On Saturday, April 11th, La Salle University professor and KYW Newsradio 1060 Movie Critic Bill Wine visited the Bethlehem Public Library to discuss the difference between the reading and viewing experience of literary works adapted to film in his lecture Based on the Book: Bestseller Cinema.
Wine began his presentation by showing a short clip, 100 years at the movies.
He next gave us a statistic–it is estimated that roughly 20,000 films made were based on books, though Wine felt this was an underestimation. Why are so many films adapted from literature? Literature has the ability capture our hearts and challenge our imaginations. We fall in love with characters, worlds, and themes in literature which on the surface would seem to make equally brilliant films. As fans of literature, we clamor to see our favorite characters brought to life on the big screen.
And yet, just about every time we get our hopes up and see a film based on a book we love, we can’t help but criticize the way the film version measures up to our beloved literary expectations.
If we’re being honest, we all know in our hearts that we shouldn’t compare books to film, and yet, we do.
When we compare books to film, we are comparing “…cinematic apples to literary oranges.” –Bill Wine
Wine states that we shouldn’t do this because the psychological experience differs between the way we process films vs. books. This makes sense–films are a visual experience whereas literature invokes the power of our imagination. While books can’t provide us the visual stimulation of a film, a film can’t possibly challenge our creative and imaginative side the way a book does. They are activating completely different areas of our brains. Wine also made the excellent point that the physical differences between reading a book and watching a film are important to the process. We sit down and watch a film for 2 hours straight; it is primarily a visual experience and at the end, we walk away. A book, however, we read in small pieces that we digest in between encounters. They are completely different processes and we respond to both in different manners.
For this reason, even if a story “works” in a novel, it doesn’t guarantee that it will translate into film. We must also remember that not only is a film an approximation of a book, it is also the artist’s version of the book, not ours. It would be nearly impossible for a director to match the unique literary worlds we have created in our own imaginations.
Wine suggests that a director taking on the challenge of a book to film adaptation has three choices: first, keep everything the same, which he suggests would be impossible. Films are confined in many ways that books are not: “Movies have to protect their through line in ways that books do not have to worry about.”The second option is to take the most important aspects of a book and translate them into the film. The third is to get rid of everything, which Wine suggests also doesn’t work, except in the case of Woody Allen’s’ Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex *but Were Too Afraid to ask. Option number two is really the only way a filmmaker can approach an adaptation, and as stated above, it will be the filmmaker’s version of what is essential in the novel, boiled down to fit the confines of a two hour film.
According to Wine, successful adaptations ask the question, ‘does it work as a film?’ and truly examine if all of the literary components translate well. For example, my favorite books (the Harry Potter series) don’t necessarily make for the best films because of what Wine calls “too much internal dialogue.” Harry Potter’s character is nearly all internal–we have access to his thoughts and feelings through an omniscient third person narrator as readers, and that doesn’t translate well into film. Harry comes off as a much flatter, more one-dimensional character than he does in the books. So not all books are ideal choices for films–many will pose cinematic challenges that can be potentially too great to overcome.
Ultimately, Wine leaves us with the notion that we should not approach a film as we would a book, but that we probably will anyway because, hey, that’s human nature.
“Books are for the mind; films are for the eyes and the ears, and both are for the heart.” –Bill Wine