Hello, everyone! I was thinking about page-to-screen adaptations the other day to try to figure out the secret sauce that makes a film succeed instead of crash and burn. Since I started reading books as a wee lass, the adage has always been “the book is better.” After having my expectations tarnished by adaptations of my favorite books (Harry Potter, Enders Game, The Crimson Petal and the White, etc.) I didn’t trust movies to be able to capture what made those books special, and most importantly, what made those books special to me. As I’ve gotten older and read more books and watched more movies, I’ve realized that I had a narrow view of film adaptations, because for every botched film adaptation (R.I.P The Snowman, you deserved better), you have a masterpiece like The Godfather, To Kill a Mockingbird, or The Shining, films which not only did their originals justice, but also elevated them into media art. The kicker is, some of these masterpiece films started as mediocre books, while the worst adaptations originated from brilliant novels. Making a successful adaptation is not about the quality of the original work, nor does it rely on producing a carbon-copy of the story. To produce a worthy page-to-screen adaptation, you have to be willing to view the original story as an empty canvas and be brave enough to paint over it with your own vision. That sort of bravery depends on only one thing: the director.
For this post I’m going to compare two novels and their respective adaptations. The first novel, The Help, is a poignant, personal exploration of racial prejudice in 1960s Missisippi. It’s a distressing novel that ends on a heartbreaking note, and leaves many questions about its main characters unanswered. Compare that novel to the film adaptation, which is a sugary-sweet movie that relishes more in the petty comedy of the novel than its more important social observations.
Directed by Tate Taylor, who also directed The Girl on the Train ( another misguided adaptation), the film becomes nothing more than a workman’s adaptation of a brave and beautiful novel. Instead of building off the novel’s solid base, Taylor deletes and truncates scenes to make his movie less complex and emotionally impactful than its inspiration. He even insults the novel by moving the role of protagonist from Aibilene to Skeeter, which erases the book’s intentions to give the Aibilene, the black maid, more narrative significance than Skeeter, the white journalist. Visually, it’s a colorful movie, but it’s also as flat and boring as if it was a biopic.
The Help is a perfect example of a novel with scathing social commentary being watered down into an easily digestible “chick flick.” Usually when movies edit out the more complex parts of the original narrative, it makes the story suffer. But that’s not always the case.
Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith courts controversy on every page. Centered around Sue, a thief turned lady’s maid, and Maud, a lady with a secret past, the novel follows the pair through Victorian England as they trick and cheat each other, all while keeping their romantic feelings at bay. Written like a puzzle, Fingersmith lobs curveballs and astonishing reveals at every turn. And even though the novel is well-written and features the unique voices of LGBT women, its complexities become burdensome as the novel progresses. The novel yearns for a stronger editorial hand to slash in red ink at its more convoluted plot lines.
Enter Park Chan-Wook and his adaptation The Handmaiden, which pares down the heavy work into a sleek, powerful version of the original. Moving the setting from Victorian England to the Japanese occupation of Korea lends the movie some fresh inspiration, transforming it from a LGBT spin on a Victorian bodice-ripper to a critique of Japanese colonialism and the strict ideal of East-Asian femininity.
Where Waters’ themes of female independence are vague and hidden under her byzantine plot, Park brings them front and center. His Sue and Maud are Sookee and Hideko, two girls sharpened by circumstance, and softened by each other’s love. His film is a spectacle of costume, elaborate set-pieces, and a stirring orchestra, but he never draws away from the two women at the heart of his film. Their journey to liberate themselves from male ownership drives the plot, which is significantly simpler than original, but that’s to its credit.
While Tate Taylor edited The Help and made it into a snooze, Park Chan-Wook edited Fingersmith to reveal its greatness. Park probably could have done the same to The Help and made it into a cinema masterpiece, too. It’s Park’s directorial eye that allows him to transform a good novel with hints of brilliance into a full-blown work of art, just as it’s Taylor’s lack of that eye that made him reduce a stunning novel into a milquetoast film.
Many books suffer from adaptations, but when we look at which succeed and which don’t, it’s almost always down to the virtues of the director. Let’s put that old adage to rest. The book is always better, until the right director comes along.