Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Is the film ever better than the book? - Part 1: First Person Narratives

Book vs. Film

I am prone to making sweeping statements in life concerning my bookish loyalty, such as:

"Oh my God the book is always so much better than the film."
"Do film makers have any original ideas at all?"
"You haven't read the book!?!"
"I don't like to be told how to think and feel - I prefer to use my own imagination."

And I will continue to use them on a regular basis so people know I am more well read than them and generally better at life than them - obviously. Despite the smug joy of almost always having read the book first, for the most part it is always true - how could the intricacies of the book ever be properly translated? Particularly in books written in the first person. 

Katniss Everdeen

'The Hunger Games' is a good example of this - we can see inside Katniss' head in the book and the loss of this in the film, however good Jennifer Lawrence might be, is felt greatly. I have read a lot of movie reviews insulting Katniss and her strange choices and whiny attitude and, whilst they are not wrong, we do understand all of her choices in the book, because for all intents and purposes, we are her. 

Are all books written in the first person then made into average films? No. A good film-maker is like a good author and should be able to use their skill and intuition to get around the fact that a lot of the emotion in the book would be hidden beneath the surface in a film. 

Examples of bad-ass films adapted from first person narrative books:

Fight Club/American Psycho - the protagonist narrates the film like they would the book - only very skilled actors need apply!
Gulliver's Travels - multiple adaptations use the court scenes as exposition.
To Kill a Mockingbird/The Virgin Suicides - an adult version of the child protagonist (or in the case of the latter, a peripheral onlooker) narrating over the films as if reminiscing. Can be a bit twee and irritating - not in these cases obviously. The former is so well made it makes little difference, and the latter is clever and odd without being pretentious - both are skilfully done and a testament to the makers rather than just the books themselves.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest - Also narrated by a peripheral character rather than the main protagonist. Therapy sessions made use of for exposition and the strength of Jack Nicholson means we don't need a narrator to explain what he is thinking or feeling.

Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

I think first person narratives can be difficult to translate to the screen in general, not only because of the loss of inner turmoil, but also because you can't trust the narrator - its all from their point of view, and they can tell you whatever they like (an unreliable narrator can make an amazing book though, and be a source of a good old twist - I'm looking at you 'The Murder of Roger Ackroyd').  

Examples of books with first person narrators that would/have made bad films:

The Great Gatsby - Could be amazing - but never is. Nick as the peripheral narrator, not really knowing any more than the reader, works perfectly in the book but is just boring in the film adaptations.
The Catcher in the Rye - Despite previously offering you proof that a great film can indeed be made from a first person narrative, if I wrote a book as good as this I would not be letting anyone near it. Knowing how much the author and protagonist would detest a film adaptation and wonder about its attention seeking, money grabbing reason for existing - I think no, just no.
The Bell Jar - I would really like it if no-one ever attempts to touch this again. Books with the depth and desperation of this book and The Catcher in the Rye would be ruined by even losing 1% of its content - which would be rather inevitable. 
The Handmaid's Tale - God I hate this film, and it was made long before dystopian film adaptations were ten a penny and boring as hell. The film-makers decided it was best to not bother replacing any information lost through the lack of narration and carry on regardless. 

The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger

Basically, the book is usually better than the film, and even if the film is amazing the book probably is too - so just do both. Can an amazing film be made using a crappy book though? - To be discussed soon. 

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