Several times throughout my life, I have found myself deliberating over what makes a decent book-to-film adaptation and the answer I’ve come to discover is disheartening to say the least. For decades now, the Hollywood industry has thrived on translating novels on screen, as a means of resurrecting them, meanwhile quite frankly achieving the complete opposite.
I’ll never forget the disappointment I felt after having witnessed the detrimental effects of World War II through a naïve eight year-old’s eyes on paper, only to have it completely ridiculed and understated on screen. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, written by Irish novelist John Boyne, tastefully conveys what the Holocaust appeared like to the naïve son of a German concentration camp General. It is in the little boy’s uncomprehending shoes that we walk through the streets of “Out-With,” mentally correcting his fairy tale view on things throughout.
Throughout the novel, we as Holocaust-conscious readers are able to recognize the eight-year-old’s surroundings, even when he isn’t; we know that the ‘farm’ that he so often refers to in the novel is not in fact a farm at all (which is in itself both poetic in a way, given concentration camps were places in which Jews were unquestionably treated like animals.) But the point is the reader is constantly challenged. Presenting the story from that angle is something that can undoubtedly only be achieved so vividly through words and words alone.
I was devastated to discover that not even my favourite actress, the incredible, witty national treasure that is Emily Blunt, could save The Girl on the Train. The sense of trepidation the novel is consistently able to sustain with every page-turn, is definitely something that loses its way in the movie. I mean, speaking from a logical point of view, you would think having a novel visually presented to you on screen would quite literally paint a clearer picture of the story and ultimately create happier readers.
However, in taking it to the big screen, you are also taking away the reader’s most powerful weapon, which is, their ability to make it their own. One of, if not the most, beautiful thing about reading is our ability to do this. Using our own dispositions and the information we are given through the text, we sculpt the characters, settings and essentially the plot into our own interpretation of the story. So, in a sense, we’re all reading a different version of the same book. As readers, we individually construct ideas of the character’s appearance, their mannerisms, and even their likes and dislikes, regardless of whether these things have actually been pointed out.
Witnessing the war from an angle which would otherwise be extremely hard to capture, was definitely one of the most captivating things about the novel for me. However, studying about psychotherapy made me realize that people also often rely on novels that illustrate an angle they can relate to in times of need. Oftentimes we associate characters in the novel with significant persons in our lives growing up; it’s definitely something I did as a kid, reading Jacqueline Wilson novels. We often make sense of the significant persons in our lives through the characters they resemble in the novels we read. When the movie adaption contradicts these beliefs/associations, you no longer find yourself identifying with the characters and the plot as you previously did (which is when the pettiness as a reader begins to manifest). So, if you’ve ever sat at the cinema wondering why your bookworm of a friend is looking more irritated than ever, then it’s probably because they’re planning out how they would have done things differently. I know I do.
Perhaps if I hadn’t read the novel first, the movie’s impressive 7.8 rating on IMDb wouldn’t appear somewhat nonsensical. But exactly how many movies do I ruin for myself by reading the novel first? I’m certain most readers ask themselves this exact question at one point or another. And whilst I don’t have a definitive numerical figure, I can tell you this. In the past, I’ve discovered the adapted movie to a novel before reading it, which of course made reading the novel less enjoyable. And I can tell you that if I had to prioritise either enjoying the movie or enjoying the novel, I’d happily pass Vue to get to Waterstones every single time. (Or pop online to Amazon and get it for one fifth of the original amount. Let’s be real.)