by Catriona Mills

Articles in “Film”

Books We Think We Know

Posted 12 October 2008 in by Catriona

I’ve been pondering that title since I first came up with the idea for this post (yesterday, though I’ve made it sound as though this is a magnum opus I’ve been working on for a decade) and I’m not entirely happy with it now. It sounds patronising.

But what I’ve been thinking about are books that we think we know all about because of the film adaptations, and I can’t think of a better way of putting it.

I’ve mentioned this idea before, back when I was excited about Steven Moffat’s Jekyll, and I still maintain that those are the big three: Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

It’s not surprising, really: the Wikipedia page for Stevenson’s novella lists thirty-six stage plays, movies, musicals, television programmes, and video games based on the work (though it would never have occurred to me that Jerry Lewis’s The Nutty Professor is based on Stevenson’s work. Then again, I’ve never seen either it or the Eddie Murphy remake).

The page for Dracula shows at least sixty-three adaptations (unless anyone wants to double-check my desultory counting), including Bouncy Castle Dracula, performed entirely in a bouncy castle, at the 2008 Edinburgh Fringe Festival and a film described as a “softcore lesbian pornographic semi-parodical film.” (Now that’s quite the number of adjectives. On the other hand, that should bring stragglers in from Google.)

The Frankenstein page lists forty-six movies, and I didn’t even count through the parodies and the television adaptations. The only one I remember is Kenneth Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (which it really wasn’t), and I didn’t care for that one at all.

But, really, with at least 145 movies, stage plays, and television adaptations between them (not to mention countless books), is it any wonder that we all tend to think we know exactly what’s going to happen when we read the books?

This is, I suspect, an area where Pierre Bayard’s argument in How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read could be misapplied: someone drawing their knowledge of Dracula and Frankenstein exclusively from the “cultural library” is just as likely—maybe more likely—to end up with an entirely skewed perspective on the novels.

Mind, it’s not that I think these films are a bad thing.

Okay, I did think that the recent BBC adaptation of Dracula with Marc Warren and Sophia Myles was a bad thing. A very, very bad thing. But my general point stands: having texts that have so thoroughly soaked into the general culture that they can be performed in bouncy castles at a fringe festival is a wonderful thing.

(That these canonical texts of English literature were written by a woman, a Scotsman, and an Irishman is a bonus.)

But they remain for me the standard of texts whose adaptations are more pervasive than the originals and yet don’t give a fair account of the original.

(Okay, I acknowledge that “fair account” is subject to change depending on the reader, and that my idea of an accurate adaptation—or an adaptation that it, at least, faithful in spirit to the original—is not going to be the same as that of other people. But I’m sticking with that solipsistic phrasing.)

They’re not unique, though.

I’ve mentioned before—in the middle of an Oz kick as I am—that I’m no great fan of the original film. And Katharine M. Rogers makes two excellent points in L. Frank Baum, Creator of Oz about ways in which the film shifted the spirit of the book. She points out, firstly, that Judy Garland is too mature to play Baum’s conception of Dorothy: “She is not a small child who is accidentally transported to a strange land and longs for the security of home, but a dissatisfied teenager who is so critical of home that she runs away and has to learn [. . .] a moral lesson” (253). Secondly, she argues that presenting Dorothy’s adventure as a dream is a falsification (253), and I would agree with that wholeheartedly: Baum’s Oz is distinctly part of the geography of our world.

Rogers also emphasises that much of the Oz mythology can be traced to the film rather than the books, such as the extremely small stature of the Munchkins and the consequent adoption of the word into English as meaning an extremely short person (they are the same size as the child Dorothy in the books) and in the extreme witchiness of the Wicked Witch of the West (253).

Nick also mentioned, when we were discussing this last night, Tim Burton’s Batman Returns, which—to the best of our combined knowledge—was the first text to present Catwoman as a supernatural being, rather than a cat burglar. (I understand the recent Halle Berry film follows this pattern, but I’ve not seen it.)

Sherlock Holmes is another example, and I’m not even thinking of the recent adaptation with Richard Roxburgh, which showed Holmes injecting cocaine in a railway station on the way to Baskerville Hall, where the real Holmes would never have used cocaine in the middle of a case—he only used it as a mental stimulant when he had no cases on hand. The Basil Rathbone films, lovely as Basil Rathbone is (especially when he’s celebrating “pirate fashion”), bore little if any resemblance to the originals—especially since the final twelve, of fourteen, were set during World War Two and involved Nazis.

Will we never be free from inappropriate Nazis?

Even The Princess Bride, adapted by the same man who wrote the original novel, is a lighter, brighter version of itself. A fabulous film, but distinct from the book—and how could it not be, when the books is so heavily concerned with process of writing prose?

It’s not that these films are bad films. They’re not.

And it’s not that I somehow harbour resentment against people for enjoying films instead of reading the original books. I don’t.

But these are fascinating to me: films that owe their existence to books and, for all that the books in each of these cases (except maybe The Princess Bride) are widely reprinted, set on school and university syllabuses, and still read, the films have an extraordinary currency that makes them more potent than their progenitors.

Now I put it like that, Frankenstein doesn’t seem like such an odd choice to head the list.

But have I missed anything?

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