Film versus book - What’s the difference?

Maybe it’s a stretch to call Iron Man a book, but there’s no doubt about Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera. Both are well-known written works - a comic and a masterpiece of ‘magical realism’ - which have recently been made into films.

I’ve watched a lot of adaptations this year in my reviewing for Alternative Media Group. Prince Caspian, The Painted Veil and The Mist are three others I’ve seen since February. Whenever I watch an adaptation, I always wonder about whether to treat the film as a version of the same story, or as something very different.

Of course there are parallels, but it’s not always worthwhile comparing films to the books that inspired them. Every new production of Pride and Prejudice treats Mr Darcy differently, but he’s still Mr Darcy. Everyone has their favourite version, and sometimes it’s nice to sit back and watch five hours of Colin Firth. Then again, sometimes you want a wet Matthew Macfadyen.

Recently my wife spent a whole day in front of the BBC version before retiring to bed to read the original. I prefer Renee Zellweger in Bridget Jones’ Diary. Apples and oranges.

There are some wonderful (and not so wonderful) ‘inspired by’ films: O Brother, Where Art Thou? is supposedly based on Homer’s Odyssey; Cruel Intentions is inspired by Les Liaisons Dangereuses; 10 Things I Hate About You is a modern take on Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew.

But it’s probably more worthwhile to think about whether a film stands on its own than how close it sticks to its inspiration. There are things that books can do that films can’t - and vice versa. For one thing, special effects are cheaper in books. Some directors have a distinct ‘filmic language’ - Martin Scorsese or Darren Aronofsky for example - but writers deal in language on a daily basis.

Last night I watched the film of Last Exit to Brooklyn. Hubert Selby Jr’s novel made a big impression when I first read it more than 10 years ago. Apart from the drama of these broken lives - so different to my relatively comfortable student existence - what really got me was Selby’s language. His writing aimed to replicate the sound of New York speech. He developed his own personal grammar and style - minimal punctuation, no quotation marks, slashes (/) instead of apostrophes - something that is impossible to replicate in film. Though it’s a classic film, I don’t think it lives up to the book.

You probably don’t need to spend too much time thinking about Iron Man. Like most superhero films, you either like or not, and probably not if you’re a comic book purist. Personally, I thought Marvel did a horrible job turning Spiderman into a movie franchise, but most of the world seemed to disagree, so what can I say? My favourite superhero movie of recent years was Batman Begins.

The best thing about these films is usually the origin of the hero. With Spidey it was Peter getting bitten by an a radioactive spider and learning that ‘with great power comes great responsibility’. In Iron Man, uber-industrialist Tony Stark is captured by enemies (originally Vietnamese Communists, now militants in Afghanistan) and forced to make weapons for them. Instead he builds a metal suit to escape in. After that it’s pretty much downhill. Here’s my review from City Hub (June 2008).

IRON MAN

Iron Man is the latest movie adaptation from Marvel Comics’ arsenal of Cold War superheroes. Robert Downey Jr has a ball as Tony Stark, multimillionaire weapons industrialist and debonair playboy. Stark believes his weapons create a safer world with the US as the good cop until he’s taken hostage by terrorists and forced to build rockets for them. But Tony is too clever by far. He builds an iron suit and escapes, vowing only to use his powers for good. The only problem is that someone at Stark Industries is selling bombs to the wrong guys… Never mind the hypocrisy and dodgy politics, Iron Man has it all: a cocky hero, a leggy redhead (Gwyneth Paltrow), a sinister scientist (Jeff Bridges) and all the gadgets you could ask for. Great fun. (Lachlan Jobbins)

On the other hand, Love in the Time of Cholera is based on one of the most-loved novels of the late twentieth century. In bringing it to the screen, the director chose to make it in English - despite the fact that the original was in Spanish and most of the actors are either Latin American or Spanish. The themes of the book are present in the film, which is definitely a cut above the average date movie, but there’s still something missing.

LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA

This epic romance set in Cartagena, Colombia, is based on the much-loved novel by Nobel Prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Poor young poet Florentino Ariza (Javier Bardem) falls in love at first sight with Fermina Daza (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) and determines to woo her, but her father (John Leguizamo) has other plans for his only daughter. He marries Fermina off to a wealthy doctor (Benjamin Bratt), but Florentino never forgets her. Though he indulges in several hundred affairs, his heart still yearns for Fermina, and he is prepared to wait a lifetime for true love. Although it is very long (139 minutes), the book translates quite well to the screen, and Bardem’s puppy dog romantic is kind of endearing. Well worth seeing. (Lachlan Jobbins)

Everyone probably has differing views on the film / book argument. Adaptation summed up the struggle of a writer trying to turn an unfilmable book (The Orchid Thief) into a movie. In doing so it created something entirely new. Apocalypse Now was a wonderful adaptation of Heart of Darkness. I’m quivering in anticipation of the hopefully forthcoming Coppola adaptation of On the Road.

I’m interested in your thoughts. Favourite books into movies? Least favourite? Why not share your ideas.

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