Imagine this. You’ve just picked up a new book and started reading. You’re still on the first page and you realise you are already hooked. The opening sentence and paragraph are gripping, the writing style has a certain polish and you already know this book is a keeper. Before you are even half way through you are already declaring this your book of the year. It doesn’t matter if it’s the 30 December or the 1 January, this is it; this is the real deal. You are staying up well past midnight to read, you shouldn’t really, you have work the next day. You go to work feeling exhausted but already knowing you won’t change a thing the following night.
When dinner will be another ten minutes in the oven you pick back up your book and continue reading. You just can’t put it down. All too soon you are finished; the ending just as fantastic, the twist something you didn’t see coming. You were right; it was the best book of the year; it didn’t let you down.
You are happy, but then immediately sad that the story is over. “You have to read this book. It’s incredible and I didn’t see the twist at the end,” you tell all your friends and family. You are daring them to read the book just to prove they can suss what’s going on before you, but it’s a ploy that works. Whilst they start reading you check into the author to see if they have any other books. If they do you buy them too; wanting another fantastic journey. If they live up to it as well, this author is on your top 5 list and you sign up for their mailing list or follow them on social media. If the books are not as good as the original one, no matter; it doesn’t take the shine off.
Finding out this is their only book to date is also fine. I have a theory; the writer’s first book is their absolute labour of love, the book they have to write, they just have to get it out there and share with the world. By first book I mean first published book. Most authors will spend years writing books before they get published, if at all, but of course the first published book is polished. Onwards from that is the real hurdle; to be at least as good as the original book. Not easy.
So a few months, even years go by and you find out that the book is being made into a film or TV series. You’re elated! You can return to that world and experience whatever drew you in before. But wait that little voice in your head says; what if it isn’t any good?
The next news you hear tells you Nicole Kidman and Brad Pitt will be in the production. You start to wonder. Who can they play when they are tall and very thin, when the main characters in the book are short of stature and in their twenties? How will this work? This is the first issue; the director is so happy to attract in the big name actors/actresses that the actual likeness to the characters is secondary, even arbitrary. You spend the whole film nudging your friend or partner; “that’s Nicole Kidman. She was great in ‘Dead Calm’!” and not moving on from that. It’s like if Ken Barlow from Coronation Street suddenly playing Fagin! Of course where the writer might not have painted a complete likeness of every character, your imagination does, so again you see the actor/actress as all wrong, and not how you imagined them.
But the big problem, the really big problem I can never get my head around and makes me fume is the words “based on” in the opening credits. We all know that not every scene from the book makes it to the screen. It can’t, it would take too long and every film would be like Lord of the Rings in length. In Game of Thrones, we would still be on book 1 and Ned Stark would still be possession of a head. So we accept some scenes must be cut, we just hope they aren’t the key ones. What happens? Either the scene is cut completely or reduced down so badly it’s lost its gravitas. We are disappointed; we waited for this scene, we loved this scene. Why did it end up on the cutting room floor we demand.
The director tells us it had to. OK, but then why was another scene added? This new scene was not in the book, it never happened, it adds nothing to the story. Maybe even a new character was created and another one ditched from the book. Why? At best this is stamping your name on someone else’s masterpeiece to show you were involved, at worst arrogance. A book goes through so many versions before it makes it onto the bookshelves. The writer must go through numerous lengthy, time-consuming edits before they submit, usually to an agent. The agent wants changes, the publisher more, if the book makes it internationally then a third may be required. The book then sells millions of copies, so why then does the book need another change done to it?
I’ll give you an example; Lord of the Flies. Having finished the book in class, the teacher brought out the video (yes, no DVDs then!) and we watched the film. The boys are looking out to sea wondering if they will ever leave the island, when suddenly, out of literally no where, a keyboard washes up on the beach! Despite the ocean and the fact that keyboards weren’t invented until after the war, this keyboard has working batteries, and the boys see it and play with it. Somehow they know what it is and manage a tune on it. The film lost all credibility for me then. I’m first to admit I generally don’t focus on what was invented when and will enjoy a film/series if the story is good and the acting feels real, but this was too far a stretch.
Another example? Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. I loved that book. It was a first book too! For a huge great doorstopper of a book, every page was magical for adults. Then the BBC turn the book into a series. What happens? Can you guess or did you watch it so you know? It was awful. Somehow the BBC took a book crammed with magic and took out the sparkle, made it dull, no magic whatsoever. The scene with the silkworm costumes on the night dances, not even a feature and this was an incredibly visual scene in the book!
A final example? Woman in Black. This is the epitome of the ghost story. It haunts you, it really does. I was lucky enough to see the stage production in the west end, and it was just as fantastic as the book. Why? Because it was faithful to the book. When she glides past you, you really do get the shivers. But I still worried at first. Two men and a handful of props. Oh no, this will be a long night. I was so wrong. It was one of the best things I have ever seen. Your own imagination is key in feeling the essence of the scene.
Jonathan Ross’s wife brings out her version of the film – ‘based on” scrolls up the screen. It was awful. The book is only tiny so editing should surely be at a minimum I thought, but it wasn’t. Suddenly every child in the village is either throwing themselves out of the window in suicide or locked in a basement. For some reason Daniel Radcliffe is cast in the main role. I have nothing against Daniel; he was a good Harry Potter, but he is not right for the solicitor. The solicitor had a wife and child, a respected position in a good firm. Daniel looks about fifteen; too young to get married and have a child.
The rest of the film carries on with the usual door knob rattling, the scary dolls coming to life playing suddenly, the rocking chair thumping, the locked door suddenly wide open; in short all the hallmarks of horror we know and expect. But the biggest disappointment? We all know the end of Woman in Black right? The solicitor is at a fair and his wife and child are enjoying a ride on the pony carriage. All is well, his son is happy. Then there she is; the Woman in Black appears and the horse rears, the boy is dead. She has got her revenge on the main character by taking his son. On the stage this was electric; the mother and child getting into the carriage (DON’T DO IT!), the child laughing, (NO, NO!) the horses hooves, (shiver down your spine), there she is!
The film version? Daniel and his son are at a train station (feeling more like Woman in White here!!). The boy lets go of his hand, he doesn’t notice. He is attracted onto the track in time for his father to see. Father and son go onto the track at the same moment as the train crashes into them. The Woman in Black is seen smiling. WHAT? What was that about? It lost all meaning. It only stayed with me because it was so silly.
But you have to consider that sometimes in fairness you might see the film or TV series before the book. If it was a good production, then you are more likely to hunt out the book and the publisher, agent and writer are happy with the increase in sales. If the production was bad, well, the writer is not selling any more copies today.
There are also times when the book is heavy going. I could never get on with War & Peace. I know, I’ll admit it. I tried several times, but I am not one of those people who can continue to read a book when I’m not enjoying it. There are so many good stories out there, I continue onto the next one. So seeing something like War & Peace on the screen is the only way I would ever know this story. Again I understand that unlike the latest series, the book doesn’t end with everyone happily “paired up” and loved up, so again, changed. Perhaps however, if you have read all those thousands of pages, in this case, the change could only be a good thing!