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Which comes first – the book or the film?

The other day online I saw the poster for the film of Baz Luhrman’s The Great Gatsby starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan that’s coming out in December.  It’s one of my favourite  books of all time and even though I’ve seen the Robert Redford/Mia Farrow version a dozen times, I’m really looking forward to seeing what they’ve done with it. When I re-read that book, which is often, I tend to picture Robert Redford. Maybe for future generations it will be Leo.

Generally as a rule I prefer to read a book before I see any film or TV adaptation.  I prefer to first picture the character in my own head than have an actor’s imposed on it. My friend Fiona lent me Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro and urged me to read it before having seen the film which I duly did but all the publicity around the film was already out and I couldn’t help picturing Keira Knightley as Ruth. It was hard to dislodge her face (even though I rate her as an actress and thought her clipped brittle haughtiness was perfect for Atonement.) But when I re-read Pride and Prejudice and picture Elizabeth Bennett I manage not to see Keira Knightley’s face nor Jennifer Ehle’s from the  BBC 1995 series but rather an imaginary, composite face that I have conjured up from Austen’s words.

The biggest casting furore I can remember recently, where the discrepancy between who readers had pictured in their heads and who Hollywood had cast, was Anne Hathaway as Emma Morley in the film One Day based on the book by David Nicholls. I really didn’t get the book at all (feel free to try and convert me!) so didn’t really hold the character dear to my heart but even I could see that the casting was laughable but good box office.

A book I did love which has been ruined for me by the film is Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveller’s Wife.  I had avoided it because it got such a pasting but gave in one night when it happened to be on. It wasn’t so much the casting – Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams did what they could – it was the whole adaptation. Conversely, I was really struggling with The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas and couldn’t get a handle on any of the characters at all. There are so many of them for starters. I decided not to continue with it until I saw the TV adaptation and that totally brought it to life for me and then I read it again from cover to cover and loved it.

Do you prefer to read the book first before you see the film? Can you remember any films that have ruined a book for you?

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14 Comments Post a comment
  1. Linda #

    I love the way you make me think about things I’ve always known for myself… but can’t seem to summon and pinpoint on demand!

    I love The Great Gatsby with all my heart. Like you, it’s one of my favourite books and I also re-read it from time to time. When I read the book, I do not picture Robert Redford, but when I think about the *idea* and aesthetic of it, I absolutely think of him and the art direction and sets. His face is the first thing that comes to mind when the book is mentioned.

    I borrowed The Slap from the library, but never got to it. I think I wasn’t disappointed that it was due and had holds on it because I remember that you couldn’t get into it. Worth another shot, then?

    This may be sacrilege coming from a Canadian, but I preferred the film version of The English Patient to the novel. I know Michael Ondaatje is a national treasure, but I found the prose too affected, too forced, too… poetic? I remember thinking it was a story that could be better served by a straightforward narrative. But that was a much younger me. I only ever saw the film once. Maybe if I watched it again, it wouldn’t measure up and the book would be more enjoyable.

    Just thought of another pairing… another all-time favourite book is The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Read it first, and wondered how it could be made into a movie with the narrator-as-character being such a strong part of it. I thought the film version was a clever way to put a twist on it, although maybe clumsy by contemporary film-maker’s and -watcher’s standards.

    April 3, 2012
  2. Trish @ Mum's Gone To #

    I totally agree with Linda’s opening sentence – you’re pinpointing something I often think about.

    I loved Atonement, book and film. I read the book first and the film didn’t disappoint. The scene in the library with the green silk dress was spot on.

    You mention a few books I’ve read where I haven’t yet seen the film/tv series – The Slap (wasn’t keen, may take your advice here), Time Traveller’s Wife and One Day ( I think I’ll stick with my book memories).

    One book which did come to life for me was the Merchant Ivory version of Room with a View and I think it was the music, particularly the Puccini arias, which added another dimension to the narrative for me.

    April 3, 2012
    • Oh yes Trish – I loved that film! A young Rupert Graves and Helena Bonham Carter was so perfect in that role. It was absolutely beautifully shot wasn’t it? makes me want to have a whole day of watching Merchant Ivory films – Howard’s End especially. It wasn’t Merchant Ivory but Jane Campion I think but one film which didn’t live up to the book for me was The Portrait of a Lady with Nicole Kidman. I studied that book for A Level and knew it inside out. It was beautifully made and was good in many ways but for me Nicole Kidman will never be Isabel Archer.

      April 3, 2012
    • Linda #

      I love this conversation…

      The moment I hit “reply”, I realized I’d forgotten to mention A Room With a View. Another favourite book and I love the film, too. And Atonement was a very good adaptation. Funny, I think I could reread it and not see Keira Knightley in my mind, but I think it’d be impossible not to see James McAvoy. (And that’s no criticism of Knightley — I thought she was perfect in the role.)

      Maybe this is a failure of my imagination, but sometimes when I just *can’t* picture the setting or characters in my mind satisfactorily, then I am relieved when a film supplies it for me. It’s like a gauzy layer that I can just overlay the narrative and all that I appreciate about the writing. Sometimes, I even get stuck with a “wrong” image in my head — like, I just can’t stop picturing some random place I know when the book is clearly set on the other side of the world, in a setting nothing like the one I can’t stop picturing. It trips me up and frustrates me — sort of like having a song stuck in your head? This is an image stuck in my head.

      April 3, 2012
      • That’s interesting. I don’t think it’s your lack of imagination but rather a fault of the writer perhaps – if they haven’t conveyed the sense of place well enough. But, yes, I do that too. Especially with places.

        April 3, 2012
      • Linda #

        If it’s not the fault of my imagination, it’s definitely a quirk of my brain. I think it’s especially frustrating when the author is extremely good at describing a place (or person) and I keep stubbornly picturing its polar opposite. Anyway, discussions of my brain are off-topic!

        Must go to Lyme Regis some day. Am envious.

        April 3, 2012
  3. i think that’s really interesting making the distinction between the physical image of Jay Gatsby in your head not being Redford but when you think of the ‘idea’ of it, he comes to the fore. It has a very strong aesthetic that film. All the fashion and interiors here in the UK are already showing a 1920s influence.

    I prefer it when an author isn’t too descriptive I think – doesn’t tell us whether someone is fair or dark, tall or short – unless it’s integral to the plot. I think that’s why films can destroy it for me – it can overwrite it and then you can’t get it back. But not always.

    I would give The Slap another go! For me personally, I disliked the first character who narrates, Hector, so much that it coloured my view of it. But that’s the cleverness of it – the viewpoint shifts with every subsequent narrator, (there are 8 in all I think) and my thoughts were constantly being challenged and altered. Or get the Australian TV series with Sophie Okonedo out – it was an excellent ensemble cast.

    I love the French Lieutenant’s Woman too (I have pictures of me standing on the end of the Cobb in Lyme Regis gazing wistfully out to sea!). I really liked the film within a film idea for the Jeremy Irons/Meryl Streep film. It really works. I must admit I found even the film of The English Patient a bit hard going. Maybe I need to watch it again!

    April 3, 2012
  4. I much prefer to read the book first and then see the film, often the films are such a let down. I loved reading Captain Corelli’s Mandolin but the film was truly dreadful. Like you I enjoyed Time Travellers Wife but didn’t like the film, the same with Lovely Bones.

    The film version of Notes on a Scandal with Judi Dench was very good but then anything Dame Judi is in gets the thumbs up from me.

    I would agree with Linda though I preferred the film version of The English Patient to the book. I’m loving your posts Alison, great that you’re blogging again. x

    April 3, 2012
    • Thanks Debbie.

      I’m not a Nicolas Cage fan at the best of times but yes, that film, was truly cringeworthy! Lovely Bones I think is almost unfilmable. I went to see it because I just couldn’t imagine how they were going to film the heaven scenes. Some things are best left as books.

      Yes I really liked Notes on a Scandal too and thought it only added to the book. Judi Dench is marvellous.

      April 3, 2012
  5. I’ve not read Never Let Me Go since watching the film, but can totally see how hard it is to get those actors out of your head. I did Remains of the Day the other way around, but still enjoyed both. I watched the film of Romeo & Juliet before reading the play (showing my youth?!) and they just were Leo & Clare for me (and everyone else. God, I’m still sad about Pete Postlethwaite.) But I struggle with really ‘getting into’ Shakespeare, so maybe I’m concentrating hard on making sense of the language and not so much on building up the characters in my head.

    Anyway, I did think Never Let Me Go was nicely done & I really like Carey M so looking forward to The Great Gatsby. Other film adaptations I think have been done particularly well: Notes on a Scandal, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, To Kill A Mockingbird?! When they’re done well, I love adaptations… I’m steering clear of Revolutionary Road though… hmm.

    April 3, 2012
  6. How could I forget Lolita? I liked both versions of that, though Jeremy Irons made me sympathise a bit too much with his plight which I’m pretty sure was not the point. Swoon.

    April 3, 2012
    • Never get tired of Jeremy Irons!

      April 3, 2012
  7. Funny – I watched Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo & Juliet the other week with my 12 year old as he’s doing it at school. He couldn’t get past it was Leonardo either! Oh yes, Pete Postlethwaite – very sad about him. What an actor. Have you seen Ralph Fiennes do Coriolanus? David Tennant do Hamlet? I worked on a series once called Shakespeare Shorts which was all about updating Shakespeare and making it accessible. We had Anna Friel in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Macbeth set in the Falklands. I’m really into anything that makes Shakespeare more accessible – have you been to The Globe? I agree Remains of the Day was great as book and film.

    I really like Carey Mulligan too so that’s another reason I’m looking forward to Gatsby. i did it the other way round with Revolutionary Road – I saw the film before I read the book. It was hard to watch – very depressing but Kate Winslet wore some beautiful clothes! I’ve just ploughed my way through Mildred Pierce as well.

    April 3, 2012
  8. I Think The Book Comes First Before It Is Made Into A Movie And Then The Story Becomes A
    Script And After The Script Is Created The People Will Start To Make It To A Screen Which Wil
    l Develop The Story And Make The Plot And The Storylines To Make The Story Into A Movie A
    nd The Casts Is Made Last!

    August 5, 2014

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