Most of my friends, if asked, could cite at least one favourite literary work that has been ruined during the process of adaptation from page to (small or large) screen. For me, it was the cinematic version of The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: immediately obvious that it would be completely impossible to distil down the brilliance of a bunch of radio comedy episodes and a couple of books into the format. Douglas Adams’ vast raft of source material would never effectively support a static, limited running time adaption.
Some writers work asks a lot of its readers, and expects you to do a lot in return. When you consider why Ian McEwan isn’t nearly as successful a writer as should be the case, there’s an argument that his work is simply not accessible enough to a general audience. Undoubtedly it is the subject matter he chooses to write about that is responsible: it remains a tough ask to adapt in order to gain larger critical success (and in turn drive book sales.)
However, as we discussed in the last essay, that’s not necessarily an issue anymore as an author: McEwan has begun to benefit from how modern audiences are themselves evolving to accept more extreme narratives that do less to entertain and more to challenge. It is also a reflection of the changes in current society that the desire to question contentious issues and decisions is coming to the fore, far more than was the case back in the early 1980’s when McEwan began his life as a writer.
For cinema audiences, it was Atonement that has became the most accessible and relatable of novel to screen adaptations, which benefited from the popularity of both leads (Kiera Knightley and James McAvoy) and a sweeping view of London and Northern France during the Second World War. The film won an Oscar for Best Original Score and the BAFTA for Best Film: of a total of 122 nominations for awards in its eligible period, 34 were given to an adaptation that was probably the most wholly satisfying of McEwan’s works at that time.
The key difference here, one has to initially argue, is the depth of field that Joe Wright gives to the visuals linked with the ability of screenwriter Christopher Hampton to create not simply a faithful reproduction of the narrative, but something that presents the significance of a quite complicated (yet ultimately linear) structure. However, for me at least, this novel is the most accessible of all his written work to begin with. The series of events that bring together Cecilia Tallis and Robbie Turner, and then drive them apart relies far less on the conceits and emotional dysfunction that earlier works use to drive the plot forward.
If one looks at Enduring Love as an example of how book and film are the same but somehow different, one can understand the complex set of variables at play which needs to be aligned to produce a consistent result from page to screen. However, as we have already established, what one person considers as ‘faithful’ can move a long way from another’s perception. In this case, the whole plot in the novel hinges around the obsessive nature of Jed Parry’s relationship with the main protagonist, Joe Rose. It doesn’t help that the film then significantly reduces the ages of these characters (which is not uncommon in adaptations to begin with) and that large amounts of depth from the original text is simply lost in the process of translation. There are flashes of brilliance in the visual adaptation, but not enough of what makes the story so quintessentially McEwan is preserved in the final version.
Having watched a number of the authors’ works adapted, undoubtedly it is The Child in Time which does the best work at giving the sense of genuine loss and disbelief that is prevalent in a great many of McEwan’s other narratives. It is undoubtedly due to the presence of someone who is a great fan of the source material: however, this too suffers greatly in the adaptive process. The first ten minutes are genuinely difficult to take in: the rest, however, is far less about the nature of space and time than this viewer would like, especially in the painting of other characters who effectively take away from the central roles and the point of the plot.
The overriding feeling I’ve got exploring these adaptations is that sometimes, books should never get translated into visual versions of their literary metaphors. In the modern world, however, it is almost an accepted norm that successful novels will, at some point, motivate somebody to want to translate their vision of events to a wider audience. Without this kind of inspiration, we would be so much poorer as a society: the problem with the individual adaptive process comes when attacking anything that has a particular fondness related to it. One need only look at the entire Marvel and DC Comics output in cinematic terms to know how some readers almost violently object to how somebody else paints their favourite heroes and heroines.
It is a sign of a wider acceptance of the contentious that there’s a raft of McEwan adaptations in the pipeline: On Chesil Beach and The Children Act will both be on cinema screens in 2018, and neither are easy reads. However, what may be more likely to save these two productions against of all that has preceded them is that the author has returned to adapt his own work. It is ironic as the man worked as a screenwriter in the 1980’s with a string of film credits during that time before his literary career truly took off. He even took a stab then at translating his own work, back in the 1990’s: The Innocent is a woeful rendering of the original novel and seemed to cure McEwan of any desire to continue the task.
The adaptation market for novelists, however, is big business, and the subject matters of the two upcoming movies (sexual awakening in the early 1960’s and the dilemmas of high profile legal cases including minors) could not be further apart in tone. From the early reviews, there appears to be at least some agreement that the heart of both novels has remained intact. However, it is unlikely that either will come close to the success of Atonement, which ultimately benefited from becoming a product of the period in which it was created. Of all the adaptations I have seen, if I am honest, no-one including the author has ever managed to successfully find the means to create a true visual representation of the pictures I was able to conjure in my own head.
I am left therefore with the increasing opinion that some books should remain the property of the reader and them alone. It is possibly significant that a large number of my favourite novels sit in this bracket: it is not simply down to the subtleties of language as a storytelling device, but the simple belief that some writers do their best work when the reader supplies the visuals. There’s a brilliant and often forgotten interface that is lost when all your stimulus comes from imagery, after all. Forcing the imagination to fill in the gaps is a far better means with which to scare or challenge thought process in the first place. If all one wants is escapist entertainment, then the cinema is likely never to be bettered, but to produce a work of power and gravitas using simply pictures and words is still a big ask.
It is here that books cannot be ignored, and why it would be more sensible sometimes not to imagine what might happen were our favourite book to make it to cinematic status. In these cases, it is far more sensible to allow imagination to be the director, and the pages present a screenplay that relies more on the reader’s rapt attention than it does special effects or a bankable star. In my world, I get to cast the actors liked most in the main roles, and send them on these adventures that someone else has worked hard to create on my behalf. Certainly, when it comes to Ian McEwan’s work, I’d rather the page remained the only way I could consume his stories.