Can a Film ever be as Good as its Book?

by Jacob Warn


The translation of art from one medium to another is no new phenomenon. It begins at least as far back as Homer, who depicts tapestries in verse. It continues through the Latin Poets who versified statues, through Giotto who painted biblical frescoes, through the great opera writers who synthesised multiple mediums of sensory experience into one gesamtkunstwerk.

The translation of books into films is only its most recent manifestation. But it is one that has prompted much discussion amongst readers, film buffs, and – most importantly – amongst my own family.

On the way home from my local cinema complex, my family would always pass two particular sites: a McDonalds and a KFC. Although perfectly positioned to lure a peckish post-film public to purchase pink, poached poultry products, I am proud to be able to say that we never succumbed.

But that may have been because of a perennial argument taking place among us. Regardless of which particular film franchise our ocular orifices had just gorged on, conversation would move swiftly to the polemical hang-up: can a film ever be as good as its book?

Fighting fervently for the affirmative, I was all too often handicapped by the often questionable quality of the freshly fading frames of the films just watched – whether Twilight, Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings – and it was always with great sadness that I could never bring my parental passengers into concordance with my pro-film sympathies.

Desperate, I might philosophically demand their definition of ‘good’ or make reference to their pseudo-intellectualism that must always prefer the literary to the cinematic. But to no avail.

A wintry silence would soon congeal over our four-wheeled, Warn, wagon.

When art is translated into words, we describe it by a helpful Greek word – ekphrasis – literally meaning ‘to describe’ or ‘to point out’. I think it’s a pretty useful word to encompass all artistic translation.

So what point am I now trying to make, which I never did in that car, in the hope that my parents, or like-minded people, are reading this?

If they were, I guess I would ask them to consider the vast history of ekphrasis across the ages.

Was Ovid pissed off when Titian rendered in paint the story of Actaeon and Diana? Did angry theatre-goers walk out of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas complaining that it wasn’t as good as Virgil’s book?

“Art – in all its glorious forms – has never been so conglomerated that one code of valuation applies to all.”

During cinema’s own history, how many spectators left Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet claiming it fell short of… what, the play? the text? their idea of some 17th century ur-performance?

The truth is, the translation of art from one medium to another produces something that is quite simply artistically unique. Organic even. This has been understood for centuries. Art – in all its glorious forms – has never been so conglomerated that one code of valuation applies to all.

And yet, as our car trundled over those speed bumps, it was clear something was afoot in current society that has instituted a contest between the literary and the cinematic.

Let us take the Harry Potter phenomenon as one example. Its books become films, films parodies, parodies musicals. As a franchise with powerful animagus capabilities, its next trick, we hear, is to turn itself into a stage play.

They create ‘an unholy chimera, a Frankensteinian monster, driving towards commercial ends without attention to the subtleties of their industrial and artistic subtleties.”

But what is occurring here is not the same as with Giotto, piously rendering Old Testament stories into dazzling, moving manifestations of God’s glory; nor is it Olivier, using film to bring Shakespeare’s theatre to global populations.

Instead these countless transformations of the same stories are judged by the same aesthetic standards. This practice belies a societal tendency to fetishise narrative – plot – over the artistic specificities of what are richly diverse art forms.

Book sellers and film companies reject traditional concepts of artistic ekphrasis and instead unthinkingly claim to merge these respective industries together, creating an unholy chimera, a Frankensteinian monster, driving towards commercial ends without attention to the subtleties of their industrial and artistic subtleties.

Thus do actors’ faces appear on book covers. Thus do films claim to ‘be based on the book’. Thus is the success of a book an instantaneous guarantee of a film adaptation.

Translating books into films has simply become a way for industries to yoke readerships to audiences; to trick them into watching a purportedly faithful rendering of a literary bestseller. What wonder is it, then, that people come out disappointed, struggling to find hermeneutic methods to compare fairly a book with its film.

They are being asked to compare two historically distinct forms of art, which on confusing and unfounded principles have been dreamt up, advertised, and sold, as one and the same.


The Poor Print

Established in 2013, The Poor Print is the student-run newspaper of Oriel College, Oxford. Written by members of the JCR, MCR, SCR and staff, new issues are published fortnightly during term. Our current Executive Editors are Siddiq Islam and Jerric Chong.

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