I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen a lot of filmed versions of books lately: The Life of Pi is one, and two versions of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. I also recently saw an old film of Les Miz with Frederick March playing Jean Val Jean. I have to say that I have mixed feelings about adaptations.
It’s a rare that I come across a film that seems to do justice to the book it’s taken from — at least, for me. In my mind, one major ingredient in a successful adaptation is what I can only describe as “atmosphere.” There are some films that seem to capture the essence of the book they’re derived from and others that fail to. If this atmospheric quality isn’t captured and conveyed, then it doesn’t matter how great the actors are or how jazzy the sets are — something seems to be missing.
When I think of films that really caught the flavor of the book that gave birth to them, a few that come to mind are: To Kill a Mockingbird, Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Rebecca, and Great Expectations (the old black-and-white version). All of these movies were intensely atmospheric. Take To Kill a Mockingbird. The choice to shoot it in black-and-white certainly gave a stark, bare, elemental quality to the film. And the artful use of camera distance made some scenes feel intense and intimate and others feel universal and inevitable. The lighting in the film is also incredible: it adds an eeriness and sensuality that heightens the drama at every turn. The fabulous acting is amplified and supported by these atmospheric decisions.
What quality in a book translates into atmosphere in a movie? This is a question I don’t really have an answer for. But some of the words that come to mind are “spirit” and “tone.” What’s the spirit of Gone with the Wind? I’d say it was defiance. What’s the tone of To Kill a Mockingbird? I’d say it was elegiac. How about Rebecca? Menacing seems about right. The films of these books seemed to catch just the right tone — emotionally and visually.
Thinking about the film-to-book transition and whether it works or not is more than just an exercise. I think it can help us zero in on that intangible quality that gives a book its unique flavor and emotional impact. Something to ponder. Write on!