Whilst reading Victor Hugo’s highly acclaimed 1862 novel Les Miserables, it occurred to me that it was not very much like the film version I had seen starring Russel Crowe, Ann Hathaway and Hugh Jackman. There was much about the film that I found quite confusing, and in so far as it was trying to tell me a story, I was not able to follow the story through the film. Much of what the characters did seemed divorced from anything that had gone before and appeared to have no influence on anything that followed.
There was, for example, an official-type person called Javert who for some reason had taken it upon himself to follow the Hugh Jackman character around the country to wreak revenge upon him. But the film seemed to assume that the viewer already knew why this was happening and made no attempt to clarify this for people who, like me, were new to the story. This had the effect that Javert came across as a mean spirited bully who was using his official status and position for personal motives and Jean Valjean was not going to be allowed to forget that he was an ex-convict.
Reading the book gives a completely different interpretation of these two men, gives a much better account of the friction between them and explains their motives and actions in a much more rounded and plausible way. Part of this is because a novel can take its time to provide deep background information that puts other events into meaningful context. In Les Miserables, the novel, we therefore get forty pages on the Battle of Waterloo specifically so that a dying man can meet a camp-follower stripping valuables from the countless dead of the battle. This is an important scene in the novel and motivates the actions of a central character almost to the end of the story, but neither the battle nor any of the three characters involved in this plot development so much as appears in the film version of the story.
It should not come as any great surprise that a film is not the same as a book but I think it worth spending a minute to think about why they are not the same, and why it is that some films seem to be exactly like the book while other films seem to bear very little similarity to the book upon which they claim to be based.
I should perhaps clarify that when I say book I almost always mean novel. There are films based on non-fiction books; Unbroken (2014) based on Laura Hillenbrand’s 2010 biography of Louis Zamperini being a notable recent example, but films do tend to be based on novels, which are works of fiction. It becomes useful, therefore, to think about what fiction is so that we can in turn see what a novel is and why it is that despite story telling being something humans have done since they invented fire in order to sit round the fire and tell stories to each other, the novel did not appear until the fourteenth century. The late appearance of the novel suggests that a novel is not simply a way of telling a story, it must be doing something else too.
Chaucer told stories. He told a whole bunch of stories that he wove together into a frame story of a group of people walking from London to Canterbury and back. As they walked they told stories to pass the time and we read this hugely popular work today under the title, Canterbury Tales. Chaucer’s stories were told for amusement, merely because they were fine stories to tell, and crucially, he told them in verse. Chaucer wrote poetry and translations of them into a more comprehensible form of English for the benefit of modern readers vary in their adherence to these poetic roots but they are still great stories, an impressive work of fiction, but not a novel.
After the poetry of Chaucer we encounter the medieval Romance, those stories of brave knights who went off on epic adventures and fought in single combat to win the love of their lady. Chaucer’s characters had a purpose, they were going on a pilgrimage to Canterbury, and these knights have a purpose too. They want to win the love of their lady, but for these guys love is not, despite the name of the genre, romantic love, but a special form of an idealised esteem. In these stories the knights are all doing the same thing for the same reason with the same ultimate objective so there is no need to explain why they are doing these things. A knight is a man who does these things, they are knights and therefore they do these things. They are not individuals with personality and character, they are just knights doing whatever it is knights do.
The difference between a story like those told by Chaucer or a knight’s romance and a novel such as Pride and Prejudice (1811), is that the novel provides the reader with an insight into the inner life of its characters. Chaucer tells us what a man wore and how he earned his living and the things that he did but Jane Austen tells us why her characters did these things, what they hoped to get out of their actions and how their hopes and fears affected what they did and how they responded to their interactions with the other characters.
A novel, then, is a story with this extra layer of insight woven into it. A layer of insight into the inner life of multiple characters that it is extremely difficult to represent within the time frame imposed by the medium of film. Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables is twelve hundred pages and took me almost two weeks to read. A film lasting three hours is considered exceptionally long and half that time is more usual. Within that time frame the things that happen get preference over how characters feel about those events so that film viewers are far more likely to see the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre as a grim portrayal of violent death than they are to see a depiction of the logical reasoning behind the prohibition on sales of liquor that was the underlying cause of the massacre.
For this reason, much of what makes a novel into a novel is absent from film and is in any event almost impossible to depict in a visual medium. In Goodfellas (1990) we see Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) walk across the street to the cab stand where he gradually becomes a gang member and we have his voice over telling us how he felt about that and why he crossed the street in the first place. But this technique, the voice over, is just about the only way that a film can depict the inner life of a character in real time.
Take, for example, Dances With Wolves (1990) based on the 1988 novel of the same name by Michael Blake. The film is an extremely accurate depiction of the novel, it is not just a film based on the novel it is the novel brought to the screen. Lieutenant John Dunbar (Kevin Costner) reads to us in voice over notes taken from his diary, a book that also appears in the film and at one point is seen being torn up for toilet paper and then floating down a river. Or maybe, Snow Falling on Cedars (1999), a Scott Hicks film based on the 1994 novel of the same name by David Guterson. Ishmael Chambers (Ethan Hawke) is a newspaper reporter recounting the story of his transgressive relationship with a Japanese American girl and how this affects their lives and his reporting of a later trial. The reporter gives us voice over to fill in some of the gaps in our understanding of how two cultures collide in a small town. Or maybe Cold Mountain (2003), an Anthony Minghella film set during the American Civil War and based on the 1997 novel of the same name by Charles Frazier. In this film both Ada Monroe (Nicole Kidman) and W. P. Inman (Jude Law) provide voice over at different times to give us their perspective on the journeys they are taking towards each other.
Which makes it interesting to think about those films that are based upon novels but where such techniques are not necessary. Can you think of a film based on a novel, that is an accurate depiction of that novel, but that does not require this technique to achieve the desired effect? I guess your answer would depend to some extent on how you define the term, “accurate depiction of the novel,” and how much of the novel can be excluded whilst remaining true to its source.
Also of relevance would be the extent to which you think a film should aspire to being an accurate depiction of its source material. My own view is that a film need not aspire to this but can have its own aims and ambitions so that it stands alone as a work of art in its own right rather than merely reflecting the story being told in the novel. Those crucial words in the credits, “based upon the novel by…” can mean exactly what they say, based upon the novel, but high fidelity to it is not, in my opinion, necessarily required.
An excellent recent example would be the Todd Haynes film Carol (2015) starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt (1951). It is a visually stunning film in which the viewer is never in any doubt about what the two central characters are thinking without any annoying voice over, and other than a minor change of career for the younger woman it is uncommonly true to its source. Whether this is due to the quality of Highsmith’s original material, Phyllis Nagy’s screenplay or Todd Haynes direction would be difficult to pinpoint but it is a remarkable achievement by everyone concerned.