Writers and Editors from Redbrick Film and Culture come together to discuss book-to-film adaptations
Shrek – Louis Wright
Shrek! (1990), authored by American cartoonist William Steig, and its more famous adaptation Shrek (2001), produced by Dreamworks, are radically different stories. While the book follows the tale of an already self-assured ogre who actively encourages and embraces the world’s outside perceptions of him, the film follows an ogre who only acts the way he does based on the world’s expectations of what he should be. Stemming from this, the original book, while by no means bad, is what it needs to be and nothing more – a simple tale about a simple ogre. However, the film adaptation becomes so much more than what the original intended to be: a surprisingly touching and introspective film on identity and societal expectations.
Due to this, Shrek (2001) works better as a piece of visual media when compared to its basis. While the book has strengths in its simplicity, charming writing style, and recognisable artwork, the film – much like an onion – has undeniable depth and heart put into its creation. It is a story that can be relatable to anyone in the world suffering from what they perceive as a flaw in themselves, and assures them that they are valid just the way they are. The film’s messages of not needing to conform to societal expectations and that anyone can find love are genuinely emotional story beats that the original book simply fails to provide any semblance of.
Little Women – Georgia Brooks
Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 classic, Little Women, was a staple of my childhood, a book I read and reread, finding new meanings and connections as I grew up and followed the March sisters through not only the original novel, but the subsequent sequels. The book recounts the lives of four sisters living with their mother: their trials and tribulations, loves and heartbreaks, and most importantly their ever-evolving relationships with each other. There have been many film adaptations over the years, with varying levels of success, but the only one that comes close to rivalling the book in my opinion is Greta Gerwig’s 2019 version, featuring a star-studded cast, academy award-winning costumes and a beautiful soundtrack, all of which really captured the essence of the novel for me.
Without giving too much away, the broken timeline and mirroring that Gerwig employs to tell the story, coupled with a brilliantly ambiguous ending, create a version of Little Women, and a heroine in Jo March, that fit fully into the 21st century, without losing any of the magic of the original text. Rereading Little Women now, I find some of the writing a bit preachy, and my former idol Jo perhaps not as modern as I once believed, hence on this rare occasion, I believe that Gerwig has managed to update and surpass the book with her beautiful film.
The Great Gatsby – Eve Greybanks
The Great Gatsby is, by far, my favourite book, and also film. As a historian, Fitzgerald’s portrayal of the 1920s is something of beauty, and the film, directed by Baz Luhrmann in 2013, is a perfect homage to not only the words treasured by so many from the book but also the history that is so important to the story-telling. However, I would like to consider the long-debated subject that is often triggered between bookworms and film buffs; Do I prefer the book or the film?
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past…” Arguably, the most magnificent aspect of The Great Gatsby book, amongst the genius of the story itself and the brilliant use of history, must be the writing. It is a piece of literature that has been carved so beautifully that it remains with you. This is something that is appreciated and then reflected within the film, making it elegantly perfect, using actual quotes from the book relatively frequently throughout the film.
However, even though the film remains incredibly respectful and relatively accurate to the story pieced together by Fitzgerald, it takes a more modernised attempt in its storytelling. This arguably ends up being the biggest difference between the book and film but is still a genius move when it comes to revolutionising the book even further, giving the story a new lease of life to an entirely new generation.
Ultimately, The Great Gatsby is a story like no other, an utterly brilliant and genius love story that is so beautifully crafted. When it comes to its portrayal in both the film and the book, it is undeniable that it is a close call on which may be considered better, however, the book is the original, traditional, beauty, and as marvellous and brilliant as the film is, it cannot be denied that I prefer the book wholeheartedly to the film.
Sense and Sensibility – Ilina Jha
Sense and Sensibility follows the sisters Elinor (Emma Thompson) and Marianne Dashwood (Kate Winslet), who, along with their mother (Gemma Jones) and younger sister Margaret (Emilie François), are forced to leave their home upon the death of their father. In a new home and new society, both sisters experience the hopes and disappointments of love in their own characteristic ways: Elinor (who represents ‘Sense’) moderates and conceals her emotions, while Marianne (who represents ‘Sensibility’) feels everything passionately and openly.
The 1995 film adaptation retains the important elements of the plot and the true spirit of the book; Thompson’s small additions to the plot even enhance the original story. For example, she adds the humorous scenes in which Edward Ferrars (Hugh Grant) helps Margaret hide from his snobbish sister Fanny (Harriet Walter), before helping Elinor to coax her out from her hiding place. This, along with his subsequent friendship with Margaret, makes Edward even more likeable both as a character and as a love interest for Elinor. However, the book can go into more depth on moments such as Marianne’s reflection on her behaviour, as well as Elinor’s concealed feelings. Overall, I would definitely recommend both the book and the film!
Pride and Prejudice – Halima Ahad
Pride and Prejudice was written by Jane Austen in 1813 and then adapted into the film version by Joe Wright in 2005. There are many similarities and differences between the book and the film and I will talk you through these.
One of the biggest changes Wright chose to do between the film and the book is changing the time period. The time period in the book was originally 1813 but Wright chose to change this to the 1790s instead to highlight the impact the French Revolution had on the aristocracy and on England as a whole. Wright also did not like the costume of women during Austen’s time period with the exaggerated high waist and instead went for a natural look for the costume of women in this film adaptation. Another notable difference was the change in Elizabeth Bennet’s character. Wright chose to make Lizzie more modern and feistier than she was in the book so she was more relatable to the audience of the time the film was released.
However, there are some similarities with the book. To note, there is an emphasis on the subplot of Mr Collins and Lizzie’s best friend Charlotte. As well as this, there is the importance of Lydia’s elopement and marriage to Mr Wickham which suggests that Wright did not want to let go of the essence that the book brought through these subplots. Overall, I would recommend the film to the book as it brought out what Austen aimed to do perfectly.
Rebecca – Eleanor Bergin
This quintessential gothic novel Rebecca, published in 1938, follows the story of a young woman who marries a widower and becomes progressively haunted by the thought of his ex-wife, Rebecca. Unable to escape her shadow, Rebecca’s influence looms upon Manderley a year after her death, highlighting the psychological trauma of our unnamed protagonist.
It comes as no surprise that this thrilling gothic masterpiece lends itself well to on-screen adaptations, due to its particularly striking writing style and narrative. Although the novel has inspired numerous reimaginings, I want to focus on the 2020 Netflix adaptation starring Lily James and Armie Hammer. There are many small changes to the plot, which for the most part I find inconsequential to changing the overall understanding and appreciation of the original story of the novel. What I am most drawn to, however, is that the film wishes to transform the novel into a more modern and perhaps relevant retelling, pointing towards the gendered power structures of the marriage plot. In the novel, the narrator is presented as meek and timid, yet in the movie, she obtains much more agency and self-assurance.
Although I can appreciate these changes as a desire to move with the times and present an updated version of Rebecca, as a result, I found that the vital gothic tone, which is predominantly the essence of the novel, is somewhat lost. Often lacking the eerie, sinister tones of the original, the film simply cannot live up to the level of suspense which makes reading Rebecca so utterly compelling.
Percy Jackson and The Lightning Thief – Zenna Hussain
Percy Jackson and the Olympians is a book series that has rivalled Harry Potter in terms of popularity among the young crowd. However, the film is legendary for other reasons…
The first novel, Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, follows twelve-year-old Percy Jackson on a mission to save his mother while dealing with the realisation that he is half God and half human. He must recapture Zeus’ master bolt with the assistance of a satyr companion and a daughter of Athena, battling many fabled opponents such as Medusa, other gods, and others.
Rick Riordan has been lauded for his inclusion, including characters suffering from ADHD, dyslexia, broken families, and individuals that have maybe been left out of storylines. The film, although staying true enough to the plot, erases all of this while ageing up characters, eliminating their personalities, and stealing elements from subsequent books. It takes a fast-paced, caustic, humorous novel and transforms it into an adequate but uninspired film, with none of the charms of the books and borderline unlikeable characters. Percy Jackson is a classic for non-readers, yet followers of the cherished series agree with the author when he says about the movies: ‘To you guys, it’s a couple hours entertainment. To me, it’s my life’s work going through a meat grinder.’
Brooklyn – Faith Parker
One of my favourite books is Brooklyn by Colm Toíbín and I was excited when it was released as a movie. The story is set in the 1950s and is about Eilis, a girl from Ireland who immigrates to Brooklyn, New York, in search of better opportunities. As soon as she becomes settled in her new life, a devastating loss causes her to return to Ireland. Eilis’ struggle between her old and new life is mirrored in her two relationships.
Brooklyn vividly describes the excitement of moving somewhere and meeting new people, but also realistically portrays how homesick Eilis feels adjusting to a new country. Saoirse Ronan effectively plays Eilis’ conflicting feelings and Emory Cohen brings to life Tony’s charm and gentle nature.
The most interesting contrast between the novel and the film is the ending. Whilst the novel leaves us with Eilis getting back on the boat to Brooklyn, the movie shows Eilis uniting with Tony, in one of the most touching moments of the film. She is seen waiting for him, as he comes out of work. Noticing her, he runs across the road before they embrace in a tight hug. Toíbín loved this scene, despite not writing it, and said that ‘this part was filled for me, that I had left empty’. The movie’s ending shows how home can be a person, as well as a place. Whilst the novel leaves the ending to the reader’s imagination, the movie ties together some of the key themes Toíbín explores.
My Policeman – Milly Haire
Bethan Roberts’ 2012 novel My Policeman has recently been adapted into a much-anticipated film starring Harry Styles and Emma Corrin. A heart-breaking tale of forbidden love set in Brighton that alternates between the 1950s and the 1990s, we see Tom, a policeman, torn between his love for Patrick, a museum curator, and Marion, a woman who is utterly devoted to him and who provides the safety and security that his illegal relationship with Patrick cannot give. The book is beautifully written and told through both Marion and Patrick’s perspectives in flashbacks, filled with anguish, frustration and confusion.
Roberts’ writing is evocative and gripping, and there is a level of nuance and complexity in her words that is difficult to translate onto a screen. That being said, the stunning (albeit sometimes rather gloomy) visuals of the Brighton coastline and the touching parallels between the younger characters (Tom is played by Styles, Patrick by David Dawson, and Marion by Corrin) and their older selves (played by Linus Roache, Rupert Everett and Gina McKee respectively) work beautifully in the film. Having read the book before watching the film, I felt that the element of tension was slightly lessened, and as an English Literature student I have a longstanding loyalty to the book over the film; but nonetheless, both mediums will be sure to leave you utterly ruined.
The Picture of Dorian Gray – Catalina Perez
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde follows a beautiful young man, Dorian, entering the social scene of Victorian London. While painting his picture, friend and artist Basil Hallward introduces Dorian to the hedonistic Henry Wotton, who claims that pleasure is the only thing worth seeking, and youth the only thing worth having. Terrified, Dorian claims he would sell his soul so that the picture could age instead of him, which becomes a reality. The picture starts showing his deteriorating and corrupted soul, while his appearance stays unchanged, and he falls into a path of excess and sin. The book explores the role of art in life, morality, and the notion of consequences.
The 2009 adaptation Dorian Gray directed by Oliver Parker is a very fun and dramatic take on the novel. Through a more fantastical and horror film approach, it takes full advantage of the means of cinema (mirrors, reflections, and sound effects) to convey some of the themes in the book. However, this also means that aesthetics, explicit scenes, and shocking moments steal the spotlight which makes it a bit cringey. If you read the book and wondered what Dorian got up to during his hedonistic years, or if you were rooting for Basil and Dorian as a couple, this movie is the perfect watch (also Ben Barnes and Colin Firth are always a plus). However, if you are looking for a deeper delve into morality, sin, and art, I would stick with the book.
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