Fortunately, without the work commute, many of us have the time to contemplate these questions, or would if we were not perpetually in the process of resetting the wifi router — a valiant little piece of technology that tries so hard to provide the semblance of horizons beyond our own front room — to agonized cries of: “I can’t get onto Google Classroom!” and “I just got bumped off the remote desktop!” and “Who’s live streaming? and “There’s no bandwidth!”
Just another day at the office…or is it? What even is an office? Who knows?
There is one particular lockdown trend I’ve been thinking about lately. This is our acceptance of screen-based substitutes as real tokens of the things they replace. Time on Zoom is now just an ordinary meeting. For the kids, a few assigned video demonstrations and a classroom chat are now a maths lesson. This makes me wonder: what counts as a book? I don’t mean to ask whether an ebook is a book — an on-screen text is functionally equivalent to one on paper — but what is the existential status of movies based on books?
This isn’t only a question of which is better, the book or the movie. It isn’t primarily a question of that sort. Most people in a position to judge prefer the book to any adaptation for the large or small screen. There are a few notable exceptions. For example, Blade Runner is universally considered to be far superior to the Philip K Dick short story, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, that inspired it. What interests me is the question whether — and if so, to what extent — the film is the book, or a near equivalent.
Hic sunt dracones.
I lurk in a social media group for Jane Austen fans. I joined thinking there would be some solid book chat going on. To my surprise, a large number of the members have never read anything Miss Austen wrote, and the conversation revolves largely around film adaptations. It’s odd, to say the least, to read through a thread debating which film version of Pride and Prejudice is the best wherein about a third of comments begin “I’ve never read any of the books, but…” and end with some self-avowedly magisterial statement on which film version is better than all others. To my mind this pronouncement can only be made with reference to the book, so those non-readers of Austen who vote for the 1995 Jennifer Ehle/Colin Firth adaptation were only accidentally correct, for how could they truly know?
Screen productions like the marvelous 1981 adaptation of Brideshead Revisited starring Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews, which follows the book so closely one could virtually read along, are a rare thing. There’s a certain point of view that a film only really participates in the essence of the book if the amount of content that is in the film and not in the book, and vice versa, is near zero. That’s a pretty difficult feat to pull off for any filmmaker.
Books and films tell stories in different ways. Visual description and internal monologue, to take two narrative features, are conveyed very differently on the page and on the screen.
Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is a striking example: breath-taking panoramic shots of the New Zealand scenery replace — do they? — Tolkien’s multi-page descriptions of mountains. This, combined with the omission of Tom Bombadil, was sufficient to make me kindly disposed towards the cinematic version. I may lose friends over this — seriously, I have a number of Tolkien purists amongst my closest chums — but I think Jackson’s films have the virtue of making one want to read the books, which is more than the books themselves do.
Tolkien’s genius imagination gave us a story with a rich mythic texture and vivid otherworldliness, but it is also a sprawling, unruly tale with a stuttering gait in the tradition of the Odyssey or the old Norse sagas. It doesn’t have the shape and structure we expect from a narrative with clear stages of exposition, rising action, climax, and denouement. I don’t think one can overstate Tolkien’s indebtedness to the myths and sagas of old.
Although I had read the books long before seeing the films, I admit I did not come to appreciate them on their own terms until I read them aloud to my son about five years ago. The books come to life as a story told — read aloud — but for me they are hard going as a story read, with their looping and wandering prose and preoccupation with the anatomy of mountains.
Given the challenges Tolkien’s writing presents, I’ve always thought Jackson’s adaptation displays no small amount of genius. I know there are many people who are still in a lather over the elves showing up at Helm’s Deep and the complete omission of the Scouring of the Shire, but I think there are sound narrative reasons for these decisions on Jackson’s part. Indeed, my only real argument with him is his portrayal of Faramir, who is by far the best character in the books, and a mopey, two-dimensional mess in the films. But that is a topic for a different essay.
There are indeed films that despite departures from their source texts, even in large ways, manage to capture the essence of the original story, and sometimes even to improve upon it with the telling by marshalling the unique story-telling abilities of film.
Constructing a film out of a story as beloved of readers as The Lord of the Rings trilogy, or indeed Pride and Prejudice or Brideshead Revisited, is a delicate art. Very often, the result is a phenomenal disappointment. We will all have myriad examples to prove this. Not all films are worthy of their titles.
Originally intending to write simply about films that are as good or better than the books they’re based on, I took an informal survey of my bookish film buff acquaintances, compiled a long list of examples, and sparked a fair number of arguments. What struck me, however, was how often I was told “Well, the film is really different from the book, but somehow it is still the same story and it’s sooooo good…” Rather than making it a straight competition between book and film, a new, more nuanced category is required: films loved by readers.
Perhaps someday I will give you a list.
Today I just want to offer you the reassurance that, in this strange lockdown hinterland, where a collared shirt with boxers counts as business casual, moving to sit on top of the covers with your laptop counts as getting out of bed, and “You’re on mute,” is considered a polite social greeting: If you want to count book-movies as literature, and watching them as a sociable sort of reading, I will allow it.
You can trust my authority on this one: I’ve considered the arguments with care and diligence, and I’m wearing my good typing sweatpants.
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