Lost in adaptation

As the film version of The Time Traveler's Wife proves, it's a perilous journey from page to screen.
The film version of the novel The Time Traveler's Wife has been roundly criticised.
The film version of the novel The Time Traveler's Wife has been roundly criticised.

Any film adaptation from page to screen is fraught with danger. The latest to elicit ire from the book-reading community is Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife, which became a best-seller when it was published in 2003 and has since sold millions of copies worldwide. Criticisms levelled at the film version are varied: among them that it concentrates solely on the romance between Claire (Rachel McAdams) and the time traveller, Henry (Eric Bana), that the ending has been changed and that the time travelling isn't explained clearly enough. "The movie moves at such an agonisingly stately pace that by the end, side effects be damned, Henry's time travelling gene starts to look mighty appealing," moaned The Wall Street Journal.

Still, on the bright side, The Time Traveler's Wife is merely the most recent addition to the list of books that have been butchered by filmmakers. Who can forget the endless carping about the lacklustre on screen version of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code? Some might uncharitably say that, despite having sold 80 million copies, the book is pretty rubbish. But, the film sinks to dismal, confused lows despite the presence of the usually charismatic Tom Hanks.

Angels & Demons fared little better. Perhaps all we can do is hope that Ron Howard doesn't persevere with the newest Brown instalment, The Lost Symbol. Oh, but there are so many other epic failures. Remember that bittersweet book Captain Corelli's Mandolin by Louis de Bernières? Remember the utter hash of it that Nicolas Cage made with Penélope Cruz? The mandolin outacted the pair of them. Love in the Time of Cholera, based on the book by Gabriel García Márquez, was another adaptation deservedly slammed. Tellingly, it was the first of Márquez's works to be made by a big Hollywood studio instead of a Latin American one, and fans of the book were quick to complain about the loss of the book's philosophy, subtlety and romance. Accents weren't convincing, either.

"The entire cast speaks broken English like Manuel in Fawlty Towers," said one reviewer. Of course, the trouble is often that great books, which studios rush to snap up, have developed a fiercely loyal following. The Harry Potter films, for example. They're controversial; some love them, some definitely do not. Those in the latter camp are diehard fans of the books, most often outraged that scenes have to be slashed for brevity's sake so the audience loses too much of JK Rowling's detail.

But can the film versions of popular classics ever bear the weight of expectation? Witness the trashing that the recent film version of Brideshead Revisited received last year. In the area of science-fiction, it is worth paying homage to the drab awfulness that was the adaptation of Battlefield Earth, starring John Travolta. It started out life as a book by the Scientology founder L Ron Hubbard, disliked by some critics, applauded by others - especially the US politician Mitt Romney, who has previously said it is his favourite book. The film plundered new levels of tedium, with Travolta being given the honour of a Golden Raspberry award for Worst Onscreen Couple. (Travolta and "anyone sharing the screen with him".)

The works of Stephen King, who has more than 60 books to his name, are also divisive when it comes to their on screen translations. On the one hand, we have The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile, often lauded as "greats". There are disappointments too, though, with flicks such as Salem's Lot and Dreamcatcher. The Shining is a trickier one. King was said to have loathed Kubrick's 1980 version, starring Jack Nicholson, who he felt was fundamentally miscast in the role.

The relationship between filmmaker and author was reportedly not helped by Kubrick calling King up at all hours of the day and night with philosophical queries about the story. Those who like the film still thrash around internet forums discussing the topic with those who claim the book was superior. The fervour of the average horror film fan is matched by the fervour of the comic-book fan. Which explains why several big budget comic movies - Catwoman springs instantly to mind - have been so roundly abused. "When is a cat a dog?" asked Time magazine waggishly. "When it's a catwoman."

This autumn, several of the biggest film openings are adaptations - Fantastic Mr Fox, Cormac McCarthy's The Road, The Lovely Bones and the second in the Twilight series, New Moon. Here's hoping the film versions can keep bookworms happy.

Published: September 24, 2009 04:00 AM


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