The actual exchange dealt with one of my daily posts, which usually display various humorous takes on writers and the writing process. (Not original takes, I hasten to add… I just shamelessly repost the wit and wisdom of others.) This particular Tweet showed a still from the 2005 film version of Pride and Prejudice, one of the Bennet daughters looking disapprovingly at the camera, and a caption which read, “When someone says the movie was better than the book, but you don’t know them that well so you can’t say anything.” To which I appended my own caption: “But you darn well think it.”
I nearly always add a caption. It personalizes the Tweet, and besides, lets people know what a funny guy I am… a reg’lar laff riot, that’s me. Which shows the problem with the printed word, right there, because you probably missed the self-deprecating raising of my eyebrows and the sardonic tone in my voice. Printed media like Tweets, texts, emails, social media posts… they’re all terrible at conveying tone, because readers can’t hear the author’s voice or see their body language. Which usually means that at least one person responding to my Tweets will take literally what I intended as humour. Which leads me to roll my eyes.
In this case, my fellow Twit took my Tweet literally, but their response wasn’t eye-rolling. They said that, because books and films are such different formats, it’s unfair to compare them, and that the best advice they’ve received is that the screenwriter owes nothing to the novelist.
Now, I agree that books and films are VERY different formats. The critical one is that books stimulate the imagination in truly remarkable fashion, from just a bunch of inky, cryptic squiggles on pieces of refined tree pulp. Amazing. Film takes the place of imagination by providing all the detail, the nuance, the creativity. It does everything so the reader doesn’t have to. All a film-watcher has to be is a passive sponge.
I’m not being holier than thou, by the way. Sure, I’ve watched a film or six in my time. Enjoyed many of them, too. And I acknowledged to my fellow Twit that films labour under far stricter time considerations than books do.
However, I don’t agree that screenwriters owe nothing to novelists. Comparisons will inevitably be made. If I’m going to watch the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings (LOTR) trilogy, I expect to see the maximum possible essence of the books in the films. Otherwise, it’s just some random swords and sorcery epic which happens to share the same name as the beloved tale. If changes have to be made --- and, in the interests of time, I get that they will, for film tends to be a pretty ruthless medium that way --- then I expect those changes to be kept to a minimum… although I will deplore them, nonetheless. For example, Tom Bombadil’s character in the LOTR books didn’t directly advance the plot, so out he went in the films, vanishing like a soap bubble. I understand, though I still didn’t like it. The unfortunate thing film fails to grasp, though, is that the Bombadil episode in the book contributes to what Stephen King calls ‘chrome’ --- details which may not, at first glance, appear fundamental to the narrative, but in reality, make the story, taking something bare bones and providing context and texture to make it shine.
Other changes… well, even though Tolkien is kind of my literary demi-god, I have to admit his characterizations of female characters were… well the kindest thing I could say is they’re painfully wooden. But Tolkien’s formative years were in the early part of the 20th century --- hardly a time of female emancipation --- and he was an Oxford don, which was hardly a bastion of progressive policy towards women. Authors write for, and of their times. So I had no particular quarrel with Jackson making LOTR’s female characters far more dynamic and kickass.
But Jackson also made major, arbitrary character changes to characters, particularly in the second film (Theoden, Treebeard, and Faramir, if you really want the list), changes which made those characters weaker, more opposed to standing against evil, and that I didn’t like at all. Don’t meddle with the master when you really don’t need to, kids.
I understand why they do, of course. Filmmakers are creatives, too, of course, not mindless, slavish copycats --- well, at least not all the time --- and when they think they can improve on a book as they transmogrify it onto film, they will. Sometimes those changes are necessary, because what works in a written medium won’t necessarily work in a visual one. Sometimes those changes work really, really well. Other times, they stink on ice. I guess the ideal solution is for filmmakers to acknowledge the debt they owe authors, and respect authors’ choices to the maximum degree they can.
Then we can all get along… which is the main thing, isn’t it?