Writers' experiences with cinematic adaptations
It can be one of the most controversial outcomes of writing a popular book – that it will be adapted into a film and in the process, lose a part of its plot, characterisation and the ability to get into the characters' mindset and motivations. No matter how faithful to the written version, there will be something that will enrage the book's admirers. But what do the writers themselves think?
Addressing this seminal question were five acclaimed novelists and/or screenwriters of contemporary times, who had different views on this issue which spans authorship, creative freedom, interpretation and differences in story-telling across various media.
Setting the ball rolling was Booker Prize winner Michael Ondaatje, who felt that turning a novel into a film first entailed finding "a short story within it." Holding there were many feted but not that simple films, he, however, said their plots or style cannot be as complex as those of novels, citing the case of his 'The English Patient', whose film version cut out the book's non-chronological narrative to make a more coherent depiction onscreen.
However, he acknowledged, filmmaking has its unique techniques or "subliminal elements", which can lead to the entire story being restructured in the various stages of the adaptation.
Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Mira Nair stated that retaining the book's essence is as important as creative freedom, noting she treats her works with "the same love and idiosyncrasies." Of her adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri's 'The Namesake', she said that author created the novel, and she shepherded the film's direction with her own inventiveness in meaning-making. This included, she said, an added focus on the parents' point-of-view and visual dimensions of Kolkata absent in the book, part of her "inventions that make the film breathe and feel like it's of the soil."
For Chinese-American author Amy Tan, the 1993 movie adaptation of her 'The Joy Luck Club', for which she co-wrote the screenplay, had to fit into its own form. What was important to her was finding the heart and soul of the book and creating a fresh narrative for the cinematic form. "I was more disrespectful to my book than the filmmakers!" she admitted but added that she felt no artistic disconnect with the film version which retained the essence of her story.
Tan also opined that the power of cinematic adaptation also lay in the "freedom to sculpt a distinct narrative."
British novelist and screenwriter Nicholas Shakespeare added that in cinema the medium changes, and a central character in the novel can be replaced with the vantage point of
the camera, while a screenwriter has the additional access to music and silences.
But his compatriot, veteran playwright ("Arcadia", "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead" etc) and Academy award-winning screenwriter ("The Russia House", "Shakespeare in Love") Sir Tom Stoppard believes that the "malleability of form subverts any attempt at making a unified declaration of adapting books to screen."
Stoppard admitted that as a text-driven writer, he finds himself "pitched between a moral duty to be faithful to work and a professional duty to be the handmaiden of the director" but added that between the two, he would be more inclined to be more defensive of the film, because of his intimacy with the form.
The greatest of films are not those that follow rules to ensure risk-free filmmaking but those that are "transcendent rule-breakers", he contended,
Asked which of his works he felt didn't work on the screen, he quipped: "Which one worked, by the way?"