Clare and Hannah talk about the good, the bad, and the ugly of book-to-movie adaptations.
Books we mentioned:
- Til We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis
- Dracula by Bram Stoker
- Dune by Frank Herbert
- Watership Down by Richard Adams
- Ender’s Game , Speaker for the Dead , Xenocide , Children of the Mind by Orson Scott Card. Available separately, or as a 4-volume boxed set.
- Bleak House by Charles Dickens. The link connects to an annotated edition of the book. Annotations greatly enhance your enjoyment of Dickens by helping you understand the extensive political and social commentary in his books.
- Emma and Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.
- Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle. We recommend this edition: The Original Illustrated Sherlock Holmes. It contains all 37 short stories, which appeared in The Strand Magazine from 1891 through 1905, along with the original illustrations by Sidney Paget. This volume also contains the complete novel The Hound of the Baskervilles. Clare received her copy as a Christmas gift when she was 10 years old!
- The Holy Bible by God
- Catch 22 by Joseph Heller
- The Odyssey by Homer. The translation by Robert Fagles is excellent. It’s available separately, or with The Iliad and The Aeneid in this 3-volume boxed set.
- Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding
- The Horatio Hornblower series by C.S. Forester: 11 novels total. Many compilations, collections and omnibuses have been published over the years, but start here:
Movies and TV series we mentioned:
- Dracula starring Bela Lugosi. This edition is a collection of 6 classic monster movies from Universal Pictures: Dracula, The Wolfman, Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, The Mummy, and The Invisible Man.
- Dune: Part One (2021) dir. by Denis Villenueve, starring Timothee Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Jason Momoa, Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem
- Watership Down (2018) starring Nichola Holt, John Boyega
- Ender’s Game (year) dir. by somebody. Starring Harrison Ford.
- Bleak House (2005). Starring Gillian Anderson, Alun Armstrong, Denis Lawson, John Lynch, Carey Mulligan
- Emma (year). Starring Romala Garai, Michael Gambon
- Pride and Prejudice (year BBC mini-series). Starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle.
- Doctor Who — old & new.
- Sherlock Holmes and his sidekick Dr. John Watson have been brought to life on screen many times:
- Don’t miss Basil Rathbone’s iconic portrayal of the Baker Street sleuth! He starred as Holmes in 14 feature films in the late 1930s and early 1940s.
- Clare grew up watching Jeremy Brett as Holmes in the 1980s Granada Television series. In America, it aired on PBS’s Mystery! program. For Clare’s family, Mystery! was “appointment television.” Those were good old days, when you either made time to watch the show as it aired on broadcast television…or you missed it. Unless you had the mad skills to program your VCR to record it in your absence. In fact, we often recorded the program anyway, even if we were there to watch it. Then we could watch it again whenever we wanted. That was “on demand video,” 80s style, baby!
- Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law star as Holmes and Watson in Sherlock Holmes (2009) and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011). We hear tell that a third installment is in the works…
- Sherlock (2010) Imaginative modern adaptation starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. Holmes is still a very odd person and Watson is still a veteran of a war in Afghanistan.
- Noah (2014) dir. by Darren Aronofsky. Starring Russell Crowe, Emma Watson, and Anthony Hopkins. A Catholic bishop, Robert Barron, has a fascinating take on this film.
- The Chosen. A multi-season TV series telling the life of Christ, primarily from the points-of-view of the apostles and others who encountered Him. It is free to watch on the website or via a nice app for iOS or Android. DVDs are also available to purchase. The project is funded primarily “crowd-funded” by viewers and donors.
- Catch 22. A new adaptation of Joseph Heller’s novel is available on Hulu.
- O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) dir. by The Cohen Brothers. Starring George Clooney, John Goodman, Holly Hunter.
- Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001) starring Renee Zellweger, Colin Firth, Hugh Grant, Jim Broadbent
- Hornblower (1998-2003) Produced by A&E. Starring Ioan Gruffudd as Horatio Hornblower.
A movie we should have mentioned but didn’t because we totally didn’t realize that Denis Lawson had a recurring small role in it:
- Star Wars!! Denis Lawson plays Wedge Antilles!!
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Clare is an independent author who would love it if you checked out her books! If you like exciting thrillers featuring an “everyman” hero who rises to his or her full potential in the face of peril, you might enjoy The Keys of Death. It’s a veterinary medical thriller about a small-town animal doctor who gets tangled up in a whistle-blowing scheme against a big biotech company. If you prefer shorter fiction, try Startling Figures, a collection of three paranormal stories.
BTW: Keys would make a great movie! If you are a movie producer, director, or literary agent, please contact us at email@example.com!
Clare: Hello everybody, and welcome to this episode of Splanchnics! I’m your host Clare Walker. I’m an independent author who, eight weeks into the coronavirus stay-home protocol, is desperately in need of a haircut. I’m joined by my co-host and daughter, Hannah Kubiak, an artist who can do it all: drawing, painting, acting, music, and of course, knitting. Hannah is also a better writer than me, and I can’t wait to see her first novel adapted into a critically acclaimed HBO series.
Hannah: Oh, that’s probably what’s going to happen to it.
Clare: And that is our topic for today. We’re going to talk about adapting the page to the screen, so stay tuned.
Clare: Let’s do our input/output before we get into our topic. What have you been reading or watching or taking in lately?
Hannah: I have been reading Til We Have Faces for our next book club episode. I finished that, so I’ve been reading Dracula.
Clare: That’s interesting. I’ve never read Bram Stoker’s Dracula. So you’ve been reading. And what’s your output?
Hannah: I’ve been working on a play.
Clare: Writing your own original play? Nice.
Hannah: Based on a murder that happened in St. Paul in 1910.
Clare: I can’t wait to read that and see it on the stage.
Here’s my output. It has been a bit tedious. What I’ve been doing is maintenance on the digital uploads of my novel and my short story collection. There’s a reason why most authors let somebody else do that stuff. But I’m an independent author, so I have to do all that myself.
Now, here’s my input. I’ve been reading Frank Herbert’s novel Dune. This is one of the reasons I thought it would be fun to talk about screen adaptations, because they’re going to make another attempt to bring Dune to the big screen. It’s in post-production, which means that they have filmed it, they’ve done the principal photography as it’s called. It’s due to come out in December of 2020.*
* Update: Because of the Corona Virus pandemic, Dune ended up hitting theaters in October of 2021. Clare and Hannah recorded their post-viewing conversation, which you can listen to here or on your favorite podcast player. (It’s Season 2 – Episode 12 – The Duke Leto Atreides Fan Club.) You can also listen on the show notes page for the episode.
Hannah: No way.
Clare: Who knows what kind of delays might be occurring because of people not being able to work on stuff right now. But I would imagine editing and putting special effects into movies is something that you could do while maintaining social distancing.
Hannah: It looks like it’s going to be pretty good.
Clare: Yeah, it’s epic. It needed to be done in an epic way because it’s an epic story. It’s one of my favorite novels and I would put it on any short list of sci-fi fantasy novels.
One thing that’s really interesting about this book is that it’s written from a third person omniscient point-of-view. In the same scene we will get the inner thoughts of each character in the scene. It’s a very unusual technique in books written today. Most of the time books are written in a third person limited point-of-view, where the entire scene or chapter or even the entire book will be from the point-of-view of one character. They might switch point-of-view characters from chapter to chapter or sometimes from scene to scene, but you hardly ever see a story where they’ve got omniscient point-of-view. Really interesting. And it really threw me off at first because a lot of us aren’t used to stories being written like this. It’s a very unusual technique.
Hannah: Whenever I send something to my writer’s group from college I get that a lot. My corrections will say “You switched point-of-view here. You cannot do this.”
Clare: You can. Frank Herbert did it and a lot of authors used to do that. People just don’t do that very often anymore.
So, we’re talking about movie adaptations of books and short stories into a visual medium, like a TV or a movie.
Hannah: Here’s a question: Why do we adapt books to movies?
Clare: Because. Sand worms. You want to see them. Huge. On the big screen.
But how about this: books that were written a long time ago have archaic language or archaic storytelling conventions that are difficult to read. “This is English. I can tell. But I have no idea what that just said.” Archaic language would be anything Shakespeare and, a little bit Jane Austen. It’s something that makes Dickens very difficult to read sometimes, not so much the language and the dialogue, but just the circumstances, because he tends to put so much social commentary and contemporaneous opinion into his writing, and you’ll read whole passages where you can tell this is some sort of commentary about what must have been a very pressing political concern at the time. Stuff that doesn’t have any relevance for a modern reader would just be cut out.
You’ve heard this phrase, “The movie wasn’t as good as the book.”
There are numerous examples of that. The first attempt to adapt Dune wasn’t very good. I think someone tried to adapt Watership Down not too long ago. I think the second attempt was better.
Hannah: The one with Nicholas Holt and John Boyega?
Clare: It’s a long and complex and very rich deep book, and they were able to adapt that fairly well into a multi-episode series. I don’t think it translated as well into just a motion picture length film.
Hannah: Lots of books just have too many details that are relevant to the whole story. Sometimes it’s hard to break a book into a typical three act structure.
Clare: You were telling me about Ender’s Game and how you didn’t really think that was a successful adaptation.
Hannah: I was underwhelmed by it. But keep in mind, Ender’s Game is my favorite book of all time.
Clare: Also, it’s a novel that has a lot of internal monologue of characters. We spent a lot of time in a character’s head. A lot of actions take place within the heart and mind of the main character. It’s hard to bring that to screen.
Hannah: There’s this moment where he gets into a fight at school and he beats the living daylights out of this kid. Looking at it from the outside you don’t know why he did that, but in his brain he’s had this internal monologue where he’s considered not fighting them and he’s considered just throwing one punch and having that be it. But he thinks, “No, I have to win this fight, and then I have to win all of the future fights by completely destroying this kid.” You don’t really see that in movies, but a lot of Orson Scott Card’s books are like that, with a lot of thinking and a lot of talking. The other three books: Speaker for the Dead, Xenocide, and Children of the Mind have a lot more scenes with people having conversations about ethics and philosophy, and it’s fascinating, but in a movie, you wouldn’t be able to get all that complexity in.
Clare: Right. Movie and TV scenes are meant to be quicker than that. You can’t have long talky scenes. It just doesn’t work as well on the screen. It could work in a play. There are certain books that would translate better into being a play because long conversations are much more tolerable to an audience sitting in a play than an audience sitting in a movie theater.
Maybe that’s why I haven’t been too happy with the adaptations of Watership Down, because that’s my favorite childhood book. Maybe it didn’t translate as well as I wanted.
It’ll be interesting to see how Dune translates, because it has a lot of inner thoughts of characters throughout scenes. There’s this famous scene–one of my favorite scenes in that book–there is a state banquet, and every time somebody says something, three or four characters have some thought about it. Every time a character raises an eyebrow or sits back in a certain way everyone’s reacting to all the subtleties of movement and nuanced tones of voice and stuff like that.
Hannah: There was some code word or something in the Duke’s toast, and a couple of people at the table who were part of the family realize we have to get everyone out of here now because there’s an emergency.
Clare: If you were going to do that in a movie, you would have to have a scene right before that banquet that establishes what the code word is. It might be clunky if you did it that way, but that’s what you’d have to do.
Hannah: Either that or somebody walks up to him right after and says, “You mentioned cantaloupes in your toast. What’s the problem? Do we have a cantaloupe situation?”
Clare: Sometimes that statement, “the movie is never as good as the book” isn’t true. Sometimes the movie is better than the book or easier to take in as a story than the book was. Bleak House by Charles Dickens is my favorite book that I have not been able to finish. Because it’s like I was saying before: it’s full of these little nit-picky political commentaries and I didn’t understand what he was talking about. But the adaptation that was made of it is really good. They strip it down to the important stuff. You know it’s a cautionary tale about the phrase, “the love of money is the root of all evil.” That is basically the theme of this story. It’s a story about this vast fortune that is currently in estate probate, and it’s being decided who’s going to inherit all of this and everyone’s after it. It’s just horrible what happens to people because of greed.
Plus it has spontaneous human combustion in it.
Hannah: Of course. I love that that guy said it so seriously in the inquest. “I have concluded it was the result of spontaneous human combustion.” And everyone goes, “Ooh. Sounds serious.”
Clare: That was, maybe, a misstep by Dickens, but they managed to kind of pull it off in that adaptation.
Hannah: Dickens believed in spontaneous human combustion. He was a weird dude.
Clare: This adaptation that we’re talking about is a multi-episode mini-series made in 2009* starring Gillian Anderson…Alun Armstrong…Denis Lawson…John Lynch…Carey Mulligan. It’s really good.
* It was actually made in 2005. And here’s something both Clare and Hannah should have known: Denis Lawson, who plays John Jarndyce in the series, also had a recurring role as Wedge Antilles in the Star Wars movies! Bad nerds! No biscuit! He also played Captain “Dreadnought” Foster in the wonderful Horatio Hornblower series starring Ioan Gruffudd
Clare: What are some of your favorite adaptations?
Hannah: I really enjoyed the adaptation of Emma that was made a couple of years ago with Ramola Garai and Michael Gambon. It’s great. It’s a mini-series.
Clare: It seems to me that all the British actors must be in Dickens and Austen and Agatha Christie adaptations to be successful.
Hannah: And Dr. Who.
Clare: And Sherlock. Speaking of an interesting adaptation of the page to the screen, what about the newest version of Sherlock Holmes?
Hannah: The modernization.
Clare: With Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. They move it from Victorian England into modern day England. I thought that was really cool.
Hannah: Dr. Watson still fought in Afghanistan.
Clare: That was clever. They were able to give him an almost identical backstory, but brought it into the modern day.
Hannah: What makes adapting a book into a movie work? What is the sort of recipe for a good adaptation? It’s not necessarily the book itself, because we’ve read excellent books that have made mediocre adaptations.
I appreciate it when an adaptation is faithful to the source material, but also puts a couple of new little nuggets in there, like perspectives you may not have thought of.
Clare: People might laugh when I say this, but I really loved the movie adaptation of Noah, with Russell Crowe and Emma Watson. It’s based on three chapters or something of the Bible from the book of Genesis, and they made this huge movie out of it. It’s really good.
Hannah: I enjoyed it, too.
Clare: It filled in a lot of the gaps, with very imaginative use of other para-Biblical myths from Hebrew culture.
And then another series where they’re really doing a good job fleshing out some of the stories is a new series called The Chosen. That one is based on the Gospels. It’s supposed to be a multi-season show. And one of the things that this particular adaptation is known for is going deeply into the backstories of the various characters. The whole first episode is about Mary Magdalene. The Bible mentions that Mary Magdalene had seven demons cast from her, and she became part of the group of disciples following Jesus around in his public ministry, but we don’t get any information about how that happened. So the first episode of this new series is all about Mary Magdalene and the trouble she’s in because she’s got seven demons, and then the last scene of the movie is her encounter with Jesus when he heals her.
Hannah: Another movie adaptation that I really enjoyed is one that I saw recently. It’s the mini-series adaptation of Catch 22 that was produced and directed by George Clooney. It has the sense of humor down. I almost want to just watch it again right now, to be honest with you. It’s hilarious and sad, just like the book.
What makes these adaptations work? The main thing is that you already have a story structure. Also, people are familiar with the story, but they still enjoy the story even when they know the ending. Since we were really little, we’ve enjoyed the same stories over and over and over again. There’s an excitement about knowing what’s going to happen and seeing what happens. Almost like you’re participating in the story yourself.
Clare: When you see it brought to life, you’re wondering how they’re going to pull this off or wondering how they’re going to visualize this.
Hannah: As a creative person myself, I often think that way when I go and see a play, picking up on interesting ways they’ve decided to tell the story visually. You know, from the time of the ancient Greeks, we’ve told stories in a different medium or with a different focus. A bunch of different playwrights in ancient Greece wrote their own version of the story of Electra.
Clare: So each of these Greek playwrights wanted to put their own twist or their own imagination into it.
Hannah: We had to do assignments in my mythology class where we read them all and compared and contrasted them.
Electra was the sister of Orestes. He’s the son who killed his mother because she murdered her husband because she loved another man while her husband was at war. Also, before he left for war, her husband sacrificed their other daughter for good weather to get him to the war. And she was still salty about that after 10 years for some reason.
Clare: Oh boy. Ancient Greeks. Are there any modern adaptations of those myths? Other than O, Brother, Where Art Thou? Isn’t that an adaptation of the Odyssey, roughly speaking?
Hannah: There’s a one-eyed Bible salesman who’s supposed to be the Cyclops and the sirens are sexy washer women that lure them in. I think that the KKK was supposed to be like the Lotus eaters or something. I’m not sure.
Clare: That was a really imaginative adaptation of the Odyssey. I love the idea of taking an older story and adapting it to modern times. We were talking about Sherlock Holmes. Bridget Jones’s Diary is a fairly rough adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. It’s got the same plot line where Bridget, the main character, ends up with someone extremely unsuitable who she was initially attracted to, but turns out to be all wrong and she’s been snubbing the guy who was going to be the real dish that she should be after. The first guy is the dumpster, and the second guy is the banquet.
Hannah: Played by Colin Firth, of course.
Clare: Yes. Colin Firth as Mister Darcy.
Hannah: It confused me so much because he played Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice as well. His resume must look really funny.
Clare: Imagine if Jane Austen or Dickens or Homer was adapted to the current idiom. They do that a little bit in The Chosen, this biblical story. There’s a scene where Simon is going off to do something and his wife is worried, and he says “I’ve got this,” which is a very current, modern American idiom, meaning “I can handle this. Don’t worry.”
Hannah: “Worry not, woman.”
Clare: So they could have made it with all the archaic King James-style English, but they didn’t. I’m just happy that, so far, the writers have refrained from having Jesus and the apostles address one another as “Dude.” They certainly haven’t done that yet, and I hope they don’t.
Hannah: “Throw your nets on the other side, dude.”
Clare: “Okay, dude! I’ll do it ‘cause you said. Whatever.”
Hannah: “Hang 10, J.C!”
I think that people enjoy seeing something adapted into a movie just because of a little mix of the familiar and the new.
Clare: That’s true. Well, should we sign off, punkin?
Hannah: I think we should!
Clare: Sounds like you want to go watch Catch 22 again.
Hannah: I might be doing that later. It’s pretty good. I highly recommend it.
Clare: I have to go downstairs and turn the carpet fans back on in the basement. We had another one of those “hundred-year rains.” I think we have one of those every other year, and some water got into my basement.
Hannah: I will sign us off here, then.
Clare: Okay, everybody! We hope you enjoyed this conversation about movie and film adaptations. Think about what you like to read and watch, and have at it! We’ll see you guys next time. Thank you for joining us. Everybody take care.