When a movie aims to simply render the story of a book onto a screen, as closely as it can to the words on the page, it is always setting itself up for failure. Because this is the general expectation we have for movies based on books, we are often hasty to make the sweeping statement that books are inherently superior to their movie adaptations.
Yet film and print are clearly distinct media. I would never say that Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” is better than Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five,” because one is a film and one is a book. How could I judge them under the same criteria? To do so would be neglecting enormous portions of what it means to be a film and a book respectively. So, why are we so bent on categorizing a movie as better or worse than a book when they are telling the same story? Sure, we can try to say that one tells the story better than the other, but I think that we should look at them as two separate stories entirely.
Take, for instance, “Call Me By Your Name.” I adore both the 2007 novel by Andre Aciman and the 2017 film directed by Luca Guadagnino, but when I tell people I’ve seen and read both, they always ask an unanswerable question: Which one is better? Both versions tell the story of 24-year-old graduate student Oliver who comes to stay with 17-year-old Elio’s family in northern Italy for one summer. This is not a story that treats homosexuality or age difference as taboo — it is simply a story of these two people falling in love in an incredibly beautiful and honest way. But the approaches the book and the film take to telling this story are entirely distinct, and each serves to highlight different aspects of the narrative.
The book is Elio’s vivid first person account of the relationship. We come to know every heart-wrenching detail of his steadily growing, all-encompassing obsession with Oliver through his own thoughts. The book, in this sense, offers a more in-depth explanation of the source of Elio’s actions and emotions, since we always see Oliver through his eyes and interpretation, and we know exactly what Elio feels every step of the way. If the film was trying to render this book simply to screen, there would undoubtedly have been much use of voice-over narration to convey all this internal monologue. But thankfully, there is absolutely none of that.
Instead, the film brilliantly takes advantage of the distinct properties of its medium. In the movie, the love story unfolds through the nuances of body language and deeply veiled conversations, sometimes teetering on the edge of but never fully reaching candor. So much always goes unsaid, so much is always held back.The film brings you into Elio’s world and takes you through every emotion you experience in reading the book, but without any of the explicit articulation the book contains. The movie is set in the lush, peach-filled Italian countryside, near a town called Crema, right where director Luca Guadagnino grew up. His intimate knowledge of the landscape shines through and creates a sense of instant nostalgia. The timeless quality of the estate where Elio lives is juxtaposed with a distinctly ’80s flair in the music, the clothing, the decor of his bedroom — all of this immerses us in a distinct yet immediately familiar world. His family banters in many languages, and his house is filled with works of art from a variety of cultures and time periods. This creates a home environment for Elio that balances sophistication with a comfortable sense of being lived-in. Elio comes to life through his surroundings, as someone cultured and thoughtful, but ultimately longing for real experiences. His relationship with Oliver similarly comes to life, not through long passages of emotional dialogue and grand romantic gestures, but rather through many small, subtle and incredibly real moments. Elio agonizes over the times Oliver touches him without pretense, teases him, praises him unexpectedly, acts like he doesn’t care about him at all — he doesn’t know what anything means or how he should respond. In this sense, this movie is so much like what falling in love is actually like. This is why I laud Guadagnino’s directing — rather than merely rendering the book into film, he distills the essence of the story and the emotions we experience through the book, and renders that into film.
Let’s examine another example — Stanley’s Kubrick’s ingenious adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ 1962 novel “A Clockwork Orange.” I think that when we’ve read a book, we are often angry when the movie leaves out events from the book. But in the case of “A Clockwork Orange,” the movie pares down the book so that it can fully focus on and illuminate the key events. This serves as a much better film than cramming in all the little events in the novel. In my opinion, there is no sensation of anything missing from the film because it so richly renders the parts of the narrative that matter most thematically.
Kubrick establishes an extremely distinct and rich aesthetic from the first shots of this movie. It cuts from a solid red screen to a close up of Alex Delarge’s slight yet purely devilish smirk, looking otherwordly with false eyelashes on just one of his icy blue eyes. Pan out to a setting equally baffling — Alex sits on a couch with his three “droogs,” all dressed in white, all wearing makeup of some kind and all drinking milk in a place where female mannequins are used as tables. The kind of aesthetic detail expressed in this movie is something we can’t fully grasp from reading words on a page.
Another sense in which the film functions differently — the novel “A Clockwork Orange” is written in Nadsat, a futuristic slang language Burgess invented, which contains many words borrowed from Russian. This can be jarring to read at first, and has deterred people from reading the book. But when experienced through a film, it can be seamlessly understood due to the visual associations we make. The words “Moloko plus” on the wall of the milk bar and Alex’s initial voice-over narration draw us deeply into a strange and new world, where it immediately becomes clear to us that some things have different Nadsat names. Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange” successfully adapts Burgess’ novel through expanding upon the elements of the book suited for film, rather than through rendering the book faithfully.
If you are interested in really pushing the boundaries of the notion of an “adaptation,” there is a Spike Jonze movie called “Adaptation” that explores exactly this. This movie pushes beyond all other adaptations of books, because it is a movie that is both an adaptation of Susan Orlean’s 1998 book “The Orchid Thief” as well as a movie about adapting the book. The main character of the movie is a fictionalized version of the actual screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, who is known for writing many other weird and amazing movies like “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and “Being John Malkovich.” Real-life Charlie Kaufman decided to adapt “The Orchid Thief” by writing a movie about himself trying to adapt “The Orchid Thief,” and his character-self in the movie decides to adapt “The Orchid Thief” by writing a screenplay about himself trying to adapt “The Orchid Thief.” Confused yet?
Furthermore, even though the movie is an adaptation of a book, it takes significant liberties in extrapolating upon the events from the book. The movie includes much that did not happen in the book or real life whatsoever, such as an entirely fictional account of the relationship between Susan Orlean and John Laroche, the eponymous orchid thief. So is this movie really an adaptation of “The Orchid Thief,” or an entirely different story about adapting “The Orchid Thief”? Can it be both?
These questions are important because they encourage us to consider what constitutes an adaptation in the first place. How different does a work have to be from the work it’s based on for it to be considered a distinct work entirely? If I changed one word of this article, is it still the same article? What if I changed a whole sentence? A whole paragraph? If someone translated this article into French or Mandarin, and you read the translation, is it still the same article? None of these versions can be truly considered the same work, but that does not mean one can be meaningfully considered superior to another. The essence or the impression of this article, or any work of self-expression, can be equally well transmitted in any language, any medium and any of many different configurations of words.
So what if there are no adaptations of books into movies? What if there are just books and movies in their own right? Perhaps it would benefit us to think in terms of the later.
Contact Carly Taylor at carly505 ‘at’ stanford.edu.