I Hated Adaptations: The Confusing Ethics of Book to Film Adaptation

I’ve been lucky enough in my English degree to spend a considerable amount of time focusing on films. Yes, you read that right. Films. Everything from Laura Mulvey’s theories to watching 1940s Italian films. 

Films and me have a slightly strange history. I just never really watched them growing up at all, favouring books or my own imagination to the scenes on big screens. But naturally to be involved in a teenage pop culture, I found myself watching the classic teen rom-coms, blockbusters, and even some sci-fi. 

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I distinctly remember one of these films that changed my outlook on cinema – specifically book-to-film – adaptations forever. It was the film adaptation of The Maze Runner. As I sat in that cinema next to my best friend who was also an avid lover of the series, we watched as the hour went by and the book slowly disintegrated. The following sequel – The Scorch Trials – left us both with a sour taste in our mouths. 

Where had the book gone? 

My favourite book reduced down in an adaptation that felt like it had been made by someone who had only read the blurb. All that love I had inside me for this crafted world now seemed tarnished. I almost vowed then and there that I would never, EVER watch another book to film adaptation again. Especially if it was my favourite book. It even led to an impassioned speech I gave for my GCSE Language exam about why I thought books were better than films. 

And then I watched Call Me By Your Name

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I will admit that I hadn’t read the book before watching the film, and so will never truly be able to say whether justice was served, but as I watched the film again after reading Andre Aciman I felt in a trance. Multiple small details had been changed from the book – scenes omitted, lines changed, tempo differing – and yet this film was like opening a portal into the book itself. 

It was an adaptation done right. It was more than that – it was an adaptation that not only captured the book onto the screen but captured the essence of the book within every frame. 

As Virgina Woolf once said about cinema: ‘cinema has within its grasp innumerable symbols for emotions that have so far failed to find expression in words’. As the fantastical soundtrack played over lingering shots of desperation, love, and longing I was affected almost instantly with indescribable emotions. Emotions that were not explicitly present in the book but that had lingered over it. 

Linda Hutcheon claims that ‘adaptation is repetition, but repetition without replication’, and for a while this was hard to grasp for me. That a film could be its own work of art – almost like a distant cousin – to its source text. That this did not detract from its merit. In Call Me By Your Name, Luca Guadagnino was able to replicate not just the events of the book itself but the stirring feelings that arise in the reader themselves. 

Part of a reader is loving our books so intensely we cannot fathom a world in which things may be changed in them. But being a reader is also about being open-minded. About appreciating different viewpoints. And so now, while I am still wary of them – I have retracted my vow to never watch a book-to-film adaptation.

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