Not need to shout. It’s only a movie. Reading the book, I am sure, was a better experience. It’s no recommendation to me that a novel has been adapted for the cinema. Movies generally speaking are likely to be less subtle and complex than the original text, because the contents have to be compressed into a continuous presentation of two hours or less. A novel can be experienced in a more selective, repetitive, episodic way, according to the whims of the reader. My experience of movies is of disappointment for the most part, and frustration with adaptations on nearly ever occasion. Here’s why I avoid them.

They are different things

104 filmTo start with, movies and books are different things. I have to ask: why make a film when you have a perfectly good book? Money, of course – none to be made from books without a film option. Annie Dillard suggests that movies have an irresistible attraction.

Films and television stimulate the body’s senses too, in big ways. A nine-foot handsome face, and its three-foot-wide smile, are irresistible. Look at the long legs on that man, as high as a wall, and coming straight toward you. The music builds. The moving, lighted screen fills your brain. You do not like filmed car chases? See if you can turn away, Try not to watch. Even knowing you are manipulated, you are still as helpless as the make butterfly drawn to painted cardboard.

This is the movies. That is their ground. The printed word cannot compete with the movies on their ground, and should not. You can describe beautiful faces, car chases, or valleys full of Indians on horseback until you run out of words, and you will not approach the movies’ spectacle. (The Writing Life p18)

Films and novels share storytelling, but they tell stories in very different ways, as Annie Dillard suggests. Hitchcock spoke about the adaptations of stories for film, referring to the ‘suitability of the language of cinema for the written word’. But it hasn’t stopped some writers writing with an eye on the more lucrative cinema audience. Annie Dillard is sharply critical and suggests that such an approach harms the writing:

Novels written with film contracts in mind have a faint but unmistakable, and ruinous, odor. I cannot name what, in the text, alerts the reader to suspect the writer of mixed motives. I cannot specify which sentences, in several books, have caused me to read on with increasing dismay, and finally close the book because I smelled a rat. Such books seem uneasy being books; they seem eager to fling off their disguises and jump onto screens. (The Writing Life p18-9)

Storylines are mangled

104 ticketThey may share storytelling but adaptations are often simplifications, with storylines adjusted or changed to appeal to movie audiences. Stanley Kubrick famously offended Anthony Burgess with his adaptation of A Clockwork Orange, which prevented general release in the UK for many years. Richard Matheson’s novel I am Legend has been adapted four times but never to his satisfaction.

I don’t know why Hollywood is fascinated by my book when they never care to film it as I write it. (See Joe Dunthorne’s article in Guardian in 2013.)

Film requires less imagination

NOW A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE belittles the original. Here’s the cover of a copy of Sense and Sensibility that I own. The cover promotes the book through the film with its starry cast of great British actors.104 Now a major

104 S&S

Movies don’t let you work very hard with your imagination. Richard Ayoade (director, actor and comedian) says that movie watchers and readers experience their media differently. He suggests that in reading you can identify closely with the protagonist, but in film the separation is increased by ‘a physical otherness’, especially when the lead actor is a star, known to be famous, wealthy, good looking, etc. (See Joe Dunthorne’s article again).

Films also have big landscapes, gorgeous scenery and fabulous clothes – suffused with a kodakifying glow. The movie Sense and Sensibility, presented as a bit of a rom com, takes place in continuous English summer sunlight. And in the opening sequence of the 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice starring Keira Knightley, even the farm animals behaved picaresquely. And just in case you miss their emotional drive movies have music. Novels have words, plot and character development, descriptions, dialogue, no music.

Film adaptations can stunt the imagination, fossilise the experience of the book. A strongly expressed view in our reading group is that it’s best to avoid the film until you have read the book. We were discussing Julie & Julia by Julie Powell. But even reading the book first doesn’t avoid that. Jonathan Coe suggests that ‘adaptations of pre-20th-century novels on celluloid usually end up as mummification rather than reinvention’. Exceptions are Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones and John Schlesinger’s Far From the Madding Crowd although they are really sixties romps in period costume. (See his article Made for Each Other in the Guardian Review. And shouldn’t that be Henry Fielding and Thomas Hardy?)

Films obstruct reading

It can be argued that films promote reading and add to the enjoyment of, say, JK Rowling and the Harry Potter series (involving classic British actors, of course.) But there is an argument that films stop people reading the original because the film adaptation is seen as a the same or an adequate substitute. Some people appear to get confused about reading and viewing. Have you had a conversation like this?

Me: Have you read We Need to talk about Kevin?

Them: No, but I’ve seen the film.

Which can only mean that the story is everything, and the medium is not significant. That all the work that Lionel Shriver put into it, all the craft, the skill, the detail, the nuances and complexity of being the mother of an unlikeable child. I’ve even heard someone say, ‘I’ve never read Jane Eyre, but I saw the tv series. That’s the one where she’s going to marry the rich guy, isn’t it?’ Oh yes. That’s Jane Eyre.

What I didn’t want to see

There are films I would rather not have seen, they spoiled the experience of reading the book: three examples The Borrowers, whose updating to the twenty-first century removed most of the whimsy and make-do-and-mend ingenuity that was the charm of the books. Catch-22 whose chaotic plot, overblown characters, expose of the craziness of war could not be represented by the realism of film. Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, which updates Elizabeth Taylor’s difficult novel and gives ageing a charming or eccentric face. Read the novel to get a quite different understanding of what Elizabeth Taylor was showing about age.

Any good film adaptations?

The Hours from Michael Cunningham’s novel which is in part derived from Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. (Although I am having doubts about it having just read Hermione Lee’s essay Virginia Woolf’s Nose.)

Shipping News adapted from E Annie Proulx’s novel, and in which the New Foundland scenery and her story is hauntingly brought to the screen.

And for Jonathan Coe one of the best adaptations is Housekeeping:

Bill Forsyth’s film version, made in 1987 is an unswervingly faithful adaptation, preserving the narrative shape, the tone, the desolate backwoods atmosphere, even finding visual correlatives for Robinson’s scriptural, luminous prose. And yet it has been almost completely forgotten. It’s never been available on DVD, and none of the Robinson fans I’ve spoken to recently, either in Britain or America, seems to be aware of it.

104 Housekeeping mineThe film, apparently, is unmarketable. So that’s one film I wont be seeing then. And I will be very happy with the novel.


Can you recommend any worthwhile adaptations of film to screen? Do you have anything to add about films and novels?

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Filed under Books, Virginia Woolf


  1. I agree that films and fiction are different art forms and, like you, feel affronted when a much-loved novel is marketed through its film version. But I’m always curious to see the film version of a favourite novel, although tend not to go to the cinema these days but record them when they come on TV and save them for the odd evenings when I’m feeling especially lazy or unwell. I thought the film version of Never Let Me Go was pretty good and faithful to the novel. While I enjoyed the film of We Need to Talk about Kevin, I thought many of the important nuances were not quite missed out but glossed over and, watching it with my husband who hadn’t read the book, I kept finding myself explaining what might be behind a particular reference, especially Eva’s marked ambivalence about having a child in the first place. in general, though, and probably less critical when it comes to film, and would, for instance, watch a silly romcom, when I wouldn’t bother to read chick lit.

    • Caroline

      We Need to Talk About Kevin provkes lots of commets, in both book and film forms. I have long suspected you are more tolerant than me.
      I didn’t see Never Let Me Go, but it wasn’t a novel I warmed to either.
      Thanks for the comments Anne.

  2. Anne

    I often avoid films of novels that I have loved- like “The Time Traveller’s wife”. I cannot bear to sully my memory of the book by a tawdry adaptation on film. I shall try and rack my brain for films that have equalled or bettered the book but I can’t think of any offhand. So saying a lot of my reading has been prompted by television adaptations ie Arnold Bennett, Balzac- anyone remember the wonderful “Cousine Bette” of many years ago starring Margaret Tyzack. I simply could not bear to watch “We need to talk about Kevin” Caro having found the book an overwhelming experience…..and that holds true of so many others.
    Hmm…..will have a good think and see what I come up with.

  3. This is a great post, Caroline. I have always considered the film experience very different from that of the book. I am not a big screen fan and have usually found movie versions of books I have read disappointing. I didn’t read The Time Traveller’s Wife, but did watch the movie, but can’t remember a thing about it! I’m sure I would have remembered more had I read it. At the moment I am unable to think of any books that I have both read and watched the movie, other than the BFG by Roald Dahl, but that’s another story. One advantage for non-readers may be that they are able to appreciate, if only to a limited extent, some of the stories of the masters e.g. While I enjoy reading Jane Austen, many others don’t.

    • Caroline

      Wise comments, Norah (as usual). I havent seen the BFG moive, but reading it to my grandson is one of the best reading experiences I could ask for. I love the words. Snozzcumber! Brilliant. I love his reactions.
      I have chosen to rarely visit the cinema. I think it’s strength as a documentary forum is underfinanced, over-dominated by flashy Hollywood romcoms and action films.

  4. Carole

    Time Traveller’s Wife is one of the few films that I find I can enjoy as much in film as in book form. The writing is superb but the film is also deeply satisfying – but takes less tissues and chocolate to complete than the book! I find that seeing the film first allows me to enjoy the story. If I read the book first, the film is most often a disappointment. I sit bolt upright in the cinema saying ‘that didn’t happen in the book’, ‘who’s he?’ ‘That wasn’t how it ended’. The only time that has bitten me was when I saw the TV series of Michael Dobbs House of Cards. In the interests of a second series the main character lives but in the book he dies. To then get a second book, written after the TV series, throw me into complete meltdown. On the whole I find that I have to treat these two as completely separate forms of entertainment. Films are essentially about story while a good book is about people and character. And mainly these live most comfortably in our mind’s eye rather than on the ‘silver screen’. Colin Firth is Colin Firth while Fitzwilliam Darcy is Fitzwilliam Darcy and so much better for existing in my imagination where Jane Austin intended him to live.

    • Caroline

      Thanks for these comments, Carole. There seems to be a concensus devveloping that films and books are different things. I want directors to be more sparing about their choices of books to fossilise on film. A good book does not necessarily make a good film.
      And I agree about Colin Firth, although I think the casting of brigit Jones’s Diary was inspired! It added another dimension of humour to the film to have him as Mark Darcy.
      And other Darcies have been quite without his presence. In my mind he is more of Laurence Olivier presence. But not every time I read the book!
      Come and post again soon!

  5. Eileen

    Ah yes, film versions. I always want to read the book first. But as I love film so much I don’t always worry – I don’t think it is a competition between the two as they as such different forms. One film I loved was ‘To kill a mockingbird’. It was beautifully done and Gregory Peck was fab. In some cases I think the film can be better than the book – shock, horror!

    • Caroline

      Oh yes, I agree about To Kill a Mocking Bird – about as significant as reading the book itself. And I am sure that books can be improved upon by being filmed, especially if they were only a good story, not much more. Any more nominations for a good film version of a book?

  6. I too was going to mention to kill a mockingbird. We did it for our book club a few months ago where we read the book, had lunch and then watched the film and analyzed the two different mediums and without dissent they were both rated highly by all with both having the desired impact.

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