“The novel has provided filmmakers with an abundance of material to transform from the written word to visually engaging movies over the years. There are however fundamental difference between the two mediums which make this transference’s from one to the other quiet problematic. Using an example of a film adapted from a novel, describe both the advantages and the disadvantages inherent in the transfer of a film from medium to the other.”
Novels, plays and even comic books have formed the basis for screenplays from the early days of cinema to today. The depth and breadth of the characters and plots have provided scope for filmmakers to create an engaging and thought provoking raft of films by converting them from one medium to the other. This year’s academy award nominations for ‘Best Adapted Screenplay’ included some of the biggest films of the year; Brokeback Mountain, Capote, The Constant Gardener, A History of Violence and Munich with Brokeback Mountain the eventual winner. Based on a short story by Annie Proux it was arguably one of the most talked about films of the year.
Statistics claim that of all published novels approximately 2% are purchased for film options and of these only about 2% will make it to the screen. The most successful of the adaptations include films such as ‘Gone with the Wind’ by Margaret Mitchell, ‘East of Eden’ by John Steinbeck, ‘The Godfather’ by Mario Puzo and ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ By Ken Kesey. In Recent times it seems that every film coming from director Ron Howard was once a bestseller most notably his latest blockbuster, ‘The Da Vinci Code’. Although not yet released the hype and controversy surrounding it is gaining momentum and it remains to be seen what will come from what is arguably a mediocre novel. The most memorable
One of the most innovative directors of the last fifteen years is David Fincher. Frequently compared to Stanley Kubrick, who also like to mix media he directed the film version of Chuck Palahnuik’s novel Fight Club. Anecdotal evidence suggests that although the novel attracted a lot of interest from the major Hollywood studios it was seen as complex and not adaptable for the screen. It was not until the book was condensed, scenes moved around and internal thought turned into dialogue that Laura Ziskin, president of Fox 2000 pictures decided to purchase it.
With a controversial topic and a novel that doesn’t follow a linear pattern the initial difficulties are evident. But can it be said that these media are just different ways of telling the same story? With a long novel, condensing is necessary but perhaps this is done at the expense of some scenes. This should be the rare exception. If a picture is worth a thousand words and movies are made up of 24 pictures per second, then a feature-length film should have enough pictures in it to take care of all but the most verbose writers. The problem with this argument is that books and movie are more than just different ways to tell the same story. They are different media, with different tools and different audience expectations; sometimes the differences of form are at least as significant as the apparent similarities in content. Fight Club the film tries hard to stay true to the book. Many of the lines are taken directly from the book’s dialogue and narration. The film uses rapid-fire edits and visual asides to capture the feel of the novel, which frequently jumps between two or more stories per chapter. But there are some things that do not translate. The book is fragmented beyond the film’s ability to duplicate it. The chapters’ multiple plot lines interrupted by each other and the narrator’s frequent references to support-group speak, air travel and home bomb-making techniques. Snippets of thoughts and events from earlier in the book continuously return, creating a hyperactive fugue as words and phrases repeat and fold in on themselves. The technique becomes a way to convey the narrator’s mental state and keep the narrator always present in the text. Other characters may speak but their statements are surrounded by the narrator’s asides and analysis. Without any access to the story other than through the narrator, the book remains his.
Fight Club screenwriter Jim Ulhs acknowledges that he had to dissect author Chuck Palanhuik’s chapters into multiple scenes to make the story linear enough not only for the film’s audience but also initially for the studio executives interested in proceeding with it. In comparison to so-called serious fiction, where a certain degree of formal experimentation is almost expected, film is still largely a unitary medium. Despite certain advances timelines are still relatively linear, shot order still follows a standard pattern, and transitions between scenes are still set up to not confuse the audience. Although the movie is adventurous by film standards, it cannot be as disjointed or as thick with the narrator as the novel is.
The transition from book to film also adds to the story’s meaning by giving the other characters greater independence. Where the book has the narrator tell, the movie also shows. Tyler, Marla, and Big Bob are not just voices in a jumbled first person narrative. We see them and hear them, freeing them from the constant interruption and commentary that envelops everything in the book. In particular, this greater independence changes the Tyler/narrator dynamic. In the book, Tyler’s presence is spectral; he is first a guru and later an antagonist, but he is never a challenge for narrative authority. Our knowledge of him is just slightly better than those fight club members who only know the legend. In the film, because we expect the star to play the protagonist, having the better-recognized actor play Tyler gives his critiques and challenges additional weight. When the two characters first meet and Tyler offhandedly dismisses the narrator’s “cleverness”, it not only highlights the narrator’s empty coping mechanisms, it upends his role in the film as guide and interpreter.
As a result, the book may always feels like it is the narrator’s, but the film frequently feels like it is Tyler’s, who directly addresses the audience informing us we aren’t our khakis, and just in case we might miss it, the image jumps around the screen, as if the print of the film were about to fall apart.
The book, which is so bound up in the narrator’s head, has a more psychological focus. It places greater emphasis on his sense of abandonment, his alienation and his uncertainty about life. It makes more explicit the connection between Tyler, fight club, Project Mayhem and the narrator’s inability to cope with his feelings for Marla. Even the book’s Tyler has a more individualistic agenda. In fact the explicitly anti-corporate acts of the film’s Project Mayhem are absent from the book. Instead, the novel’s Project Mayhem strikes out at all facets of culture, both to attack values Tyler thinks are false and to teach his followers that they can shape history. In the book, Big Bob’s fatal Project Mayhem operation (in the movie, an assault on a Starbucks-like coffee shop) is a simple act of parking meter vandalism. Even Tyler’s ultimate scheme is a far more symbolic act of toppling a building onto a national museum.
In keeping with the book’s more personal focus, the narrator is able to make good on Tyler’s stated nihilistic objective of clearing the ground so something new can take hold. The book’s final dialogue suggests the narrator has abandoned both his old way of life and his Tylerisms. Tyler becomes the ladder to be thrown away after the narrator has climbed it, an obstacle that must be overcome before he can become whole. The movie is less clear what the narrator’s opposition to Tyler means, or what direction his life will take with Tyler gone. On the other hand, it is the openness of the ending, along with the film’s poker-faced responses to inquiries into how much it endorses Tyler’s programme that make it seem so subversive.
These differences don’t mean that one version is somehow less authentic than the other. You can find one more interesting or better realised than the other, or use one to elucidate meanings hidden in the other, but to suggest that one has primacy is detrimental to an objective critical analysis of both. Despite the difficulties faced by the filmmakers when beginning the project they have managed to make an fast paced, visually stimulating and provocative film.