Why Is It So Hard to Make Great Books Into Great Films?

Posted: May 19, 2015 in Uncategorized
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By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

I love great books. I love great movies. But, isn’t it strange that great books rarely get made into great movies?  Take a look at The Guardian’s list of the 100 greatest novels of all time. Forget for one second the ridiculous  pro-British slant of the list. Just look at some of these titles: Don Quixote, Brothers Karamazov, Song of Solomon. Many of the books on the list have never been made into movies.  For those on the list that have been made into a movie, the film version is often highly forgettable. I mean, come on….William Shatner playing Alyosha Karamazov?  Sacrilege!

Perhaps just as strange is the fact that books that make great movies often aren’t considered to be very good books. Have a glance at AFI’s list of the 100 greatest American movies. These films are often not based upon any great book.  Yeah, I know The Grapes of Wrath and To Kill a Mockingbird fit the bill as great movie/great book. But, such works are overshadowed by the vast number of forgettable books that have been made into classic films. Think Peter Bletchley’s Jaws or Winston Groom’s Forrest Gump. Call me crazy, but I just don’t see Groom being mentioned in the same breath as Tolstoy. And, if that is not enough, glance through the list of Oscar winner/nominees for  ‘Best Adapted Screenplay’.  Most of the books adapted for films are not just ordinary, they are paradoxically mediocre.

Why is so? The most straightforward answer seems to be that great novels can rarely be captured in a 2 hour film. Add another hour, and you still can’t make a viable retelling of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Add 5 extra hours, and you still won’t capture Tolstoy’s War and Peace.  This point brings us to problem number 2. You obviously need more time to retell a great story, and there is a limit to how long an audience will willfully sit in a darkened theater.

But, I believe this paradox may be now be solved. Movie lovers, and book lovers lament no more!

TV has taken over where movies dare not, or cannot, tread.  The Sopranos, Game of Thrones, Orange is the New Black, House of Cards, Breaking Bad, etc. In the last decade or two, all of these shows are as good as, if not better than, what has appeared on the big screenWith bigger budgets, better actors, original writers, groundbreaking directors, and more artistic freedom, television (and online streaming services) now can weave a complex, multilayer story over 10, 20, 30, or 100 hours.  Make each episode about 45 minutes, allow people to binge watch, and voila: The next big commercial, critical and artistic success!

les-miserables

Oh Please.

The format would be perfect for adapting great books. An example: Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. This novel is 1232 pages. It is exciting, romantic, historical, epic.  Now, I know many will say that this has already been made into a movie with the musical adaptation from a couple years ago.  But I am sorry; a two hour musical canNOT capture this story.  Andrew Lloyd Webber, via Hugh Jackman or Russell Crowe does not do justice to Jean Valjean, Cosette or Marius.  Perhaps even more disappointing was Hollywood’s attempt 15 years ago to make a dramatic depiction of Hugo’s masterpiece. The film starring Liam Neeson, Claire Danes and Geoffrey Rush wasn’t horrible, but again, it wasn’t really Les Miserables. This winding tale will not be crammed into the parameters of a 180 minute movie.

But….

What about a Netflix season series? 10 episodes each season, 3 seasons, and 30 hours in total?  Computer graphics, violence, sex, depth of character, history? These are all things that could be put on the small screen, if some visionary would be so inclined. Can you imagine?

I can, and I love the idea.  Please, someone get on it.

While I wait, I guess I will just need to pick up Hugo’s novel again.

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