November 14, 2007

Poor Novels, Great Films

A fairly interesting article in the Guardian today about the writer behind Rosemary's Baby, Ira Levin. Xan Brooks notes that it is often the worst books that produce the best films- with the exception of Rebecca Hitchcock adapted mainly material which was not classic. The same goes for many of the film noir films, one of the great and productive American genres, which were adapted sometimes from the highly literate work of Raymond Chandler but often from lesser known authors whose reputation today has vanished. We could go on- the same is true perhaps of Truffaut and the French new Wave.

There must be a reason that bad novels make great films- I think it partly rests in what Xan says. That great films expand on the novels- directors get a good story and then expand on its complexity and psychological impact after they get it. In that way they are the authors of the complexity and the interest, but they have a plot provided to them for their use. It simplifies that bit of the work that involves subtle research into plotting, whereas it allows them to concentrate on developing plausible characters on screen. A good novel doesn't allow you to do as much as a director to interpret the book in the same way- because the author has already done that bit- so either you react to the author and show a different motivation, or you follow the author, but you aren't being handed a blank slate.

I do think that that blank slate argument is important though and it accounts for the fact that great novels tend not to produce great films!