As the screen version of Fifty Shades of Grey hit movie screens around the world to much excitement and apprehension, the reviews have all found their way to most social media and tabloids. ‘Surprisingly better than the book,’ the almost unanimous verdict says and yet, none of that is meant as a compliment. In the scheme of things however, Fifty Shades is just another screen adaptation of a much-discussed literary work. In fact, it is only the beginning of the horde of film adaptations to come which include In the Heart of the Sea, Insurgent and Mockingjay Part 2, and the customary comic-book flick.
There are a lot of reasons behind the progression and success of screen adaptations over the years. Part reason is that unlike most films that rely on star power and soundtrack to pique interest before its release, such adaptations already have an audience base before release. Often, the very reason behind making such films is to cash in on the success of the literary work that inspired it. And of late, the trend has even tended to reverse itself wherein screen success has triggered further laurels for the literature in question (Case in point, George R.R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire). The fact that every good, or fawned-upon work of late (Read, every Nicholas Sparks book, or closer home, the almost religious work of Chetan Bhagat) gets made into a movie however, is also reflective of the ambivalent fact that commercialization has truly touched every aspect of art today.
That said, most of the audience does await such a film with much excitement and yet today, there is that small group of audience, growing steadily each year which views such adaptations with much alarm. Films, to such people are mostly disrespectful of their literary source without any of the charm or complexity of the latter. Film adaptations they say, are just another money-making proposition, a moniker hanging on to the success bandwagon of the literary work. And to a great extent, it is hard to argue with the points they make because illustrations for the same are present in abundance (Eragon, The Da Vinci Code). But there are those as well which in fact enhance the gold standard of the book themselves such as The Godfather, The Shawshank Redemption, To Kill a Mockingbird and Jaws, great examples which only serve to bring the debate back to square one.
However, contrary to the perception of ardent book lovers, writing a screenplay based on the written word isn’t as easy as it sounds. In fact, it’s as difficult as to surpass the expectations of the target audience. The very fact that relative to literature, films only have a window of 2-3 hours to convey their message reflects a need to condense the story and subject matter of the work to a mere ‘spine,’ or to the very gist or essence of the story. It is only when it has been so stripped down that the screenwriters come into the picture, weaving characters and storylines around that ‘spine.’ In other words, the writers are entrusted with the job to distill the essence of such story from a medium of words, expressions and imaginations on to a canvas of visual and auditory cues. A tough ask, which more often than not turns to be much less satisfactory than the promise of its source because unlike a novel, words ultimately cease to form in a screenplay.
There is also however, the other side of the same contention. The side that says that screen adaptations are often unyielding to the essence, and sometimes even disrespectful of the source material. Many even accuse such films of sanitizing these inspirations to make it more viable for cinema audiences, and mould it accordingly for commercial value. Take the Harry Potter franchise, for instance, a franchise which ended with the bifurcation of its final installment. And no matter how much everyone loved it (myself included), there are no two opinions when it’s said that such bifurcation was purely a commercial decision, and not a creative one, considering they failed to include many sub-plots in the otherwise longer screen time. Even the recent The Theory of Everything, although a fine film, was so safe and sanitized when adapted from Jane Hawking’s memoir that it was almost saccharine.
Stephen King once lamented that with his famous works being adapted onto reel, more and more of the audience had turned to watch it on screen rather than read it. A sad observation, because that is the reality we live in. Often, the yardstick of an author’s success is measured by the number of movies they inspire. And that is where, somewhere down the line of public expression, that the worlds of literature and reel collide. Originally thought of as a partner form of expression, screen adaptations today have an often competitive streak about them. The Godfather¸ for instance was acclaimed as a movie on its release, but hardly at that time was there much issue of whether it was better than its literary counterpart or not.
As long as cinema and literature remain to fascinate us, the debate between which medium of expression is better than the other will continue to rage on. True, most such adaptations fail to match the worth of the source that inspired it (Including literature inspired by films), but considering the amount of effort that goes into such adaptation, it is not trash either (Except the Twilight Saga, of course). Book lovers will perhaps always remain dissatisfied and even, callous about film adaptations of books and cinephiles may continue to criticize the often pedantic obsession of book lovers and yet, the reality is that as long as one remains, the other is not far behind. And perhaps, making and reworking adaptations is a healthy trend, because perceptions over a work of expression vary from person to person and satisfying each person, well, what is art if it fails to do that.
By- Jibin Mathew George