It is a truth universally acknowledged that nowadays ‘I’ve read that’ can mean ‘I’ve seen the film’. There is no moral ground to be fought over here; frankly, in a world dealing with Isil, Donald Trump and climate change, no-one really gives a hoot whether you have read Middlemarch or watched the BBC adaptation. Sometimes your belief that because you once saw a film with the same name as a book you have not read you know what happens is misplaced. Mr Darcy, GCSE, A level and undergraduate English Literature students please note, does not go swimming in his undies at any point in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Neither Winnie-the-Pooh nor Babe are Americans in the books by AA Milne and Dick King-Smith (The Sheep Pig and utterly delightful). Come to that, the dull Inspector Morse has an equally dull and older sergeant in Colin Dexter’s novels. So the shape-shifting vertiginous journey from page to screen is an unpredictable process with very few rules. Add to that the fact that every film adaptation will infuriate at least as many I’ve-read-the-book viewers as it woos I’ve-never-read-the-book-and-I’m-not-planning-to, and you can see that all judgments are entirely subjective and you might find yourself shouting at the screen if you read on.
Let’s start with an easy one. Pride and Prejudice has been filmed twice (however tempting, I am ignoring Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, about to be unleashed upon a grateful, or bored, world). The 1940 version starred Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson and the principal hand in the script seems to have been Aldous Huxley’s. The plot bears some resemblance to the novel but is kinder, simpler and more romantic: three adjectives that illustrate the gulf between script and Austen, whose genius lies in her clear-sighted ability to be ruthlessly nasty about her characters. Olivier does his moody cleft-chin stuff to denote the romantic hero, an approach he had perfected the year before as Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights. I suppose we could be charitable and consider his performance in Pride and Prejudice as valuable war-work. Heaven knows people in Britain needed escapist, romantic films to go and see during the war, and this hugely popular film undoubtedly did its bit on both sides of the Atlantic to keep an idea of a heritage worth fighting for in the forefront of the public mind.
Sixty-five years later, the gods of the film industry decreed that the time was ripe for a new version, starring Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen. The first odd thing about this perfectly passable adaptation is how uninteresting it is compared to the same producers’ earlier film of Helen Fielding’s clever modernisation of Pride and Prejudice: yes, of course, the really jolly Bridget Jones’s Diary (but don’t bother with Bridget Jones 2, 3 and so on ad infinitum: notice that Miss Austen did not do sequels). And the other oddity is, ‘why did they bother?’, when the BBC version, made in 1995 and starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth, still held its unassailable iconic status, wet shirts notwithstanding.
The BBC’s great advantage, of course, was being able to tell its two-hundred-or-so page story across six 55-minute episodes rather than the edited-highlights approach dictated by a film’s two hours or so. The great exemplar of How to Film a Novel was made by Granada Television in 1981. In eleven languid but compelling episodes, Charles Sturridge (and Michael Lindsay-Hogg) creased the spine of their paperback edition of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited at Page 1and filmed exactly what the text said. That they also, serendipitously, found the perfect cast, the perfect locations and even the perfect music is all part of the magic. Someone made a film of the same name in 2008. Oh well.
The elbow-room that television allows is why the BBC Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is absorbing while the film is baffling. Should you be in the mood for an extended masterclass in acting, I can heartily recommend a weekend indoors watching Alex Guinness glacially and monumentally bring George Smiley to life in Tinker Tailor and Smiley’s People. You could, of course, make it a personal Le Carré festival by reading the books. John Le Carré, or David Cornwell as his parents thought of him, has written twenty-three novels so far, not one of them a dud. Better make it quite a long weekend.
There are books which, while perfectly good in themselves, are not a patch on their apotheosis in film. Graham Greene wrote the novella The Third Man as a warm-up exercise for the screenplay: publishing it must have felt like a redundancy. John Buchan’s The Thirty Nine Steps is a fast-moving adventure story with endless twists and daring escapes: Hitchcock’s film plays fast and loose with the novel and is much more fun. Several other films of the book have been made, including one or two infinitely more faithful to the original. Never mind: what you want is Robert Donat and Carole Lombard. Then there are the terrible books that made terrible movies: The Da Vinci Code and Fifty Shades of Grey come unbidden to mind. Even more guilty of Crimes Against Celluloid are the terrible movies that feed upon the desolate corpses of perfectly decent books; or, in the case of The Cat in the Hat, -much-loved and important books. Please, Mike Myers, never do that again.
Films tell stories, and so do novels. They exist and thrive because we, their readers and audience, are forever greedy for more tales to enthral us, delight us, move us, horrify us and make us think. We are homo fabulans, the animal that tries to make sense of the world it finds itself in by imagining scenarios. It matters not a jot whether we read War and Peace or watch the latest adaptation. Either way, we will be letting Tolstoy take us by the hand and draw us into the lives of people we will love, or hate, judge and care about, as we let the story help us ask why we humans behave as we do. As Marshall McLuhan didn’t say, the medium doesn’t matter much. Find what works for you and get the message.